The Welcome Banquet of God (notes)
Food, tables, banquets, wedding suppers and feasts are images that run through the scripture. They have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning.
Literal sense – Nourishment for the body, God's provision and bounty, the fertility of the earth and the fruit of labour, the place where family and other ties were celebrated and cemented.
Metaphorical sense – Nourishment for the whole person body and soul, food and table celebration a metaphor for the good life God offers to God's people...being welcome, being invited, the overcoming of divisions of race and status, an 'eschatological feast' a hope and a vision of God's universal shalom and welcome extended to all in a great celebration of homecoming (ref. Isaiah reading.)
We know from passages of the First Testament as well as historical research that table rules & customs were important in setting social markers and making barriers and distinctions in the ancient near East. Some specifics:
- separate tables for people with different ethnic backgrounds
- people refused to eat with those considered unworthy or unclean
- places at table were assigned according to rank and relationship with the host
- the most food went to the person with the highest honour
Many of the gospel narratives speak of Jesus teaching and relating to people as guests at their dinners – he is often depicted at table. But his 'table manners' were unusual and troubling, even offensive, in the light of these enduring social customs.
- he ate with anyone who invited him, and was accused of eating with undesirables
- he spoke of a coming banquet, God's feast, where people would come from all nations and backgrounds to eat together
- he advocated not taking the best seats at the table, and also enacted table service rather than table hierarchy, 'I have come among you as one who serves'
- he encouraged a practice of indiscriminate hospitality, including those who were socially marginal (e.g. parable of the dinner)
Jesus deliberately extends the boundaries of the idea of 'table fellowship' to include a wider range of people – notably outcasts, sinners, and women – and thus pre-figures a new realm of hospitality and family life not along bloodlines, race, religion or status, but in a new community nourished by Christ himself. It was for Jesus' first followers to figure out how to structure and enact that in their lives together in the early years of the Christian church.
Hence, the Lord's Table as a ritual practice of the church – not only re-enacting Lord's Supper, where the bread and wine are shared in memory of Jesus, but emphasising a particular kind of welcome and fellowship that crosses boundaries, is inclusive across tribe, bloodline, religious background etc. A table where Jesus is now the host, and everyone is invited.
It's hard to emphasise just how radical this practice was, not as a ritual so much because there were similar rituals in other religions, but for the emphasis on inclusion, the breaking down of powerful social/cultural dividing lines in the formation and practice of community.
When Paul criticises the church in Corinth for the way they were acting at their communion meals, saying to them 'it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat', it is because different factions in the church were making inequalities in their midst explicit at the meals. They had BYO meals where the food wasn't shared, so some were hungry and others were over-consuming all in the public space together. Their table fellowship was preserving distinctions between people rather than overcoming them...the opposite of what the Lord's Supper is intended to represent.
This is the background and the tradition that we step into when we in the 21C celebrate this eucharistic meal – we remember Jesus' own radical table practices of inclusion and celebration, we remember the cost that comes from this kind of openness – the breaking of Jesus' body and the shedding of blood on the cross. We look for Jesus' presence with us in the communion meal, and we are formed into the kind of community that attempts to manifest his resurrection life through welcome and hospitality.
When we eat and drink communion we are invited to a table where Jesus is host, and where Jesus becomes present to us, not just through the elements on the table, but in the community that celebrates and shares together. May our participation in this ritual of remembering and thanksgiving also extend to reflection on our own practices of welcome and openness, inclusion and celebration across the boundaries that divide, whether of wealth, ethnicity, gender, morality, respectability, family, or whatever they may be in our own lives. Because we receive welcome here, may we be able to offer welcome elsewhere, in all the ways our lives touch others through the week.