Tables for Eight
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” —John 17:20
God before us, God upholding us, God surrounding us, and God within us, we pray you will settle us away from the noise and demands of life that we may hear your life-giving word through these ancient words. May your spirit stir us and call us to follow Christ. Amen.
Katie and I have been preaching of people, just ordinary people, who encountered Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus is both God’s ethereal, divine presence on earth and a fleshy, grit-encountering man who lives with us. Through these stories, the writer of John’s gospel wants us to encounter Jesus, challenges us to read the signs, and come to believe. John’s gospel is all about believing in Jesus and by believing in Jesus, we will abide with God.
On the night of his last supper, Jesus gathered his disciples in an upper room to say farewell. Often the comforting words of John chapter 14 are read at memorial services, “do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid. I give you a new command, love one another as I have loved you…In my father’s house there are many rooms…my peace I give you, I do not give as the world gives, do not let your hearts be troubled.”
The lesson for today is the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell address in which he prays for the disciples, and for you and me. Jesus encounters us. John’s writing is rather circular, but hold on, and listen as I read portions of Jesus’ prayer. (John 17:1-3, 20-23)
After Jesus had spoken these words,
he looked up to heaven and said,
“Father, the hour has come;
glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,
since you have given him authority over all people,
to give eternal life.
And this is eternal life, that they may know you,
the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
“I ask not only on behalf of these,
but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one.
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,
may they also be in us,
so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me I have given them,
so that they may be one,
as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may know that you have sent me
and have loved them
even as you have loved me.”
Come with me on a memory ride. Saturday, August 22nd last year. I was out for a walk, by myself. Probably I was preaching the next day and needed to clear my head.
Many of you know, I live in Lincoln Park, and when I walk, I am drawn toward the zoo and lake. As I approached the corner of Oz Park, I saw 4–5 people dressed in white, loaded with baskets, waiting for a bus. Maybe it was the uniformity of wearing only white clothing that caught my eye, but their spirit captivated me. They oozed excitement.
Not thinking much more, I continued around the park, and near the zoo, I saw a dozen or so more people. Head to toe white attire. Dresses. Pants and shirt. Not exactly matching outfits. (I sound like the fashion police.) But all white.
They were excited… “where is the South Pond?” Pointing them south, I continued north. When I rounded the zoo at Fullerton and the lake, cars and cars with people dressed in white were pulling into the parking lot. Most of them were younger. But of all ethnicities. White, brown, black, Asian.
Finally, as some were unloading baskets, and tables and chairs from their cars, I was able to ask, “what is going on?”
“Chicago Dinner in White,” they replied as if I should have known.
Almost as a part of their migration, I walked amongst them up the embankment to the South Pond boardwalk. At the crest of the hill, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people, dressed in all white, seated at tables, draped with white cloths, set with candelabras, and champagne buckets, lining the entire length of the boardwalk. A jazz combo played on the bridge. I’d never seen anything like this in my life.
The excitement and joy from that first group I encounter had infused this gathering to the extent the air was palpable.
By the end of the evening, 1,500 people converged that night for the annual Le Diner en Blanc Chicago.
That same year, 7,000 gathered in Paris at the Place Vendome as well as in Stockholm and Mumbai and Shanghai. Worldwide, 77 cities host an annual dinner in white.
The dinner’s simplicity makes it so beautiful. Through referrals, someone who attended the prior year invites others to register.
When you register, only the day of the dinner is identified, not the location. It could be anywhere in Chicago. That is part of the suspense, not knowing whom you will see, how you will get there, if it is your neighborhood or the opposite side of the city. The only rules are you must wear white, bring white tablecloths, napkins, and your own food.
On the day of the dinner, two hours before it begins, the location is revealed, and the masses of people begin their journey. When people arrive, they are seated next to anyone and everyone.
Gathering diverse people, yet united, as one. Infused with the spirit. Not worried about who attends—who is included or excluded—just inviting more and more. Encountering people, you would never meet or know had you not stepped into the adventure…
This is what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for us on the night of his last supper. This kind of fellowship and unity is what God wants for us.
God is eminently social. God spoke the world into being. God breathed life into humankind. God is revealed through nature and Mother Nature.
God spoke to prophets of old. And God became Jesus to walk across the soil of this earth and into our daily lives. God loves the world God created and God sent a beloved son to be with us no matter who we are or what we do. This social, gregarious, and loving God has pursued us since before we were born.
In John’s gospel, as with other gospels, Jesus collects a disparate group of followers from humble fishermen to tax collectors, without a screening interview or aptitude test to indicate if they would be team players or get along with one another. It did not matter; he called them just as they were.
They followed. They became disciples, watched the signs he performed, revealing God’s love through healing physically, feeding those who hungered, and forgiving sins with reckless grace. All things we humans could do, but found excuses to avoid. Jesus also performed signs humans could never do, always pointing to God. God’s love, raging through Jesus, captivated everyone with the way he opened up life and new possibilities.
In John’s gospel, the only time Jesus teaches his disciples is on the night of his last supper. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are no expectations for them to “turn the other cheek” or “give to the poor” or sermons with “blessings” and “woes.” When Jesus gathers them together at this final meal, he gives them only one command… “love one another as I have loved you.”
To state the obvious, there are two sides to this command: these disciples are to receive love and they are to love.
We have trouble with both of these. Perhaps our difficulty with the first, receiving love, belies our desire to reciprocate so we are always on level ground with others. Most of us feel uncomfortable being indebted to others. We tend to be suspicious of the gift of unconditional love. In our heart, such love is difficult to accept because we do not earn it.
It is more logical, instead, to earn love by abiding in established rules and behaving in an acceptable manner. If we instill order in our lives, we may be more in control, not God.
We invented religion, not Jesus. Yes, we rely upon religion to teach us about God and develop practices to be together, care for one another, tell the story through sacraments and music. Religion is a way to draw closer to God, but it is also the way we create a semblance of control. We also compose doctrines and “orders for worship” and expectations for membership and inclusion into fellowships. Sometimes we make things difficult when we get enamored with religion and lose sight of just worshiping God, praising God for this gift of life and love.
On the other side of Jesus’ command, we also find giving away love difficult.
The disciples Jesus drew together were a motley crew. James and John bickered in front of Jesus for who would be the greatest. Peter had a hard time grasping Jesus’ mission, Thomas doubts, and Judas was an outright betrayer. And, yet, Jesus loves them.
We can be relieved Jesus did not command them and us to like each other—that could be far more challenging. Perhaps the best news of Jesus’ image of heaven is that there will be many, many rooms in the mansion—we don’t have to share with those who simply annoy us.
Regardless of whether we like someone, we are supposed to love them. “Love” in the biblical sense of caring for the welfare of another. Love accepts people for who they are and not for who we are. A youth minister once spoke words of wisdom “sometimes the people we who need our love the most, let us know in the most unlikeable of ways.”
Amidst all the devastating floods in Louisiana this week, anyone with a boat, canoe or raft struck out with the goal to rescue neighbors—and “neighbor” was anyone in need. Without fanfare or formality, the Cajun Navy, born during Hurricane Katrina, sprung to service again.
Truckers, stranded on highways opened the back of their trailers to serve the produce to other travelers who were hungry. Some also let moms and kids rest in air-conditioned cabs. There were no “likability” tests or concerns for social status. In a disaster, when the rules are abandoned and the better side of our human nature takes over, love emerges.
God’s love infused Jesus, in the words he spoke, the grace he offered and the signs he did. Jesus loved the disciples, fiercely and relentlessly, because it was God’s love flowing through him. Jesus prays they will not break the chain. He prays, just keep the course, and let the world know love is stronger than hate. If you keep doing this with one more and one more person, then the links in the chain remain alive, conduits for God’s love. 
We began to encounter Jesus on the night of his last supper when he prayed for the disciples and for us. Jesus’ prayer was answered. They did what he commanded. They told his story by loving each other and drawing people to this new community. Receiving and giving love united them to one another through Christ and God.
Despite their differences and dislikes, they loved, and then the next generation, and next generation obeyed by loving as Jesus commanded, until we received this same welcoming love in our baptism. It was love made known in Jesus, carried by each of those unlikely, and probably unlikeable men, that has existed and transformed the world of centuries since.
What shall we do? It begins by shedding our egos, all the trappings of protection we have created, and when we stop struggling to rationalize the idea, the good news, we can receive love. To obey Jesus’ command begins when we realize the God who created us and chases after us, loves us unconditionally.
If we have a hard time grasping the Gospel of John’s circular writing, just imagine a banquet in which all are invited and all are united. Le Diner en Blanc was an infectious idea that probably began as a Table for Eight.
Remember, God is a gregarious social butterfly. God loves a dinner party. God’s love shines through people together. Take the risk; let the story of your life tell the world of God’s love.
Dear Jesus. One day you prayed for us, now hear our prayer to you. You were so adept in creating community, in sharing God’s love, in loving each of us. Give us the courage to carry on. Inspire us to be bold in sharing your love in what we do and with those we meet. In the silence, stir in an idea of a table for eight, where we can do just as you once prayed….May it be so. Amen.
 The following website highlights the last five years of Chicago dinners and will link to other cities across the world. http://international.dinerenblanc.info/an-insider-s-glance-at-le-diner-en-blanc-chicago-1975
 Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) 108.
 J. F. Randall, “The Theme of Unity in John 17:20-23,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 41, no. 3 (July 1965) ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 9, 2016) 391.
 John Buchanan. “New Commandment,” Fourth Presbyterian Church. March 21, 2010, accessed August 10, 2016, http://fourthchurch.org/sermons/2010/032110.html