According to Adam Bellow, nepotism really boils down to the transmission of family legacies, and the cycle of generosity and gratitude that knits our whole society together.
On this last Sunday in Easter, one week before Pentecost- the birthday of the Church, I found myself thinking about spiritual nepotism as Bellow defined it.
Everyone knows the story of Easter morning. A group of women. Two angels. One amazed apostle.
What does this have to do with Bellow’s thesis?
Well, consider that while the empty tomb of Easter morning is of HUGE importance to Christianity, what happens Easter evening at a dinner table, after the tomb, is what carries the movement forward.
The women discover the empty tomb, and report to the apostles that two angels have told them that Jesus has risen. But the women are not believed — at least not initially. Peter runs to the tomb, looks in and then goes home, amazed at what has happened (Luke 24:1-12).
So that’s Easter morning, followed by Easter afternoon. Another story, one that most people know.
Two disciples — one named Cleopas — make the seven-mile trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and along the way they encounter a mysterious stranger, who interprets the Scriptures for them. When he joins them for dinner, he breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened, and they recognize him — it is the risen Christ!
Then poof — Jesus vanishes from their sight (vv. 13-31).
Which brings us to Easter evening. Who knows what happens then? Probably fewer than one in 10. Easter evening has never had the popularity of Easter morning, mainly because it involves a table instead of a tomb.
We read through it, and over it most of the time. Compared with Easter morning we might think it’s unimportant, anti-climactic, even boring.
But we would be wrong.
The two disciples race back to Jerusalem and find the 11 and their companions in a dining room. Jesus appears, and they think they’re seeing a ghost (v. 37). But Jesus says, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then to prove it, asks them for some food. They give him a piece of broiled fish, and he eats it in their presence (vv. 38-43).
It is sitting around that table, that Jesus tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that 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 risen from the dead, and now “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (vv. 44-47).
It may be the apostles are wondering exactly who is supposed to do this work of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness, so Jesus makes it clear. “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what was promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (vv. 48-49).
Then, leading them away from the table, Jesus walks with them out to Bethany, gives them a blessing … and disappears; Luke says Jesus is carried up into heaven.
Easter evening ends with the ascension, according to Luke.
The apostles return to Jerusalem, blessing God continually in the temple (vv. 50-53).
Notice what has happened here, on Easter evening. The mission of the apostles begins not with a visit to a tomb that is empty, but with a table of food — broiled fish — and conversation.
Call it Dining-table Discipleship. It is something I am interested in learning more about with you- the idea of a dinner church.
This is important for us to think about because we sometimes underestimate the significance of what happens when we break bread together. This is eucharistic (Communion) theology here, missional theology, and discipleship (practical) theology. We need to remember that the disciples first recognized Jesus when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).
Jesus gave the apostles their missional instructions as part of a dinner conversation.
So what is the take-away message for us on this Mother’s Day weekend when many of us are thinking of family, and sitting down at various tables together?
As we think about the bond between Jesus and his disciples, clearly, there is a sense in which preaching the good news is a family legacy that Jesus wants followers to be a part of — a legacy of proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness: which simply means turning to God and living in gratitude.
Jesus wants the disciples to maintain the cycle of gratitude and generosity that they feel in his presence — gratitude that death is conquered by the resurrection, and generosity toward those who need to hear this good news.
In a stunning act of what we might call spiritual nepotism, Jesus leaves everything to his spiritual siblings, promising the Holy Spirit and saying, “You are my witnesses of these things.” But Jesus is not giving them this opportunity with any selfish goals in mind. They are being sent out in the power of the Spirit to take the good news of the resurrection to all the world.
And it all begins around a table.
As the disciples embark on their mission, they are clearly not “self-made” — they are Jesus-shaped. They maintain a cycle of gratitude and generosity and carry forward the legacy of their Messiah. This is why Luke tells us that they are “continually in the temple blessing God” — that’s gratitude (v. 53).
Acts reports that the disciples share their possessions, and there’s “not a needy person among them” — that’s generosity (4:34). Acts also tells us that Peter proclaims that everyone who believes in Jesus “receives forgiveness of sins through his name” — this is the inclusivity of the risen Christ (10:43).
The disciples have been shaped well by Jesus, and they carry these nurturing values forward.
Mother’s Day is a great time to ask: what shall we leave for our children? This is a question not only for mothers or biological parents. It is a question for each of us, because we each leave a legacy, a footprint for the next generation.
So how may we better use our “table conversations” – at the Eucharist, at coffee hour, potlucks and home gatherings, to shape our spiritual footprint, to influence God’s children- our children, and grandchildren, friends and neighbors?
Like those first disciples, we can begin by talking about gratitude. Some say one of our biggest problems is that we have come to see the good things of life as an entitlement, rather than a gift, and we’ve lost the sense of wonder and surprise that gives birth to true thankfulness. John Sandel, a pastoral psychotherapist in Milford, Connecticut said, “I think when we recognize that we are being given a gift, we feel joy, and gratitude is the experience that flows from this joy.”
Sandel counsels individuals to understand and practice gratitude as the one quality that can make a person truly happy. Focusing on the gifts we are given, rather than wishing for others, creates peace. Because the disciples received the resurrection of Jesus as a pure gift, they felt tremendous gratitude and contentment, and they blessed God continually.
Another value shared by followers of Jesus is generosity, shaped by conversation around our tables. Because the first Christians created a culture of generosity, Luke tells us there was not a needy person among them.
In her book Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese stresses that when people explore church, they are seeking to join with people whose lives are centered in a relationship with God. They are not looking for a social club! Spiritual practices like worship, prayer, gratitude, generosity, fellowship and authenticity in relationships need to be an essential part of the life of any person who wants to follow Jesus, or any congregation seeking to spread the message of Jesus.
When you begin to develop relationships with people outside the church, you are likely to realize that people are looking to have their lives changed, even transformed. They want to feel welcomed and accepted. They want to learn about God and how to experience spiritual growth. They want the forgiveness and new life that comes through a relationship with Christ.
The question is: can we can help people experience this kind of transformation, because we have been shaped by the values of Jesus and the first disciples?
Have our lives been shaped by the values of Jesus and the first disciples?
Prayer? We can do that. Do we?
Providing a warm welcome? Shouldn’t be a problem. Is it?
Forgiveness and new life? We can talk about what Jesus means to us, and in doing this help others with the spiritual growth they desire. Do we? This can happen around tables in our church, in our homes, at tables anywhere.
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 this story of Easter evening, which tells us how a transformational spiritual movement began with talking around a table.
May we continue the conversation Jesus began, around our tables here at church and in our fellowship hall, around the tables in our homes, and into the tables of the marketplace and world.
Because this is what Jesus asked us to do, from the tomb to the table.