Spiritual Practices for an Accelerating Age #5: Inviting People to Our Table

I remember years ago being a grad student working on my Masters and being at an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship gathering in the fall to kick off the school year. A bunch of new undergrads were uncomfortably standing around the backyard of the IVCF staff worker. Many didn’t know one another. Conversation was minimal. It was a little awkward.

Then the food came out and changed everything. Amazingly, simply having plates with hot dogs, burgers, cans of pop, and various other backyard BBQ staples broke the silence. People began talking with a great deal more ease and interest.

Food changed the atmosphere.

When I was an undergrad there was a church that sent a van to the university campus twice each Sunday; an earlier bus, if you wanted to go to Sunday school and a second one if you only wanted to go to the worship service. If memory serves, it was a 10 to 15 minute drive. Then after the service this same church also shuttled interested students to the homes of various church members to enjoy a home cooked meal. Once a month, the church had a potluck at the church itself.

Last I heard, this church still practices hospitality to university students.

For me, this experience was awesome and profoundly formative. I got the chance to get to know people from this church and other students. That it happened around a table laden with food is no coincidence.

Over the years my family and I have tried to open our home in similar ways. For example, we had a friend and her children over for dinner this past Christmas Day. It’s become something of a tradition. We make the main course and she makes pies. Yes, pies. We also have had others over various times too.

On Friday evenings we have our family Sabbath meal. It’s the start of how we observe Sabbath in our home, a dinner that kicks off roughly 24 hours of rest. We use our fine china, candlelight, and the meal itself is usually more special. We share Scripture readings, prayers, and blessings. We also share the bread and the cup, observing God’s daily provision of food and drink and the provision made for us in Christ. On occasion, someone else joins us. Last time, it was a friend of one of our sons.

Everyone and anyone is welcome at our table.

Table fellowship in the culture of Jesus’ day signified friendship, communion, and fellowship. This is why it was so offensive to the very religious when Jesus would upend the socio-cultural expectations of the time. For example:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13

The Pharisees couldn’t believe Jesus would sit at the dinner table with such disreputable people. The irony of Jesus’ words — It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick — is that they also apply to the religious leaders critical of his actions. It was their very attitude that revealed how far they were from the heart of the God whose reputation they were at pains to protect in criticizing Jesus.

All this to say that Jesus was a master of hospitality. Indeed, he used his final meal with his closest friends as a means of symbolizing what was about to happen on the cross. This meal — the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist or Communion — is the central ritual of the Christian tradition, one practiced by virtually all churches in one way or another.

And when you think of the Lord’s Table, the only qualification to sit at this table is faith, the receptivity to the hospitality of God demonstrated in the life of Jesus, ultimately in the cross. That this is so means gathering at the Lord’s Table involves sharing meals with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to have over for dinner.

Sharing a meal with other people means sharing conversation, stories, and, most of all, our very lives. Our very selves.

We do this — we welcome people to our tables — because the Lord welcomes us to his.

Hospitality is a gesture of grace, a willingness to accept others even if they’re different. This doesn’t mean always agreeing with those who sit across from us. But sitting at the table together has the power to deepen relationships, and open us up to one another’s humanity.

At a simpler, more practical level, there are enough people within our social orbit who are likely lonely, without family, who just need — probably long for — friendship. Are we willing to offer friendship? Are we willing to invite others to our table?

Inviting people to join us around our table for a meal is a way of slowing down life, of letting others in, and of showing the hospitality that God himself has shown us in Christ. That’s why it’s a spiritual practice for an accelerating age.

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