When my wife and I had a daughter earlier this year, we got a lot of practice writing thank-you notes. Welcoming a new person into the world is no small task, so we were genuinely grateful for the many, many friends who gave us diapers and onesies, lotions and bibs. But saying thank you for such an outpouring of support is also no small task. I was glad for the friend at our baby shower who kept a careful list of who gave what.
Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi ends with a thank-you note. After my recent experience with this particular form of communication, I’m struck by the way Paul breaks all the rules. Yes, he says thanks for the gift. But he quickly adds that he didn’t really need what they sent — and not because he has plenty, but because he’s learned to be content with what he has. Still, he’s glad for their sake that they were able to give.
Miss Manners would be appalled.
So what’s going on here? Why isn’t Paul willing to accept the terms of a normal donor-recipient relationship and just say thanks? Maybe it’s because this is a letter from a pastor. Paul isn’t just a friend writing to express his gratitude. He’s an apostle of God’s good news, writing to instruct and encourage people in God’s movement. He can’t just say thanks. He wants his readers to come and be part of God’s economy.
When we pay attention, God’s economy is at the center of the good news that Paul writes about in all of his letters. Salvation in Jesus Christ is about forgiveness of sins, for sure. But it’s also about debt forgiveness and the celebration of Jubilee.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that anything that keeps the church from the unity of the Lord’s table is idolatry. Like Robert Frost, who writes in “The Road Not Taken” of standing at a fork in the road, “sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” we are constantly seduced to somehow conflate God’s economy with the ways and means of business as usual.
But it will not work. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons,” Paul says. “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:21 NRSV). We can’t because these two tables (and the economies they represent) demand different manners. We learn a whole way of life from the economy we participate in. And the way of Jesus is simply incompatible with the way of mammon.
Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are harsh: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). Jesus shows us how to come to the table. He takes up the servant’s towel and washes the disciples’ feet. This is not just a symbolic act. “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jesus says. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:13-15).
Jesus expects us to learn his manner of tending to the basic needs of brothers and sisters. When we fail to do this in our gathered worship, Paul says, we’re not eating at God’s table. We’re forgetting who we are and what we’re called to be about in the world.
Nowhere is the tragedy of a divided church clearer than a Thanksgiving dinner where some stuff themselves silly and get slap drunk while others wait with distended bellies for the crumbs that never fall far enough for them to get a bite to eat. True, that’s the harsh reality in a world where some spend more on diets than the poorest of the poor spend on food. But surely that’s not what our Father wants for his family. We’ve hardly begun to imagine the gift of God’s economy.
Whether we’re in a place of need or a place of plenty, Paul wants us to see that God’s economy interrupts the assumption of scarcity. Jesus proclaims abundance through seemingly reckless gift giving. Like a rich man’s adolescent son who thinks daddy’s money will never run out, Jesus lavishes the Father’s love on everyone. Somehow Jesus seems to think the love that he shares with his Father is an unlimited wellspring of new life for the world. All of us are recipients before this gracious God. But all of us are donors, too, to the extent that we’re caught up in the generosity of our God.
God’s table is an invitation into the eternal life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are forever giving themselves to one another in an exchange that shatters the assumptions of Wall Street. When Paul wrote to thank the early Christians, he was delighted that they’d had the chance to participate in this exchange. But he didn’t ever want donors to confuse the opportunity to give with a status that put them above brothers and sisters in need.
We are, each of us, guests at God’s table. If we have the chance to pass the potatoes to someone who is hungry, thanks be to God. But if anyone goes hungry at this table, we’ve missed the good news. Our host has prepared more than enough for everyone. The real feast is the joy we share as we pass around the gifts that are given.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, associate minister at St. John’s Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., is the author of “New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church,” “To Baghdad and Beyond” and “God’s Economy.” He has created a series of short films designed to spark conversation around “God’s Economy.” He lives with his family in intentional Christian community at the Rutba House in Durham. Wilson-Hartgrove is a graduate of Duke Divinity School.