(Yes, yes, yes… for those few of you from the classic church of Christ heritage googling and stumbling upon my title for this post, I am one of YOU. Welcome. I hope you will stay for the whole thing…)
Churches of Christ are a weird bunch. Historically dreaded, especially by Baptists, we have a history of caustic relations with “denominations.” We might prefer to think of ourselves as unique, a nice word for it, but actually every single denomination and all the non-denominations are unique, and so that only saves face; it doesn’t say much. I will not try to exhaust all the ways we are unique in this post, but I want to highlight “the communion meditative thought” for a moment, and suggest one of my own.
“The Communion Meditative Thought” practice
“The communion meditative thought” is a common feature in worship services within the Church of Christ non-denominational denomination. Not all congregations do it, and they don’t all do it the same, but in my experience, more of them do it than not. “The communion meditative thought” is a short sermon, a sermonette sort of, that usually is offered just prior to the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Normally, this speech is short, maybe five minutes. And the brother, deacon, elder, or minister offering it wants to creatively “direct our thoughts” to the Table with some meditative remarks.
These meditations usually are offered by a different brother each week and consist of thoughts unique to that brother. They always point to the communion service in some way. Many, especially when I was very young, tended to be more biblical in nature. Quoting I Cor. 11 with little personal commentary or sometimes John 6 would make frequent appearances in this moment. Other times, a brother might describe memories growing up in church and his maturing discipleship from childhood through young adulthood, maybe even middle age and beyond as it pertained to this meal. And then other times, a brother would offer an interesting story, sometimes biblical/sometimes not, but would link it to the table meditation.
Whatever the offering, it always seemed there was a desire to segue from secular and profane life to worship, and from simple worship to the most holy point where we eat Jesus’s body and drink his blood. This is always a very somber portion of the worship service in churches of Christ, and parishioners almost always sit quietly meditating as it is done. This quiet mediation is normally, and subtly, associated with eating “in a worthy manner” – though the ministers and theologians among us will most often suggest that passage is referring to something else besides our meditative thoughts.
Over the years, I recall a few of these short speeches and how the impacted my mediations. To be honest, most of them don’t, But I remember many years ago a young man rose to offer his meditative thought and talked about walking his dog in the park, about letting this rowdy dog off the leash to romp and run for a few moments, and how the dog would be so excited and run off. Then he, the master of the dog, would hide behind a tree and watch as the dog realized that he was “lost” and would begin sniffing the trail, starting at the last place he had been with his master and hunting until he found the master again. This, he said, was metaphorical for his experience with God and with meeting him at the Table. This young man too would run wild, then sense he was “lost” and come back to the Table, the last place he had seen his Master, and would reunite there in love and joy.
The story made an impact on me at the time.
It’s not biblical in the slightest, but it connected to an emotional component that so often was missing when a brother would quote I Cor. 11 like reading the directions on how to bake a cake or assemble a new bike from Sears.
The Gospel of Joe and Communion (Wide and Deep)
Today, I am finding a treasure chest full of communion meditative thoughts in the Gospel of Joe.
There is no way I could exhaust all the thoughts, all the robust insights and feelings, all the poetry and music I find in the story of Joseph in Egypt feeding the whole world bread which certainly was from heaven and restoring himself in salvation to his brothers who all but killed him, who scorned him, sold him into slavery, and lived a lie about it for many years afterward. The connection, the edification, the celebration, the meaning of it all goes both wide and deep, both far and near. The echoes of that story with the story of Jesus resonate profoundly, and the differences illuminate new dimensions I otherwise would not find, I think.
All this, and I have never, in all my life, heard a brother take us to the Gospel of Joe for a communion meditative thought!
But if I was tasked with delivering that little message next Sunday, I would definitely go to Joe, find Jesus, and meditate there. And I want to talk about it.
What about Joe?
Joe represents Jesus at so many points, at so many levels, and yet somehow I identify more readily with Joe too. He had big dreams, he shared them, then he paid for sharing them. I have made it to middle age, and I know what it means to hit that mid-life crisis, to see how futile my life is in the big scheme of things. My life is not working out anything like my guidance counselor, my admission counselor, or even my academic advisor IN THE BIBLE DEPARTMENT (of all places) suggested, hinted, or promised. Not one bit.
Jesus, of course, did not see his deity as something to be grasped, but humbled himself to the form of a slave, even to death, death on a Roman cross where God raised him up. That comes very near a parallel with Joe who was sold into slavery, was as good as dead, and whose father thought for years that he was, in fact, dead, but those old dreams of bowing low to haybales and stars came true after all. At the name of Joe, every knee of his brothers, and everyone else in the whole starving world came to bow to this slave who was left for dead.
Joe may not himself be the bread from heaven, but he is the savior of his people, of the whole known world even, and he saves with bread from heaven, bread revealed in heavenly dreams that only Joe, with God’s blessing, could interpret, and even then, Joe could in no way orchestrate the king’s reaction. That irony is purely divine, but it puts Joe in the savior position where he then feeds his family and the world the life-saving meal of the ages.
Feeding the whole starving world is something only Joe and Jesus do. No one else feeds the whole world that precious, life saving meal. When I come to communion, it is entirely appropriate for me to see the miracle in both Joe’s and Jesus’s stories. This is for everyone. Everyone who will come, humble themselves, and bow down to this most ironic slave-become-king, second only to God.
This worldwide feeding program, which in no way teaches a man to fish, but gives him a fish creating the dependence on the provider by design, is missional in purpose. This meal is for all of creation. God’s beloved creation needs this meal to be served. And this fact is highlighted by, among other things, it’s placement at the climax of the sweeping, epic saga that rounds out the first book of the whole Bible, a book that begins with God lovingly recreating the whole thing, and then lovingly sustaining it all through a salvation meal.
This grand story is not just some template or precursor to Jesus either. Oh, it is that, but not just that. It shares too much with Jesus to be just that. But it does emphasize the width of God’s love and desire to feed all peoples of all nations within his creation. This meal is FOR everyone, everywhere, at all times both ancient and present, and both present and future.
But the story is terribly personal too. Joe, his father, and his brothers all bear deep, soul-grinding burdens which grist around in the mill of this epic page after page, chapter after chapter getting more and more raw with each turn of the page. Hope just keeps getting lost, more lost with each passing stage of the story. Life sinks deeper and deeper into that pit in which those brothers cast their father’s favorite son like a nameless grave or tomb.
Joe goes into captivity, lost in the empire, never, it would seem, to be heard from again. He is a slave. The only glimmer of hope here is that he rises to a level of responsibility and trust, an ironic place of honor within his captivity. But that tiny shred of hope, which Joe would gladly trade for freedom and a chance to return to his father every single day he wakes up in this condition is then threatened when the master’s wife accuses him of hanky-panky, presents seemingly damning evidence, and Joe is sent to the dungeons of empire. We could almost call it the Sign of Jonah. The descent is dark and ominous, and presumably drags on for years.
But of course, Joe repeats this glimmer of hope motif where he earns trust, responsibility, and whatever honor there is to be had as a convict down in that hole. No doubt there is a lesson in humility to be mined out of that recurring theme, and we will give the nod to it here as we race on to bigger things, for certainly, even when life turns all around later (as those of us who have read ahead already know all too easily), having learned this lesson in humility will help him shine in greatness all the brighter.
But Joe’s career as a dreamer makes a second appearance in this phase of life. This time the dreams are no longer his, but those of fellow convicts. But Joe, the dreamer, has had a lot of time in slavery and prison to think about dreams and where they lead, and so his second career move is not in having the dreams but in interpreting them. The dreamers now, though, are the cup bearer and the baker. These are the king’s banquet officials. They also represent in deeply symbolic fashion the bread and the wine of Kingdom Come. We could do a whole communion meditative thought on just this point, I think, and probably more than one.
But that downward trajectory isn’t finished with Joe yet. Upon correctly interpreting the dreams of both dreamers, Joe pleads with the cup bearer, the blood of communion, to remember him when he comes out and speak a good word for him. By this point, Joe is as good as dead. Not in a scientific sense, of course, but in a poetic, symbolic, narrative sense, as well as in a sense of dreams so utterly crushed as to be irredeemable, Joe’s life is over as the cup bearer emerges from prison and forgets Joe there.
We have, here, more narrative insight into Joe and his experience on a soul-grinding, emotional and spiritual level than we get with Jesus, yet with the two stories sharing so very much, we can presume safely that Jesus is orchestrating Joe’s story SO THAT WE MAY KNOW HIM all the better.
Neil Diamond once said in poetic fashion, “Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king, and then became one? Well except for the names and a few other changes, if you talk about me, my story’s the same one.” Neil Diamond is Jewish, by the way, and is no doubt thoroughly familiar with the Gospel of Joe, even if he resists the Gospel of Jesus. But that little insight into fairytales goes double for Joe’s story vis-à-vis the story of Jesus. Except for the names and a few other changes, the story is the same one!
We see ourselves in Joe, I think, easier than we see ourselves in Jesus a lot of times. Jesus, at first blush is too holy, to divine, too perfect for me to really identify with. I sense a gulf between us that I rely on him to cross since I can’t love like he does, since I can’t be perfect like he is, since I can’t sacrifice the way he does. But Joe? My life is very different, and yet, I can see myself in that losing game – shortchanged by my brotherhood, left for dead by the betrayal of people I once thought had my back, and the slow rot of mediocrity and middle age as all my youthful potential slowly drains out of my life. Yeah, it’s kinda funny how I can see myself in Joe, and now that I see Jesus in him too, I find myself meeting Jesus in some shadows of my heart I had not expected.
What about Joe’s daddy?
Jake is by no means a sinless man. Just read nearly any chapter about him in the Book of Genesis, and you will find flaws and worse. Yet in some ways he takes the role of God the Father, the father of many sons, one of whom is even more special than the others who also are special, and who collectively are his legacy, his family.
Jake gets hoodwinked by his sons. But he too is a liar. And he did kinda set his favorite son up for this disaster by indulging the dreamer. They were jealous of Joe’s place in their daddy’s heart. Much later, we will read how Pilate knew the Jews were jealous of Jesus. I find that ironic, since jealousy isn’t actually the word that comes to my mind in that instance. When I read of Jesus, I see a peasant whose life mission is to go and die a terrible death I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I don’t think of either myself or those Jews as jealous, not initially. But, if I consider deeper, more spiritual insights, I might come to that observation eventually. Somehow Pilate does. But when I see Jesus in Joe vis-à-vis Jake, I see it all too clearly. Every horrible thing those brothers say and do to Joe signal the depth of their jealousy, and their father/Father put it in motion himself.
Jake certainly lacks the omniscience I associate with God the Father, and so being hoodwinked for him in this story seems easier for me to imagine than to think God is hoodwinked at the death of Jesus. God knows what is coming next; he’s God, after all. But, when I see Jake despair over the loss of his beloved son, I have direct access to the pain in the heart of God. God is God after all, and in his mysterious ways, he can feel pain too. When I look at Jake, I get a feel for what he feels.
What about Joe’s brothers?
There are ten of them in on this bushwhack, but they are by no means one monolithic voice in the charade. One brother wants to save his life, at least spare him death. But there are no brothers who want him to continue his reign of favor over them. They are all utterly jealous to the bone.
And isn’t that like you and me? If I sat down to dinner with my brothers and my daddy and one of the brothers, known to be Daddy’s favorite, began telling stories of dreams he has at night where I and all the rest of us brothers, bow down to him in some strained humility, I would chafe. And if Daddy just indulged him all the more, I would chafe all the more. Wouldn’t you? Do you really want to sit down to dinner with THAT table conversation?
Admit it. You don’t.
And as the chafing goes on for days, weeks, maybe even years, you begin to look for a way to counteract it. But of course saying “counteract it” is to put it very mildly. My jealousy has begun burning a little deeper than something so mundane. An opportunity to kill him would get my attention too.
But, I have a conscience. I don’t run around desiring to kill, normally. I might have a mind to kill six days out of the week, but surely one day I have a different voice on the matter. My voice of reason, of peace, of patience might be weak in the face of the others, but it might also be just enough to prevent me from committing murder. I very likely will commit some hateful deed in response, but probably not that. And the brothers as a group seem to go through this kind of process.
Then they go home, present an extravagant lie to their father, and they must live with it. So, they do.
Years go by, and they keep their dirty little secret. It festers in their soul, but they bury it just as dead as that lie about their brother. And there is no telling all the little ways that lie bubbles up and churns in their lives like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, twisted as they must be now for years on end. How do they sleep at night knowing they have a brother out there somewhere, knowing that their father grieves deeply and all for a lie that is not true? But they build their lives on this lie, and it becomes the cornerstone the builders of this life accepted. It becomes the bedrock around which everything else must now turn… for years on end.
Every birthday, every anniversary, every possible occasion for remembrance. Whenever they gather, they must lie in remembrance of Joe! They must surely pay dishonest homage to their father’s grief. I wonder if they don’t feel as though in some twist of fate they are bowing to the memory of a dead brother all despite themselves. Their brotherhood is a lie. Every holiday and family picnic is tainted with this lie. And it goes on and on and on with no relief.
They probably get used to it in some ways, at least some of the time … eventually.
And they probably decide it’s best just to make the most of it now that it is done. Just gotta lump it. Tough it out. But whatever they do, they don’t talk it out. They don’t come clean. They don’t spill the beans. They stuff it down deep, and there it rots, spoiling everything it touches for years on end.
But unbeknownst to anyone, anyone except God the Father, after so very long a descent into that pit, that pit which has sucked Joe in at the betraying hands of his jealous brothers, that pit that sucked Jake into eternal grief, that pit that embroiled the brothers in their lie for years on end, the King of Egypt has a disturbing dream – two, in fact. And he awakes from them so overwhelmed by them that he calls his greatest wise men from his courts to come and interpret them, but they cannot.
The thing is so troubling that talk of it gets around the palace. Staffers and servants, wise men and magicians, probably even the lawn boy all get in on the gossip, and finally it comes to the attention of the cup bearer who then remembers Joe in prison, the very thing Joe had pleaded so long ago. It’s a long shot, of course, but the cup bearer knows a guy.
Now, this is not just a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy either. It’s more extravagant than even that. No. This cup bearer is gonna speak up from a place that is not his to speak up from, and he is going to get all confessional about it too. He is not one of the king’s dream interpreters, but an ex-con who the king himself sent to prison once upon a time. The king might have forgot that by now, and surely the cup bearer doesn’t put that on his resume or bring it up at evaluation time when he seeks a raise. But on this occasion, of all occasions, he thinks he might just know a guy who can really help, but this is going to require some complex explanation. He is going to remind the king about the time he really screwed up and went to prison.
But while he was there, he met a man in that god-awful place who rightly interpreted his dream and that of the baker. Since none of the nobles can do it, perhaps the king, if he is really and truly that disturbed and that serious about getting to the bottom of this, wants to take a chance on a convict, he might care to try Joe.
And the king is that disturbed and that desperate for help.
It is here, at this point, long after it is too late for Joe to realize his dreams of grandeur, and from truly obscure channels too, that God moves in the most mysterious ways. In fact, he has been moving mysteriously all along all through this channel. He gave Joe those dreams and favor with that father who made the brothers so horribly and terribly jealous. God paved the way to the greatness which is about to be thrust on Joe, the greatness which is the stuff of youthful dreams, by way of a pit in the countryside, by way of slavery, by way of false accusation, by way of years upon years rotting in jail under the belly of empire, and then, as one last divine irony, to channel through this cup bearer’s humility and confession and the king’s desperation.
And then Joe rises like a star. Like a shooting star. Like a rocket shot into space. Suddenly Joe has a name which is above all names, well all but one or two.
The rise to greatness is stunning. It is so utterly costly too. It is both Joe’s dream AND NOTHING LIKE his dream at the same time. It’s so impressive that when Joe gets married, shortly thereafter, and has kids, he actually names them things like “God has made me forget my pain,” “God has made me prosper in my troubles.” You know you have come to a new heavenly place when you can say that, when you can name your children like that.
Then one day his brothers come into the courts of Egypt looking for food. Joe recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. They bow low, and the dream is fulfilled, and yet whatever pride and arrogance Joe once had has been ground up with his soul over the course of this drama. Joe sees the very brothers who wanted to kill him, who sold him into this slavery and despair, and he sees them bow down to him. And he is stirred deeply, deep in places Joe didn’t know he had.
You want to know what Jesus feels when you come asking him for food out of the blue, having rejected him with your sin and betrayal? Ask Joe. Joe knows that feeling. And now you do too. You know the heart and the mind of Christ as you meet him the place you don’t even recognize him. Here is what Jesus feels: just listen to Joe.
Joe’s soul yearns for word of his father, of his beloved brother, of life back home. It has been soooo long. It has been so devastatingly long, and the lie was so hard, so high, so deep, so wide and so stubborn for so long, that he had no access to any information, not even a morsel. But the yearning is still there.
“Is your father still alive?” he asks.
Let Jesus ask you that question at communion. Take that meditative thought to heart. Is his Father still alive? And then consider the implications of the answer you give. If you say, yes, you are telling Joe that his father is still alive. You are telling yourself that God is alive, and that dark places in your own heart you dare not look into are coming into the light for healing and hope and joy beyond measure!
Still, Joe puts the brothers through some hoops. They go back and forth from father to bowing before Joe. They receive food and fear, fear since the money they brought was not accepted, but secretly put back in their travel baggage, causing the brothers to remember their guilt. It’s actually a confrontation with GRACE! And grace wants to know EVERYTHING!!! They must talk about what they have done, perhaps for the first time in a long time. The anguish of bearing the burden of their lie has taken a toll. They sense God is judging them, and this stranger who is both their judge and their grace, their bread provider and their inquisitor, is unrelenting. He doesn’t seem to know them like he actually does, but he finds a way to get right to the heart of their business. And they struggle with him over it.
And then, in the middle of this grand, worldwide, food-salvation program of cosmic proportions, Joe sets his brothers down to dine with him.
Separate tables, of course.
Yet dine together they do, despite the separation.
And in this I again see Jesus at Eucharist. Jesus who I cannot see with my physical eyes, dines with me just out of sight, all while knowing me in ways I cannot fathom. He knows my sin, and I struggle to confess it. He feeds me free of charge, and yet scandalously so. I struggle to accept his kindness, and to be worthy, to be holy, to be joyous at this incredible moment.
And Joe feeds me double portions from his table as Jesus, overcome with emotions, must step back behind the veil and weep over me. His heart is broken for me! And my heart is only beginning to discover how broken I am for him.
All in the wide face of salvation and barns packed with food enough to feed an empire for seven years of famine. And right in the center of this is the deeply personal story of Joe and his brothers and of Jesus and me.
The Gospel of Joe feeds me yet today. It feeds the world even still. And this, I believe, is because Jesus is bursting out of that meal even as that meal points to the heavenly banquet of the Age to Come.
Did you ever read of a slave who dreamed being a savior, and then became one? Well, if you talk about Joe, except for the names and a few other changes, the story of Jesus is the same one.
Not bad for a communion meditative thought, I ‘d say.
And we are only scratching the surface.
Joe reveals himself to the brothers in the meal. Jesus does this too (see Luke 24). And he sends the brothers back home to retrieve their father, to tell him the Good News! And to bring him back where the real food is. This is a “communion meditative story!”
But before they go, Joe tells the brothers not to be too hard on themselves for this. What they meant for evil, God used for good. They were all putty in his hands all along. So there is no need to argue on the way home. We need to see that we are all caught up in this thing, all have fallen short of God’s glory, and yet God was working in us all along despite that. Joe’s story gives me a flesh -n- blood narrative of all that working out somehow, and does so in a meal story – a story about eating to tell while eating.
You don’t have to be a member of the Church of Christ to have a good “communion meditative thought,” but it helps. Perhaps this is one of the treasures of our heritage, if we will actually treat it as such. And that is ironic too. But perhaps you might visit a Church of Christ once and ask if you can share your “communion meditative thought” too. If that congregation is so blessed, I hope you will consider sharing the Gospel of Joe with them and finding Jesus at the Table afresh, doing business with you the way he does with Joe’s brothers. You and that church enjoying “the communion meditative thought.”