Who’s coming to dinner?

photo: Martin Malina
“Who’s coming to dinner” – audio sermon by Martin Malina

When I was a child, a cherished Christmas Eve tradition in our family was setting an extra place at the dinner table — an extra chair, plate and cutlery. We also decorated this place setting with fresh boughs of evergreens to make it special. 

After all, Jesus was being born into the world this special night. We had to make room for him in our house since there was no room for Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in the inn at Bethlehem that first Christmas. And, my parents suggested, you never knew who might actually show up at our door. Would we find it in our hearts to let them in and serve them a Christmas Eve dinner?

There was a part of me that didn’t believe anyone would show up. After all we didn’t advertise. We didn’t put out a sign on the front lawn announcing: “One free dinner, come at 4pm, first come first serve”. No one actually knew we did this. It was merely an in-house ritual, something to stimulate our faith, to make room in our hearts for Jesus and make us think about the true meaning of Christmas, of Christ coming.

Another part of me secretly hoped someone actually would show up — an unexpected visitor, someone we didn’t invite but who came by anyway. Would they be homeless? A traveller journeying through town, looking for a place to eat a hot meal on a cold, winter’s night? Or, would it be a friend, someone in the neighbourhood just stopping by? 

And, then, how would we react? Would they like the food, or have any dietary restrictions? How would we adapt on the fly? Would they stay long? Would they come to worship later in the evening, or go home after eating? Would we become best friends for the rest of our lives? 

All those possibilities. All these thoughts swirled in my mind. This part of me actually wanted to experience the tradition, and mean something concrete beyond the personal reflections. Deep down I wanted someone in the flesh to show up. That would be cool.

Well, today is not Christmas Eve. On this last Sunday in the church year a month before Christmas, we celebrate the Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. 

To celebrate the reign of Christ, nevertheless we first need to be clear about who we are actually celebrating and what kind of reign, or rule, Christ is all about. 

There seems to be some confusion among those who first encountered Jesus in the flesh, back in the day.

In pronouncing verdict over Jesus, Pilate needs clarity. In the Gospel text for the Reign of Christ Sunday this year, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “You are a king?”[1] You don’t look like it! Your kingdom is not of this world? Well, then, who are you? 

Earlier, the disciples had been in discussion with Jesus about his identity. It is obviously unclear to the general populace. “Some say John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.”[2] Repeatedly Jesus presents as someone not easily recognized, pigeonholed, defined, nor understood. And people ask over and over again: “Who are you?”[3] From a human perspective, and even as people of faith, we may honestly struggle with this question from time to time. If it was challenging for those who met Jesus in person, then what about us, some two thousand years removed from that primary experience of the early disciples?

We have to deal with our expectations more than anything. And our expectations may not always be in line with the God of the Gospel. 

So, what kind of God is coming to you, and to me? 

If anything was clear to me about our tradition at home on Christmas Eve, it was that I was missing something. My expectations were not in line with what I actually experienced. The empty plate was not filled. The empty chair remained vacant throughout our Christmas Eve dinner. 

Ought I be disappointed? Was Jesus not coming? Was there no stranger around to knock on our door and receive our hospitality? Was the effort in vain, a wasted ritual?

There was something about my expectations that was amiss. Would the disconnect and dis-ease I felt after dinner somehow spill over into the Christmas Eve service later on, I wondered?

Maybe the problem starts with what image of the Messiah we hold in our minds and hearts. Is our image of God in Christ Jesus fuelled more by notions of earthly power and kingship? If so, that image might need some dismantling. 

For, in Jesus Christ, we meet a God “who is not armed with lightning bolts but with basin and towel, who spewed not threats [and lies] but good news for all, who rode not a warhorse but a donkey … In Christ, God is supreme, but not in the old, worldly sense: God is the supreme healer, the supreme friend, the supreme lover, the supreme life-giver who self-empties in gracious love for all. The king of kings and lord of lords is the servant of all and the friend of sinners. The so-called weakness and foolishness of God are greater than the so-called power and wisdom of human regimes.”[4]

As was often the case so many years ago, the little country church where I was confirmed was packed with Christmas Eve worshippers. When the lights went down and the candlelight was passed, the sanctuary became bright with the joyously expectant faces of worshippers reflecting the flickering light. 

As I surveyed the room around me singing “Silent Night”, my eyes stopped on the face of one person. In the far corner of the back pew, I recognized someone I didn’t expect to see there. It was Rick, my public school friend. He went to another church, but not one that normally held mid-week Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services. Just then I remembered that I had invited Rick to come to Christmas Eve service several weeks earlier, even before Advent began that year. 

After the service, my brother and I invited Rick back to our home for a short visit that we enjoyed as he waited for his ride. Later I wondered if my school friend was the surprise visitor for me, the Christ, who came to our home that Christmas Eve. Not someone I expected — not anyone who fit the figments of my imagination, neither celebrity nor unknown poor — just an ordinary friend who surprised me by his gracious presence.

Who is Jesus whom we praise this day, who comes to reign in this world, who comes to you with love, at the end?


[1] John 18:33-37

[2] Mark 8:27-30

[3] John 8:25

[4] Richard Rohr, “God’s Supremacy in Love” Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 22 October 2021).

The Really Real

If there is one thing that stands out in my conversations with others about what people are learning from the pandemic, it is about the quality and honesty of relationships, especially with strangers. It’s like the pandemic has heightened our awareness of other people we pass on the street or in the mall, or even in our home. We have been re-introduced to what is important, what is real, in those relationships.

For example, folks have shared with me how strangers are often friendly towards them. And how they themselves feel more willing to return or initiate a kindness. Perhaps in times of social anxiety that we feel all around us, we know and behave out of a deepening awareness that we are all, indeed, in this together.

Physician Ruth Martin received the Governor General’s Award in 2015[1] for her work with incarcerated women in British Columbia. Half of the women she helped were Indigenous.  And most of these women struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. 

Challenging the assumption that addicted people make irresponsible choices, Ruth listened to the women’s histories—the physical and sexual abuse they endured as children, young teenagers and women. She said, “I would put my pen down and listen, and I realized that if I had been dealt the same cards, I might have been sitting in their chair. I would often place the Kleenex box close to the woman who was sharing her history, but also close enough to me that I could reach for a Kleenex for myself.”[2]

In the Gospel reading for this Reign of Christ Sunday[3], Jesus is the judge who separates the sheep from the goats – those who loved from those who cared less. For the early Christians who first heard and read this text, not only did the story call them to love “the least of these” in their midst. For they, themselves, were the persecuted and the hungry, too. 

“All the nations” gathered before the king; and the roles between those who love and those who need love are not fixed. They apply to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

This vision includes all people. And therefore, there is a call to respect the mutuality and common humanity we share with all people. As Ruth Martin experienced in her care for Indigenous women, she admitted the line separating her from the women for whom she cared was thin.

God identifies with the side of ourselves we normally don’t want to show to others: our weakness, our neediness, our vulnerability. Simone Weil said that we give not out of our strengths, but out of our weakness. What separates us, distinguishes us, are our strengths; but what unites us is our weakness.

Not only is this text about our role in giving and receiving care in mutual, loving relationships, it’s really about God. And “God is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe.”[4]

If we are looking for God in our world, we need to look in our midst through the lives of our neighbors. “Jesus articulates in rather blunt terms that how you treat another child of God in this life is in actuality how you treat God. By seeing the infinite worth in our neighbor, we keep God as our center and focus.”[5] By seeing Christ in the face of those in need we give ourselves permission to connect with God in the brokenness of our own hearts.

But what’s the point of doing all this hard work when we are heading to heavenly kingdom in glory? Isn’t that our eternal aim anyway? Why worry about what happens on earth?

But the Reign of God is not only about eternal life, or where we go after we die. That idea is disproven by Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”.[6]

“Your Kingdom come” means very clearly that God’s realm is something that enters into this world, or, as Jesus puts it, “is close at hand”.[7] It’s futile mental energy to project it into another world. What we discover in the New Testament, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, is that the Kingdom of God is a new world order, and a promised hope begun in the teaching and ministry of Jesus—and continued in us.

I agree with Richard Rohr to think of the Kingdom of God as the Really Real (with two capital Rs). That experience of the Really Real—the “Kingdom” experience—is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. “It’s Reality with a capital R, the very bottom line, the pattern-that-connects. It’s the experience of what is.”[8]

God gives us just enough tastes of God’s realm, just enough joy and grace to feel the blessing of God and therefore to believe in it and to want it more than anything. In the parables, Jesus never says the Kingdom is totally now or totally later. It’s always now-and-not-yet. When we live inside the Really Real, we live in a “threshold space” between this world and the next. We learn how to live between heaven and earth, one foot in both worlds, holding them precious together.

The Reign of Christ begins in community – in relationships – beyond our private, self-centred preoccupations. That is where Jesus finds us. It’s when we risk reaching beyond our own concerns, to think about the needs of another who is also vulnerable, weak and suffering, that we meet the Lord – in the pattern-that-connects, in the mutual love that we experience together.

The Kleenex box is never out of reach for both of us. And when both hands reach for the Kleenex, both find healing.


[1] Status of Women Canada – government website

[2] Cited in Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul; How to Flourish Spiritually in a World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.153-154.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46; the Gospel for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), Year A.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “Matthew 25:31-46”, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.334

[5] Br. Jim Woodrum, “Center” – Brother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Nov 6, 2020), www.ssje.org

[6] Matthew 6:10

[7] Matthew 10:7

[8] Richard Rohr, “Jesus and the Reign of God” in Daily Meditations (Center for Action & Contemplation, Nov 15, 2020) www.cac.org