The fellowship of eating together

Shared foodAs we talk about religious feasts, it’s also helpful to keep in mind the concept of hospitality in the times and cultures of the Bible. In the nomadic environment of the patriarchs, guests were received almost without question. You took them in, fed them, and made them a part of your household while they were there. They were cared for and protected as family members were. Failure to offer hospitality or betrayal of the trust given through hospitality were serious offenses.

It’s natural that some of that would have changed as the world of the Israelites became more urbanized. But a few things remained down through the years. Someone who ate in your house was to shown honor. They were to be protected. And they were to respond with a degree of loyalty. (You see the betrayal of table fellowship described in Psalm 41:9; that’s also emphasized in the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus)

In the modern world, we often eat in the company of people we don’t know. We go to restaurants and have no relationship with other diners. The restaurant doesn’t extend any special status to diners; in most cases, it’s a business transaction. (This does change somewhat with “regulars”) And the patrons owe no particular loyalty to the restaurant.

That’s a normal part of Western society. It shouldn’t be a normal part of our churches. As we share meals, be it the pinch and sip that is our modern Lord’s Supper or a full fellowship meal, we create bonds between us. We declare a family relationship. We establish interdependency.

Or as Paul said it:

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

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God loves a party

Call to worshipIn my sermon last Sunday, I was pointing out how central the sharing of food was to Old Testament worship. Feasting and celebrating before God are essential to the practice of God’s people in the Bible

There were the weekly times of Sabbath, when families spent time together and shared a special Sabbath meal. While non-Jews often focus on the restrictions regarding work, Jews focus on “making the Sabbath a delight” (based on Isaiah 58:13), enjoying the best foods, wearing their best clothes, etc.

There were also the regular feast days. There were three times a year when Jewish men were expected to travel to Jerusalem:

  • Passover/Unleavened Bread
  • Pentecost
  • Feast of Tabernacles

There was one prescribed fast day, on the Day of Atonement, the week before the Feast of Tabernacles. As Jay noted in his comments yesterday, the Law says much more about feasting than it does about fasting.

The Israelites were also to have a harvest feast, setting aside a tenth of their yearly production to be eaten in a celebration of the Lord’s goodness. Deuteronomy 14 describes this:

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.” (Deuteronomy 14:22–27)

It was an out and out celebration, not a token tithe of the harvest.

There were also the fellowship offerings, which were communal meals held to celebrate ones thankfulness to the Lord or to announce the making of a vow to the Lord. These sacrifices included the command to eat the meat in a short period of time, which would necessitate gathering one’s friends and relatives to join in the feast.

So it was only natural that when Israel thought of what it would be like to be in the kingdom of the Messiah, they thought of a feast:

“On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”” (Isaiah 25:6–9)

And it was only natural that Jesus would establish a new memorial for his followers, one that involved sharing food, one established during the great feast of Passover, one that looked forward to the great Messianic banquet.

Embarrassed by potlucks

plate from buffetMany of us have fond memories of dinner on the grounds, those times when church members would bring food to share and enjoy a time of fellowship. In fact, I’ve often heard it said that “fellowship” is a code word for food!

For many churches, those days are gone. In those places, the potluck is a thing of the past, something of an embarrassment from our history that we’d like to sweep under the rug. And that’s pretty sad.

Psychologist Paul Rozin compared the outlooks of North Americans and French people when it comes to food. For example, when showing both groups a picture of chocolate cake, the Americans tended to use the words “guilt” and “calories”; the French responded with “celebration” and “pleasure.” Food anxiety runs high in this country, and we’ve brought that into our churches.

I was on a committee that was discussing “care groups” in our congregation. During the discussion, the statement was often made: “And of course, we don’t have to eat together.” I did my best to push back, saying that yes, the church does need common meals. If our care groups aren’t going to break bread together, then we need to find a fellowship time to replace that.

The church needs to eat together. That needs to be a basic part of who we are. And even though it’s inconvenient and messy, I think we need to share our own food, not just go to a restaurant. We need to be involved in the preparation and the clean up. We need to learn what other families find appealing. We need to look one another in the eye and say, “God gave me this, and I want to share it with you.”

A few years ago, Jay Guin wrote the following on his blog:

And so I think we’ve managed to lose something ineffable but essential in our increasing preference for restaurants over the chaos of buffet tables and children feasting on limitless desserts with room to run.

I grew up in a pretty typical Church of Christ, and my fondest memories are of covered-dish dinners on the grounds — playing with friends and sampling foods from many different homes.
But even in a huge church, I think we need to find the time to eat together on a regular basis. You just don’t really know someone until you’ve tasted their banana pudding or three-bean casserole — and helped a new member who’ve never even met with her kids. I mean, food just has a way of bringing people together.
Now, as previously noted, we cannot let the social element of the church become the center of church. Rather, the common meal, the love feast, must grow out of our lives of mutual service. Therefore, you can’t go to a restaurant, because a restaurant has nothing to do with serving others. Rather, one of beauties of the covered dish meal is that each family has to work — to cook, to set up, to break down, to help with the kids.
Don’t hire a janitor or a cooking crew. Rather, think of the covered dish as a modern version of foot washing — a way to serve both symbolically and in reality. Bring more than your fair share if you can afford it, and don’t look askance as those who don’t bring anything.

Yeah. That.

Eating together

potluckI’m not sure when I’ll get to write it, but the work that has been on my heart for a while is about the church and food. So even if I’m not able to write on this topic in book form, I can keep exploring it here on the blog.

So here’s some questions to start your week off with:

  • How often does your church eat together regularly?
  • How often do groups within your church eat together?
  • About what percentage of your church participates in these common meals?
  • What type of meal do you have?
    • Potluck?
    • Catered?
    • Go to a restaurant together?

I’d love to hear your insights.

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New book: A History of Churches of Christ in Cuba

Cuba history book coverI’m pleased to announce that A History of Churches of Christ in Cuba is now available. Tony Fernández and I worked on this information over the course of several years, and it’s nice to see it in concrete form.

Any history of the churches in Cuba is going to be incomplete at this point. There are too many stories that can’t be told yet.

I’ll also mention that I made an appeal for information last year at a meeting of people who work in Cuba. Only one person sent me anything. Because of that, I’m sure that some people from here in the States will not have received the mention they would have liked to have. If so, I’ll hope they’ll send me info for the next edition!

Anyway, the book can be purchased from the Herald of Truth website. You can find it on this page: