One of the things that stands out as one reads the stories of Jesus in the gospels is his eating habits. He eats a lot. He is often sharing meals with others. On the one hand, this is not particularly noteworthy. After all, everyone has to eat. We can be quite sure that Jesus ate many more meals than the ones that are written about. So, why did the authors of the gospels want to tell stories about Jesus eating?
The reason, of course, has nothing to do with what Jesus ate and everything to do with whom Jesus ate. He shared tables with everyone. Yes, indeed, he was invited into the homes of wealthy and powerful people – and in those settings, Jesus was not a well-mannered guest: he talked about uncomfortable things that probably fascinated and appalled his hosts all at the same time. More often, Jesus is sharing a table (actual or metaphorical) with ordinary people, folks who have come out to hear his teaching or to seek his healing. And, not infrequently, stories are told of Jesus eating with people whom no one would have invited to anybody’s table: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and various other categories of “undesirable” or “unclean” people. The point is that Jesus did not uphold the customs of his time with respect to table fellowship. Instead, he would eat with anyone who wanted to eat with him.
It is most certainly not an accident that alongside these stories of Jesus eating with everyone there are a number of parables that use the metaphor of a feast to talk about the kingdom or reign of God. Quite often, when Jesus tries to tell people what the world would be like if God’s dream for humanity were truly realized, he compares it to a meal. And often, the parable of the kingdom of God as feast ends up with unexpected people at the table.
When we put these things together, it seems rather clear to me that Jesus is describing a vision of a human community rooted in God: a community in which everyone is welcome at the table and in which everyone receives what she or he needs to be nourished. Heaven is not some city in the sky with streets made of gold: heaven is a state of unconditional welcome where each and all are fed.
In liturgical churches, like The Episcopal Church, the sacred meal became the center and most profound part of Christian worship. This was the case in the Christian community, actually, long before there was an Episcopal Church. Initially, what we now know as Communion was part of a full meal. It seems that it didn’t take long before the full meal was dropped and reduced to the sharing of blessed bread and wine. In either form, however, this sacred meal was at the heart of the worshiping Christian community until the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation for the first time produced Christian worship that did not include Communion on a weekly basis.
In celebrating the sacred meal of Holy Communion, however, the focus of Christians got shifted. The meal became more about what was served than about who was present. People got caught up in what was happening when the bread and wine were blessed, and how it was that the Christ was made present in the sacrament. We lost the focus on the radical openness of the table, the significance of a group of people gathered for a sacred meal as an icon of the kingdom of God. In fact, most if not all of the churches placed limits on who could actually receive the sacred meal, subverting the radically open invitation that characterized all of Jesus’ dinner parties.
As a priest, I have to say that over the years I have found that the significance for me of the sacred meal has shifted. When I began my ordained ministry, the focus was on what I got to do at the altar as the one authorized to preside over the meal. And while I still find that to be a profound privilege, the real “magic” of Communion for me now lies not in what happens at the altar but in what happens when I place the blessed bread into someone’s hand and look them in the eyes. I have realized that this is truly the act of Communion: people gathered together in a sacred moment of sharing. Christ hosts us at the holy table so that we may host one another. Communion is not only about what we receive from the altar, but is equally about what we receive from one another. It is not only about being with Christ, but about us being together in Christ.
And as we gather as Christian community for that sacred meal each week, we should be as radically open in our invitation as Jesus was. For the kingdom of God is not about verifying one’s credentials or conducting a background check to determine if someone is worthy of the feast. It is about everyone having a place at the table and everyone receiving what each needs. The only prerequisite to sharing the sacred meal is the desire to eat with Jesus and his friends. That desire is not the end of the Christian faith journey, something to be done after one has been fully formed. Rather, that desire is the beginning of the journey with Christ. Just as it was in the time of Jesus. After all, people were not transformed prior to sharing a meal with Jesus. Rather, the meal is what led people into transformation.
May our sacred meals be equally transformative.