Thursday, November 26, 2020

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Eating and drinking to the glory of God?

What a strange idea. I get the “eating” part, and I get the idea of “glorifying God”. But what does our action of eating have to do with God’s glory?

That’s going to take some explaining.

A Meal and Love

I have a friend who has the gift of hospitality. Watching him for many years has totally convinced me of the incredible power of that gift. More than anyone I’ve ever met, he has a knack for making his home a place where people feel welcomed, warmed, loved and fed.

You know the feeling. It’s that Thanksgiving Day or Christmas glow that comes from sitting around a table of food prepared in love. For some families, those are perhaps the only times they really feel close. For blessed others, it’s maybe a monthly, weekly or even daily thing. Sad is the person who has never experienced it at all. It’s one of life’s great pleasures.

And my friend has really opened my eyes to the tremendous power of eating together. Hospitality breaks bones. Even when all the right words have failed, it can win through. Hardened hearts are softened and opened to the love of Christ when Christians serve physical needs. I’ve seen that time and again.

So this much I have learned: that’s at least one way you can “eat and drink to the glory of God”.

Sacred Sustenance

But the Bible has much more to say about eating than that. Once you start looking at what it says on this theme, you can’t stop seeing cases.

For example, the passage at the start of this post actually comes from a much larger section, starting in chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, and running until the end of chapter 11.

One fascinating feature of this section is how it bounces back and forth between the subject of social eating and of the ceremonial eating. It speaks about social dinners in which meat sacrificed to idols is involved, and also about how such social eating with pagans must be done so as not to harm fellow believers. It talks about eating with a good conscience in a social setting, and eating at home and about Christians eating together and apart. It cautions against participating in eating associated with idols and demons, and against thoughtless eating and undiscerning eating and greedy eating and selfish eating and corrupt eating and offensive eating. It also talks about free eating and thankful eating and God-glorifying eating and communion eating.

Lots of eating, eh? Maybe what’s most interesting about all this is the smooth transition Paul makes between what we would regard normal, social eating and the implications for the Lord’s table. The point would seem to be twofold: firstly, the Lord’s Supper has things to teach us about social eating, and secondly, that normal human eating has things to teach us about the Lord’s Supper.

For while the two are also distinct (and to some extent, necessarily so), we see here that they are also not entirely dissociated. Our coming together at the Lord’s Supper is not a practice so rarefied and alien to normal human consumption that we are to regard it merely as a ceremony, and not as real eating at all.

Eating has spiritual meaning.

Want More?

That’s not the only such passage. You have probably heard that the early Christians in the book of Acts used to associate a “love feast” with the Lord’s table. Eating and drinking together were part of the regular responsibilities and spiritual activities of the church. Food and fellowship were always united, both in theory and in practice.

If we rewind further, we get to the Old Testament teachings about eating. What, have we forgotten that the first recorded act of eating had massive spiritual implications? And if we swing forward, we end up at the marriage supper of the Lamb spoken of in Revelation 19:9, the great joy and anticipation of every Christian.

Throughout the entire span of scripture, eating and spirituality are intimately associated.

Dining at the Lord’s Table

Consider the model of our Lord at the Passover. The gospels say, “as they were eating”. Paul says, “after supper”. The expression “at table” also occurs many times throughout the gospels, each time indicating eating a meal together; and the same expression is used by all the writers to describe the situation of the first Lord’s Supper. So what we can gather is that before the ceremony, there was the dining.

Come to think of it, we call it the “Lord’s Supper”, don’t we? And yet, the way we conduct it, has there ever been so spare and small a meal? The aspects of fellowship eating have been nearly entirely eliminated from our current practice. We think of the Lord’s Supper as something quite different from our own nourishment — something lofty, spiritual, refined and ritual — not to be sullied with association with grubby human things, like actual nourishment of the physical body or social interaction.

Maybe that’s a leftover effect of so many clergy-dominated religious practices, where the bread and wine have been treated as purely mystical tokens … some religionists going so far as even to teach that they are magically translated into the actual flesh and blood of the Son of God rather than the symbols of the same, and that the hands and lips of ordinary sinners are unworthy to deal with these things — that privilege being the exclusive province of some sanctimonious performer in a cloak. In our minds, the foods at the table have ceased to be ordinary, to be gustatory, to be part of normal dining at all, and have become only ceremonial.

Yet it’s interesting that in 1 Corinthians 11, not discerning the body of Christ is identified with dishonoring your brothers and sisters by eating as a kind of greedy solo-diner. The attitude in fellowship eating is carried right over into the attitude of the Corinthians to each other when they were gathered to remember the Lord.

If we have come to think that it’s unspiritual to link our common eating habits with our disposition at the Lord’s table, the apostle Paul clearly thought otherwise.

The Ceremonial Aspects of Dinner

To look at the problem from another perspective, we might say also that we have lost the ultimate and spiritual significance of ordinary eating.

To eat has become for us a routine activity, a mere necessity, an ingesting of nutrient material so as to be able to pursue other activities, rather than a thing that has any special meaning of its own. Even when we are together with others, sharing fellowship around a meal, we may often think of it as no more than a crass necessity — we’ve all got to eat — or a practical step toward some other social program. But in scripture, to sit down and eat with somebody has many rich symbolic, spiritual implications.

The Old Testament custom of keeping kosher speaks powerfully of this. It says, “We cannot be nourished in each other’s presence, you and I; for you are not clean, and what sustains you is not for me. We are not in the same covenant, and can have no fellowship. First there must be the washing, the cleansing, and only then we may eat together.” This was, of course, a symbol of the alienation of sinful man from holy God. And symbolism this is what made Peter’s breaking of kosher custom to eat with Gentiles so radical and so shocking to his fellow Jews.

Recall that it was for sharing a table with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners that the Lord Jesus was called to account by the Pharisees. They were scandalized by the implication of his participating with these low-lives by way of eating together with them. They could not believe he could nourish himself in their presence and remain unconcerned by the implied fellowship with them, and did not understand that what the Lord had made clean was clean indeed. They knew that his eating in this way was more than a mere meal; it was a co-identification, fellowship with sinners. They understood that there was more than dinner going on, that there were serious spiritual implications to the situation.

Or again, consider how Paul reminds the Corinthians that one of the things they were never to do with anybody who claimed to be a Christian “brother”, but was actually a swindler, idolater, covetous, drunken or immoral, was to eat with him. To do so would be to nourish oneself in the presence of a wicked imposter, a betrayer of the faith. There was meaning to the ordinary act of sharing a meal with such a person.

We could go on, and at great length. There is a great deal said about the deeper, spiritual implications of ordinary eating-together. (Norman Wirzba, for example, has a 2011 book called Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, which covers this issue in depth.) Those who have an appetite for more on the subject might find themselves nourished there.

Making Eating Sacred

But at this point, you might well wonder where all of this talk of eating and ceremony is heading.

Relax. I’m not pitching that we should have more potluck dinners at church (as good an idea as that might be). But we might well want to consider if we are missing anything if we never take time to nourish ourselves and each other in bodily presence around a dinner table. What does it mean if we don’t want to share food with people we claim to love? How would serving each other in this way, and feeling blessed together change the mood of our fellowship?

And what difference would the sharing of food make to our sharing of the gospel? One of the genius innovations of the Alpha program has always been the providing of a simple meal before any spiritual discussion goes on. Eating together produces a chemical change in the conversation that ensues. It’s important to understand how powerful and spiritual such an effect can be. If somebody takes care of your physical needs and makes you feel warmed and fed, it’s not so easy immediately afterward to hate them or oppose what they have to say.

We might also ask ourselves if hospitality is so optional a thing for Christians as we have sometimes come to act as if it is. If we cannot share our homes and tables with other Christians, what are we missing? What are we failing to signal? What are we losing from our understanding and our practical experience of fellowship, if something so heavily emphasized in scripture is simply absent from our regular practice? Is it even possible were are losing out on important spiritual realizations and essential aspects of spiritual life simply because we have divorced eating together from its real meaning?

Have we de-ceremonialized ordinary eating to the point where it’s meaningless to us?

Making Ceremony Reality

Now to the reverse. Have we so ceremonialized the Lord’s table that we see it only as a religious performance, one that has nothing much to do with nutrition or fellowship with those who are there with us? Do we forget that when Christ said, “This is my body” that it was given for the sustaining of your life, and of our lives, as one, together, in him?

Do we miss the importance of the Lord’s violation of ordinary dinner protocols in presenting one bread and one cup, in specific, to many gathered eaters, because we don’t think of what he was doing as a “dinner” at all, but just as a ceremony? Do we overlook his intention to be the sole source of our mutual spiritual nourishment, our sustenance-every-day? Do we fail to meditate on the beautiful paradox that our spiritual viability was going to be bought by the tearing of his flesh and the pouring out of his blood, so that we might live and move in him? That just as our food becomes an actual chemical part of who we are, and empowers the regeneration of our bodies, so too Christ is to become life itself to us?

Settling Our Meal

One thing that eating together and the Lord’s Supper have in common is the emphasis on sharing, on co-participation, on equal gathering around one Source of nourishment:
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
“We all partake of the One.” Let that thought sink down into you for a minute. All the believers are gathered around an eating experience, all focused on the one thing that sustains their lives and gives them the strength to go on. And that one thing is the Bread of Life. They are no longer several, but for that moment, are unified in him. It glorifies God whenever his people eat together in this manner … not only at the ceremonial table, but at all times.

The Big Point

So what’s the point?

I asked my friend, the one so skilled in hospitality, how he would put it, if he had only one sentence. And this is what he said: “Remember that when we eat, it is a testimony to the fact that we live in a world surrounded with the grace of God.”

Wow.

Every bite we eat is given to us for our joy and blessing, by a God who has pulled all things in our environment together to nourish and strengthen us. Eating, when it is conditioned by the realization of our debt to God, is an act of worship. It is also a testimony to the world that there is Someone who has given us all things, and to whom we owe our love and duty in return.

No unbeliever can eat like that.

And it’s true when our meals are abundant, but no less true when they are meager and far between. One can give thanks over loaves and fishes, or over a great feast. Whenever we eat, and especially when we eat together, we ought to eat with joy, with generosity, with unselfishness, and with thanksgiving. We need to eat gratefully, and as an act of worship.

And that is why Christians pray before they eat.

A Final Story

I end with a true story.

I was in the mountains of Honduras, in a remote village. We were there to do a water project. Though none of us spoke Spanish, we worked in the early part of the day with the villagers. And in the evening, we sat on the porch of the one room cinder-block schoolhouse the government had built for the region.

We were having lunch, which was peanut butter sandwiches, and little more. But we were laughing, carrying on, and pretty much just enjoying each other’s fellowship the way Christians can do.

An elderly woman walked up from the village, and stood at a distance, looking at us. We asked our translator, “Can we give her a sandwich?” The translator halted, but then said yes. So we did.

But she sat down on one side of the porch, with the sandwich in her lap, both hands on it, and looked at us. She didn’t eat. We were concerned, and asked the translator to go and ask her if something was wrong.

The translator came back to us. “What did she say?” we asked.

“I asked her what she was doing. She said she was watching.”

We looked perplexed.

The translator continued, “I asked her what she was watching. She said, ‘The banquet in Heaven.’ ”

There it is.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

We all are.

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