Message & the Meal: The Forgotten Practice of the Modern Church
The transformative act of Gospel proclamation has been central to the Church’s missional existence ever since Jesus began heralding the arrival of the kingdom following his baptism by John. Now, far be it from me to dethrone or minimize the centrality of the royal kerygma that the church has been entrusted with since the Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, but this is not to say that the church hasn’t largely neglected the other half of Jesus’ and the early church’s missional praxis, namely, open table fellowship as the corresponding and tangible extension of gospel preaching.
You see, Jesus combined the practice of open table fellowship with his kerygmatic preaching as the palpable reality of the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God. Acceptance and repentance weren’t merely verbal and cognitive realities, they were that too, but were combined with the willingness to actually eat with Jesus and those (often the dregs of society) of whom he also welcomed.
Jesus’ kingdom-shaped meals, then, became not only the visible reality of the in-breaking kingdom, but in so doing subverted the normal hierarchical structures that meals around the Mediterranean regularly exemplified. This, because, it was at meals (in the old world) where the types—sinners, elderly, adulterers, imperial colluders, etc.—Jesus accepted weren’t allowed to be equal participants. But not at Jesus’ parties. J.D. Crossan adds:
The kingdom of God as a process of open commensality (“the rules of tabling and eating as miniature models for the rules of association and socialization”), of a nondiscrimminating table depicting in miniature a nondiscrimnating society, clashes fundamentally with honor and shame, those basic values of ancient Mediterranean culture and society.
Many of the church’s most beloved parables (one thinks here of the Prodigal Son) were told in the context of why Jesus “was eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Both the message and the meal then were vital to Jesus’ ministry and we border on an ignorant docetism, even neo-Gnosticism, if we separate the two. The church was never supposed to offer a mere salvific gnosis, but proclaim in word and meal the open acceptance of the estranged sinner by God and his Christ.
This means, at the very least, that the church needs to begin to do more than preach the Gospel, we need to begin opening our homes as an extension of the message we herald before the world. It will not be enough to tell them they are accepted, we must by God’s grace offer open-commensality that will be used by God as an extension of his own kingly table. N.T. Wright sums it up well:
Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.
Thus, the church, as those who by grace are commissioned to extend the Messianic banquet must re-open the gates of kerygmatic hospitality; it is not merely our task to tell them they’ve been welcomed by Israel’s God, we must serve them so that they can taste it too! And it will not be enough to tell them they are invited into God’s house if we do not first invite them into our very own.