Do I Have to Fence the Table Again?

This Sunday, at Palmetto Hills Presbyterian Church, our congregation will celebrate the Lord’s Supper towards the conclusion of the morning service. At our particular church, we partake monthly — perhaps we should do so more often — and it is a sweet opportunity for us to:

  • Remember Christ’s past grace for us given at the cross;
  • Receive Christ’s present grace for us given at the table;
  • Relish Christ’s future grace for us given in the final day of the Lord.

However, immediately before distributing the bread and wine, according to our Presbyterian tradition, we “fence the table.” In doing so we seek to warmly welcome all sinners who are unified with Christ and his church. We also warn sinners not to participate who have little interest in worshiping Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We base this upon Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church; according to the Apostle, it is not safe for all to partake of the sacramental meal of Christ.

In doing so, a sense of humble reverence falls on us who are charged with fencing and distributing the elements:

  • Who are we to partake?
  • Who are we to distribute?
  • Who are we to judge?
  • Who are we to determine those who should partake and those who should abstain?
  • What if we keep one of Christ’s children away from the table when he would bid them come and dine?
  • What harm can really be done to one whose soul is already lost, separated, alienated, and accursed?

Yet, despite these serious questions, we still engage in “fencing the table.” So, why do we do so? Why don’t we just get out of the picture and leave it completely up to the worshiping individual sitting in the pew? Perhaps the words of Christ found in Luke 13 will help explain our practice:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30)

According to the teaching of Jesus, the church (Kingdom of God) is ever expanding. Luke a mustard seed growing out of proportion to its original size, and like leavened bread, the church starts small and grows gargantuan. However, the door is narrow and exclusive, and there are many who miss the only acceptable entrance. Such people have eaten and drank in his presence; they have oft heard his teaching; they know him, but he knows them not. In the end, they are not invited to recline at his table in the final day.

So what we desire is this — an almost perfect correspondence between those who commune on Sunday and those who will commune on that day. Yes, we know this is impossible. We know we make mistakes. We are aware this sounds harsh, judgmental, and legalistic to some, but we engage in this practice lest one find himself surprised at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb when his or her name is not on the invite list.

So how ought we to apply this somewhat odd devotional?

First, hear the preaching of Jesus, accept his invitation, and enter through him — the Narrow Door. See your sin, recognize what he has done to obtain your needed righteousness and pay your required debt, and confess him as your Lord and Savior.

Second, hear the preaching of Jesus and attach yourself to one of his local churches. Through his Holy Spirit he has appointed elders to care for you, and through his Word he commands you to respect and obey such men who must give an account for how they shepherd you. As a person with gifts on loan from God, attach yourself to a local spiritual family who needs you and whom you need.

Third, hear the preaching of Jesus and look for the fruit of conversion. Those who truly have received him as Savior and Lord are interested in his cross and his commands. They still find themselves sinning, but they find themselves sinning more than they desire. Truly converted folk are consistently confessing and forsaking their sin. Is this you? If so, rejoice, repent, and come confidently and hungrily to the table. But if not, if you harbor sin in your heart or habits and wish to do nothing about it, please question whether or not your are part of Christ’s flock, and please do not come and eat and drink judgment upon yourself.

Fourth, please pray for your ministers and elders. They find no joy in keeping interested parties from the table of the Lord. Admonition, suspension, and excommunication are brutal words in their vocabularies. They know their own weaknesses and inconsistencies. They know their sin; they know they only know some of their sin. They are very aware of their natural unworthiness to officiate in the communion service of the Lord. However, because they must love Christ, and because they must love the worshiping congregant, and because they must not love their own ease and comfort, they must seek to fence the table properly — even if they do it improperly.

That being said, I look forward to eating and drinking with many of you this Sunday morning, at Palmetto Hills Presbyterian Church, at 9:30 am.

For the rest of you, I look forward to eating and drinking with many of you one Sunday morning, in the New Heavens and New Earth, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The time will be of no consequence.

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