Food & the Kingdom of God
Part 3 of 3
Spend a short time reading Scripture and quickly we discover food becomes a place where people encounter God. To name a few: Abraham welcoming three strangers, Moses and the elders eating with God on the mountain, Elijah being fed by a widow, tax collectors and prostitutes welcomed to dine at a table with Jesus, Peter being welcomed to a table of fish cooked on a charcoal fire, the Corinthian church sharing a communal meal at worship. Sharing food was a means whereby people could encounter God and experience the salvation of God. Sharing food is a means whereby we encounter God and experience the in-breaking kingdom of God.
Jesus Gathered Around Tables of Food
Before we talk about tables of food, can we be reminded of the synagogue: the place of worship? The synagogue was the place where Scripture was read and preached. The synagogue was where the people of God were formed deeper into the life of God. The synagogue became a place where God’s people were reminded of who they were and what they were called to be in this world. The synagogue was vitally important for the formation of God’s people. Jesus spent a lot of time in the synagogue.
Did Jesus ever invite people to join him in the synagogue in ways that resemble the invitation we extend to people to join us in our places of worship on Sunday morning? Jesus certainly told people he healed to go and show themselves to the priest. Yes, Jesus was a regular participant in the life of a synagogue. But, did Jesus ever invite people to join him in the synagogue?
No, I can’t think of any stories where Jesus invites people to join him in the synagogue as we might invite someone to join us in our places of worship. However, there are many stories where Jesus invited people to a table of food: Peter after a night of fishing, a woman who broke into a prominent Pharisee’s home at dinner time, a rich man named Zacchaeus, 5,000 people on a mountain, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a dead girl Jesus raised, just to name a few stories.
The Gift of Welcome
Wherever and whenever Jesus wanted to speak and show what it looked like for God’s kingdom to come near, the gift of welcome was practiced. Jesus welcomed the sick and broken bodies into his midst. Jesus welcomed the Gentiles and the Samaritans into conversation. Jesus welcomed the tax collectors and sinners into his inner circle of discipleship. Jesus practiced the gift of welcoming people so that the kingdom of God could be revealed.
When Jesus issued harsh rebukes, he did so because the gift of welcome was being withheld. Jesus rebuked the disciples for not welcoming the children. Jesus rebuked Simon for not welcoming a woman. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for not welcoming the unclean and the deformed bodies. Read through the letters of Paul and we discover some of Paul’s harsh criticism against churches and individuals is because they have failed to practice the gift of welcome. Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for the wealthy not welcoming the poor. The writer of the epistle of 1 John tells us that those who fail to welcome do not know what love is. The author of the epistle of Hebrews tells us not to stop offering the gift of welcome less we fail to entertain angels.
If we are going to learn to be churches that bear witness to God’s kingdom coming near, we must learn to offer the practice of welcome: welcoming one another and welcoming the stranger. But to be churches that offer the gift of welcome, we must first learn to receive the gift of welcome.
The place where the church learns the gift of welcome is around a table of bread and wine. Each week the church gathers and we hear the words, “Welcome to the table.” The table of bread and wine is a table where the holy God creates room for the other. God welcomes us to a table where forgiveness, healing, and love are enacted. God doesn’t first check to see how holy we are nor does God check to see what nationality we are or what our social position is in life; God simply welcomes us to feast at a table of bread and wine.
This table of bread and wine is a foretaste of the great banquet God will welcome us to in the fullness of God’s kingdom. When God’s kingdom fully arrives and all the wrongs are set right, God will sit down at the table. The table of bread and wine points to this great feast.
Thus, whenever and wherever the church gathers around a table of bread and wine, the church is learning to receive the gift of welcome. Learning to receive the gift of welcome, the church is then sent out to proclaim and embody the kingdom of God. One way we have learned to proclaim and embody the in-breaking kingdom is through the gift of welcome being extended around tables of food. Sharing tables of food with our neighbors has become a way for us to offer the gift of welcome we ourselves have received.
The Church At The Table
It’s taken us a decade to build a friendship with our neighbors whereby we are trusted. Trust has been given to us because we’ve provide a school with over 9,000 sandwiches so that hungry children can have a lunch; we’ve provided a summer camp for children of the neighborhood at no cost, provided space for a community garden, flipped hamburgers at school fairs, and when called upon, showed up in dark moments of people’s lives. We’re trusted because of our long-term presence in the neighborhood.
With this trust, the church and neighborhood are now sharing tables of food together. Specifically, we share a monthly meal. Right now, tables are being set up with chairs being placed around the tables. The smell of a ham cooking in the oven is waffling through the building. Dinner dishes are being set out. The table is being set.
The rich and the poor will share each other’s presence. The single mom will sit with the widow and have a listening ear. The sick will sit with health care professionals and receive invaluable advice. The enemies are provided a space to become friends. The ostracized is given a chance at community. Together, church and neighborhood will taste and experience the salvation of God.
The church at the table is the place where we learn to practice forgiveness, find healing, hear of God’s promises, receive nourishment, discover community, see walls of division being broken down, discover eschatological hope, receive the gift of God’s presence . . . when we as a church are able to share tables of food with our neighbors, God is encountered and the kingdom of God is made known.
Here’s an idea: maybe instead of inviting someone to worship, invite them to a table of food. Invite your neighbor or friend or even your enemy to share table fellowship. Around a bottle of wine and some crusty old bread maybe, just maybe . . .
The stranger will be God who promises a new future
That you yourselves will be supplied with nourishment to last through a famine
The forgiveness you desire will be extended
New forms of community of will emerge
The workings of the Spirit of God will be unearthed
As we ourselves receive the gift of welcome by God each Sunday through a table of bread and wine, may the neighborhoods to which we are sent (Luke 10:1-12) discover churches being open to sharing tables of food so that together, church and neighborhood, can experience the in-breaking kingdom of God.
About the Author: Nathan Pickard lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He loves to spend his time playing hockey with the kids and has a passion for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. Nathan has been serving as the minister for Newmarket Church of Christ for the past 13 years. He holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Abilene Christian University. Most recently, Nathan wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way (edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton).