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The Table and the Altar

I have always suspected that the simple act of eating together holds a deeper significance than we generally recognize. A few months ago a newspaper article outlining the impact of regular family mealtimes on young people caught my attention. The research confirmed a long list of benefits including stronger communication skills, improved mood, decreased risk of obesity and an increased sense of belonging and cultural identity.

The results did not surprise me. If there is one image that could define my childhood it would be the kitchen table with its flickering candle and unhurried conversation. At a time when my own identity seemed constantly under threat, it was there that I knew myself best. In fact, above the food itself, I think it is that sense of security and belonging which still draws me back to my parents’ table more than two decades later.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly fascinated by the Jewish context of the life and teaching of Jesus. As part of that, I have been excited and challenged in equal measure by the fresh perspective this has brought to the place of the table within the Biblical story. Central to their festivals, their worship, and their discussion of Scripture, the table was a place where each new generation would encounter the tastes and sights and sounds that would always serve as a reminder of their place within a bigger story.

In Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg sum up the beauty of table fellowship like this:

“Though the Israelites didn’t have fancy tables or place settings, they had something better. For them, the table was much more than a place to eat. It was a place of mutual trust and vulnerability. Sitting down at the table to eat with someone meant you had a protected relationship with them. Whom you ate with revealed something important about who you were, showing to whom you belonged. Just as the word “house” could mean your family lineage or the word “bed” could mean your intimate relationship, the word “table” could stand for family and friends—all those you trusted and on whom you depended. These were the people with whom you enjoyed table fellowship. In fact, table fellowship implied a nearly inviolable relationship. To be a guest at a family’s table meant that you were under their protection. As long as you were with the family, they were honour bound to defend you, even at the cost of their lives.”

There is a reason why our literature is so full of great banquets. Why kings summon their commanders and officials to feast with them. Why, in their darkest hour, the downtrodden heroes often find themselves invited to sit with a stranger and share a bowl of stew. Something happens around a table; bonds are formed, stories are told, barriers are broken down and hope is quietly kindled.

Eating together has always had a deeply symbolic place in the life of God’s people. In Acts 2, as the early church exploded out in the power of God, one of the things that marked them out was their commitment to sharing meals together. Right from the beginnings in Genesis, this sharing of fellowship meals has been closely tied to the stunning concept of covenant. In order to symbolize their solemn promises to one another, whether it was a marriage, a peace treaty or a transfer of ownership, the parties would sit down and share a meal together.

One of the most remarkable examples of a covenant meal takes place in Exodus 24. On this occasion the covenant is not between two friends or two families, or even two warring kings, but between God and the people he has called His own. Having appeared in fire and thunder on Mount Sinai in a demonstration of holiness and glory that left the Israelites trembling in fear and awe, God Himself invites Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel to come up on the mountain, sit down and eat and drink with Him. Think about that for a moment. It’s astonishing.

Remarkable as it was, Mount Sinai was not the last place God would eat and drink a covenant meal with His people. In an upper room with his disciples, as He prepared to face the cross, Jesus instituted another meal that would be the sign of an unbreakable covenant between God and his people. This time God was not only the host but also the meal to be shared. A meal that was to be repeated again and again as a sign and a reminder of the covenant that was made at the cross.

If an understanding of our covenant bond enriches the meals we share around our kitchen tables, then on a deeper level it transforms our approach to communion. As the bread and wine passes from hand to hand, each person who eats and drinks it is reminded that they have been invited to share in the indestructible, resurrection life of Christ. Not only individually, but together. Just as the cross brought a covenant of peace between God and man, it also broke down the barriers of hostility between those who take His name.

Like Moses and the elders of Israel or the disciples in the upper room; when we come to communion we sit down to eat and drink in the presence of God Himself. That is a privilege we could spend a lifetime exploring. However, it is easy to forget that we are not the only guests at the table. If we have entered into a covenant that is symbolized by the bread and the wine, then each person who takes it is part of the same covenant. Sharing in the same peace. Entering into the same story.

At communion the table becomes the altar. The place where we not only fellowship with God and with each other but where we sacrifice our self-importance and take our place within a kingdom governed by a covenant of forgiveness and peace.

For me, this raises some difficult questions. How do I view the person next to me when we break bread? Do I see someone with whom I have a protected relationship? Someone whom I am honor bound to defend? Does the oneness of this meal remind me who I am? Does it remind me what I am part of? If not, then I am in danger of accepting the undeserved welcome lavished on me by grace, while at the same time rejecting the essence of the very covenant that gives me a place at the table.

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