When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I was part of a group called the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin (since changed to the Eclectic Christians of Oberlin). Our activities revolved around preparing food for each other and eating together every Sunday night in a little house owned by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Our advisors were a husband and wife couple who co-pastored the local American Baptist church, an open and affirming community dedicated to inclusion and social justice activism. Ten or fifteen of us would gather together in the small dining room and hold hands around the table, shiftily eyeing each other as we asked “Who wants to pray?” I’d usually step up and pray, thanking God and asking God to bless our food and our community, and help us be witnesses of God’s social justice in the world. We’d then serve each other huge helpings of mac ‘n’ cheese and pie and vegan rice dishes, then adjourn to the cozy living room for a conversation about theology and communal intercessory prayer.
There was something about eating together, sharing a common meal and blessing each other, that moved me significantly. I had never felt so loved, so held, by God than in those moments where we’d joke and cry and sing hymns and shovel tasty homemade delights into our mouths. One of the coolest things about this group was that there was no faith requirement: our name had the word Christian in it, but we were never exclusive–our Muslim, atheist, Jewish, pagan and Catholic friends often joined us to talk about the nature of God, the life of Jesus of Nazareth as an example, and practicing faith-based social justice. There was always enough room for everyone around the table, always enough food to go around. When we were together, we never ran out of blessing. Letty Russell puts it well:
“A lot of community takes place at a table, and the Christian heritage already has a long tradition related to table community, table sharing, table talk, and the like…At this table there is no permanent seating, and whatever chairs of authority that exist are shared. Christ is the host and bids everyone to come.”
Jesus tells several stories in the gospels about hospitality through inviting all people to the banquet, no matter station, ethnicity, class or religion. In one parable, told in Luke 14:16-22, Jesus describes how all people should be invited to the banquet, even those in the “roads and lanes.” Earlier in that chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the guests at a banquet that they should not place themselves in the highest seat, but that they should adopt a humble posture until the host invites them to move up, suggesting a practical and liveable way of interpreting “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Though many of these teachings about meetings and hospitality are told in parables, Jesus’ life is also an example of hospitality given and received. He regularly ate with lawyers, tax collectors and prostitutes, to the chagrin of the learned Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes (Mark 2:15). Jesus also knew how to receive hospitality, as he visited Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family multiple times and often was fed by supporters of his disciples throughout his ministry (Luke 10:38-42).
Growing up, family dinners were sacred to me. I lived a few states over from my mom’s family, so we’d drive seven or eight hours every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter to be together and eat hearty home cooked meals. As I went to college and began to share meals with people outside my family, I was reminded of the sacredness of eating together in itself. Gathering together to share the fruit of the earth, the fruit of creation, was a way of remembering the body of God given through Christ in creation.
What is the meal you have most enjoyed in your life? Were you with anyone when you ate it? What is special about that time?
How do you see living and eating in community? Is this something that is special to you? How can you move yourself to give and receive hospitality in light of this table theology?
How can you take steps in your everyday life to invite folks on the margins to the table, literally and figuratively? Where in your community can you help eradicate hunger?
Ayres, Jennifer. Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.
Wirzba, Norman. Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.