Crumbs from the Master’s Table (Matthew 15:21-29)
I feel strangely at home here at Wesley United Methodist Church (see Source, p. 12). Thirty-eight years ago, while I was a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, my wife was pregnant with our first child. Our doctor's office was in the Wesley office building which used to stand next door to this church and we came here regularly for pre–natal care. Our baby boy was duly born at Fairview Hospital, not far from here. Twenty–one years later, he told us he is gay. I also feel right at home here in a Eucharist sponsored by the Twin Cities chapter of Lutherans Concerned and presided over by the irregularly ordained pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco where my son is a member and has served as president. Yes, I really feel at home here.
I hope you feel at home here, too. Many of us are in Minneapolis attending the Fourth Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. These assemblies are times when Lutherans meet to deliberate on issues the Spirit of God places before the church. In every period of the church's life, new issues arise and old issues are viewed with new eyes. Each time that happens, God's people have gone back to square one and listened again to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Who Should Be Made Disciples?
The first churchwide assembly was held in the first century, less than twenty–years after Pentecost. The minutes of that meeting are recorded in chapter 15 of Acts. The issue the Spirit put before the church then focused on which people were, and which were not, acceptable in the Christian fellowship. Jesus had sent his apostles to make disciples of all nations. But the first Christians were all Jews and apparently thought Jesus meant to make disciples of the Jews in all the nations. He certainly couldn’t have meant to include Samaritans, for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. And he certainly didn't mean to include the Gentiles, for Jews do not enter the houses of Gentiles or ever eat with them.
So what was the problem? Well, the problem was that the Spirit of God, without permission from the duly recognized apostolic leaders in Jerusalem, inspired a layman to preach the gospel and baptize some of the dreaded Samaritans. Only after the fact were the apostolic leaders brought in to evaluate those irregular baptisms. Worse yet, Peter, who was one of the apostolic leaders, and therefore should have known better, got into the spirit of things himself. Along with a couple of friends, he preached the gospel and baptized a Gentile. Only after the fact did he explain his unauthorized sacramental practice to the church. Amazingly, he did not justify his actions on either the grounds of scripture or tradition, but on a personal and subjective experience of insight from the Spirit of God. Finally, an outside upstart, ordained by God but not by the apostles, began making a habit of preaching to and baptizing Gentiles. The growth of Paul's congregations was so rapid the church could no longer endure these happenings without coming to some consensus on their meaning for its life and ministry. So the first churchwide assembly was called together in Jerusalem.
The question under discussion was essentially this: "Are Gentiles saved by the grace of God alone or do they also have to observe the laws of Moses?" Can you imagine the discussion which followed when the question before the house asked if it was necessary for Christians to obey everything written in their Bible: the Law and the Prophets? They had no New Testament. All they had was the gospel being orally preached and believed. The minutes tell us they settled the issue by a four–fold appeal: to the prophets of Israel; to the gospel; to reasoning from their own experience of the gospel; and to their own sense of being led by the Spirit of God. In the process, they used one part of the Bible to support their freedom from any obligation to obey other parts of the Bible.
The result was a decision that has been honored in the church ever since; Gentile Christians are not to be bound by every command in the Law of Moses. But, because that Law was being read every week in the synagogues, most Jewish Christians continued to attend; and because many of them had a lifetime of religious education and conditioning that would not quickly be overcome by the startling new standards set by the gospel and the Spirit, the Gentile Christians were asked to avoid a few practices which, however erroneously, were still widely believed to be against the will of God.
This momentous decision made by that first churchwide assembly required the reeducation of people away from some things their Bible and religious tradition had always taught them. Why? Because in Christ a new time had dawned and what was once not acceptable was now acceptable. How do we know? We know from our experience of the gospel and the leading of the Spirit of God among us as we dialogue openly with each other. What do we do? We change our policies from those of past times to those for the present time, asking people to be patient and sensitive to each other’s feelings during the transition. Can we be 100 percent sure we have it right? No. The best we can hope for is the level of certainty that first churchwide assembly reported: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.
Who Receives the Blessings?
I’ve reviewed this ancient lesson because the issue it raises is not ancient at all. It comes up in the life of the church repeatedly. Every generation has to learn it anew, often in relation to issues that were not faced before. The story from Matthew 15:21–29 is a case in point. The date of that first assembly in Jerusalem we believe to have been 48–50 CE, well within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians. The Gospel of Matthew is one of the latest gospels written, probably some thirty–five years after the assembly at Jerusalem. Matthew's readers then, are second generation Christians who need to deal again with the question of the acceptability of Gentiles into the church.
The point of the story is that a Gentile woman asks Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter. The disciples want Jesus to send her away. Jesus tells her what many of the Jewish Christians who are Matthew's readers personally believed: I am sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not to the Gentiles. It isn't fair to give the blessings belonging to the children of the house (read, Israelites) to the house dogs (read, Gentiles).
The use of the word dogs here reminds us of how hostile the feelings between Jews and Gentiles were then. Each referred to the other as dogs. The Jews were dogs to the Gentiles because they denied the polytheism of the Greek and Roman religions. The Gentiles were dogs to the Jews because they did not believe in the monotheism of the one true faith. In other words, their mutual rejection was grounded in their religious convictions.
What does this woman say to Jesus? "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." What does Jesus say to her? "Great is your faith. Your wish is granted. Your daughter is healed." And what did those early Christians learn from this story? The healing grace of God comes to people through faith, not through their racial or religious genealogy! It comes to women as well as to men. (This is not a story about a man and his son.) It comes to Gentiles as well as Jews. In other words, the gospel breaks through all the boundaries human culture and religion have created. Christians are no longer confined to live within borders Christ himself has crossed. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them.
Who Does ALL Include Today?
Just as first and second generation Christians had to learn this lesson in their times, so every generation of Christians down through the centuries has had to relearn it in their time. Our grandparents had to learn it in relation to the race issue in America. Are black people fully human? Does the Spirit intend for us to admit them into our congregations? My generation had to learn it in relation to the gender issue in America. This year we celebrate twenty–five years of ordaining women in our Lutheran church. But I was ordained thirty–five years ago and voted at least three times against seating women as delegates to our district conventions. Yet, the Spirit drove us during the 1960s to a new understanding of the Word that led to ordaining women in the 1970s.
When this text in Matthew last came up for reading in Sunday worship, the message on the back of our denom-ination’s Sunday bulletin folders tried to connect the story with our time and church. It applied the lesson about Jews and Gentiles in the first century to our contemporary expressions of human division by a reference to women and then added:
"In our churches, the presence of children in worship, the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the voices of minorities may challenge us to reevaluate our mission. The Holy Spirit continues to call those we often discount."
Note who are listed here as people we often discount: women, children, disabled, elderly, minorities.
Are there any people the church often discounts missing from that list of discounted people? Are there some people so discounted they don't even make our list of the discounted? Only 5 to 10 percent of the world's population! The people being placed by the Spirit before the church for full acceptance in our time are the gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons whom we are not yet comfortable even naming. If the Spirit is not facing us with this class of humanity for reconsideration, why has every major mainline denomination been re–examining its policies in relationship to them? And why has there risen up outside the official structures but within the fellowship of every major denomination a cadre of persons to bear witness to the need for change? And why has there developed in every church body a growing list of congregations willing to break the old traditions in the light of new leading from the Spirit by giving a public affirmation of welcome to gay and lesbian people? Each denomination has its own name for them. In Lutheran circles they are called Reconciled in Christ congregations, while United Methodists know them as Reconciling Congregations and Presbyterians call them More Light Churches....
So long as all is an exclusive wordin our time meaning heterosexuals only,we will have to follow the New Testament's example, saying: and also for homosexuals.
If Christians in our time are to fulfill the Spirit's call to become a fully inclusive church...then we can no longer omit these people from the list of those to be specifically identified for inclusion. In the early church it was not enough to say the gospel was for all, because all meant all Jews, but not Gentiles. So when the Word of the Spirit in that time was heard, those Christians made sure to specify that the gospel was not only for Jews but also for the Greeks. Paul’s letters are full of those specific designations. So long as all is an exclusive word in our time meaning heterosexuals only, we will have to follow the New Testament’s example, saying: and also for the homosexuals.
If the church wants to keep gay and lesbian people from sitting or serving at the Lord's table, it should not drop them any crumbs...or allow them to overhear the gospel.
In the meantime, my son and you other gay and lesbian people may have to be content with the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. But before you feel too depressed about that, let me tell you something about those crumbs. They are made up of the same bread being eaten by those who have a seat at the table. The same nutrients they receive, you receive. The grace given and received is the same grace whether from loaves off the table or crumbs off the floor. That grace accepts, reconciles, redeems, and saves all in like manner. You may have to wait for seating at the church’s table, but you are already eating at the Lord’s table.
Finally, Only Two Options
If the church is hesitant to take a stand regarding gay and lesbian people, it might be helpful to recognize that only two options are finally available. On the one hand, we can do what the first Christians did. We can continue to discuss this matter in Christian love with one another and if it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us, we can remove both our rejecting attitudes and policies and announce to the world that for us all means homosexual people, too. Since there are many who have been taught from the Bible by the church that such acceptance is unthinkable, we will all need to be sensitive to those whose religious conditioning will not allow them to embrace the change.
On the other hand, if the church cannot believe the Spirit is saying this for our time, then it should quit being so sloppy in its table manners and stop allowing crumbs to fall where those not qualified to receive God’s meal might happen upon it. If white Christians really wanted to keep black people enslaved, they should never have allowed them to sit in the balcony of their churches and hear the gospel. If Christian men want to keep women subordinate, they should not only insist women keep silent in church, as the Bible clearly commands, but also insist they not go to church at all, lest they hear the gospel and be set free. And if the church wants to keep gay and lesbian people from sitting or serving at the Lord’s table, it should not drop them any crumbs from the table or otherwise allow them to overhear the gospel.
Why? Because the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Any underclass persons who eat its crumbs, even from the floor, will be transformed and empowered in such a way that they will finally find their place at the table of God. It is to that table that Christ now invites us all, regardless of sexual orientation. Amen.
This article is adapted with permission from a sermon preached at Wesley United Methodist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 19, 1995, in a Eucharist sponsored by Lutherans Concerned/Twin Cities. Copyright 1995 by Via Media, 385 Los Arboles, #222, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360. Permission to quote or copy must be secured in writing.
Paul W. Egertson, Ph.D., a long–time pastor and educator, assumed office in February 1995 as bishop of the Southern California West Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He and his wife Shirley Mae have raised six sons and now have two grandsons.