“The Most Important Piece of Furniture”

“The Most Important Piece of Furniture”
Luke 24: 36b-48
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
April
18, 2021 

Last April, we were looking to sell a desk chair on Facebook Marketplace. It was a fairly average desk chair – faux leather, wheels – that we just didn’t have the same need for anymore, and so we posted it at a modest price one evening. I went to bed shortly thereafter, and woke up to new fewer than 15 inquiries about that desk. 

  • “Is it still available?”
  • “I can come at a moment’s notice. Please let me know if still have this.” (That message was sent at 4:30am)
  • “I will pay double. Can come your way asap.”

I was overwhelmed and this is why. I would be a terrible business person because I have no sense for the market. I had not put together that last April the reality of this pandemic was setting in, many people were seeing all the more clearly that they would be working from home for an unforeseen amount of time. Suddenly, finding a decent desk or a chair for your desk was near impossible. 

I told the first person who replied they could buy the chair, and you would have thought I was offering one of my organs. You could read in this guy’s messages that this guy was just overjoyed. 

It has been strange, hasn’t it, to see what household items, which things, which pieces of furniture – even – find themselves in sudden, acute demand over the course of this past year? 

And I wonder…what will be the must-have thing as we transition toward semi-normal or a new normal? In particular, what piece of furniture will be most important for this coming time? 

Oddly enough, I think that the Gospel of Luke commends something of an answer: 

It is an answer strongly alluded to right there at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke when newborn Jesus is laid in a ‘feeding trough’ in the town of Bethlehem, which means “City of Bread.” This Jesus is to be food for the world. 

And then, from there, on no fewer than eight occasions in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has a meal with others. 

  • A banquet at Levi’s house, 
  • A dinner at Simon’s house, 
  • The feeding of the 5000, 
  • A meal at Mary and Martha home, 
  • A couple more dinners at Pharisee homes, 
  • A meal at Zacchaeus’s house, 
  • The Last Supper, 
  • Breaking bread with disciples in Emmaus post-resurrection. 
  • And that doesn’t count parables and teachings where food and meals are central. 

What happens right after the prodigal son is embraced by the Father in that memorable parable in Luke chapter 15? The father throws a banquet. 

Many have argued that table fellowship with Jesus happens so frequently in the Gospel of Luke, that it really is the organizing structure of the Gospel. Jesus moves from one table to the next. 

And it is at these meals that Jesus teaches and convicts, heals and feeds…and each of these is a faucet of Jesus bringing peace. Shalom. Wholeness and well-being in every facet of life. The Kingdom of God. 

Which brings us to our passage at the very end of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus quite directly bestows this blessing upon the disciples: has a word of great significance to bestow upon them: “Peace be with you. Shalom, be with you. Wholeness and well-being in every facet of life be yours.” 

But, we read that the disciples do not seem to receive this truth – they are instead “startled and frightened” upon seeing what appears to be a ghost. 

Jesus shows them his hands and his side, tells them to touch the flesh and bones…and that helps but we read they are still ‘disbelieving and wondering.’ 

And so what does Jesus do to further make clear it is fully and concretely Jesus himself? He asks “Have you anything to eat?” 

“They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” Which scholars note the Greek here is strangely worded, the sense of this phrase really is Jesus “shared a meal with them.” 

And so again, a meal is the way Jesus makes himself known such that they might receive his word: “Peace be upon you.” 

I remember the first time Jesus was far more ghost than real for me. 

It was my sophomore year of high school, and my parents were divorcing. Incredibly painful, and incredibly disorienting to my faith. Because how could these my parents who taught me this Bible and this truth about marriage now be doing…the opposite? I could not reconcile what was happening. 

No, I was not terrified in the same manner as these disciples in our passage – but when it came to Jesus it felt like – at best – I was seeing a ghost. Jesus and the whole of the faith I had come to know…it now seemed an apparition. It seemed weightless. Not really there. 

I also remember my sophomore and junior and senior year in high school as the years where I increasingly spent time at the Heck household. The Heck’s – mom, dad, five kids, one of them in my grade, all part of my church and my school – were a remarkable family. 

  • They did not have a television. 
  • They all played musical instruments. 
  • And they had an open-door policy that had me over there for lunches and dinners all the time. 

At first, I loved showing up simply because they had an incredible chocolate chip cookie recipe with the “secret” ingredient –Crisco – making all the difference. 

But slowly I realized I was showing up regularly not because the meal tasted good, but because of the presence around the table. 

They loved to ask one another questions over dinner. 

  • Funny questions. 
  • Thoughtful questions. 

Curious questions. 

Questions that led to stories that led to questions. To stories again. If anyone – like me – went silent for an extended time in the conversation, their father had a particularly good eye for this and would invite, “Bobby, what do you think?” 

No, their table did nothing to change my family’s situation or give me a clean answer to ‘why’ it happened… and yet, over time, it was at table with the Heck family that Jesus was no longer a ghost. I experienced him as real and concrete. I knew at that table a peace that transcends all understanding shaping and filling and changing me. 

“Peace be upon you” is the gift I received at table. 

Have you ever known that kind of table? A people around meal and something about them and that time and that space was precisely where Jesus was no longer an empty concept or abstract being…but a presence, a nourishment? And so a living peace breathed afresh upon your life – have you known this? 

After all, we have known this past year, after all, we have carried this past week…I wonder if right this moment we don’t long for just such a meal this very day. If we don’t long for that word of peace to be made known urgently and fully among, well, so many in our world this day. 

It is no accident that Jesus eats broiled fish with his disciples. 

Commentators note that in the Hebrew Scriptures, fish were emblematic of the Gentile world, the non-Jewish world, the other ethnicity, the other beliefs. The others. 

Here, then, the fish serves as a sign as to where this is going: These disciples are called to share table fellowship, yes, with one another but also very much with the Gentiles. 

Jew and Gentile. 

Male and Female. 

Slave and Free. 

Rich and Poor. 

Us and Them. 

Table fellowship among every tribe, tongue, and nation – this most especially would make clear the fundamental truth that as Ephesians 2 puts it, in Christ Jesus every dividing wall has been broken down – he is our peace, he is the one who preaches peace to those far away and peace to those who near – peace to them; peace to us. 

Which is precisely what then unfolds in the book of Acts (the second half of the Gospel of Luke). 

When we adopted Leo it quickly became clear that we would need people in our lives and his life that looked like him – to play with, to look up to. 

We wanted to find ways to him to appreciate and know his heritage and culture – which, as someone whose family comes from Papua New Guinea – that was going to be hard. But minimally, we knew it meant reaching out to the handful of Black friends and colleagues and neighbors we had in the area. And, regrettably, did not really have a terribly strong relationship with any of them at this point. 

This did eventually lead us to get to know an African American couple in the area fairly well over a few meals – we became friends; they came to really love and enjoy Leo’s presence. 

And on one occasion they invited us to a birthday party at their house. Michelle and Leo could not make it, but I went. And everyone is hanging out until, of course, the cake and the candles come forth, and everyone sings “Happy Birthday.” Everyone is singing and swaying and smiling – we know this moment, right? 

And then just as finish that last line, “Happy birthday to you.” The entire room – minus me, one of maybe three white people there – the entire room starts in, “Happy birthday…happy birthday to ya…” 

And now the place is hopping and moving and harmonizing to Stevie Wonder’s 1980 song “Happy Birthday”…and I am standing there like, “did I miss the memo? Did our invitation say something about preparing a song together?” 

Do you know what it was? That is a song well-loved and well-cherished by many in the African American community, and it is commonplace in predominately African American settings for that to be sung with joy on someone’s birthday right after the version we all know. 

I went and very awkwardly asked some of the congregants in the church I was serving who were black, “Is this a song you sing on birthdays?” And they just smiled, knowingly. 

And so there was something joyful, beloved, and happening in so many of the places and times when a Black person has a birthday party…and I had no inkling about either the song’s existence or the tradition. Or its deep meaning of that song for many in that community as it was a song written as a Happy Birthday to Martin Luther King Jr as a form of advocating for a day to remember him before MLK day had been established.

And I loved being swept up in the joy of this thing I knew nothing about, and could never have appreciated without the gift of table fellowship. 

But then thought that dawned on me as I drove home from that party was this: 

“My gosh, what else have I been missing? Or noticed? What else about being black in America is it possible that I don’t know? Or understand? What other joys and traditions can I learn from? What other laments and hardships can I not nearly appreciate? 

How does their experience and history in this country affect how they see and what they see? Where are the overlaps and where are there real distinctions in understanding? 

Why is it many of them think much more actively about and prepare more readily the moments they are pulled over? 

Why is it I have almost no books by African American authors or almost anyone outside of an Anglo-American reality? How is it I’ve let that voice in God’s kingdom be so muted in comparison? And actually…why is that true also when it comes to others tribes, tongues, and nations on my bookshelf? 

Question after question…each making clear how incomplete my understanding and appreciation was for my sisters and brothers. 

The questions humbled me, convicted me, motivated me. 

And, also…the questions that cascaded down upon my soul were the form that Jesus’ word of peace took in my life at that time. 

It was a word of wholeness working in my incomplete areas, my blindspots…and it was a peace that came precisely through the gift of table fellowship. 

I am convinced in this time of violence and anger, this time of distrust and racial injustice, this time of divisions along any number of lines, and this time of talking past one another…that the piece of furniture of utmost importance for the church of Jesus Christ in this time especially – it must be the table. 

The Gospel of Luke is clear from start to finish, it is at table that time and again Jesus makes himself known and breathes a word of peace. 

Of shalom. 

Of wholeness upon every facet of life. 

And now that word of peace may be full of grace and compassion as at the Heck household or that word of peace may be a mix of joy and repentance and opening as at the birthday party…Or both. 

True, we remain mindful that with COVID it’s not like we can run and readily share table fellowship with anyone and everyone in the same way quite yet…And yet, as we make our hopeful plans for the coming months could look like…. 

  • What would it look like for us to prioritize opening our table? 
  • What would it look like to be open to receiving the invitation to a table or two – perhaps from those not normally on our radar? 
  • What kind of table gathering is one we have no idea how it could or would come together but maybe we just start praying for the Spirit to open doors we don’t know about out there…and also in here? 
  • What tables might we help convene? 
  • Which of our table gatherings would never happen except for the fact that we believe the church of Jesus Christ is about sitting at table, as equals, us and them? 

As Jesus puts it one point in the Gospel of Luke when describing the heavenly reality: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” And there we shall know the peace of God in every facet of life. May it be so on earth as it is in heaven. Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert