A Journey To More Open Table Fellowship

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI will like to tell you a short story about a change that happened recently at my house church as a result of a shift to a more community centered theology, coupled with a deeper understanding and application of the history and background of Jesus and his disciples. What is even more interesting to me is how we came to be questioning our former practice of Communion, though the new decisions are themselves exciting as well.

Over the past year, we’ve been paying better attention to what discipleship entails, and how critical Christian community is to the nurturing and growth of discipleship. This focus is not only changing our understanding of the gospel, of Jesus’s mission and the life of the church, but surprisingly it has now lead us to ask questions about a central, vital part of Christian community in following Jesus – Communion.

Our practice of Communion is already a bit unusual when measured against what is common in most Ghanaian churches. We have Communion every Sunday, and on the first Sunday we actually have a proper meal alongside it. Everyone was welcome to be part of the normal meal, but the bread and wine was only open to those who were baptized by water immersion. This meant of course that children and non-Christians guests or visitors to our meetings whose baptism status we weren’t sure about were excluded. This seemed to be fine to us, until a few weeks ago when a member began to apply the New Testament image of the church as a new family of people to Communion. Comparing that to the Ghanaian external family, he began to ask questions about why we should exclude the children amongst us from participating in it.

What made this whole thing even more striking was the fact that I’d read Ben Witherington’s “Making A Meal of It” a few years ago and was quite enamored about his portrayal of what a 1st century Christian meeting would have been like in terms of it’s practice of open table fellowship. It’s actually listed amongst my “10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far”. In addition, I’d just finished James D.G. Dunn’s “Jesus’s Call To Discipleship” a week before this, which laid quite some emphasis on the same issue of Jesus’s open table fellowship. I’d even been listening to a podcast discussion as well on how Communion actually transformed the dynamics of gatherings of Christians on Thursday or so before the Sunday of our meeting, and already questions had been brewing in my mind about our current practice. So surprised was I when our brother raised the issue at our meeting, I just kept nodding my head and smiling as I listened to the serious questions he had about our current practice of Communion on Sunday. I knew something was afoot.

In the end, after much discussion of the issue amongst us, consulting with some people in Anabaptist circles whose opinion we respect and researching a bit more about the Jewish antecedents of the Seder (the Passover meal) which Jesus celebrated with his disciples and co-opted into The Communion, we came to the conclusion over a number of meetings that it was time to let go of the restrictions placed on the Communion. Part of the reason was that we came to the realization that the dominant interpretation of Paul’s admonitions regarding communion in 1 Cor 11:17-33 are based on an individualistic reading of the obviously communal problem that Paul was trying to solve. But paying even more attention to the radical nature of Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship, and including the Jewish background of the Seder from which Communion is derived meant that it was time to lay that restriction down. We simply decided that whether one was a child or a non-Christian/non-baptized Christian, baptism will still be emphasized as the means of showing that one accepted to be a part of this community, but Communion will be open to all.

Of course that presented a slight problem of how to enable the children participate in this, since our wine is proper alcoholic red wine. The solution was to water it down for them, a practice that has existed even before Christianity came along.

But this story reminds me of something I’m learning from the majority of theologians and teachers that I listen to. There’s a difference between knowing theology, and living theology. And when one hasn’t learnt to live it, reflect on it and critique one’s theology in the process of living it, it will stay at the level of knowledge, and will not challenge any of one’s paradigms or traditions. The result is simply arm-chair theologians, who dispenses plenty words with little power to cause actual change.

Reorienting our minds on the communal nature of not just the gospel, but even salvation and church has had drastic effects on our thinking and behavior in our small community. This story I described above above makes me hope that others will wake up to the damage that individualistic readings of scripture has done and continues to do to our churches.  I’m reminded of the individualistic nature not only of the small piece of flat “bread” that one receives and along with it’s small cup, but of the songs that we used to sing back in those days at my former church whiles taking communion with others – “Me Ne Jesus Beto Nsa Edidi” i.e. “Jesus and I will eat supper together”. The fact that this was being done in a church with others partaking of the same activity was not only lost on the song writer, but even on the congregation, because according to the words of this song, everyone was having their own private supper with Jesus. I’m further reminded of a very devout Christian man I respected a lot in this church, who was excluded from Communion because he had more than one wife (and who obviously couldn’t shirk his responsibility by divorcing any of them as polygamy has been a normal practice in Ghana for a very long time, and so he will never experience communion with fellow Christians in that church and many others like it). It is these kinds of misunderstanding of God’s total mission of dealing with all the spheres of humanity’s problem – social, economic, political and spiritual – that break my heart.

May the erection of these kinds of barriers that Jesus actively worked to break down, break your heart too. May we learn to see the table for what it is – a foretaste of what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in Is 25 – God’s invitation to all peoples to come and dine with him.

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Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

On Saturday my friends and I at SimplyChrist spent time with a group of young Christian leaders on a Ghanaian university campus talking about discipleship. It was indeed a refreshing moment helping to reorient the minds of these such young students on how integral discipleship was to being a Christian, and discussing the challenges they faced in trying to be disciples in their own setting as students on campus. Sadly though, I couldn’t shake off from my mind how much additional effort and time would be required to actually see true discipleship emerge in this Christian community. I felt like our efforts were a drop in the ocean, not because they were not relevant, but because a lot more teaching, re-orientation, practice and commitment was needed to see discipleship truly flourish amongst them. The fact that I was making an effort to convince professing Christian students that being a Christian and being a disciple were one and the same thing was just a jolt of reality for me. This feeling was further aggravated by my recent completion of Bruxy Cavey’s Frosh sermon series focusing on discipleship, completion of Scott McKnight’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and current engagement with Richard B. Hays’s “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”.

In consolation to myself, I tried to leave my discussion group with 2 points. The first was that discipleship meant following Jesus and doing so with others, no matter the cost. It wasn’t about knowing all the right things about Jesus, or the bible or the Holy Spirit etc. If all these didn’t lead us to doing as our master did, and doing it with others who were walking on that same path, we have failed to be disciples. The second was the true discipleship always showed up in love for others, including even our enemies. Jesus gave only one thing that the world may use to know his disciples – love (Jn 13:34-35).

Driving home Sunday afternoon after our home church meeting, where we spent considerable amounts of time thinking of a business we could engage in to alleviate the poverty amongst us if we had the money to do so, yesterday’s discipleship event came back to my mind, and with it, Stuart Murray’s “The Naked Anabaptist”. In this book Murray tries to distill the essentials of the history of Anabaptist Christianity and practice.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptists Christians throughout history (drawing inspiration from early Christianity and other “heretics” like the Waldensians et. al. who came before them) was their insistence on following Jesus no matter the cost. It is this stubbornness that lead them to disagree with the Protestant Reformers even though they had started off supporting and actively taking part in the Reformation. Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.

Hans Denck, one of the leaders of the early Anabaptists, had this to say about following Jesus

No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life”.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

According to Murray, to Anabaptists

All claims to spiritual experience or doctrinal orthodoxy were to be tested against practical discipleship. Anabaptists were charged with reverting to ‘salvation by works’, but they replied that their critics were well aware of the abysmally low standards of discipline in their own churches and should ask why their personally correct doctrine was producing so little fruit.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Anabaptists placed such high value on the Sermon on the Mount in particular and the portrait of Jesus and the church as painted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and book of Acts in general. They left the theologizing, slicing and dicing of the rest of the bible to their friends the Reformers to enjoy frothing in. Hear Murray:

It was in the area of ethics that the teachings of Jesus seemed to have been marginalized [by the reformers] in favor of Old Testament practices. Making war, executing criminals, swearing oaths, ascribing a divinely granted status to kings, and extracting tithes could all be justified from the Old Testament, but were these practices really congruent with what Jesus said and did? The reformers appeared to Anabaptists to have a flat Bible, picking out principles from anywhere without reference to the unfolding purposes of God. The Anabaptists rejected this approach and insisted that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the teachings and example of Jesus” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

The Anabaptists’ mistrust (and even ignorance) of the Old Testament was fostered by how the Protestant reformers were able to use the tool of allegory, a specific example of which I wrote about a few weeks ago here, to make the Bible support everything that these Reformers at the time wanted to find biblical basis for. As expounded by Howard Yoder in his seminal book “The Politics of Jesus”, most Protestants since the Reformation have looked everywhere else apart from the life of Jesus to find grounds for teaching and practice on political, social and economic issues, something that Anabaptists derided.

Deciding to only follow the example of Jesus as seen in the Gospels, Anabaptists paid a lot more attention to being faithful to Jesus. Being humans like everybody else, some of these attempts went too far. For example the Hutterites, even to this day, force everyone to relinquish control of their possessions, citing the example of the disciples of the book of Acts. Others like the Amish, wanting to separate themselves from the world around them in order to avoid worldly attractions, still dress and behave like 16-18th century people to this day. Thankfully though, other Anabaptists took less drastic measures, simply finding ways to make following Jesus front and center of their individual and church lives. Overall the remarkable commitment of this little known tradition of Christianity in producing committed disciples of Jesus is well documented, albeit little studied.

Nowadays though, there is a great resurgence in seeing everything about the Christian life in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Modern scholarship on both Old Testament and New Testament history and ethics is breathing a new life into and placing the spotlight on Jesus as the key to understanding and living faithful lives as his followers in every sphere of life. We have better tools for interpreting the Old and New Testament, and modern Anabaptists need not mistrust its usage again. Murray writes again:

The impact of Howard Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’ was profound, introducing Christians from many traditions to a new way of reading the Gospels. ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’ by Donald Kraybill gently but devastatingly dismantled centuries of misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Walter Wink, Shane Clairborne, Tom Wright, Steve Chalke, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are just of few of those – some more influenced by Anabaptism than others – who have directed our attention to the life of Jesus and encouraged us to take a fresh look at what he taught”(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Today many people, looking for a different kind of Christianity, are finding that they can learn a lot from the life and sacrifice engendered by Anabaptism. There is a huge resurgence of neo-Anabaptism in both Europe and North America, with the emergent and missional church movements leading the way. People who are not originally from Anabaptist churches are finding ways to infuse the Anabaptist insistence on discipleship as the purpose of calling people into Christianity into their way of life, and are finding that it was the natural way to be Christian all along. Places like The Anabaptist Network and the MissioAlliance are becoming places for others to think of different ways to be Christians, with Anabaptism playing a very important role in sharing its lessons. If an NT scholar who recently got ordained as an Anglican deacon (Scott McKnight) can openly confess to being Anabaptist at heart, then the world is paying more attention indeed.

Watch this space for much more on Neo-Anabaptism, and it’s possible appearance in Ghana as well. Suffice it to say that if the resurgence in interest in practical discipleship is anything to go by, radical Christians like the Waldensians, Anabaptists et. al. may yet sleep well in their graves, knowing that despite all their mistakes, there is something to be learnt from their self-sacrifice, martyrdom and unbending will to follow Jesus to the end.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequmur – The Lamb has Conquered, Him Let Us Follow.