No More Us and Them Dining, Pastor Fred
It was a scramble coming up with a restaurant to go to with our friends Kurt and Adrian on Friday. They wanted to treat Kim for her birthday, somewhat belatedly, the first opportunity we could all get together in the last 3 weeks.
Should we go to a classic Mexican restaurant downtown, or an old-fashioned Wisconsin style supper club for fish fry? Or we could go to a Ravenswood brew-pub and order from a food truck? Or to our favorite Indian place? But finally we settled on the comfort of Sapori Trattoria. Delicious Italian comfort food, which was delightful, and they even gave us free Tiramisu for Kim’s birthday!
Whatever your ethnic background, or your adopted favorite cuisine is, each has its traditional meals that bring people together. We all come together around the dinner table, whatever culture we identify with. Food is a unit-er, and meals are opportunities to show hospitality!
And certainly that was true in the Gospels! Jesus and the disciples unite around meals many times. Mundelein professor, Eugene LaVerdiere’s book, “Dining in the Kingdom of God” is all about the 10 meals of Jesus that make up the Gospel of Luke. Five of them are Symposium meals, he says, and five are Hospitality meals. And in all of them, Jesus transforms the traditions, by how they are related to the Eucharist, he instituted, our sacramental meal of thanksgiving.
Symposium meals, were the meals of Plato, and many other Greek and Roman elites. They had some set characteristics, like the couches the invited guests would recline, or lounge in, while eating. Jesus dined with Levi the tax collector and a bunch of his tax collector friends, in this way. But in doing so, got lots of flack from the Jerusalem authorities – why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners, they derided him! Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; Jesus tells them, I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance!
Early Christians didn’t entirely give up this elite style banquet – and, BTW, Symposium literally means, drinking party – but they transformed such elitist and hierarchical banquets, by allowing women, children and slaves to take part as equals, in its communal and newly worshipful dinners. Like Jesus, they too risked being criticized, but aimed at including, even the rich, to become followers of Jesus, as well as working class disciples.
In native Palestinian culture, meals of hospitality by contrast, were much less formal. They arose spontaneously, as the occasion to entertain visitors presented itself. And Jesus, the itinerant traveler, occasioned such meals regularly. Middle-eastern hospitality was gracious to any and all visitors, including the offer to wash their weary feet, before a Meal - and was expected of everyone, rich or poor, in the ancient tradition that still holds today.
Jesus’ meals also expanded, on this Palestinian hospitality. He dined at Mary’s house, with her sister Martha, and lifted up the listening to God’s word, even higher than the gift of the hospitality-meal itself. Word & Meal are central to our worship even today. And Jesus dined with Zacchaeus, another tax collector, much richer than Levi, who was so delighted to be in Jesus’ company that he pledged to give away half of all his wealth! And repentance, forgiving, and offering back from our wealth, are all part of our worship today.
The last 2, of the 10 meals in Luke’s gospel, are also Hospitality meals – the two meals Luke reports which took place on Easter Day!
Just before our Gospel reading today, is the long story of the road to Emmaus where two unnamed disciples meet Jesus as they walk away from Jerusalem, confused and dejected about all that’s taken place. But they finally recognize Jesus when they have dinner together, and he breaks the bread in communion fashion, just like he had only days earlier, at the Last Supper with them.
But then Jesus vanishes! And not being able to contain their excitement, the two decide to high-tale-it back to Jerusalem, even though darkness has fallen, risking the possible bandits on the road, just to tell the disciples. And so, when they arrive, they tell their story about breaking bread with Jesus, and also hear that ‘he appeared to Simon and is risen indeed.’ In typical macho fashion, though, the women’s story of resurrection, has been discounted as ‘an idle tale.’ But now, as all of them, women and men, children and slaves, are together ‘talking about this,’ suddenly ‘Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, Peace be with you.’
But, they feel anything but peaceful, for they thought they were seeing a ghost! Thankfully, antiquity has tests for disproving ghosts! One could check the obvious bone-y places – like, hands and feet – or eat some food. And that’s what Jesus did. In fact, if the disciples weren’t so startled, they would have offered the hospitality of washing his feet and preparing food, for this stranger who un-expectantly stopped by! But in their disbelieving joy, as Luke says, Jesus has to prod them. And having no Tiramisu dessert to offer, they produce a piece of broiled fish, the ethnic dish of Galilee where they’re all from. And Jesus took a bite, and as they stared, he ‘ate it in their presence,’ and the room picked their jaws up off the floor!
That wasn’t much of a meal though, more like a midnight snack, I guess! But the important part is the Word, at this gathering – like the meal with Mary and Martha. ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you’ says Jesus, and he ‘opened their minds to understand the scriptures, … Thus it is written, he said to them, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, You are witnesses of these things.’
LaVerdiere draws a curious distinction here: “One might be an eyewitness by accident,” he says, “but to be a witness one had to be called.”
In other words, the disciples had been eyewitnesses to everything Jesus had said and done, and now also to his resurrection. But Jesus is also calling them, at this final hospitality meal, to be faithful witnesses to others. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and now he calls them to proclaim this good news to all nations, beyond Jewish Israel, to all the Gentile peoples.
For Jesus, there is no ‘us and them.’ Or as Paul said, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, be we are all one in Christ Jesus. For the followers of Jesus, Symposium meals would no longer exclude 2nd class citizens. And Hospitality meals, would include the sinner and the demonized, in a radical forgiveness, in a meal of thanksgiving and unity.
We know this Meal in Holy Communion, every Sunday. We’re also exploring it in Food for the Soul, our new outreach, which itself is patterned on these early Christian meals of hospitality.
And our world today, needs this more than ever – to break down the oligarchy of the few rich families, increasingly in charge of our democracy, elites that are creating a worldwide, 2 tiered, ‘us and them,’ system, which is a kind-of, Symposium partying, a never-ending, never-satisfied gluttony, eating up the eco-system of mother earth, threatening our very existence.
We need Jesus to show up and scare them like a ghost! – which means, through us. We have been called and sent by Jesus to tell the good news story and share in meals of hospitality that prioritize the “us” of the kingdom and realm of God – to break down the dividing walls, and end the swampy-ness of elitist rule.
As followers and fellow disciples, we must ‘suffer and rise,’ again and again, that the opportunity of ‘new life’ is offered in the radical ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins,’ in the unity of “us” – if it must be shouted from the rooftop, or shared one person at time, ‘with all peoples.’ We must continue to dine with Zacchaeus in meals of Jubilee celebration, so that the risen Jesus is alive in all our gatherings.
So, out we go – no more us and them – ‘we are witnesses of these things!’ Not just neutral eyewitnesses, but passionate tellers, and sharers, of the good news… of the unity we have in Christ Jesus… which is, Food for our souls.