As a child and, later, a teenager, I used to love it when my father’s friend Solly came to visit. Solly was a short round man, with a bald head and a large nose. He was always full of energy, his eyes flashing and his voice, with his thick European accent, was loud and dogmatic. I was always fascinated by the debates he and my dad shared, and I would be captivated by every detail of his expressive communication – food flying from his mouth as he made his point, laughter easily bubbling up, and challenges being passionately issued and received.
Solly was a Jew who had survived the holocaust of his childhood, although I forget now which country he grew up in. I wish I had asked him to tell me the details of his story, but I never had the chance. One thing I do remember, though, was sitting across the table from him at supper as he explained, in his usual passionate way, that in Jewish culture a meal was not about the food so much as about the conversation – he called it “talking Torah” – which happened over the food. Whenever I read about Jesus sitting at a meal with his disciples or his detractors I remember Solly’s words.
Jesus loved meals – so much so that the religious elite of his day were offended and called him a glutton (Luke 7:34). So much of what Jesus taught and did was centred around meals. From the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17) to meals in the homes of “sinners” like Levi (Luke 5:29) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), and of Pharisees like Simon (Luke 7:36-50), to the teachings about where to sit and who to invite to feasts (Luke 14:7-14), to the parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 7:15-24), to the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-38) Jesus clearly placed tremendous importance on the sharing of meals, and the “talking Torah” which happened over the food.
For Jesus a meal was not just an act of survival – a necessary activity which must be performed to keep the body functioning. Unfortunately, in our productivity driven, mass produced culture, food is both big business and an unfortunate, albeit necessary, interruption to our effectiveness. As Barbara Kingsolver explains in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we have become completely disconnected from our food, and we are paying the price. For Jesus, though, food was a gift, and the act of eating was an opportunity to be nourished, not just physically, but through the whole person. Meals were times of feeding the soul, the mind and the body, and were wonderful opportunities for teaching, challenging and confronting – all necessary ingredients of the true community he was building. And, when people were gathered around a table or a picnic basket, Jesus often used the opportunity to reveal more of himself and his purpose.
Which is why it should come as no surprise that Jesus uses food and meals in important ways to reveal himself as the Resurrected Lord and to teach his disciples what this means for them. In John’s Gospel, Jesus prepares a seaside breakfast as the setting for the reinstatement and renewed calling of SImon Peter (John 21:1-22). But, in Luke’s Gospel, it is the mysterious story of the two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35) which is set for this week in the Lectionary) that really highlights how important meals are for Jesus’ work of revelation, community-building and teaching.
These two disciples, only one of whom, Cleopas, is named, find themselves disillusioned and confused. Jesus, whom they “had hoped” (vs. 21) was the Messiah, is dead. Now, unsure of what else to do, they leave the community of disciples and return to their pre-Jesus lives. But, they can’t get Jesus out of their heads, and so as they walk, they replay the events with each other, probably trying to make some sense out of it all. Then, they are joined by a mysterious stranger – they don’t recognise that it is Jesus – who begins to question them about their conversation. On one hand they are amazed that he is the only one who seems to not be in the know about the crucifixion, but, in a wonderful irony, Luke indicates that it is these two disciples who are unknowing, because they don’t know that Jesus is appearing to them. Their eyes are blind, and they miss the revelation which Jesus brings until he opens their eyes. Their souls are empty and they miss the nourishment which his words offer until they later recognise that their hearts had “burned within” them (vs. 32). They have left the community which Jesus had built, until, in the light of their revelation that Jesus has appeared, they run back to rejoin the other disciples in Jerusalem.
Were it not for the mid-Eastern practice of hospitality and the meal which they shared with Jesus, they may have remained in the dark for the rest of their lives. As they reach their destination, Jesus indicates that he will continue to travel, but they beg him to stay with them. His teaching (none of which, frustratingly, is recorded) has obviously touched a chord, and they don’t want the conversation to end. And so Jesus joins them at the table. I wish I could have seen his eyes as he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them, but there must have been a wicked glint as he waited for the truth to dawn on his companions. This familiar act, which they had seen him perform in so many different settings with so many different people, is the trigger which opens their eyes, floods their souls with life and energy and joy, and drives them back to the community in which they belong. Once again, it is the meal that does it.
What this means for us is that every meal is a sacrament, every meal is an opportunity to be nourished throughout our whole beings, to receive new revelation of Christ and to draw closer as the sacred community which Jesus established. The Sacrament which we share in our worship services is the sign – the act in which we learn to recognise and encounter God’s presence and to receive God’s life as the community of grace. But, once we’ve learned this through sharing in Communion, we discover that every meal holds the same potential. As we share together, we build community. As we eat and share our stories, we are nourished in our whole being. And as we gather, the presence of the Christ who loved to share meals with friends is with us and revealed to us.
More than this, as we eat we are challenged to open our table and our community to others – the poor, the hungry, the marginalised, and those we would prefer to exclude for whatever reason. We are reminded of the upside-down Kingdom of God, and that the meals we share, especially the Sacramental one in our worship, are prophecies of the Great Banquet at which all people are given a place, and in which no one goes without.
I didn’t know it back then, but Solly was right. When we sit around a table it’s never about the food alone. It’s about so much more. It’s about the presence and call of the Risen Christ who continues to break bread with us whoever, wherever and whenever we may be.