One fall day in the fifth century before Christ, the people of Israel gathered at the Water Gate in Jerusalem (Neh. 8:2-12). Ezra and several assistants read and interpreted the Book of the Law in a festive setting. As the meaning of the text began to sink in, the people wept. But Ezra told them that this was a day for a feast, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10). The reading of the Word and the sermon that went with it led to feasting and to generous sharing with the needy.
On another day, three days after the death of Jesus, two people were walking to Emmaus when they met a stranger. As they talked, the stranger showed them how the message of the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. This explanation of the Scriptures was followed by a meal, where Jesus was revealed to them as he broke bread. Once again, preaching is followed by the Table.
The gospel of John tells yet another story. It’s about Jesus and his disciples gathered for a meal and conversation. The story begins with washing, proceeds to the food, and ends with Jesus talking into the night (ch. 13-16).
All three stories follow a pattern of the people of God gathered around his Word and eating with him. John’s account of the Last Supper could be a paradigm for Sunday worship: gathering, words, washing, eating, and going out. But today in many churches we’re more likely only to hear the words—there’s little or no reference to the bath and the meal, to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, except on the infrequent occasions when these sacraments are celebrated.
Word, Prayer, Meal, Alms
In the sixteenth century, Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and John Calvin (1509-1564) used Acts 2:42 to determine the four necessary elements of the liturgy: Word, prayer, meal, and alms. Calvin makes this comment in his Institutes, beginning with the 1536 edition:
Luke relates in the Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.” Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Lord’s Supper and almsgiving.
This combined testimony of Scripture and church practice leads us to seek ways to include these four elements in the principal Lord’s Day service and to integrate them so that they interact and reinforce one another.
So how can the preaching of God’s Word lead God’s people to the Lord’s Table? Here’s one example.
Preaching Toward the Table: Fourth Sunday of Eastertide
I often use the Revised Common Lectionary (http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/lectionary/) to choose preaching texts. For this Sunday, the passages are Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; and John 10:1-10. Here’s one way to develop the sermon for that day, keeping in mind the idea of “preaching toward the table.”
Gathering Themes and Thoughts
I read the lessons in the order they will appear in the service so that I can hear them the way the congregation will hear them. The reading from Acts mentions the Word/teaching of the apostles and the meal/breaking of the bread, in the context of prayer and generosity toward the needy. The psalm responds by rejoicing at the table that the Lord/shepherd sets for his people and the rest that he gives them by the quiet waters. Peter’s letter picks up the themes of straying sheep and the shepherd who bore their sins in his own body. John tells us that Jesus is both good shepherd and door for his flock, giving them abundant life. These passages are filled with images of nourishment and life.
The gospel lesson from John includes one of the “I am” passages: I am the door, the good shepherd. The two images combine to show that Jesus is the way to life and that his words lead the sheep to life. An earlier “I am” in John 6 identifies Jesus as the bread of life, the nourishment that God gives his pilgrim people (with echoes from manna in the desert). So as we come to the Lord’s Table, Jesus calls us like a shepherd to receive his body given for us (see Peter’s letter), bread for our life.
The community to which Peter wrote was suffering persecution—sometimes members would come to the weekly meeting showing the marks of having been beaten for doing right. He points them to Jesus as a paradigm for enduring mistreatment. It is their calling to endure suffering as he did. But there is more. Jesus also suffered in their place. In this context of unjust treatment, his death frees from sins, “so that we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” As shepherd and guardian he leads them through difficulties.
Keeping in mind that the Christians to whom Peter wrote probably followed a similar liturgical pattern to that of the believers in Jerusalem (Word, meal, prayers, sharing), we can see how the Good Shepherd uses that pattern to enable them to follow in his steps.
Putting It Together
The sermon might begin with references to persecution, perhaps a recent news story from China or the Middle East. That overt persecution could be linked to the difficulties your congregation is likely to encounter at work, at school, or in their neighborhoods. For instance, the context in Peter is mistreatment of a slave, which can correspond to some workplace situations in twenty-first century North America. This would lead to the question, How can they and we endure this, walk through this kind of treatment?
From there, you could make the following points:
- We are called to suffering in this world. It’s not an option. The only uncertainty is when, where, and how. Some of the suffering is because we live in a flawed, fallen world. But some of our suffering will be because we are joined to Christ.
- Christ is present in the weekly assembly through the Word, meal, prayers, and sharing. In the readings and preaching from Scripture, the shepherd calls us by name and we hear and respond to him. He is also the door and the food. The preacher could link John 10 with John 6, tell the story from the latter passage, and then show how his gift of life comes from giving his own life, signed and sealed in the Eucharist (hinted at in John 6:35-51). Jesus gives us abundant life, especially life for living with unjust treatment.
- This all comes together in the Peter passage, where the Shepherd empowers and guides. In 1 Peter (Baker Academic, 2005; pp. 191-200) Karen Jobes shows how Peter uses quotations and allusions from Isaiah 53 in order to understand Jesus’ death as both paradigm and enablement. The unjust suffering of slaves is the calling of all Christians because Jesus was called to suffer unjustly. Although he did not sin, he bore our sins, including the verbal ones of deceit, slander, and threats that come so easily to our lips when mistreated. And he leads us like straying sheep who have been returned to his care.
When we face persecution, we should not only seek to follow Jesus’ paradigm, but also trust God as Jesus did. Here you have the opportunity to emphasize the power that comes from Jesus’ death and guidance, and then invite the congregation to the table where Christ’s body sustains us.
Encourage God’s people to pray for those who are being persecuted, that they might have the shepherd’s voice and his body to sustain them in the weekly assembly. Include this in the intercessory prayer at that service. It is also appropriate to encourage alms, that is, help from those of the worldwide body who have much to those parts that suffer the most.