We had a Care Group (small group) meet planned for tonight. We were looking forward to it because we were going to welcome back a member who had been away for awhile. But at the last minute many members messaged to say they could not make it. And so we are just going to have dinner with those who can make it. It won’t be a regular meeting, which would have consisted of dinner, worship, study and prayer. It will just be dinner. But Bernice and I have come to learn a long time ago that dinner is the most important part of our meetings.
Luke T. Johnson, among many scholars, has pointed out that meals feature prominently in Jesus’ ministry.
During his ministry, Jesus is pictured at meals in the homes of his opponents (Luke 7:36 -50; 11:37-52; 14:1-14) and at the table with his followers (Mark 1:31 ll Matthew 8:13; Luke 5:39; Mark 2:15-17, etc.). In his parables, he images the kingdom of God in terms of meals (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13, etc.). Before his death, he shares a last meal with his disciples (Mark 14:12-25; Matthew 26:17-29, etc.). And after his resurrection, Jesus appears to his followers in the context of meals (Mark 16:4; Luke 24:13-35, etc.). At the heart of each Gospel narrative, moreover, is an account of Jesus sharing an open-air meal (or meals) with thousands (Mark 8:1-10; Matthew 15:31-39), a meal that he made possible by a wondrous multiplication of loaves and fishes. (Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998, pp. 138-139)
Clearly meals in general and communal meals in particular were central to how Jesus related to people. Taking their cue from their master, meals also featured prominently in the life of the early church (Acts 2:41-47; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). In fact, I would argue that the primary context of early church gatherings was a meal, and by that I mean a real meal and not the highly symbolic communion services practised by most churches today. Today, church meetings tend to resemble either school meetings where we gather primarily to learn from a preacher (Evangelicals), or theatre performances where the congregation is an audience observing the Eucharistic mystery enacted on stage (Liturgical churches), or signs and wonders performed on stage (Pentecostal/Charismatic). Whether school or theatre, the majority of the participants are passive and have minimal interaction with their peers.
The early church, however was very much a face to face community. One cannot ignore the numerous “one another” commands in the New Testament. Here are a few. As Christians we are called to:
- Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
- Encourage and build up one another ( 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
- Instruct one another (Romans 15:14)
- Spur one another toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
All these, and the other one another commands, are concrete ways in which we obey Jesus’ command for His followers to love one another (John 13:34-35).
We can only obey these commands if we are in close relationships with one another. We can only obey these commands if we have regular face to face encounters (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ) not the face to back encounters of most of our worship halls. We can have such relationships if we meet regularly over meals.
Meals are basic to human life. “People everywhere eat and drink as a biological necessity. Meals are the most ordinary of human activities (Johnson, p. 137).” Therefore, instead of creating a special sacred space and time for our life in Christ, we acknowledge the presence of Christ in the ordinary things of life. We understand that the risen Christ transforms the whole of life, and that our new life in Christ sees the holy invading and transforming the ordinary. When Christians share a meal we remember the risen Christ and He is there.
And so at dinner tonight, and indeed at all dinners we share with fellow followers of Christ, we will share a meal and we will share our lives. In the natural conversations that accompany the meal, there will be times when we will help share someone’s burden. As we chat, there will be issues that arise where we will seek to apply God’s Word, trying to connect God’s unchanging word to some concrete question. We will also look for ways to encourage one another to be a blessing where God has placed us. And the unspoken agenda in all our exchanges will be the desire to encourage each other and to help each other grow in our life in Christ.
It also needs to be said that the food on the table will be nutritious and delicious (Genesis 2:9). (My wife says I am biased but I have the testimony of many others.) I do not want to give the impression that only the conversations around the table have meaning and significance. As we partake of the food, we are also reminded of the gracious provision of God for all our needs. (And our responsibility to the many who do not have enough to eat.) Indeed all eating is in some way sacramental, reminding us that we need something outside of ourselves to be able to live. As our biological lives need food, we also need to feast on Christ to be truly alive (John 6:51). Inflation has hit everybody’s food bill but I know Bernice finds delight in creatively preparing meals that bless even as we look forward to the blessings that come from our conversations around the table.
And so we won’t have our formal study time tonight. That would have allowed us to study God’s Word in some depth. And there won’t be an extended time of prayer. We may spend a little time talking about upcoming ministry concerns. But we will have dinner, where we will share our lives as we share a meal. I expect to be nourished at many levels.