A Theology of Eating Together

Posted by 10 January, 2012 Doctrine, Elders, Leaders, Leadership, Pastoring No Comments

By Piet Lombard

Every day we connect with dozens of people in so many ways. There is no doubt in my mind that among the best connecting times is spent gathered around food. There are few past times more pleasurable than eating together with friends and family.

At NCF we have considered the usefulness of food to advance the gospel. People chatting cheerfully around food has become a feature of our times together. All of mankind must eat, and the pleasure that eating provides,  “commonground” to us all.(a2)

Jesus used the metaphor of a meal as a universally understood picture of what happens when we take him as saviour. In Revelation 3:20 he says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.

Eating together as enacted future:

It is no surprise that Jesus presents himself to us as a dinner guest. Having a meal together creates the perfect opportunity for intimacy and fellowship. This is exactly the relationship Jesus wants to have with us.

In Mat 22 we read that the Kingdom of heaven is like being invited to a royal wedding feast. When we eat together, the saved and the unsaved alike, experience a foretaste of heaven.  We were designed to find pleasure in feasting together as opposed to the loneliness of having a meal on our own. When we receive Jesus as saviour our eyes open to see the eternal feast of all feasts for which we were created. That is spending all eternity in the delicious fellowship of our creator.

Eating together as enacted community:

In Luke 5, Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners because he spent time eating with them. Jesus does not defend himself. He simply responds by stating that sinners need Him.  Luke adds to the fire by relating an even more shocking story.

In Luke 7:36-39 we see Jesus, again at a banquet, with some really important people. Jesus allows a prostitute to treat Him with a disturbing degree of intimacy, even risking His reputation. Jesus used this feast, and many more,  to underline the fact that He is a friend to sinners.

Sharing a meal with people, especially with the marginalised in our society, begins with a profound grasp of God’s grace. Often our instincts are to preserve our reputation. But Jesus thought nothing of His reputation and used mealtimes to embrace the worst in society. He was the friend of riff-raff, traitors, unrespectable people, drunks, druggies, prostitutes, the mentally ill, the broken, the needy, people whose lives were a mess.(a4)

Jesus gets close and personal with the outcasts of society by eating with them. It is how Jesus chooses to welcome us in to His community.

Eating together as a covenant of peace:

Ps133v1 can be translated “How delicious it is when brothers live together in unity!” Eating food is more than just a physical activity. There is an unavoidable social aspect to eating. Eating together helps lay the foundations for trust and acceptance, which brings about peace. Even a tasty meal is spoilt when people insist on fighting.

In numerous instances in Biblical history, after men entered into an agreement, they would share a meal together. The “covenant meal” sealed their peaceful relationship and would often be repeated as a sign of their continued relationship. The Jewish sacrifices were a “type” of these covenant meals as they repeatedly served as a sign of the peace God had promised.

Something that struck me when reading through Numbers 15 was the importance of salt in the grain offering. The Israelites were told they always had to mix salt in their grain/unleavened bread offerings.  (Lev2:13, Num15:4-10, Num18:19) The salt in the bread symbolized God’s everlasting covenant of peace which He promised us. It is no surprise that a meal without salt has no chance of being tasty.

Putting these two aspects together, Jesus urged, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. (or be tasty to one another) (Mark 9:50). And also, “You are the salt of the earth.” (Mat5:13) And ”I am the bread of life”. The bread offering of old had to be mixed with salt to be acceptable to God. The fulfillment of this is that we are the salt of the earth, Jesus is The Bread of Life and together we bring the delicious taste of real peace to mankind.

Jesus, the bread of life, said that we –the salt- are in Him and He is in us. (John 14:20, John 17:21).  This is the ultimate covenant of peace which we commemorate whenever we share communion together.  Communion reminds us that we are at peace with our creator and that we owe the same peace to our fellow man. It is no wonder then that taking communion while not being at peace with either God or man, brings judgment on oneself. (1Cor11:27)

Eating together as enacted grace:

Meals can represent differing levels of intimacy and acceptance. There is a difference between being invited for drinks (where the only food is small, non-sticky food that can be eaten with your fingers) and invited for a meal. “Drinks” are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family. Meals are for family, close friends, honoured guests.

I am sure that each culture has a different set of rules regarding meals, but common to all cultures is that meals represent ‘boundary markers’. They mark the boundaries between different levels of intimacy and acceptance. (a3)

The dietary laws and rules round meal times followed by the Jews, stand as a prime example of how food can create an exclusive community within God’s broader community. It is not easy for a Jew to eat with a Gentile, even today.

In Luke 11:37-41, Jesus tackles this issue head on. He is invited to a meal with an important Pharisee and then does something we could today compare to refusing to shake the host’s hand. Jesus does not wash His hands before eating, and then goes on to be even more provocative. He tells his host he is a stinker and the only way he can change that is to change his attitude to the poor.The reference to the poor is important.

When a teacher of the law intervenes, ‘Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”‘ (Luke 11:46) The effect of this ritual cleansing was not only to create boundaries with Gentiles, but also with the poor. They had created a system of moral respectability that only the wealthy could ever hope to maintain. Only the rich had the time and money to do all the ritual cleansing that was required. You cannot do ritual cleansing in a slum. This was elitist spirituality. The teachers of the law created a system that allowed them to feel superior. And they did not lift a  finger to help the poor become part of their community. They lacked the grace to include the poor in their meals.

Eating the bread of life together:

Mat4:4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Food is an important part of life and Jesus clearly implies this in Mat 4:4, but we must remain focussed on what is more important than food. Jesus came to give us life and life abundantly. We need His words more than we need earthly food. What good is it to us if we never miss a meal but our regenerated spirit fades away from lack of spiritual food? Life is more than food  . . . (Luke 12:23)

Quiet times, bible study, the gathering of the saints (church), prayer times enmasse or individually are all meal times for our spirit man.

Some thoughts / Questions

1) We should be looking for someone to eat and drink with before we look for something to eat and drink.

2) He who eats alone chokes alone. (proverb)

3) The spirit can not endure the body when well fed. The body can not endure the Spirit when over fed. St Frances de Sales

4)Would the poorest of the poor feel welcome and be able to eat and fellowship with us at any one of our sites after a service?

5) Do we have expectations of clothing, behaviour, literacy, punctuality and even types of food that may prevent the poor and “culturally different” from being part of our “eating together” times?

6) Nobody looks forward to sharing a good meal of salt. Bread without salt is not delicious, but great bread should never taste salty.

Credits:

James Beard (a2)

Mary Douglas (a3)

Tim Chester (a4)

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