Restoring the Table as a Place of Transformation

In 2010, our family had a desire to make discipleship something more than a program or Bible study. I wanted something more organic and integrated into everyday life that would help us pay attention and incorporate spiritual disciplines easily and consistently. As we explored the table as a place of growth, we saw how much Jesus taught, discipled, and gathered people around food. He chose bread and wine as the centre of how we are to remember Him.

“Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.” – Tim Chester

I recognised the table as a place of learning; it was a discipline of having intentional times of coming together with an awareness of Holy Spirit and each other. It is at the table that we all face each other in closer proximity, for longer than any other time in the day. Unfortunately, in the West we have created a “table culture” where it’s normal to be hurried and distracted… where iPhones or television are common guests… where we lack awareness of Holy Spirit and those with us. This needs to be transformed.

Lessons of the Table
Meals are a place for all to participate, share, and learn from each other regardless of background or circumstance. They can help us be mindful of the moment we are in, of the presence and activity of Holy Spirit, and of the people we are with. It is a place to practice and enact the equality, generosity, and community of the kingdom. The table can be a place to learn to slow down through preparation and savouring food. A place to literally ‘unplug’. The table can be a place and time to ask meaningful questions and learn to listen well. It can be a place to learn to serve others joyfully, to give generously, and to practice celebration.

Our dining habits reveal much about our priorities, values, and awareness of Holy Spirit, and other people. At the table, we can ask ourselves questions: Am I hurried? Am I distracted? Am I always being served, or do I also serve? Do I fear lack? Do I value celebration? Do I eat with strangers and those unlike me? Do I practice hospitality?

The table is also a place to practice hospitality and inclusion. Our usual understanding of hospitality is to show love and generosity to friends. However, in the New Testament the Greek word literally means showing love and generosity to strangers (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:2; Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9). This is challenging. It’s far easier and more comfortable to order our lives around people like ourselves.

“I used to think hospitality was a lost art. Now I’m convinced it is a lost heart…. How we treat a guest … is literally how we are treating God. Of course there’s a long, Biblical foundation for this idea, but it gets particularly interesting when you consider that the word “hospitality” derives from hospes (“guest, host, stranger”), which itself derives from hostis (“stranger, enemy”— our English word “hostile” comes from hostis).” – Leonard Sweet

Photo courtesy of Debi Aho

The Table and the Eucharist
A consistent theme of mealtimes and food mark significant events in the biblical meta-narrative and the formation of the people of God. We see it in the Passover, the Exodus, the provision of manna and more. Yearly celebrations and feasts were central ways to align them to the reality of God and His kingdom. Jesus also often taught around meals, and at the Last Supper, He inaugurated an intentional mealtime with bread and wine as a sacrament and means of grace.

The early church practiced Communion as part of a meal. Believers would meet in homes to hear the Word and worship and have a meal together called an Agape Meal or Love Feast at which they would take Communion as Jesus had taught. This meal time was a central part of the day. The richest believers were the likely hosts as they had the biggest homes and most resources. Before the radically inclusive kingdom that Jesus brought, there would have been no other time when a poor person would be invited into a rich person’s house except as a servant (1 Corinthians 11:20-34). They ‘practiced’ and ‘enacted’ the kingdom!

When I interviewed people regarding their experiences and understanding of Communion and spiritual formation it exposed common themes. There was a general sense of detachment when participating in the Eucharist – no connection or understanding of what the wafer and cup represent and fear that they were participating “unworthily” and putting themselves in spiritual danger. Words used to describe their experiences and emotions attached to Communion were: empty, judgment, ritualistic, cold, religious, pointless, un-inspired, skin-deep, isolated, boring, dread, guilt and shame … a far cry from the radical experience and expression of the kingdom early believers participated in!

“Christian spirituality is always relational, always embodied, and always frighteningly ordinary. You cannot participate in communion without the actual practice or “praxis” of all three.” – Julie Canlis

In losing the table as a place of connection and inclusion both in the family and church, and with the Eucharist becoming such a small element of church life, we are losing places and means of spiritual formation that are of ultimate importance to the church body. Jesus left us a simple meal of bread and wine at a common table as one of the most foundational means of grace. Communion tells the story that God Himself has become one with time, space and matter, and that heaven and earth have been joined together. In the Holy Spirit indwelt practice of Communion, the bread and wine witness to an actual coming together of Spirit and material, to the reality that Jesus is our only source and sustenance of life as we feed on him. In His body, we are included and are one. We need intentional teaching and, more importantly, experiences to restore this sacrament and the table as a central place of formation through fellowship.

Practice Table
Watch the video below, Radical Hospitality for the REST of Us by Elizabeth Turman-Bryant. It describes her journey with hospitality and provides practical keys for individuals, families and churches to reclaim the table as a place of transformation.

Over the next two weeks, be intentional with your mealtimes to make them a meaningful place of connection and growth. Let those at the table know what you are trying to accomplish. Wait for everyone to be seated before you serve the food. It will take practice to slow down and enjoy the food and people you share it with. (We’ve had many meals where the kids wanted to be somewhere else or on their phone. So, be prepared that the table time doesn’t always go or feel great. But, over time, it has become the most treasured part of the day with family and friends.)

Table Tips

  1. Buy a set of TableTopics – a box of questions to keep in the centre of the table. Take turns drawing and answering. Or, write your own on slips of paper and put them in a mason jar. It’s a helpful way to move the conversations to become more personal.
  2. Invite a person, couple, or family over for an ‘around the table’ meal that are new to your church, kid’s school, or area.
  3. Include Communion with a meal this week and have a conversation about the story, reality, and hope in Communion.

This blog was adapted from an article in Glocal Conversations, A Deeper Understanding of the Eucharist and Agape Meals and Liam Byrnes, Why we need to Reconsider the Bread and the Wine: an Interview with Isaac Aho

For further reading I recommend:
Chester, T. (2011). A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table
Smith, G. T. (2005). A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church
Sweet, L. (2015). From Tablet to Table: Where Community Is Found and Identity Is Formed
Wright, N. T. (2013). The New Testament and the People of God: Volume 1 (Christian Origins and the Question of God series)

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