Monday, January 16, 2012

Laodicea & The Church's Meal Table (part 5 of 5)

Jesus tells this church that “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent!” (3:19)  With what has already been said about their need to imitate the other churches in their area and the vomit-inducing and obviously displeasing nature of their practice, as well as the mocking words of “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (which are only mocking to those that are failing to adhere to Jesus’ insistence to provide food, water, clothing, and support to the least while actually considering themselves to be adequately representing their Lord and His kingdom) what follows, when heard within the contextual narrative (both the isolated narrative of this particular letter and the larger narrative of God’s redemptive plan) is obviously going to be quite severe. 

These dreadful words of “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking,” combined with “If anyone hears My voice I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me,” would be quite telling.  This is where they are failing.  Like a number of other churches, their meal table is corrupted.  For a variety of reasons, it is not a representation of the kingdom of God; rather, it is a representation of the world, its power, and its order.  The church’s meal table is designed to teach its participants how to live as the kingdom of God, while showing a watching world what the kingdom of the sovereign and Creator God looks like in action.  It must look different, and it must be part of a process that produces people that look different, as they willingly enter into suffering and shame as need be, in following the ideal of the cross.  This is learned by conscientiously seeking and taking the lowest place amongst those that comprise the people of God, so that such behavior becomes the virtuous practice of those same people when they regularly and constantly encounter those that stand outside of that kingdom, in an exile from what God intends for the creation that is made in His image, and in need of being exodus-ed into the world of resurrection and new creation that is being modeled out by the confessors of Jesus’ Lordship and God’s kingdom.   

As was the case in Corinth, and probably in the church addressed by James, an unfortunate stratification has taken place in the Laodicean church.  In Corinth, the stratification, and its subsequent ordering of the church based on principles of honor and shame, appeared to be connected to “spiritual gifts.”  For the situation addressed by James, wealth seems to be a factor.  Without going into the rest of the churches addressed in the New Testament, what we can see here in Laodicea, is that wealth is the issue.  Clearly, it’s behavior is destructive and damaging to the kingdom and to the church’s witness of its Lord.  Consequently and understandably, it is looked upon as being abhorrent, and the most stern and damning words that are delivered to any of the seven churches of Revelation are directed to the church that is corrupting the meal table.  While other churches receive their criticisms, Laodicea seems to be in a unique position amongst the churches here addressed, and this appears to be the case because it is the church that, because of their corruption of the meal table, stands in the position that most flatly contradicts the ethos of the Gospel as presented by what is a focal point of Jesus’ ministry---the meal table. 

Their contravention of the demands of the Christian meal table (the Lord’s Supper in its fullest, messianic-banquet-themed sense), puts the Laodicean church in the most negative light of any of the other churches to which Jesus speaks in Revelation.  The others have their problems, no doubt, but it is Laodicea (lukewarm) that stands the most condemned and most in need of repentance, while also being instructed to consider the ready-at-hand examples of the meal tables of the churches at Hierapolis (hot) and Colossae (cold), who are apparently, owing to the fact that Jesus wishes that the church at Laodicea would be more like them, are getting the meal table right.  It is quite right that this particular letter has received so much attention, even though much of that attention has been lavished in ways that made no attempt at understanding the message of the letter in its proper context, as it is the one church that receives its rebuke in relation to that which so heavily defines the church, which is its table practice.  

There is social commentary taking place here, and in each case, it is directed first (and only?) to the churches.  This makes sense in light of the fact that Jesus is concerned with the advent of the kingdom of God.  Because His churches are the emissaries of that kingdom, they are charged to learn from Him the ways that they are to be its representatives.  That way, of course, is love; and that love is properly learned at a properly modeled meal table.  The weight of the meal table, as a definer of life and relations in the world, simply cannot be over-stressed. 

This study concerning an oft-misunderstood letter from an oft-misunderstood and misrepresented book, while dispelling the popular mythology derived from this abused passage within this abused book, has been an effort to situate the meal table, and its indisputable importance, in its rightful place in the New Testament, while offering the requisite social applications that are demanded by our understanding of the social implications and applications (which gain their significance from the heavily Jewish theological, soteriological, Christological, and eschatological aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds) of the record of Jesus’ ministry.  Theology, quite simply, must be done, it must be done constantly, and it must be converted to practice.  Jesus’ social commentary was thoroughly rooted in His theology, as the practice of that theology, so often seen at the meal table, was rooted in the His understanding of the kingdom of God.  That said, it is the cross that takes center-stage, especially in the world-shaping and ethic-forming area of meal practice. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to filter all of our considerations as to what it means to live as denizens and citizens of God’s kingdom through the message of the cross, never forgetting the hope embodied by the Resurrection.  As Christians, we must keep the meal table and its importance, especially as we participate in communion, consistently in our minds as we attempt to engage this world that God so loves.  By embodying the cross and taking the lowest place, with that happening first and foremost as we gather together as church bodies and learn how to be the people of God for His world, we will avoid the judgment of being vomited out of God’s kingdom, and we will never hear Jesus telling us that He stands outside of our fellowship, as He is looked upon as unworthy as we jostle for positions of honor and trample upon the ones with whom Jesus identified through His ministry and when He went to the accursed cross.  He will, in contrast to what was told to the church at Laodicea, never have to stand and the door, begging to be present in our churches, and this will redound to His glory.  How will Jesus be present?  He will be present when we are serving and suffering with the wretched, the pitiful, the poor, the blind, and the naked, for as we serve these, we serve Him.  May God give us ears to hear, always allowing us to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.   

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