There seems to be a resurgence of interest in spiritual friendship. I am getting more invitations to speak on it and to help people experience it. Sales of our basic book on spiritual friendship, 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes (Singapore: Graceworks, 2013), are on the rise. Perhaps one of the results of the Covid epidemic is a fresh awareness of the pain of loneliness and our need for friends.

Often people are convinced of the need for friends, but they are not quite sure how to start a friendship or to sustain a friendship. I have decided to start a short series of reflections on the basic building blocks of the practice of friendship. Today’s building block — sharing meals. One important way we begin/sustain a friendship is to eat together. Here are two quotes from mainstream writers:

One key way in which communities have traditionally bonded is by eating together. It’s also been a means by which strangers have been welcomed into a community. Nourishment in itself of course provides a feeling of well-being. Alcohol if it is served reduces the sense of inhibition and stimulates a willingness to engage. But it is the effect that both the act of eating and the consumption of alcohol have on the brains endorphin system that is the really important factor in promoting bonding between those who eat and drink together. (Tracey Camilleri, et. al., The Social Brain [London, UK: The Cornerstone Press, 2023], 96.)

Yes, I see the many red flags about the dangers of alcohol which we must take seriously, but even if we take alcohol out of the equation and stick to eating together the point still stands. Here is the other quote:

Good food is a stimulant to conversation. It is also a symbol of ease, tolerance and plenty. A sense of belonging and being cared for encourages camaraderie and conversation. (Paula Marantz Cohen, Talking Cure [Princeton University Press, NJ: 2023], 47.)

Yes, I see the hands of those asking “What is good food?”. Well, the author also makes the point that it is not the quality of the food that is decisive but the act of sharing a meal.

Here is something from a Christian scholar:

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of table fellowship for the cultures of the Mediterranean basin in the first century of our era. Mealtimes were far more than occasions for individuals to consume nourishment. Being welcomed at a table for the purpose of eating food with another person had become a ceremony richly symbolic of friendship, intimacy and unity. (S S Bartchy, “Table Fellowship”, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Editors, Joel B. Green, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992], 796.)

And here is a snapshot of the life of the early church:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 NIV)

The fact that they ate together was important enough to be included in this summary of the life of the early church. And we must remember that the “breaking of bread” was not some mystical symbolic exercise of holy communion that we do in most of our churches today. It was a proper meal which included the breaking of bread to remember the sacrifice of our Lord.

Sharing a meal then is a key way to initiate a friendship and to sustain existing friendships. This has special significance for us who live busy lives in urban centres like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Often, folks will agree that they need spiritual friendship but complain that they have no time to actually go about connecting with friends. My usual rejoinder — you gotta eat, right? My basic book on spiritual friendship is entitled 3-2-1, three friends meeting for two hours, once a month. When I speak on this I usually add the following: “over a meal”.

So if you are serious about starting friendships or sustaining those that you have, invest time in eating together! All my ongoing spiritual friendship groups meet over meals, either a main meal like lunch or over a beverage. The shared meal provides the context for the doing of friendship. Of course it is more than just eating together. It is also about the conversations that we share at the meal and that is the topic of the next reflection — conversations.

Ok, who are you planning to eat with this coming week?