One of my favourite icons is Rublev’s Trinity, a beautiful re-imagining of an even more ancient narrative from Genesis, that of God’s mysterious visit in the form of three strangers to Abraham and Sarah. An image and a story of hospitality and welcome around a meal where humanity and divinity meet face to face as if they are old friends.
Spending some time before Rublev’s icon, you get a sense of being invited to sit at the table with God, of being drawn right into the heart of God’s own life, a life of generosity and greeting, of table-fellowship and joy. There is another ‘hospitality’ moment in Genesis 14, about which we read this morning, as Abraham, the father of promise, meets the mysterious Melchizedek, the King of Salem, and an encounter of two strangers becomes an encounter of blessing as bread and wine are shared. How interesting in our Christian tradition that Melchizedek, the priestly king, becomes a type of Jesus, the one who offers himself as the Bread of the World.
Both these Hebrew encounters with the divine end up with a promise: Abraham and Sarah in Genesis with the promise of a son, a promise so ridiculously delicious that Sarah cannot stifle her own laughter being almost ninety years of age; and a mutual blessing between a kingly priest and Abraham which enacts a new kind of peace and mutuality. In the Hebrew narratives it is at these unexpected and celebratory meals that God gets to know his friends so intimately that promises can be made and blessings given. As Rowan Williams reminds us in his wonderful poem ‘Rublev’ it is only as we sit around ‘one table’ together that any meaningful encounter can take place at all. It seems as if this is no different when it comes to God.
There is of course another meal in our Scriptures, the one Paul refers to in his first letter to the Corinthians also read this morning – a meal that Jesus shares on the most extraordinary of nights in the most dangerous of settings. He has turned his face towards Jerusalem and knows the confrontation that is to occur there. Once more the Exodus-Shaped God is to challenge the systems of oppression and exclusion that are keeping his people enslaved, but this confrontation will be like no other before or since, as what seems like an utter defeat becomes the most costly victory ever won. This is the final confrontation between love and hate, light and darkness, truth and lies. But here in the gathering darkness, Jesus calls his disciples together for one final act, the act of breaking bread together as friends.
At this moment, Jesus sits with those who will betray him, deny him and flee from him. These are those who are closest to him, those who have followed him as their mentor, teacher and friend. But Christ offers no recriminations to this broken group of people, teetering as they are on abject failure and wanton abandonment, but instead he invites them around his table. Into a context of failed dreams and broken promises, Jesus enacts his own promise to them: this is my body, this is my blood, my gift of love to you. In Jesus, God sits and eats with this broken band of failed disciples and shows them what grace really means, that each of them has a place at the table because it is God’s invitation that alone makes them worthy. This is the most devastating, life-changing promise that can be made.
At this eucharist today each of us finds ourselves as surprising guests at his table, where our failure, guilt and brokenness is taken into his promise, blessing and life. This God will go on loving, forgiving and sharing even as the same hands that break the bread for us are torn apart as he is nailed to the cross. As one of the most challenging of our Anglican Eucharistic Prayers puts it: ‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross.’ Even at this extreme moment, Jesus‘ arms are open in welcome, not held so much by iron nails, but by the extravagance and strength of love.
This extraordinary Eucharistic act transforms enemies into friends, moves from betrayal to forgiveness, swallows up failure through compassion, and overcomes alienation through hospitality. It is an act each of us must be willing to learn. It is not enough that we come week by week to receive from this extravagant, hospitable God, but we must share this gift, become this gift for our world. Wherever there is hatred, misunderstanding, injustice or hurt, we must learn to break bread with peace and friendship. We must learn to eat and drink with those with whom we disagree, with those who are different, with those who up until now have had no place in our world or no right within it. With Jesus, we must take the threat and danger of every human encounter and transform it into hospitality and gift.
Today God invites us – whoever we are, and whatever we have done – to his table as his friend. So let us pray:
that we who receive the holy sacrament
of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,
may be the means
by which the work of his incarnation shall go forward:
take, consecrate, break and distribute us,
to be for others a means of your grace,
and vehicles of your eternal love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr Ryan Green