In the spirit of Alyssa’s last post on women preaching, here is a reflection given in church on the ordinary power of the common meal and resurrection appearances of Jesus in scripture.
In this Easter season we have been celebrating the resurrection—Jesus’s resurrection and our own. We’ve been reading together the scriptures telling us the story of his death and stories dramatizing the discovery that death could not hold him, his tomb is empty, death has been emptied of its sting. Perhaps this is enough to get the point—we wonder at the power of God who has raised Jesus from death into a new kind of life. But, what does this have to do with the rest of us? It might mean that I can look forward to the resurrection of my body after death as well. This isn’t a bad idea, but still it seems to be unsatisfactory somehow—as if grace is something that we are only looking forward to in the future and can’t expect now in some form, however partial. What does the resurrection mean for us, now, during the course of our earthly lives? What does resurrection faith have to do with discipleship or transformation of the world? Or, we could even ask the question a different way—what did Jesus’s resurrection have to do with his own life and mission while on earth? Is it only that the really important stuff started with Good Friday?
In many churches we’ve been praying with the memories of Jesus’s resurrection appearances at meals, in eating practices, in the midst of table fellowship. Why a resurrection appearance at all? What do these stories mean? Why not end the gospels with the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb? I think that these stories of recognition of the ongoing reality of the resurrection in the midst of everyday life—in eating meals, in preparing food, in trying to secure food—feel more powerful, important, and relevant to me than the drama of finding an empty tomb.
Eating food together, table fellowship was really important to Jesus in his ministry. It was at the table that Jesus could communicate what the kingdom of God looks like, what God’s desire for human communities is. Jesus used the image of a table, a feast in his own preaching and parable-telling, comparing the kingdom of God to an extravagant wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14, Lk 14:15-24) or comparing himself to bread shared amongst his followers (Jn 6:32-59). Jesus’s miracles involved feeding more than 5,000 people with an initial offering of food that was only able to feed 5 (Mt 14:13-21, Mk 6:30-44, Lk 9:10-17, Jn 6:1-15, cf. Mk 8:1-21) and turning water into wine so that the wedding feast at Cana could continue with appropriate extravagance (Jn 2:1-12). Jesus’s disciples indeed had a reputation for eating and drinking (Lk 5:33) and Jesus himself had a reputation for eating with those who others in his community would have shunned (Lk 5:27-32). And, as Christian tradition has it, Jesus spent his last night as a free man gathered with his friends for a meal and told them to keep his memory alive by continuing to gather together to eat. This last element from the Jesus story—the practice of the early Christians to remember Jesus in a meal together—is so simple and yet so powerful. Whether Jesus actually told his disciples to do this or not, and whether or not his last night of freedom was spent in this fashion may not matter as much as the reality that this is what early Christians told each other and wrote down: Jesus told us to do this. Jesus wanted us to keep coming together to share a meal. The death of our founder should not, cannot stop us. We remember him, we honor him by continuing to eat together. We make him present among us in and through our common meal. We say “no” to those who wished to take away his power and our own by trying to kill him. No. At our table, Jesus’s mission continues, even after his death.
When early Christians gathered together for worship they spent their time together praying and eating. They called their table fellowship an “agape” meal (a love feast) since it functioned as an instantiation of the kingdom of God in their midst—this is what God’s transformation of the world through love does look like and will look like. The early Christians considered those in their community their family members, even when they were not biologically related. They called each other mother, brother, and sister and strove to live together in equality with no living patriarch, no ruler apart from God. The common meal, at its best, was a dramatization of this heavenly vision. And, when it became distorted (as it sometimes did) to reflect the social hierarchies of its time, Christian leaders strove to realign the meal practices more closely with these intentions.
This practice of table fellowship that Jesus practiced and that Christians believe to be a critical component of discipleship even until today is what some might call “radical table fellowship”. But I think this can make it sound a lot sexier, more dramatic, in-your-face compelling than it really is. Rather than “radical table fellowship” I think it might be helpful to think about it as “persistent table fellowship.” The Christian practice of table fellowship in the memory of Jesus is not always that exciting or immediately rewarding. It is much like eating a home cooked dinner every night with small children.
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I want to eat real food. Food that I know where it has come from, how it has been prepared, and I want to have real relationships with those in my family. This sounds wonderfully romantic. You might imagine me in the kitchen with the garden’s bounty piled on my counters joyfully creating culinary masterpieces for my grateful children. But the reality of trying to make this happen (more often than not) results in scene like this: dishes are pilled too high in the sink, food has been thrown all over the floor, one child is screaming, the other is crying, and my husband and I have stopped trying to talk to each other because we know there’s no way you’ll be able to hear each other, and it’s already about 20 minutes past bedtime. And in the middle of this chaos, I say to yourself, why am I doing this?? Is this worth it? Wouldn’t it be easier to put them in front of the TV with a piece of pizza in one room watching cartoons while I sit in the other room, separately zoning out with a Diet Lime flavored Pepsi to the Real Housewives of New Jersey in the other? Wouldn’t that be a lot more peaceful? But then when you think about it, how you spend your days is how you spend your life. Is that how I want to spend my life? No. I want to eat real food. I want to have real relationships with these people that I love. I just sometimes wish I didn’t have to work so hard to make it happen. Or even more precisely to the point, I sometimes wish that this project could be the kind of a thing I could write on a list and check it off after a designated, predictable amount of work. But, no these are never-ending, unpredictable projects that involve a lot of surprise, boredom, work without apparent results and require from me long-term determination, creativity, and persistence. Isn’t this also our experience with Christian community life? Isn’t it often simultaneously messy, frustrating, and boring?
And yet, some moments manage to shine with such brilliance that it is hard to look at them. Some moments in family life are so beautiful that you look at the whole project and can’t help but think, this is the most wonderful, holy, important thing in the whole world. Some moments in community life are the same way. Last year I had a moment like this at church as we gathered for a potluck. Everyone had placed their dishes on the long table in the fellowship room and gathered around for prayer before feasting. I looked at the table filled with foods and could feel the weight of the extravagance—roasted meats, glazed vegetables, freshly baked breads, highlighted all the more by beautiful reading earlier that morning to the group gathered about the feast of wisdom with her roasted meats, fatty marrow, etc. I looked around the room to see many friends—those with whom I’ve experienced wonderfully joyful relationships, who I always feel blessed to be around; those who have brought me great pain or confusion and now (only by the grace of God) with whom I am now working on repairing relationship; those who annoy me or who I don’t understand but who I am trying to love anyway. And I realized this gathering represents a real and beautiful love—a kind of family love—where (as we know) joy, familiarity, annoyance, and hurt all mingle freely. This is church. Before we sat down to feast together we raised our voices in prayer to sing “Praise God from Whom”— a song that’s so familiar to us in our house that we often even find ourselves subconsciously singing the melody, but irreverently changing the words to fit whatever mundane parenting task is at hand:
“Put on your socks because we are getting in the car.
Put on your shoes, we are leaving right now.
Put on your shoes, we are leaving right now.
Put on your shoes
Put on your shoes
Put on your shoes, or you’ll have a time out.”
But my son can recognize the real words when he hears them. Around the potluck table, I watched him perk up his ears to listen to the group singing, his eyes were open wide, and I saw him silently taking it in—these are my people. “They are singing our song,” I knew he was thinking. Or, maybe he realized we had been singing their song all along.
A few days later I ask him about it. I say do you remember when we were at the potluck and we sang “Praise God from Whom”? And he asks me, in his high-pitched voice, “that’s their song too?” Yes, I say. It is our song, all of us together.
In that moment of singing before the potluck and every time I remember that moment, I recognize that God has been in my midst, in our midst from the beginning.
One thing that I like so much about these resurrection appearance stories in the gospels is that Jesus is with the disciples before they recognize who he is (sometimes long before they recognize it is him). And this doesn’t just happen once to those who love him, but over and over again. The disciples realize it was Jesus on the shore all along. The disciples realize it was Jesus on the road to Emmaus all along. Mary Magdalene realizes it was Jesus who called out to her, not the gardener only after the fact. We know about this kind of recognition—the kind where we realize at the 11th hour that this moment, this thing that has been going on in our midst is God among us. Not some perfect thing in the future or in a perfect community somewhere else but this thing, right now, right here in my life is bursting with the beauty of God.
Maybe the predictable thing to do would be to try to encourage everyone right now not to miss out on these moments, to try harder to recognize them before they are gone, or at least before they are almost gone. It’s tempting to say maybe we can do better than the disciples of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, that these stories are written this way as cautionary tales to do better, try harder, to make it happen! In other words, to recognize Jesus before he has to call out to us from the shore or to recognize him while still on the road to Emmaus.
But I don’t think that’s the point here. You can’t force recognition or even an openness to recognition of Jesus. If we could, that would belie the miraculous quality of recognition, the way that we know and feel deeply that experiences of insight are more than simply subjective, more than simply us doing something.
I think what we can do instead is be faithful—to practice faithfully these disciplines that we know can be holy, even (and especially) when we don’t feel their magic, their spark. We can keep eating together and keep seeking opportunities to eat together with faithfulness and discipline.
This might be a funny kind of discipline of faithfulness. On the one hand, it might feel a little over the top. It is discipline of extravagance, a discipline of feasting, a discipline of immersing the senses with food, drink, and conversation. Yet on the other hand, we know this is one of the hardest things we can do. It requires great endurance: endurance in the work of food production, endurance in the work of relationship, endurance in the work of imagination.
What does Jesus’s resurrection mean for us? What would it mean to practice resurrection with fidelity in our life together? I think the early Christian community can guide us here in our answer—eat together. Eat together with the conviction that we are family. Eat together whenever we can. Create more opportunities to eat together. Create traditions that prioritize the common meal, uphold traditions that make the common meal the central event of worship, the event in which and through which we honor Jesus and make him present among us. I don’t mean to reify any old Eucharistic practices, particularly those in which participants are hardly participatory (e.g., no means to express dissent within the bounds of the ritual itself, no opportunity to voice concerns or to make visible power differentials). I mean to encourage real practices of eating together (whether Eucharistic or not): practices of eating together that we can be proud of, that we can stare in the face, that we can eat with the kind of fullness of pleasure that does not depend on ignorance, as Wendell Berry would say. Practice resurrection. Eat together.