You don’t have to read John Dominic Crossan very closely to be able to jump to the conclusion that the heart of Christianity is table fellowship. And, if we choose not to use the word “fellowship” because of its suggestion that women may not be welcome (“Only fellows here, my dear!”), the word “commensality” will do. The heart of Christianity is commensality. Equality at table. Everyone is actually, literally, completely, unquestionably, eternally, absolutely, always and forever welcome at the table, and, by implication and extension, at the water cooler, and the coffee maker, in the sanctuary, and everywhere else that people gather. We are one. The heart of Christianity is recognizing, and treating one another as though, we are one.
The scriptural texts that underscore the essential nature of oneness with each other as the heart of the faith are scattered throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, there is the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One,” and the idea that we are to be as God is, “You must be holy as God is holy.” “You must be perfect (and here the idea is not moral perfection, but completion, wholeness—we must be holy and whole) as God is perfect (as God is whole).” It seems that holiness and wholeness go hand in hand. We cannot be holy without being “seamlessly integrated” within, at one with ourselves; and without, at one with one another. The work of the church, you might say, is the work of achieving and exhibiting this “seamless integration” within and without. The idea is continued in the Christian addition to the Hebrew Bible.
There, we find Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel, “that they might be one even as we are in one,” and, in Paul, the idea that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), and “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). Jesus, says Paul in Ephesians, has “broken down the dividing walls” (2:14) making all one.
The heart of Christianity is that we are one. One with ourselves, with each other, with Jesus, and with God. The heart of Christianity is the realization that in looking at me, in looking at each other, you see God. We are all one. And, our work is to realize and express this oneness, to live seamlessly integrated with ourselves, with each other, with Jesus, and with God. That is the work of the church in the world.
Of course, it doesn’t take the church long to turn the idea of oneness the church’s advantage. Turning things to our advantage is what we do best. There is not a culture, there has never been a culture, where human beings do not look to their advantage. And this, gentle people, is the essence of sin. Sin, as those of you who know me know, is, in my view, being wrong about what’s important. And, what we take to be important is “me and what I want.” My advantage. My good. My wealth, My power. My wellbeing. My wishes. My desires. My way. As Sue Stinson said last week, “I’ll be happy for you to have what you need as long as I don’t have to give up what I want.” When your needs interfere with what I want, too bad for you. And, more to the point, when my needs interfere with what I want, too bad for me!
As it is with us, so it is with every human institution, including the church. We can turn anything to our advantage, individually or corporately. Therein lies the problem. If it weren’t for trying to gain and maintain the advantage, there would be more than enough for all. Of course, we would probably still be in the caves. Neanderthal may be extinct because they didn’t care if Cro-Magnon got all the advantages. Sin may not be all that bad, actually, now that I think about it. Maybe it’s just the price of progress. Where would we be if we were happy with nothing at all? Plant us with the cabbages and the carrots, we’ll be fine. It’s getting complicated. We may be here for a while. I hope you don’t have plans. Maybe we should send out for pizza.
The church took the idea of oneness and turned it to its advantage. The church placed itself in the position of brokering our relationship—our oneness—with ourselves, each other, and God. The church made itself indispensable to us by declaring what oneness required, namely, doing what the church tells us to do. “If you want to be one with God, you have to live like we tell you to live!”, says the church.
As you know, it wasn’t long before part of the church bucked and snorted at another part of the church’s idea of what constituted oneness, and Constantinople (or was that Byzantium) went its way and Rome went its way. Then Protestantism went its way and Rome went its way. And, before you know it, there were rifts and divisions everywhere, with everybody telling everybody else they were going to hell because they weren’t doing it the right way. And, there was great disagreement within the various branches of the church over who was more holy and whole, and one with God.
Great wars, in a manner of speaking, were fought over whose idea of what constituted oneness and how to achieve it was right. People were burned at the stake for having a minority opinion regarding the nature of oneness. You can see how that would pretty well put an end to the whole notion. Oneness is lost when you have to be like me (or I have to be like you). Oneness is not identification; it is not agreement; it is not submission; it is not subordination; it is not domination; it is not assimilation; it is not concordance; it is not creedal concurrence; it is not group consensus; it is not “being in full accord and of one mind,” except, of course, being in full accord about not having to be in full accord, and being of one mind about the importance of being free to have different ideas, beliefs, and opinions about very nearly everything.
You blow any chance of oneness when you say something on the order or, “As long as you put your feet under my table you will cut your hair, take that ring out of your nose, and stop being gay.” This is not being one around the table. Oneness does not have anything to do with people at table being like one another. We have the happy fantasy that to be one is to be indistinguishable, interchangeable. Our “soul mates” are those who see things as we do. We want to marry ourselves. And, we communicate to our true loves, in a manner of speaking, “If you love me you’ll do it my way.”
Well. You can guess how long that lasts. But, on the other hand, you might be surprised at how long it can last. You might be surprised, shocked, appalled, horrified to know how much is sacrificed, swallowed, buried, denied, in the name of, for the sake of, maintaining the appearance of oneness. The core problem is dissociation, disconnection, dismissal, dissolution. We do not know how to be a self in relation to other selves. We only know how to forsake ourselves for the sake of other selves. I have to give up me to be in relationship with you. That’s the only kind of oneness I know. I lose me and embrace you, and oh how happy we will be.
The church contributes to the dissociative drift with its talk of sacrifice and surrender, and its flesh/spirit dichotomy, and its emphasis upon the necessity of submission to the will of God. According to the church, we have to disappear into God. We have to die and be reborn as those who would love to do, not what we like, but what God likes. “If you love me, you will do it my way,” becomes God’s prerequisite for heaven and life eternal.
And, who tells us what God’s will is? The church, of course. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how it works out like this? The church brokers oneness with God in a way that is always to the church’s advantage. And if that works to our disadvantage, if that results in our being splintered, and divided, and at odds and at war within, and among, ourselves, the church will tell us that is evidence of sin, and proof that we aren’t working hard enough at being faithful to God’s will in our lives. I trust that you perceive the potential for craziness at work here. The church divides us against ourselves and tells us it’s God’s will. The church, simply put, makes us crazy.
The healing agent becomes a toxic wasteland by turning the advantage to itself. There is no advantage. That is the theme of Jesus’ proclamation. He says, “Blessed are you poor!” “Don’t worry about what to eat or wear!” “The Kingdom of God is like a vineyard owner who pays all workers the same amount.” “Seek first the Kingdom of God (which is nothing other than the radical equality of commensality around the table, across the board)!”
“Do not seek the treasure!”, warns Pete in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It is excellent advice, always applicable. Do not seek the treasure. There is no advantage. Or better, the heart of true seeing lies in knowing what the true treasure is, where the true advantage is to be found.
It is to be found in the integration of self with self, and with other selves, and with God. We are aware, for instance, of the opposites within, but we are not aware of the degree to which our conflicts within and without interfere with our health and contribute to stress-related illnesses. Without conflict there are not many dissociative disorders. “In the desert, you can remember your name, cause there ain’t none there for to cause you no pain.” It’s amazing, the healing, restorative, regenerative power that comes with freedom from conflict. If you want to heal us, teach us to integrate the opposites within and without. If you want to know the source of Christ’s healing power, you don’t have to look any farther than that. “Come to me you who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” “I will not yell at you for being who you are. I will not tell you that if you want to put your feet under my table you will have to do it my way. I will ask you how you are doing it, and I will listen as you tell me, and I will ask how it’s working, and what the problems are, and what you think it will take for things to work better, but I won’t tell you that you are wrong and ought to be ashamed. I will tell you are the greatest, and help you find the conflicts that keep you from feeling at home with yourself, and help you integrate the opposites within, and it won’t be long before you are helping others do the same thing, and before you know it, the world will be holy, and whole.”