Justice Begins at the Table

August 1st, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Dining together as a family around a common table is quickly becoming a lost art in our fast-paced world. We always seem to be on the go. We have things to do, people to see, and items to check off our never-ending to-do lists. There never seems to be time to finish everything we need to get finished. This problem has also led to the massive rise of the fast-food industry. Food “on the go” becomes a convenient alternative when you’re constantly fifteen minutes late for something.

It makes you wonder if the Church hasn’t fallen victim to the same sort of mentality. We try so hard to accommodate people’s busy schedules. We add worship services at odd hours. We try to offer a smattering of programs to meet the needs of everyone. Pastors and staff members face the daunting task of putting on the very best programs and worship while simultaneously seeing to the needs of individual church members as much as humanly possible. In a world that longs for witnesses of justice, too often we seem more concerned about meeting consumer needs. Where does it end?

I’m reminded of the (in)famous words of Stanley Hauerwas when he says that “the primary task of the church is not to make the world more just, but make the world the world.” You see, Dr. Hauerwas astutely points out that any notion of justice we try to claim in the church begins when we distinguish between the goals of the church and the goals of the world. Quite often, this requires that we in the church confess our sin of being a little too enthralled with the agenda of the world.

We must remember that justice in the biblical sense is the symbiotic relationship between justice and righteousness. The Old Testament prophets remind us of this reality over and over again. As Wesleyans, we could argue that true justice comes in the form of lives transformed by holiness of heart and life. To be a Christian concerned about justice, we are required to be engaged both spiritually and physically in our faith.

And that’s why I believe the greatest act of justice we can do as the church is to celebrate the Lord’s Table as often as possible. It is in the words of Eucharistic liturgy that we are reminded of our call to “be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” There is no act of justice that can preempt this call of witnessing to the saving grace of God in the world.

I know there are many who might argue that non-profit agencies, political action groups, or even the Occupy movement witness to a unique sense of justice that we in the church should strive for more often. Some would even say that we’re more the church when we’re in the world being active in our faith. How could justice be exemplified in a sanctuary or gathering place where only a few are gathered?

John Wesley notes in his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” that

“every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating [taking communion] every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord's day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint's day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament."

It is at the Table that we are reminded in the most vivid way of who we are and whose we are.

By the mysterious grace of God, we’re transformed into more just and righteous people whenever we gather around the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t mean that we don’t exercise a social conscience through activity in the world. It doesn’t mean that we neglect to pray like the prophet for the day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). But it does mean that before we take up a political agenda set by the world, we gather around the Table to be reminded of our true identity—as a people who are in need of grace, willing to share that grace with all who are present, and ready to be compelled back into the world for having been a part of this special meal.

To be a people marked by justice through Eucharistic practice we’ll have to reprioritize our life in the local church. We have to call people to a counter-cultural way of being once again. We should call people to lives of more simplicity, patience, and discipline. All of these virtues are undergirded by God’s grace and practiced through the ritual act of Holy Communion. Instead of constantly trying to “meet people’s needs,” maybe we should seek to redefine those needs. So, instead of creating churches based on a fast-food mentality where you can get things “your way right away,” maybe we should be the church that would dare to hold each other accountable. And by the grace of God we could truly be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” I think we might just be surprised by the spirit of justice that forms when we take the time to gather around the Table together.

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