There are certain ways in which Christendom has conspired, mostly unintentionally, to deprive the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of their compelling power to shape the lives and activity of the Christian. It is not for nought that the NT ethicist Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” had such an impact on Christian theology with his critique of much of Christianity’s attempts to define Christian behaviour not based on the pattern that Jesus laid down in his life and times as recorded in the Gospels, but instead finding our patterns from either misconceived interpretations of Paul’s letters, or our own “experiences” of the world. One of such marginalized practices is the simple, “carnal” activity of eating together.
Mark Moore documents 36 mentions in the Gospels of Jesus either feeding people, or eating with people. This by the way is many more times than certain things that some Christians use to evaluate their fellow Christian’s “spiritual level”, but that’s a story for another day. Mark concludes with the following statement.
“In a sense, Jesus’ subversive message was embodied in his table fellowship. He used meals as a fulcrum for social reconstruction. Truly, Jesus turned these tables into pulpits and used them to reconfigure his world.” – Mark Moore, The Meals of Jesus: Table Fellowship in the Gospels
And yet it’s so amazing how amongst today’s disciples of Jesus, eating together has been so diminished of it’s power. The fact that after all the numerous explanations of Jesus was advancing to his 2 friends on the road to Emmaus, sitting down and eating with them is what finally clinched it should tell us there is something about sitting and eating together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that we might be missing out on. Let me illustrate with a small experience I had at my church.
The Jesus Community in Agbogba is a small home church with a membership less than 20. We do eat together regularly as and when we have the opportunity to do so, aside of taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. In addition, we never spare the chance to have a good meal together during special occasions like Christmas, and this Christmas was no exception. The fact that I actually drove for an hour to Kpong by the Volta River from Accra to buy tilapia fish for the Ghanaian favorite “banku and tilapia with pepper sauce” should tell you that we kid not with the Christmas party.
But reflecting over this, as well as over my church’s general attitude towards eating together made me realize that we might be fulfilling in some ways Jesus’s admonition
“Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:12-14).
Now a disclaimer is in order here. When we have a “party”, we don’t intentionally invite the lame, the cripple, the blind etc. We simply not have much resources now to throw such a party, and we hope for a time when we can actually do so in the near future.
However, my church community is dominated by the urban poor, and especially during Christmas parties like the last one, some of our members do invite other friends, some of whom may also be in the same economic state. In the end, food and games unites us all as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ.
Eating with one another so often, without regard to each other’s social, economic or tribal status enables the creation of friendships that go beyond the surface. We develop bonds of closeness and empathy, and when we find any brother in difficulty, one can hardly look at them and harden one’s heart not to do what is within one’s power to help. Reflecting over this simple act of eating together, I have learnt many lessons and realize how subversive Jesus Christ’s agenda is if we truly take the Jesus of the Gospels seriously.
Most Christians have been fed an overly romanticized idea of how one may “feed the poor” or “help the poor”. The Mother Theresas and the Jean Varniers of this world who are able to leave everything behind and dedicate their lives solely to the poor and marginalized continue to be needed to dedicate their lives to these acts of mercy. But one doesn’t have to be like them before one can help the marginalized. There are many poor people around us, if we just open our eyes we will see them. You can start from your church community, because that is the place Jesus actually desires you to start from before going elsewhere.
The easiest way to start loving someone, whether rich or poor, is to start by being their friend. I live in a place with quite some big money churches around me. I do see their well-intended efforts at charity, some of it disturbingly labeled “corporate social responsibility”, and I shake my head. It is easy to make the disadvantaged into a project so that when we raise our big donations to go and donate to them and satisfy our conscience, so we can continue living our lives frolicking with those in our high class social settings without batting an eyelid. But in what way do the poor and vulnerable have a place within our day to day lives, so that they actually become friends whom we spend time with, whom we visit regularly and whose concerns (and annoyances) become ours as well? Because in so doing, they become our friends, not just a project or “a human being with a label called poor”. This is what the radical Shane Claiborne put so forcefully thus;
“I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor” – Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution
Our modern day love affair with individualism is so ingrained in us that we fail to realize that the tasks that Jesus gives to us in the Gospel cannot be achieved by individual Christian effort. I get the question very often “how can I help someone if I don’t have the resources”, where the questioner assumes that they alone are supposed to help the poor. But you see when the early disciples had problems with financial resources, it became a matter of importance to the church, and then individuals gave what they could to help relieve the problem. Without Christian community actually prioritizing economic justice as important in their midst and working to support it in any way or form, works of compassion becomes a “calling” that an individual person must find the will and resources to undertake on their own. Of course, this means very few people will be able to do so, and Jesus’s words in the gospel will need to be explained away with all sorts of permutations and combinations of theories. Whenever I hear another sermon from the Gospels being preached as if Jesus were giving motivational tips on individual self-help, without recognizing that the imperatives Jesus demands are meant to be lived out by the church community with one another, I shake my head in sadness.
Coupled with the point about individualism above is church’s loss of identity as the agent of God’s will for renewal of this fallen earth in works of justice, compassion and peace, something they rather expect the politicians to be doing. Churches have resolved themselves to “save the souls”, and leave the bodies to the governments to devour. The current practice (at least in churches in Ghana) of taking all donations to the “headquarters” to execute a nebulous “work of God”, whiles local churches struggle to take care of the mounting needs of church members suffering under corrupt and unjust economic leadership in this country needs a total overhaul. I have lived within the town I live in now for 20 years, and used to attend a church here till I stopped attending. I have neighbours who are still members of this church whose economic fortunes have stayed the same or deteriorated in these years, even leading one person to experience mental problems. And yet some of these neighbours grumble to me about the church’s continuous plea for more donations to “do the work of God”, as if God does not care about their poverty. No matter how much an individual church member can give to these people, the community can give way more (and go beyond financial needs) if it was a priority that they could actualize. As it stands, church leaders are afraid of reprimand from the top, so the status quo stands.
We live in the nation Ghana, where the large majority of our population lives below the poverty line. In the city of Accra, there are very few communities populated by only rich people. Because of the failure of our city authorities to enforce planning rules, there are “slums” in every suburb of Accra. If you find yourself running a Christian ministry full of only middle to upper class, upwardly mobile members whiles the population where your church is sited is actually dominated by poor people, one has to ask serious questions about your ministry. Are you actively excluding the poor, illiterate, socially excluded and oppressed class of people that Jesus so loved in the gospels with your ministry? Sadly, I find it ironic when some Christians wonder why so many mostly poor and illiterate Ghanaians seem to flock after pastors who these Christians consider charlatans(even if they don’t say it aloud that they are). The question I’d love to ask them is in what way is your “good church/pastor” actually working to make such people feel welcome and their voices heard? In some ways we must be thankful for these charlatans, for the conditions that existed in places like Nigeria to foster the growth of a terrorist group like Boko Haram are the same conditions that we are creating here, except that these “pastors” have not yet began to lead people to large-scale violence to solve their problems (though some do at a not-so-grand scale, like encouraging violence against one’s mother because she is the “witch” who is causing one’s poverty).
There is a subversive power in sitting down and eating together, and doing so regularly. When the rich eat the same food with the poor, when the oppressor sits, thinks and talks with the oppressed, when the depressed finds joy in cooking or serving his brethren salivating whiles waiting for the food, all in pursuit of following Jesus and his vision of an upside down kingdom, something indeed does happen that the world doesn’t understand. The Gospels and their depiction of Jesus doesn’t become just nice Sunday school stories we tell our children, but real life scenarios that we can point to.
I suspect there’s a reason why eating together has become a rarity in Christendom. It brings the real issues to the fore, it opens us up to the pain and suffering of others. It relaxes us to talk about our hurts and pains, our hopes and our disappointments. It pushes others present to want to do something about them. And that “something” can sometimes be dangerous to the empire-building desires of those at the top, be they political or church leaders. Because after all the wonderful meals together, if all you can think about is the pursuit of the next spiritual high or “prophetic” movement (interestingly it used to be “miraculous” movements a few years ago. Sigh …), the latest gadget in town, the next big car to own, the career competition between you and your contemporaries from school, or the next big church building “to the glory of God”, the next “pastor’s appreciation day”, then I have news for you. You might just not be following the way of Jesus. And following that way is all that matters.