The answer is no one, and it ought to define how Christians gather.
NT Wright said, “[The family of God] was of course characterized and marked out by one of the best-known features of Jesus’ work: his open table-fellowship … eating with ‘sinners’ was one of the most characteristic and striking marks of Jesus’ regular activity … Jesus was celebrating the messianic banquet and doing it with all the wrong people. Jesus, then, created a new symbol, which drew into itself the symbolism of family and nation.” (JVG 431) And that symbol was the Eucharist. “The symbols of Jesus kingdom-announcement come together,” said Wright, “in the upper room” (437).
Notice, the Lord’s Supper is a Passover meal. The Passover was first celebrated by those in slavery, not those already saved. The Hebrews had not gone under the waters of the Red Sea (later symbolized as baptism), nor had they received the law on Pentecost (later replaced by the Spirit). All those in the Exodus story know is bondage, and in that state of incarceration God offers them a meal. “Take some of the blood … eat bread made without yeast” (Exodus 12.7-8). There is no obedience yet. There isn’t a depthy understanding of who this God is or the covenant he will propose. There is only the raw offer of help extended to slaves.
As in the events leading up to the Exodus, Jesus likewise displayed God’s salvific offer through meals and miracles. Those Jesus ate with, these poor in Spirit, were objects of divine favor, for the kingdom of heaven was here—and it had come for them (Mt 5:3). “Unlike both Pharisees and Qumranites, table-fellowship was not fenced around to mark off the insiders from the outsiders,” wrote James Dunn. “There was no purity barrier to be surmounted before one could enjoy Jesus’ company and listen to him” (Jesus Remembered 605-6). We should not overlook the symbolism of meals everywhere in the Gospels. Scot McKnight wrote, table fellowship “symbolized Jesus’ entire vision for the Kingdom, which was an inclusive vision of a restored, forgiven, and celebratory community” (New Vision 48).
It should not be a surprise that this was Jesus tactic, for meals are doors. Meals open up new realities to us. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, an exit door opened. When the slaves in Egypt ate the Passover meal, a door of freedom opened. When those filled with doubt ate with Jesus after the resurrection (Luke 24), they saw a new reality to enter. This holds for us all. The risen Jesus said to those struggling with faith, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will eat with them and, they with me” (Rev 3.20).
As such, I would argue it is an ecumenical sin—of a profoundly disheartening and pharisaical sort—to tell some they are not welcome at Christ’s table, to actually announce with assurance to those who have gathered to encounter God in your church that only you, and those like you, are allowed to eat. The one person Jesus pictured tormented in Hades was a man who kept others from dining at his table. And we ought to be warned.
Think this is a stretch?
Jesus’ aimed his harshest criticism at those who excluded others from enjoying the meal God offered to all. Jesus spoke of a vineyard given to caretakers who hoarded the wine within for themselves, refusing to give the fruit to the Landowner’s purposes. The Parable of the Tenants was spoken over the religious elite of Jerusalem who controlled the sacrificial system and the meals celebrating humanity’s connection to God. Jesus objected to the temple elites’ exclusive stance: the temple was intended to be a “house of prayer for all,” yet having stolen the experience of God from the nation they had made it a robber’s den.
“What will the owner of the vineyard do?” asked Jesus, if someone hoards what God intends for all. “He will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
Is there any good reason to roll the dice here, to say, “We should exclude others because it is our tradition”? Is it not clear that Jesus table fellowship with the outcasts is indeed prototypical of the Lord’s Supper today?
In contrast to those who think only a select few should experience the Table, Jesus told a quite different story about his meal—about the messianic banquet (Luke 14). His servants would go out into the streets and invite all to come. Yes, in Matthew’s telling, one shows up dressed improperly. Does anyone think this means he had not been baptized yet? Hadn’t believed certain truths? Note—whatever his mistake, it is the king—not one of the servants—who judges him. The servants are only given a single instruction: “invite to the banquet anyone you find”; no exceptions.
Friends, if a devote Atheist-Hindu-Californian-Marxist-GreenParty-Capitalist-from-Milwaukee rises and comes to the Table to take the body of Christ broken for her and drink the cup of Jesus’ blood shed for her—this is not unworthy. They are not unworthy. They are slaves like you reaching for grace. They are those responding to the invitations sent from the king to his banquet. They are the poor in Spirit who have been promised the Kingdom.
We ought to consider anyone rising to internalize the death of Christ as a move toward soul health. As we see so often in the Gospel, approaching the table to dine with Jesus is the moment of conversion. In the Exodus, the meal initiates salvation. In the story of the Prodigal, it is the younger son’s desire to eat that brings him back to the father. Rising to commune with Jesus is extensively celebrated in the Gospels as the power of God at work reconciling the lost to himself.
Do you really want to shut that door (Mt 23.13)?
Our exclusivity at the Table keeps many from tangibly tasting that the Lord is good. It keeps Protestants and Catholics divided, and it causes us to misalign ourselves with Jesus’ rhythms and passions. Jesus was liberal with the meal he offered. He took his cup and as the high priest said, “Drink from it, all of you” (Mt 26.27).
Jeff Cook is working on a book called “Small Batch Church: Fresh Thoughts on Worship, the Sermon, the Nones, the Dones, the Future, the Creeds, and Why We Gathering around the Table on Sundays”. If you are interested in reading a draft this Spring,please connect with him at @jeffvcook. Jeff lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author ofSeven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes (Zondervan 2008) and will re-release Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell (Subversive 2012) in January 2015.