"Feasting Together "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 9 & 10, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-42
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
One of the hardest parts of going away to college was being away from my family for holidays. I was able to come home from the east coast for Christmas, but otherwise I spent Thanksgiving, Easter, and even my birthday far away from home. Yet I was almost always included in some family gathering through my church.
I remember so well the Thanksgiving of my sophomore year. A young couple from church invited me and two friends to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. Mike was a graduate student at Harvard. His wife was known as June, but actually her name was Junko. June/Junko was born in Japan, but had lived in the U.S. for a number of years.
By the time we arrived at their apartment, the pungent aroma of roasting turkey filled every room. Welcomed by such a fine smell and by Mike's hearty greeting, I began to feel a little less homesick. June had been laboring in the kitchen all day to produce the perfect Thanksgiving meal, with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. She even added some special touches, making a number of Japanese delicacies to complement the American staples.
When we sat down for dinner, Mike opened in prayer, and then we dug in. The turkey was just right, not too dry. The mashed potatoes had come from real potatoes, not Styrofoam potato buds or Ivory soap flakes. After enjoying such traditional fare, I decided to be bold - and polite - by trying one of the Japanese specialties. I picked up some little black thing, which I later understood was wrapped in seaweed, and popped it into my mouth. But when my teeth sank into this treat and its flavor began to pervade my mouth, I realized that there was no way this thing was going to go down my throat. I was quite sure that if I even tried to swallow it, I'd disgorge the entire contents of my stomach. Not a welcome adjunct to a Thanksgiving dinner.
At first I didn't know what to do. So I waited, trying to ignore the disgusting flavor in my mouth. Finally, when everyone's attention was focused elsewhere, I pretended to cough, rushing my napkin to my mouth, and secretly deposited that Japanese delicacy in my napkin. Nobody saw what I had done. Waiting several minutes just in case someone suspected my subterfuge, I finally excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I promptly sent that black treat to an untimely death.
As you might already have guessed, I didn't indulge in any of the other Japanese delicacies that day. I stuck to good ol' American holiday food. And it was wonderful! Moreover, I felt truly welcomed by my friends, as we enjoyed not only delicious food, but lively conversation around the table.
The Meaning of Breaking Bread
If you spoke in the idioms of New Testament Greek, you'd say that Mike, June, my friends, and I "broke bread" that Thanksgiving day. And if you knew the New Testament well, you'd recognize that what I experienced that day in 1976 was very much like what happened in the earliest Christian church, as the first believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread . . . ."
But, wait a minute, you might be thinking, doesn't 'breaking of bread' actually refer to Communion, not to social eating? This is an astute question, which we can answer by pointing to a variety of pieces of evidence. For one thing, the phrase, "the breaking of bread," was, in the common language of the New Testament, simply a way of talking about eating food. (See, for example, Acts 20:11, where "breaking bread" clearly means "eating food.") In the world of the first century, especially among Jews, eating a meal began with the breaking of bread, literally, which was joined to offering prayers of thanks to God.
Of course it's also true that Jesus broke bread in the context of the Last Supper, and that the memory of this event was passed down in the early church. This is one reason we associate the phrase "breaking of bread" with Communion. But it's unlikely that Luke was speaking in Acts 2:42 of some sort of special Eucharistic ceremony that happened apart from a common meal. In fact, the earliest Christians celebrated Communion, not in some distinct ritual, but simply as part of eating together.
The clearest evidence of Luke's meaning in Acts 2:42, however, comes only four verses later. There we read, "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (2:46). Here breaking bread is explicitly connected with eating food.
So, it's clear that the earliest Christians devoted themselves not only to the apostles' teaching, and not only to fellowship, but also to eating together. Yet this raises some interesting questions. Why does Luke mention the practice of sharing meals? And why does this receive such prominence in his list, coming even before prayer? Why is it such a big deal that Christians share food together? Is eating together really one of the essentials of church life? And if so, why?
Why Eating Together Matters
If you were simply to look at Christian experience throughout history, you'd have to say that eating certainly seems to be one of the essentials of church life. No matter where you go in this world, if you hang out with Christians, you'll end up eating with them. For example, I've had barbeque with Lutherans in Wisconsin, soul food with black Pentecostals in Connecticut, tamales with Hispanic Presbyterians from Santa Ana, and kimchee with Koreans believers in Anaheim. This doesn't count the endless quantities of chicken casserole and green Jello I've enjoyed at Presbyterian potlucks.
Why does this happen? Why do Christians eat together no matter where they gather? Hunger and habit are two good reasons, but I think there are more. I want to suggest three reasons why we Christians so often eat together, and, indeed, why we should.
1. Eating Together Augments Intimacy
In first-century Jewish culture, eating together wasn't a casual endeavor. Jews didn't just "do lunch." When you ate with someone in that culture, you indicated your acceptance of that person, and your desire for an intimate friendship. This was especially true if the meal took place in a private home. Luke takes pains to emphasize in verse 46 that the early Christians ate together in their homes. In fact he uses the rather awkward Greek phrase, "they broke at home bread." In other words, they welcomed each other into their homes and into their lives by sharing food together.
Therefore, eating together underlines the point I made last week about Christian fellowship, namely, that it is so much more than casual friendliness. When the early believers ate together, they opened, not just their homes, but their lives to each other. They shared real life together, as I suggested last week. Or in the language of my book, After "I Believe," the early believers shared intimate fellowship.
Although our culture doesn't make quite the same connection between sharing food and sharing lives, we often open our hearts to each other in the context of eating. As somebody pointed out in the Pastor's Study last week, when we eat together, we're forced to slow down. We take a break from our hurried lives to be with each other and to engage in something beyond superficial conversation. Linda and I experienced this very thing last week. We got together with some of our best friends in this church, friends we had hardly seen in months. Eating together provided a moment of rest so we could catch up with these friends. It was great. And I sure needed it, let me tell you. I'll bet you do too.
So, one of the reasons eating together matters so much to the church is that it facilitates deeper conversation and care. Sharing good food provides a context for sharing real life.
2. Eating Together Celebrates God's Presence and Blessing
If you think of religion as a matter of spirit, as a kind of other-worldly mystical reality, then you'll be shocked as you read through the Bible. Not only does God create the world as something good, but he is consistently interested in worldly matters, including eating. Just think of all the food laws of the Old Testament. Or the festivals. When God wants his people to remember him and to celebrate his goodness, what does he tell them to do? Have a big party with lots of food and drink. Use the best you've got!
Yes, of course there is a time to fast, as on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:29-31). But the rest of the Jewish holidays involve feasting. Perhaps most importantly, the central commemorative ritual in Judaism, the Passover, is a meal. God uses the symbols of food to help his people remember his grace, and these symbols are to be eaten, not alone, but always in fellowship with others. Thus it comes as no real surprise that the central commemorative ritual in Christianity is also a meal, of sorts. Though we've taken the symbols of Communion out of their original context in an actual meal, we still remember Jesus's sacrifice by sharing food together.
Why food? Why does feasting permeate the religion of God's people? In addition to what I've already said about intimacy, I would add that the combination of food and faith reminds us that God is concerned with and immanent within this world, in addition to transcending it. It's all too easy for us to turn religion into a matter of spirit only, to think that the physical doesn't matter, or even that the physical is bad while spirit is good. But this kind of Greek-inspired dualism contradicts the theological center of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It perpetuates the heresy of Gnosticism rather than Christian orthodoxy.
In fact, the same God who created all things continues to care about all things. This world matters to God. Your body matters to God. And when we eat together in an act of worship, when we include God in our shared meals, we're reminded that God isn't some far off, world-denying spirit, but rather the God of Creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered his people from Egypt, the God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who died on the real cross for our sins, and the God who will one day recreate heaven and earth. So when we eat together in the Lord, we acknowledge that God is present with us in daily life and we delight in his blessings.
Delight is key here. When we eat together as Christians, we don't merely fulfill our physical needs, but we celebrate God's presence and grace. If you look carefully at passages in the Old Testament that instruct the Jews to eat together as a religious act, you'll find the consistent theme of joy (for example, Deut 12:7; 14:26).
One of the most striking "eating-stories" in the Bible comes from the book of Nehemiah. After King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and carried off the best and the brightest among the Jews to Babylon, the people spent decades in exile. But finally, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, God restored his people. In Nehemiah 8 Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the people, something they had not heard or understood for years. They are struck to the heart, and they begin to weep. Excellent, you might think, God is convicting their hearts! But Ezra and Nehemiah issue a surprising instruction: "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep" (Neh 8:9). And what should the people do instead? "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Neh 8:10). Go and eat, they say. Why? Because the day is set apart for God, and the joy of the Lord is your strength. This is a day to be strengthened by eating and rejoicing. So what did the people do? "[A]ll the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing." (Neh 8:12). Did you catch that? "To make great rejoicing." When we eat, and when we eat well, we rejoice.
Food and celebration go hand in hand throughout the world. Visit some virtually unknown tribe in Papua New Guinea and, without fail, you'll discover that they eat when they celebrate. One of the reasons God wants us to eat together as believers is that he wants us to rejoice. God wants us to enjoy his blessings together: to feast, to laugh, to play, to dance, delight in the goodness of creation even as we delight in his presence.
Last week was our annual men's retreat. As you probably know, on the men's retreat we eat. But one of our virtual sacraments at the retreat is not just food for nutrition, but food for fun, food for fellowship, food for feasting. Every year we have a snack table, a smorgasbord of all the foods you're not supposed to eat in normal life. We have M&Ms and we have Cheetos. We have Cokes with all the sugar still there. We have giant tubs of red vines. We have peanuts and corn chips. And so it goes, on and on without end. For two days the men of this church pig out, without guilt or shame. Why? Because fun food equals celebration. Because fun food leads to rejoicing. Because fun food augments fellowship. Of course we all come back to reality soon enough. But for 42 hours we get to taste, well, a bit of heaven.
And this brings me to my last point.
3. Feasting Together is a Vision of God's Future
Feasting together gives us a vision of God's future. When we share rich food together, we get a glimpse of heaven.
You can see this throughout the Bible. Take Isaiah 25, for example. There we see a vision of the coming of the kingdom of God:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well aged-wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the LORD God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. (Isaiah 25:6-8)
Jesus follows Isaiah's lead by comparing the kingdom of God to a great feast. In Matthew 22 he says, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son" (22:2). Of course Jesus came from a culture where wedding banquets were lavish affairs. The wedding banquet of a king for his royal son would have been the biggest party on record. So if you want to know what life in God's kingdom will be like, think about the most exquisite and joyful wedding reception you've ever attended. This might give you some small picture of God's glorious future.
So then, when we feast together as a church, not just grabbing a Big Mac on the run, but sitting down and enjoying both great food and great fellowship together, we get to experience just a bit of heaven on earth. This happens when men on their retreat swap stories over endless supplies of M&Ms. It happens when share In-N-Out burgers at the all-church picnic. It happens when we gather on Christmas night for a festive supper. It happens as we open our homes to each other and enjoy a fine meal together. And on, and on . . . .
So . . . Eat Together!
So what's the bottom line of this sermon? What's the exhortation with which I'm going to leave you today? It's simple: Break bread together! Eat together! Celebrate God's goodness and presence by sharing food and fellowship in his presence.
Now you might think this is just about the easiest imperative I've ever given in a sermon. After all, we like eating, and we like eating together. But the truth is we are all so doggone busy that it's sometimes hard for us to share a meal together, either in large group contexts or with close friends. We're all running so hard and so fast that we rarely stop long enough to share a meal so we can share our lives. Friends, I'll confess to be the first of sinners in this regard. So as I admonish you, I'll take the first licks.
We need to spend more time eating together as a church in all different kinds of settings. Whether two brothers grab a burger together at lunch, or families get together for pizza on Sunday afternoon, or Sunday School classes have brunch, or we have an all-church potluck - the options go on and on. The point is we all need to do more or this more often.
I loved it when, last Christmas, Tonia and Woody Burge organized a Christmas night (not Eve) supper for people who were in town and wanted to get together. My family and I were away at my mother's, so we didn't come. But many others did: singles who had no other place to go, families that just wanted to be with more people, etc. etc. What a great idea! I'm glad we'll be doing it again this year.
Be Sure to Include Others
Let me close by reminding you of a feature of our eating together that could easily be forgotten. This is our need to include others as we are celebrating together. Sometimes this "other focus" comes in the form of inviting visitors to our gatherings and making sure that they feel at home. Sometimes hospitality for others is the main point of our feast. Take Pizza Lunch, for example. Most of the 300-400 high school kids who gather on Fridays aren't IPC members. Rather, we host the meal primarily for others. Come and celebrate with us, we say! What a great ministry, and an example of how we can open our feasting to the community.
There's another way our food-centered celebrations can include others, and this is through our intentional generosity. Did you notice a crucial line from Nehemiah 8? As Ezra and Nehemiah told the people to go and enjoy rich food and fine wine, they added "and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared" (Neh 8:10). In other words, the Israelites were to ensure that everybody had plenty of delicious food to enjoy, even those who were too poor to prepare it themselves. What a great illustration! Even as the people celebrated lavishly, they also gave generously.
There have been a few times during my years at IPC when we've had sumptuous, celebratory feasts together. One time was at the conclusion of our More than we think we are capital campaign in 1993, the one that helped us build this sanctuary. On the day when we presented our sacrificial pledges, we erected a big tent on the grass field that used to be right here so everybody could worship together that morning. Then, after worship, we enjoyed a tasty catered lunch together, nothing terribly fancy, but delicious and filling nonetheless. The food, however, was really just a way to get people to hang out together other and to celebrate God's goodness to our church. It worked marvelously, and we had a fantastic time of fellowship that day.
But a few members of our church were peeved. "Why did we spend that money on ourselves?" they asked. "Shouldn't we have devoted that money to the building fund? Or shouldn't we have given that money to the poor, rather than have a meal together?" Now I did appreciate the concern of these people not to be wasteful or selfish. But I wished they had paid closer attention to biblical precedent. Generous giving to the poor is essential to God's people, as is building buildings for God's service. But God revealed in the Old Testament Law that there is a time when it's right and even necessary for God's people to spend a healthy chunk of their tithes and offerings on a lavish feast, to be eaten in God's presence. It's essential to their worship! And so it should be for us.
Nevertheless, we must always watch to see that our celebrations and banquets don't become too self-centered. Sometimes we need to stretch ourselves to make sure our focus is sufficiently outward as we celebrate. I think, for example, of our annual Harvest Celebration. A central feature of this event is "Trunk-or-Treating" in the parking lot. In the first year our kids dressed up in costumes and went from car to car, getting lots of candy. Rich food, indeed! We had plenty of fun together, and this was just great. But something seemed out of balance to me. As I thought and prayed about it, I decided that our "Trunk-or-Treating" needed a built-in element of generosity. So, in the next year, besides getting lots of candy at each trunk, children also gave their coins to raise money for the poor. As we celebrated God's blessings to us, we also remembered to "send portions," as it were, to those who lacked them.
So, my friends, like the earliest church, may we be devoted, not only to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, but also to feasting together. May we hear and respond to the exhortation of Ezra and Nehemiah: "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."