There are a lot of things I look forward to on Thanksgiving. Watching the Detroit Lions lose yet again, helping to carve the turkey, and testing the elasticity of my pants as I consume a fourth piece of pie are just a few. Perhaps, though, what I look forward to the most is sitting around the table with my family after the meal is over. It is here where countless laughs are shared, memories are re-lived, and if we are lucky, a riveting theological discussion develops.
Serving in the inner city allows me to see a lot of weird things. Things you don’t typically see in the suburbs, at least on the surface. Night after night, hour after hour, as our volunteers engage with the people of our community, a new world begins to unfold before my very eyes. And as I look around from table to table at the evening meal we provide at our church, I see a different kind of family.
Six o’clock rolls around and the church that provided the meal brings it in from their minivan. Eyes widen and tummies churn as they see the feast of chicken, macaroni and cheese, and pumpkin pie laid out for them. At one table, I see Lucy who is married to a man with a heroin addiction. She works twenty hours a week to provide for his habit. At another, I see Tom, Bill, and Steve, three men who engage in bisexual behavior with the hope of getting their next crack-cocaine fix as soon as possible. At another, I see Mary, a single mother of five, boxing up meals for another single mother just trying to survive the evening. The table in the corner holds a group of men who drink their whiskey and “Natty Daddys” from sunup to sundown. And far across the room? At this table sits Vanessa, a woman who is pimped out by her man and is regularly beaten so that they both can enjoy the effects of another crack circle.
Nearly two thousand years ago, thirteen men reclined at another table. It was here that they would celebrate the Passover and give thanks to God as they reminisce about the mighty deeds he has done for their people, freeing them from the slavery of the Egyptians by making passage through the intimidating waters of the Red Sea. Who knows what other conversations they had?
As the night wears on, things take a dramatic turn. Their leader, teacher, and Messiah addresses the men at this table, and he says something very cryptic, causing each of their heads to spin. The evangelist Luke records the conversation on that night like this:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:15-20).
In this meal, we have communion with him and with all of those who have and who will partake in it.
Did you catch that? At this family table sit tax collectors, liars, cowards, and losers, including the man that would eventually betray Jesus into the hands of the Jewish authorities. Jesus knows intimately the hearts of the men that sit at this table. He knows they will all flee. He knows Peter will deny knowing him three times. He knows Thomas will refuse to believe. He knows Judas will betray him for cash.
And yet he gives thanks.
He says he has “earnestly desired” to eat this meal with his friends. He cannot wait for what he is about to do. But first, he gives thanks. It may seem fairly mundane for Jesus to give thanks in this situation. He is the Son of God after all and he certainly does want us to follow his example and give thanks for the food that God has provided. Jesus gives thanks to God the Father throughout the Gospels. But this is a little different. This meal is about more than just food. Much more.
It is at this meal that Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper. The true body and blood hidden mysteriously in, with, and under the bread and wine that are consumed. As the true Passover Lamb, Jesus will shed his blood and give his body as the sacrifice to save all who believe in him. In this meal, we have communion with him and with all of those who have and who will partake in it. In this meal, we consume holiness. In this meal, we find forgiveness of sins. In this meal, salvation is given.
Jesus makes that happen through what he will do the very next day, laying down his life for man in the greatest scandal in history, exchanging our sin for his righteousness. Because of what Christ has done in his death, you are forgiven. And even more than that, when Jesus is raised from the dead three days later, you are justified. You are declared righteous before the Father. You have eternal life. You live forever. You get to sit at the same table as Jesus and the twelve disciples and consume our crucified, yet risen Savior’s body and blood, ensuring that you belong to Christ and will be with him forever.
So, yes, Jesus gives thanks. He thanks the Father for making a way for us to be received into his loving care.
Think back to the tables I have described so far. Who is sitting at these tables? What do they have in common? These are the “sinners and tax collectors” of their day. For many it is the drug addicts, alcoholics, and the homeless. For Jesus, it was the deniers, the cheaters, and yes, the actual tax collectors. The people that nobody gives a damn about. The people that society ignores. The people that others love to hate. The people that are broken to their core.
The very people that Jesus came to save.
We give thanks to the Father who has made a way for us to sit at his table.
At yet another table, Mark writes in his Gospel that, “the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that [Jesus] was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:16-17).’”
These sinners are the people of my family table, and I bet, if you look close enough, you’ll find the same. Our family tables are not that different from one another. But you can bet that Christ dwells in the midst of them and is “earnestly desiring” to fellowship with them. Even Judas.
Because crazy Aunt Sue? Christ died for her. Addicted Uncle John? Christ died for him. Politically charged cousin Mike? Christ died for him. And you? Well, perhaps you are more like “those people” than you think.
And Christ died and rose for you, too. For that we give thanks to the Father who has made a way for us to sit at his table, delivering us from the domain of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14).
Welcome to the family table.