By: Joel Brown
Joel Brown works in Chicago and volunteers as a lay pastor with Heritage Anglican Church, a congregation meeting in a nursing home. In his previous work with Emmaus Ministries, Joel has written frequently for the ministry’s blog about responding in faith to the challenges facing those on the fringes of society. Through growing up in Niger, Africa as the son of missionaries, he has a lifelong interest in exploring a Christian response to the challenges of poverty and discipleship among the poor.
After graduating from college, I worked for Emmaus Ministries, a non-profit that serves men living on the streets of Chicago. One day, I was staffing our drop-in ministry center when a former regular, now on his way to recovery, came in to spend time with our staff. Deshawn was his usual self, constantly joking around and teasing. He had recently gotten sober and was finally working a regular job. He decided to drop by for our usual family-style meal, to spend time with friends who had helped him on his journey.
“How about church? You been going to church recently?” one of my colleagues asked over lunch.
“Ah, don’t ask me about church,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Church ain’t for me.”
Emmaus works with some of the poorest of the poor: men in survival prostitution. These men are despised even within the homeless community, and all of them have unbelievably tragic stories, marred by abuse, systemic poverty, racism (most are from racial or ethnic minorities), mental illness, and substance abuse.
In my two years there, I counted it a true privilege to hear the stories of men like Deshawn and be a small part of sharing Christ’s love with them. As a staff, we faced a continual challenge of introducing these men to churches where they could continue their healing journeys outside the walls of Emmaus. For many of them, the Church is not a place of welcome but one of judgment, where they face rejection particularly for their sexual behavior. Most echo Deshawn’s stark assessment: “church ain’t for me.”
This struck me as entirely backwards. I believe that we can find true healing in the church through an encounter with Christ. Yet if his invitation is for everyone, why do the most destitute feel excluded?
Since our conversation, I keep wondering what it might look like for our churches to become home for the Deshawns—people on the margins of society. What might it mean to re-imagine our faith through a marginal lens, re-integrating into the heart of the church a regard for the most rejected members of society? This question transforms who we are and how we worship, realigning our hearts to resonate with those on the margins.
Many of the practices that we already use to remember our Savior are key to this realignment process. Our Lord who lived alongside society’s outcasts and died on a criminal’s cross lives in us and should animate all that we do. Our celebration of the Lord’s Table is particularly pivotal for realigning our hearts towards our neighbors like Deshawn, calling us again to do life with them as we embody the lifestyle of Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
The Lord’s Table
It is no accident that Christ came to earth in the humblest of circumstances. No stranger to poverty or oppression, Jesus himself became a refugee (Matthew 2:13-15) who narrowly avoided death at the hands of Herod. He grew up in Nazareth, an obscure town of backward country folk, in a nation under harsh Roman rule. His ministry testified to his deep affection for those on the margins: Jesus called a man from the despised profession of tax collector to be one of his closest partners in ministry. His love for everyone, including those on the bottom of society, drew thousands to him, mesmerized not only by his teachings and miracles but also by his willingness to walk with the poorest and the lowest.
He died a criminal’s death, crucified on a Roman cross. In this ultimate act, he cancelled sin and proclaimed ultimate solidarity with us, especially with those on the margins, through his unjust death. Human in every way, Christ was very familiar with the harshness of society’s margins. We celebrate our marginalized Messiah at the Lord’s Table. As believers, we already acknowledge that what happens at the Table forms us profoundly as members of God’s family. Although we differ in how we refer to this celebration (Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper), or in what we understand to be happening (a ceremony of remembrance, eating and drinking of the true Body and Blood of Christ, or something in between), we affirm that Christ commanded us to remember him in this way. At the Table, he reminds us of our deepest need: our hunger and thirst for his presence that heals us and cleanses us from the sin that separates us from him. But beyond a mere mental exercise of remembrance, we participate bodily in the symbolism. We each eat and drink, acknowledging that his sacrifice alone can make us whole.
Yet the Lord’s Table also calls us together to a particular way of living. At his Table, the Lord invites us to experience again what John Singarayar, 1 a Roman Catholic priest from India, calls the “total mystery of Jesus and not just part of his ministry.” The Table reminds us of “the entire life of Jesus who shared his meal with tax collectors and sinners. In the Eucharistic celebration we reenact what Jesus did and what he ordered on earth.” On the cross, as in his life, our Lord showed radical unity with those on the bottom of society, and he calls us to remember together this part of his ministry at the Table. After all, the word “communion” literally means “union together”; here, we acknowledge a radical unity in the Body of Christ. This unity is a participatory one, in which we take on together the fullness of Christ’s continuing ministry and fulfill His promise: “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do” (John 14:12). Christ invites us to reflect his life in us, not letting our faith be confined within the walls of the church.
A Communal Invitation
This celebration, then, extends far beyond the Table even as it reminds us of our core identity. Christ invites us, communally, to continue the story. Christians in the West tend to emphasize the Lord’s ministry of grace to individual believers, but Christ also invites us into a story that is not simply “mine” or “yours.” Stanley Hauerwas writes that the Church is a “story-formed community”:
[T]o be a Christian is not just to hold certain beliefs, but it is to be part of a historic
community that has the task of maintaining faithful continuity with our forebears. The
necessity of memory for our continued existence is but a form of our worship of our God,
who wills to be known through the lives of his followers. (2)
In the church, we become an embodied memory of Christ’s saving act, in which Christ’s life and his power are not relegated to one time but are for all times. The Lord’s Table retells his story to his people precisely because we so easily forget it. We reflect not only on our own need for healing but also on Christ’s call for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2) to begin now, with rich and poor coming together as we will one day at the wedding supper of the Lamb. He opens our eyes to see this future reality of the Kingdom and imagine its roots in the present day.
Stories of Celebration
Throughout the church’s history, examples abound of brothers and sisters who practiced just this kind of imagination. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have walked with the poor, the sick, and the dying. In Acts, believers extended the table to the swelling group of brothers and sisters in need, as an embodied act of devotion to the Apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42-47). In the early church, many provided for the destitute, rescued abandoned infants, and cared tirelessly for plague victims out of their own (often meager) means.
Others have faithfully carried on this tradition through the centuries. George Müller, 3 the great 19th century evangelist, ministered in England during the Industrial Revolution. While new technologies brought wealth to some, a working class rife with alcoholism, child labor, overcrowding, and disease bore the terrible burden of progress. Beginning in 1834, Müller started orphanages that cared for over ten thousand children in his lifetime, testifying to God’s loving provision for the poorest and lowest.
The well-known Mother Teresa 4 followed what she described as a “call within a call” away from a religious order to found another, the Missionaries of Charity. Alongside other Missionaries, she worked in Calcutta, India with the city’s poorest people in its overcrowded slums. She dedicated her life to serving the poor, the outcasts, and the dying. Less well known was Peter Claver, a 17th Century Jesuit priest who spent over thirty years in Colombia caring for African slaves who survived the dreaded Middle Passage, venturing even into the festering holds of the slave ships. A spiritual father to many, he baptized an astounding 300,000 slaves. Müller, Claver, Mother Teresa, and many others like them always treated people on the margins as equals even when society did not, testifying to the Lamb’s future feast in the Kingdom.
Invited to Imitate
Christ wants to equip us to enter a world choked with the effects of sin. He invites us to use his Table as a place where his story becomes alive again in each of our lives, as he nourishes us to enter a world dying of thirst and hunger. We retell the story to ourselves as we both receive his forgiveness and take on the manner of life that he lived.
He has already invited the Deshawns of the world to full communion with him. His Table, spread out in each of our churches, is open wide not only to us but also to people on the bottom of society. As my time at Emmaus taught me, breaking bread in a shared meal breaks down the walls that divide us. The Lord’s Table allows the love of Christ to shatter our world anew and piece it together again. When we enter into deepening, self-denying communion with one another in this way, true shalom becomes possible as never before.
So ask the Lord to lead your imagination: how would he have you walk with the poor in some way in this week or this month? Perhaps this is just a conversation with someone who is homeless, or a visit to a nursing home resident who receives few visitors. Maybe this means opening your home to a new immigrant family. Since my time at Emmaus, I’ve had the opportunity to invite to church a man living on the streets who kindly shoveled a friend’s snow-covered front steps on a winter day. Opportunities like this crop up everywhere. As you participate in the feast at the Lord’s Table, remember the people around you who are also invited to the coming feast in the Kingdom of God.
How can we begin to see our time now as a dress rehearsal for the wedding supper of the Lamb, when the rich and poor really will feast together as we proclaim unity won through His shed blood?
The suffering Christ is with us, 6 eager to supply us with His strength for this journey. Only he can provide the courage we need to enter into the world over which He is victorious. He alone enables us to walk as He did with those at the very bottom of society—the poor, the hopeless, and those facing systemic injustice in its various forms—and invite them to follow a Lord who fully understands.
At his Table, we remember the marks of suffering on his body, recalling also those who carry on their bodies and in the unseen places of their souls the marks of pain and sin. Let us live in the world as people of Good Friday, in active remembrance of the Lord who lived and died on the margins. In our rehearsal for His feast, let us welcome the Easter reality of the coming Kingdom of God. Here at last, all parts of our broken societies will be made truly one Body of Christ, fully united to celebrate with him.
1. Singarayar, John. “Eucharist: A Way to Liberation.” www.osv.com, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1
7025/EEucharis.aspx . Accessed 26 Feb. 2017
2. Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. Print.
3. Piper, John. “George Müller’s Strategy for Showing God.” www.desiringgod.org , Desiring God, 3
Feb. 2004, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/george-muellers-strategy-for-showing-god
4. “Mother Teresa Biography.” www.biography.com , A&E Television Networks., 27 Feb. 2018.
5. Sladky, Joseph. “St. Peter Claver: Slave of the Slaves Forever.” www.crisismagazine.com , Crisis
Magazine, 8 Sept. 2014, https://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/st-peter-claver-slave-slaves-
6. Wilgus, Alex. “We Will Know Him By the Mark.” Sermon. 14 Apr. 2017.