Everyone knows about Easter morning, when a group of women discover the empty tomb. Many people also know the story of Easter afternoon -- the walk to Emmaus in which two disciples encounter a mysterious stranger who reveals himself to be the risen Christ.
But how about Easter evening? Who knows what happens then? Luke's story of Jesus appearing to his disciples in Jerusalem is less well known, but is equally important. It revolves around a table instead of a tomb.
A meal is familiar territory for Jesus. He is famous for feeding crowds of 5,000 (Luke 9:10-17) and 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10), and notorious for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). His hospitality reveals his desire to nourish people both physically and spiritually.
At a table, he eats with a Pharisee and forgives a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50) and institutes the Lord's Supper (Luke 22:14-20). He later hits the beach to cook a fish breakfast for his disciples (John 21:1-24). Jesus offers a welcoming table and instructs his followers in the nature of hospitality with the words, "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind" (Luke 14:13).
Jesus welcomes everyone to his table, and how different this is from the practice of Christian hospitality in American politics today.
The Christianity of many voters is a distinctly unwelcoming table, with strict theological and moral boundaries. Evangelicals in Iowa and Michigan preferred Rick Santorum by double digits over Mitt Romney, and in South Carolina they voted for Newt Gingrich over Romney, 45 percent to 21 percent.
Why was this? Because Romney is a Mormon. According to a Pew Research Center national poll on the 2012 election, a majority of white evangelical Protestants view Mormonism as a non-Christian faith.
Evangelicals are suspicious because Mormons do not embrace traditional Trinitarian theology, which sees God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But Mormons are enthusiastic followers of Jesus, with strong family values and an alcohol-free lifestyle. Curious, isn't it, that these qualities are considered to be less important in a presidential candidate than theology?
Erecting barriers around Christ's table is not done primarily to keep Mormons out. Santorum has said that President Obama has a "phony theology," Gingrich has labeled the Obama administration "anti-religious," and about half of Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi think that the president is a Muslim. Although Obama reaffirmed his Christian faith at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, many conservatives balk at his links between the teachings of Jesus and tax increases on the wealthy.
Republicans and Democrats are going to disagree about politics. That's a given. But Christians should resist the temptation to erect barriers around the welcoming table of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to knock down walls and widen the circle of inclusion, rather than draw strict theological and moral lines. Not that Jesus had no standards -- he spoke against divorce (Mark 10:11-12) and criticized those who neglected "justice and mercy and faith" (Matthew 23:23). But his mission was focused on opening God's kingdom to more and more people.
The first thing that Jesus says to his frightened disciples on Easter evening is "Peace be with you" (Luke 24:36). These words are addressed to all of the gathered disciples including Peter, who had denied him (Luke 22:54-62). To prove that he is really alive and anxious to resume his table fellowship with them, Jesus asks for some food and eats a piece of broiled fish in their presence (Luke 24:38-43).
Then Jesus tells them, "Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." He opens their minds to understand the Scriptures, and says to them that what was written has come true -- the Messiah has suffered and risen from the dead, and now "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 45-47).
Jesus intends to widen the circle of inclusion, and the good news is that many Christians across the theological spectrum are following in his footsteps today. At evangelical Saddleback Church in California, members are encouraged to listen to the pain of others in small groups focused on healing, and group leadership is made up of people who have struggled with the particular brokenness of the group. To lead alcoholics, you must be a recovering alcoholic, and to help women who are healing from the trauma of abortion, you must have had an abortion.
At progressive Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Sunday worship is followed by a forum on critical issues such as a "What You Need to Know About Islam," taught by the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. The Cathedral also hosts a women's interfaith book group called "Daughters of Abraham," made up of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women who meet monthly. In addition, it has convened groups of African-American pastors to talk with white pastors about teaching in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.
Such churches are offering a welcoming table through small group gatherings, shared meals and hospitable services of worship. As they meet, eat and worship together, they discover that healing and reconciliation can happen.
Hospitality happens best at the local level, as is being seen in Roman Catholic institutions around the inclusion of LGBTs. DePaul University in Chicago established a LGBTQ resource center in 2003, and more recently Georgetown University created a center in response to a hate crime that victimized a student in 2007. More than 100 Catholic institutions of higher learning now have an association dedicated to supporting LGBT students. This is in spite of the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops teaches that the homosexual inclination is "intrinsically disordered" and that gays and lesbians must lead a "chaste and virtuous life."
While the church hierarchy continues to exclude sexually active homosexuals from public roles of service and leadership, many Catholics in the pews are encouraging acceptance and inclusion. A 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that 49 percent of white Catholics support gay marriage, and a full 71 percent are in favor of same-sex marriage defined explicitly as civil marriage. These Catholics are seeing the value of following Jesus in the covenant of marriage, regardless of sexual orientation.
Politicians and church leaders who try to set a small table are ignoring the fact that Jesus makes it bigger, as does the Bible. The biblical story of ever-increasing inclusiveness begins with the marriage of a Moabite woman to an Israelite man in Ruth, continues with the "house of prayer for all peoples" predicted by Isaiah 56:7, and concludes with the welcome of non-Jews into Christianity by Peter and Paul, following the instruction of Jesus in Luke that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed "to all nations" (Luke 24:47). According to the Bible, whenever humans created a closed system, God broke it open and let new people in.
The story of Easter morning will always be at the heart of the Christian faith, because it proclaims that God has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But equally important is the tale of Easter evening, which tells us how a mighty spiritual movement began with a talk around a truly welcoming table.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.