In Padre Virgilio Elizondo’s book, A God of Incredible Surprise, I read his chapter “Scandalous Fiestas” that forced me to seriously reconsider my approach to my future ministry when I begin my call at Zion Lutheran Church in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. As implied in the title, what he writes caused me to think of pastoral ministry as table fellowship ministry. It actually relates a lot to my recent article, “Word & Sacrament Ministry is Social Ministry.” There, I essentially argued that Word & Sacrament ministry is social ministry and that the Gospel of Luke shows how Word and Sacrament are for the socially marginalised. In this article, my meditation is more directly focused to pastoral ministry’s social atmosphere in general.
For Padre Elizondo, Jesus is the model, as He should be. With Jesus as his model, in his own ministry Elizondo befriended everyone and shared table fellowship with them (p. 85). Reminiscent of Rev. Aurelio Magariño’s “theology is biographical”—that people, including pastors, have their own experiences and stories that influence their theology—Elizondo listened to their stories of “deep spiritual wounds of… pain, rejection, abuse, alienation, abandonment, and suffering” (pp. 85-86). These people he befriended and had table fellowship with—prostitutes, some of whom were members of his own parish—are the very people we are quick to judge and condemn without having all the facts.
Yet Elizondo notes that “this type of table companionship was one of the most regular activities of Jesus’ early life and one that his followers remembered with such fondness that they continued it as a regular feature of their new existence” (p. 87). Where is this in our preaching? From the Lutheran pulpit, we hear much about Law and Gospel—you’re a sinner and you’ve done bad things, and here’s the Gospel for forgiveness of your sins—but it troubles me that we don’t hear much from the pulpit about having table fellowship with those different than us, especially those whom we deliberately shun and ostracise whether due to ethnicity or social status. (Don’t get me wrong, Law and Gospel preaching absolutely needs to be present in our sermons, but there’s more to preaching than simply saying, “You’re bad but now you’re forgiven.”)
Matthew 9:10 encompasses Jesus’ entire earthly ministry, “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and His disciples.” What Jesus and His disciples did was completely countercultural to first century Palestine; indeed, if we were to do what Jesus did in our day it would still be countercultural. Imagine inviting a homeless person or former prison inmate into your home to have dinner! We wouldn’t do this, but Jesus did.
Elizondo notes the great irony of the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Luke 14:15-24. Here, everyone is invited to the great eschatological feast—the rich, poor, lepers, homeless, sinners, and so on—but not everyone will come. Elizondo puts the irony well, “Many will stay away not because they are not invited but precisely because now everyone is invited… Thus, because Jesus rejects exclusion, some will choose to exclude themselves” (p. 90)!
I am also reminded of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, which I preached on during vicarage. My sermon was titled, “Jesus Bridges the Chasm.” In the sermon, I noted how the distance between the rich man and his servant Lazarus was not only an obvious physical distance (the rich man remained in his home while Lazarus remained outside the gates), but the distance was also representative of a social distance (not to be confused with COVID’s “social distancing”). Then, in death, this distance is reversed.
In life, the rich man was on the side of abundance and life whereas Lazarus was on the side of starvation and death. Now, in death, a great reversal takes place: in death, the rich man finds himself on the side of eternal thirst and death whereas Lazarus finds himself on the side of eternal satisfaction and life. Jesus bridged the chasm and brought the ostracised and shunned Lazarus to life. In the sermon, I comforted the people that Jesus not only bridged the chasm of death for them on the cross, but I also encouraged them to bridge the chasm for others, specifically those whom we have marginalised on the outside of our proverbial or even literal gates (think gated communities).
Speaking more to Word & Sacrament ministry as social ministry and, furthermore, as table fellowship ministry, what Elizondo says about the Eucharist is profoundly beautiful. “Neither blood nor social status would matter, for a new blood would now run through the veins of the new community of brothers and sisters” (p. 93). As I’ve been saying since vicarage: at the Lord’s Supper, former enemies cease to be enemies and now become brothers and sisters in Christ. In the same vein, everything that once separated us from others now find their unity at the Table of Christ. If you are a poor person before the Table, you are made rich and satisfied in Christ (cf. Matthew 5:6); if you are a rich person before the Table, you are made poor in spirit in Christ (cf. Matthew 5:3). At the Table, the poor woman becomes rich beside her rich neighbour and the rich man becomes poor beside his poor neighbour. Many call death the great equaliser, but I say the body and blood of Christ, which gives life to all, is the great equaliser.
Jesus performed many miracles throughout His earthly ministry, but Elizondo helps us see how Jesus’ overarching miracle was “his joy of radically inclusive table fellowship. In his company, strangers became friends and foreigners became blood family” (p. 94). This is not to say that Jesus permitted sin. After all, He did say to the sinful woman, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). If Jesus didn’t take sin seriously to call us out of it, He wouldn’t have died for us. Yet Jesus did not allow sin to be a boundary for compassion, forgiveness, and table fellowship.
As sinful people, we use the sins, ethnicity, and social status of others as an excuse not to have table fellowship with them and even to have compassion on them. Being sinless, Jesus tosses our narcissistic, lonely tables upside down by allowing people to come to His table whom we would otherwise separate and ignore. As the very sinful people whom Christ has welcomed to His Table regardless of our ethnicity and social status, therefore, who are we to exclude others from ours? Even more, what does this mean for pastoral ministry?
At the church I’ve been called to serve as Associate Pastor, I’ll largely be doing campus ministry at Christ the King Lutheran Chapel, which is located on the Central Michigan University campus. So, I immediately relate to what Elizondo says about Latino university students he interacted with: “One of the fascinating things that they have taught me is that the main reason they like to go to church is because it is a place to ‘hang around’ and meet new friends… The sacred space created by Jesus is not an other-worldly experience but definitely a transworldly one. The ordinary phenomena of exclusion and put-down are (or should be) nonexistent within the church grounds. Here there are no ‘illegals,’ marginals, or untouchables, for everyone is welcomed in the household of the Lord” (pp. 95-96).
This encapsulates how I plan to approach my future ministry not just at the church but especially at the chapel. It’s not that I won’t be teaching Bible studies to feed the students there the solid food of God’s Word and doctrine. But pastoral ministry is not solely teaching doctrine, contrary to common Lutheran thinking. Pastoral ministry is table fellowship. As the ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-21), the pastor represents Christ to the individual(s). As His representative, therefore, table fellowship is an essential part to pastoral ministry.
To give a concrete example of what this will look like in my ministry context, on Mondays during lunch I’ll be having lunch with the students—no Bible study (unless they want it), no attempt at Lutheran indoctrination (even though Lutheranism is awesome) but simply befriending the students and having literal table fellowship with them as we eat good food. Another example is on Sunday nights where we’ll have a Bible study and afterwards, the students will simply “hang out.” There are even international students I’ll be ministering to—people who are often marginalised and separated outside our proverbial gates because they’re unlike us. There are various classes such as ESL and even those that teach American culture for healthy assimilation, but included in these and outside these classes are activities for table fellowship.
In short, what does pastoral ministry as table fellowship look like? It looks like the pastor going to the marginal peoples, befriending them, and having table fellowship with them without any ulterior motives (e.g., I’m doing this so we can increase our membership). Strictly speaking, it looks like Jesus. Jesus destroyed the barriers that would normally bar us from having table fellowship with such peoples. The pastor does the same. He kicks down the barrier and exclaims with wide arms, “¡Bienvenidos!” (“Welcome!”). Or, as I would say to any friend of mine, “What’s up, dude? Let’s hang out!”
Elizondo, Virgilio. A God of Incredible Surprises: Jesus of Galilee. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.