The Meaning of Meals

Received the kind gift of a nice guitar for Christmas. After all the rabid cooking of several Christmas meals and hosting over Christmas and the New Year, heeded everyone’s warnings to chill out before the start of term by tuning it up and lounging on the sitting room sofa, trying to get the fingers calloused enough to play the thing properly.

Between irritating the neighbours with terrible strumming, watching the first episode of BBC’s Sherlock Series 3 (no spoilers here!) and other people’s DVD collections, have also been dipping into Tim Chester’s A Meal With Jesus: discovering grace, community & mission around the table and Herman Bavinck’s stuff on the Church.

caramelised chicory (endives) with serrano hamChester certainly inspires his readers to think carefully about ordinary meals – what they could symbolise and the good they could do. At the risk of misrepresenting him, it seems that Chester sees meals as:

  • enacted grace – Jesus is handing out God’s party invitations and they read: “You’re invited to my party in the new creation. Come as you are.” Jesus’ meals picture the day when the last will be first, as he welcomes the marginal and confronts the self-righteous and self-reliant. Our meals should beautifully embody God’s love for marginalised people and speak powerfully of grace, even to those who cannot understand what is being said;
  • enacted community –  involvement with people, especially the marginalised, must begin with a sense of God’s grace. But not just God’s grace to them but God’s grace to me. When I speak with someone who’s an alcoholic or an unmarried mother etc, I must do so as a fellow sinner. Otherwise I will be patronising. Generous hospitality leads to reconciliation. It expresses forgiveness. Paul uses hospitality as a metaphor for reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 7:2. Hospitality can be a kind of sacrament of forgiveness. Shared meals offer a moment of grace, a divine moment, an opportunity for people to be seduced by grace into a better life, a truer life and a more human existence. Church itself is to come extent embodied through shared meals. Our meals express our doctrine of justification. There can be no distinctions around the meal table;
  • enacted hope – the Christian community is the beginning and sign of God’s coming world – and no more so than when we eat together. Our meals are a foretaste of the future messianic banquet. They reveal the identity of Jesus. They are a proclamation and demonstration of God’s good news. Food isn’t just fuel. It’s not just a mechanism for sustaining us for ministry. It’s gift, generosity, grace. God set a table so we could eat in his presence. This is the heart of what it means to be human. It involves physicality. God didn’t create us for mere mental contemplation, but for a shared meal. But neither is the meal everything. God has put us together in such a way that our hunger for the gift of food is designed to lead us to the Giver (Deuteronomy 8:3). The meals of Jesus are a sign of hope for a renewed creation with bodies and food. It is hope for a meal in the presence of God;
  • enacted mission – what’s new in the story of the great banquet in Luke 14 is the exhortation to invite outsiders to our meals. God welcomes us to his party, and so we’re to welcome the poor. Simply writing a cheque keeps the poor at a distance. But Jesus was the friend of sinners. The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalisation, inclusion to replace their exclusion, a place where they matter to replace their powerlessness. They need community. Meals enact mission. But they enact mission because they enact grace. Meals bring mission in the ordinary. But that’s where most people are – living in the ordinary;
  • enacted salvation – at the fall, food was the way we expressed our disobedience and mistrust of God. Sin distorts all our relationships, including our relationships with food. We use food for control instead of looking to God’s greatness. We use food for image instead of looking to God’s glory. We use food for refuge instead of looking to God’s goodness. We use food for identity instead of looking to God’s grace. We live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3). But this word is embodied in a meal. The communion meal reorients life by relocating us in the story told by the Word. The meal points to the goal: eating in the presence of God as a celebration of his generosity in creation and salvation. We anticipate this in every meal, but especially in the Lord’s Supper;
  • enacted promise – the story of Martha and Mary doesn’t promote a spirituality of disengagement or a contemplative life. It offers a word of invitation. It reorients us to the Word that promises a future banquet. This promise liberates us from the worries of this world so that we can put first God’s kingdom. The meal at Emmaus is the means by which Jesus becomes known as the suffering Messiah. Jesus is known at the breaking of bread, at the meal table, sharing food with friends and enemies. Christ is known in community.

This ticks all the right zeitgeist boxes: inclusiveness, community, authenticity (“It’s possible to remain at a distance from someone in public gatherings – even in a Bible study. Meals bring you close. You see people in situ, in life, as they are. You connect and communicate.”), anti-authorianism (“The future of Christianity lies not in a return to the dominance of Christendom, but in small intimate communities of light. Often they’re unseen by history. But they’re what transform neighbourhoods and cities.”), anti-institutionalism (“Prostitutes loved sharing a meal with Jesus. They avoid the church he founded like the plague. Something has gone wrong.”), finding meaning and significance in the mundane.

clementine and almond cake from an Ottolenghi recipe
And he makes good observations and points worth thinking more about like:

  • we do need to think about glorifying God in all aspects of life, even in the mundane things.
  • hospitality has become a performance art, and we’ve lost the creation of intimacy around a meal.
  • think of your favourite food. Steak perhaps. Or Thai green curry. Or ice cream. Or home-made apple pie. God could have just made fuel. He could have made us to be sustained by some kind of savoury biscuit. Instead he gave us a vast and wonderful array of foods. The world is more delicious than it needs to be. We have a superabundance of divine goodness and generosity. God went over the top.
  • not only did God give us food; he also ordained cooking. God gave this world to us to care for and cultivate. But he also gave it to us to explore and develop. It was God’s intention that we should take the raw material of his world and use it to create science, culture, agriculture, music, technology and poetry – to his glory. Every time you bake a cake, you’re fulfilling that creation mandate. (Hmmm, interesting.)
  • Chester’s observations on how sin distorts our relationship with food.

I also rather like his pithy soundbite-y style of writing (though this makes linking up his ideas a little challenging for me). However, am still pondering whether this coheres with what the Bible says. This is not so much a critique as a note-to-self as to where my little brain has got to so far:

  • not completely convinced that Chester correctly interprets Luke’s aims in writing the referenced bits of his Gospel;
  • in many of his categories, I wonder if he might have muddied the distinction between the church (even if just the visible church) and the world. It probably seems unpopularly elitist to make such a distinction, but it is clear from Scripture that the church is made up only of people who have put their trust in God. Therefore, the benefit of church community and unity is available only to Christians. But this is not to say that we should hunker down in our holy huddle. Those outside the family of God should be made to feel welcome as visitors to the household of God, but it would hypocritical and confusing to treat them as if they were part of the body of Christ when they are not;
  • not quite convinced either that meals should, in all cultures, at all times, be invested with the significance that Chester accords them. While some meanings might hold in the culture I come from, I’m just not too sure about stamping “biblical mandate” on them;
  • the offer of community is attractive and I have in the last year been a grateful beneficiary of very loving communities. But it seems to me that the Bible as a whole lays greater salvific significance on the express proclamation of God’s word.

That is all for now…

*the recipes for both the caramelised endives with serrano ham, and the clementine and ground almond syrup cake were Ottolenghi-inspired. They were easily made by someone with very sore fingertips.

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