Recently, my parents moved in with us. Yep, you read that right. There have certainly been challenges of integrating two households—How could there not be?—but there have also been enormous benefits. One of the best blessings to date has been the opportunity to regularly sit down at a table and share a meal together. My kids talk about their day (well, to the extent I can wrestle responses out of them). My parents ask questions and offer to help, often marveling at how different life is than it used to be. Lisa and I enjoy the food and conversation, but also the brief moment of pause in the midst of life’s many other responsibilities. Simply put, meals bring joy to those who gather. There is something about sharing a table that not only fills the stomach but also warms and softens the heart.
The importance of ‘table fellowship’ is clearly seen in the ministry of Jesus himself. In John’s gospel, Jesus performed his first miracle during a wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-12). Many times he ate with his disciples and used it as an opportunity to teach, including the Last Supper (Matt. 26:20-30, Mark 14:12-25, Luke 22:14-23, John 13:1-38). Jesus told parables that involved meals of reconciliation and hospitality, such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Great Banquet (Luke 14:12-24). And in Luke’s gospel in particular, we see numerous times when Jesus dines with the outcasts of society, often referred to as ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 5:27-39, Luke 6:1-5, Luke 7:36-50).
That last practice greatly angered the Pharisees—the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. But why? What was the big deal about a quick meal? The short answer is found in the symbolism and ritual of the ‘table’ in Jewish life.
For hundreds of years prior to Jesus, the Jewish people suffered many disappointments. The Greeks conquered Jerusalem and put an altar to Zeus in the temple. Jewish political leaders became corrupt and caved to foreign powers. By Jesus’ time, the Romans had taken over and made worship in the temple increasingly difficult. As a result, the Pharisees shifted the focus of purity and holiness originally reserved for the temple to the home, with the connection between the two being one particular place: the table. The Pharisees urged Jews never to break bread with Gentiles and known sinners—never accepting them into their presence. We may think that allowing social status to dictate social behavior is a modern-day creation, but we would be wrong. Just like our culture, sharing a meal was a form of fellowship that indicated the acceptance by each attendee of the other attendees. Enter Jesus, who in a radically inclusive way invited the outcasts to come near, to learn from him and to trust in him. He didn’t affirm their sin—he challenged them to repent and change—but he showed them love through the context of a hot meal. In doing so, he gave a glimpse into the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that one day God’s people from all nations across all social strata will sit down and feast in his presence: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Isaiah 25:6). The early church then adopted this practice of breaking bread together, which unified their bond in Christ and served as a way to invite others to meet their Lord and Savior: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42).
Fellowship is something that we desperately need as Christians and something we desperately must extend to the non-Christians around us. It always has been this way and it always will be.
What does this have to do with us today? Well, a lot, I hope. We are the extension of that early church in Acts. We who follow Christ find unique fellowship together at the table and we invite others into relationship with Jesus at the table as well. Do you do this? For me, one of the most personally challenging parts of the isolation of our present time is the difficulty in breaking bread with those who we need to reach out to with the love of Christ. In the long term, I sure hope this ‘table fellowship’ returns because it is how the body of Christ should function. In the short term, when ‘table fellowship isn’t possible, we need to find ways to do something like it. Here are a few ideas for that:
- Use food delivery as ministry — Delivering a basket of cookies or a bottle of wine, for example, tells someone you care even if you cannot be with them. Follow up with them, pray for them and love them.
- Step up your non-food-ministry-game — Our present restrictions on ‘table fellowship’ should force those of us who carry the message of the Gospel to get creative in other ways. We should invite people to church or Bible study (in-person or livestream), or live prayer on Facebook M-R at 9am. Turn what would normally be a text or phone call into a virtual call to increase other forms of connection.
- Meet outside for Gospel conversation — Whether at a park or a patio, Jesus often gathered with others outside. If that matches your level of comfort right now, do that. Entering the physical presence of others is a sign of care and love, whether with or without the food.
Fellowship is something that we desperately need as Christians and something we desperately must extend to the non-Christians around us. It always has been this way and it always will be. Christ’s table is a place where outsiders are turned into insiders and the Gospel of reversal is made clear as people from all backgrounds and across all lines are invited into the family of God. Whether with food or not, this is how we carry out the ministry of our Lord. Let’s join him.
Trusting in him for a seat at the table,