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Freedom restored! The importance of sharing a meal

July 2021 | by Stephen Rees

I’m writing this on the 17th of May. A date long-awaited by our family. As from today, we are allowed to invite guests into our home to eat with us. Not many of them, admittedly. The government has decreed that up to six folk can meet in a home, or more than six providing that they’re drawn from no more than two households. If we want to have more than that round the meal table, we’re told we have to eat in the garden.

Well, it’s a step forward, I suppose. It will make it a bit easier to share meals with relatives and friends. And by the time you get to see these words, dear ET reader, restrictions may have been relaxed further. If the government sticks to its unlocking timetable, from June 21st there’ll be no restrictions on how many people can eat together.

I do hope it happens. One of the most serious consequences of lockdown has been the fact that it’s made it difficult for people to share meals. It’s vital that we get back to eating together as a normal part of life.

The Bible puts a tremendous emphasis on shared meals. Remember, many of the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament were opportunities for people to eat with one another in the presence of the Lord. There were various types of ‘peace offerings’ (ESV) or ‘fellowship offerings’ (NIV) but they all had this in common. The best part of the slaughtered animal was offered on the altar to the Lord. Other parts were reserved for the priests to share. And the rest was eaten by the worshippers together (see, for example, Leviticus 7:11-21).

Shared meals were a key element in the three great festivals that God commanded the Israelites to keep each year. The Feast of First-Fruits or Pentecost was an opportunity for people to enjoy together the first crops gathered from the fields. The Feast of Tabernacles was a giant banquet to celebrate the full harvest. And of course the Feast of Passover had its climax in a meal where each household devoured a roast lamb. Elkanah and his family went to the festival at Shiloh each year (1 Samuel 1). It was a tragic evidence of his wife Hannah’s misery that she couldn’t even enjoy the special family meal (vs. 4, 6).

The gospels are full of descriptions of shared meals. There’s not one account of Jesus eating a meal alone. Maybe he never did. But there are scores of references to him eating with other people: with the circle of the twelve; in the homes of friends like Martha and Mary; at banquets – whether organised by Pharisees or by tax-collectors; in Zacchaeus’s home; and of course with crowds of four or five thousand.

His last evening with his disciples was spent round a meal-table. He looked forward to it intensely: ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…’ (Luke 22:15). After the resurrection, he joined two heartbroken disciples at their supper-table (Luke 24:28-30); ate with his disciples in the upstairs room (Luke 24:42-43) and cooked breakfast for them by the lakeside (John 21:9-15). We often say that believers should be Christ-like. Well, shouldn’t going out of our way to eat with other people be part of that?

Jesus used the picture of a shared meal again and again to help his hearers to imagine the joys and glories of his kingdom. ‘I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 8:11). He told a parable about a man who invited guests to a feast; when they failed to arrive, he sent out messengers to bring in folk from the highways and byways (Luke 14:12-25).

That was his way of picturing the work of evangelism: we invite people to come and share together in a wonderful meal. At the last supper he promised his disciples that he would eat with them on the other side of death, in the kingdom of God – and that that meal would be the fulfilment of all that the Passover pointed to (Luke 22:16).

What about the churches founded by Jesus’s apostles? From the beginning, shared meals were a central part of their life: ‘…day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts’ (Acts 2:46). Paul had to warn the Corinthians that they were abusing their fellowship meals: some members went hungry, others got drunk (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). But he didn’t suggest that they should stop holding the meals: they were so central to church life that that was unthinkable. Paul rebuked Peter to his face when Peter withdrew from eating meals with Gentiles (Galatians 2:12).

And when John was given his awesome vision of the end of history and the entry of Christ’s people into eternal joy, what was he told to write? ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19:9).

So the Bible talks a lot about shared meals. I’ve only referred to a few out of hundreds of references. But why does the Bible stress this so strongly? What would I be missing if I never ate meals with my family or with other folk? Why is eating together so important? Let me suggest four answers to that question.

Sharing our humanity

When we eat with other people, we are letting them see that we are just as human as they are. We’re admitting that we are not self-sufficient, superhuman beings. What are we? We are creatures made out of the dust of the ground: our lives are only sustained as we eat the food which the ground produces, whether it comes to us directly as plants or indirectly as meat from slaughtered animals. That’s the way God created us to be. The need to eat didn’t start with the fall. From the beginning, Adam and Eve were dependent on the earth to sustain their bodies. And that’s the way it will be as long as we are in this world.

Eastern gurus like to pretend to their followers that they can live for months or years without food. They want others to believe that by the power of their will they can rise above human appetites and needs. They’re claiming to be superhuman. Likewise, emperors and dictators who want to be worshipped as gods by their subjects will avoid eating in front of them. To do so would be to expose their own humanness.

But Jesus was different. He was not afraid to let people see that he was truly human, that he had a body like ours and needed to eat. He told his disciples about the forty days he had spent in the wilderness and how hungry he had become. And he sat down and ate with them: they saw that he needed food just as they did. When I eat with my children I’m saying to them, ‘Though I am your father, the head of this home, I’m still just a human being with the same needs as you.’ When I eat with my friends, I’m saying, ‘I don’t need to pretend – I’m letting you see that I’m a man just like you.’

Will we need to eat in the world to come? Did the Lord Jesus need to eat after the resurrection? We know he did eat, but did he have to? Answer: I don’t know. But I’m sure that when he ate with his disciples after the resurrection, they knew what it meant. He was saying to them, ‘I’m still a man, still flesh and bones. My body is still a body made out of the dust of the ground, however wonderfully it’s been changed. I’m still one of you.’

The shared meals of the church in Corinth became an opportunity for some people to show off their wealth and social status. They became an occasion for pride. But shared meals should have the opposite effect. They should be an expression of humility. As we eat together, we’re all confessing our dependence, our shared humanness.

Expressing our friendship

When we eat with other people, we are expressing our trust in them and our commitment to them. When the Lord entered into a covenant with Israel, his bond with the nation was shown in the fact that ‘he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank’ (Exodus 24:11).

Throughout the Bible, once you’ve shared a meal with someone, you owe them loyalty and friendship. That was one reason why Judas’s betrayal was so despicable: ‘Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me!’ (Psalm 41:9).

When Jethro decided to make common cause with the Israelites, ‘Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God…’ (Exodus 18.12): that was the token that they accepted him and that he was committed to them.

When David had finally brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he ‘distributed among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins to each one…’ (2 Samuel 6:19). He wanted the whole nation to express its unity by eating a common meal.

When the Lord sent a man of God to rebuke the wicked king of Israel, he told him that he must not ‘eat bread or drink water in this place’ (1 Kings 13:8). To do so would be to align himself with the wicked king and rebellious nation. Sharing a meal implies friendship.

Yes, of course, we may eat a meal with someone and it can be a pretence: a show of friendship that we don’t feel. But we still use shared meals as a way of assuring people that we want their friendship. If I have to discuss a difficult situation with someone and I know they’re wary of me, and that it may be a tense discussion, I may well suggest we meet over a meal. I’m assuring them that we’re meeting as friends.

Finding pleasure together

When we eat with other people, we are sharing a pleasure with them. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. It is something that we can all enjoy. Of course, if I eat on my own, I can enjoy my food and give thanks to God for it. But God did not create me to seek pleasure only for myself. He created me to love my neighbour as myself and to seek his or her pleasure.

And that’s what I’m doing when I share a meal with other people. I’m saying, ‘it’s as important to me that you should have this pleasure, as that I should. I want to see you enjoying this good gift from God.’ A man who eats alone is doing so only for his own pleasure. A man who eats with others is sharing their pleasure and letting them share his.

I should add that I can’t think of any other activity that has the same significance. What could take the place of eating as an opportunity for sharing pleasure with all sorts of people? Some have suggested that TV has become an effective substitute. But not everyone enjoys watching TV. Not everyone enjoys hill-walking, or listening to Mahler, or playing Monopoly.

Eating is the only activity I can think of that everyone enjoys. Unless a person is physically ill, or – like Hannah – emotionally disturbed, he or she can find pleasure in food. It may require a lot of thought and effort to plan a meal that everyone present will enjoy, but that’s part of the challenge of loving our neighbours. If I eat alone, the only person’s tastes I need to consider are my own. If I eat with others, I have to consider their pleasure too.

Talking and learning

A group of people sitting around the meal table will find it natural to talk together and may finish up talking about all sorts of things, from the most trivial to the most momentous.

That’s why shared meals are crucial in family life. A family eating round a table talk, and may talk at length about all sorts of serious matters. You can’t do that while watching TV together or going to a football match together. It’s not easy doing that while you’re climbing a hill in the Lake District together. For many families, mealtimes are the only times when a family will really talk.

And it’s very often the family meal that forces the family members to sort out their differences. Two children – or a husband and wife – may have been sulking silently, refusing to have anything to do with one another all day. But when they sit down and look one another in the eye, the ice begins to melt. They begin to speak to one another, if it’s only to say, ‘pass the salt, please,’ or ‘thank you, that was very nice.’ It’s difficult to stay angry with your sister or your marriage partner if you’re eating a meal together. I suspect that it’s sharing meals that has enabled many marriages to survive and many families to function.

Every family that eats together is enjoying a precious common grace gift from God. And I should add that Christian families gain particular blessings from shared meals.

We give thanks to God at our family meals. Children – and their parents – are reminded that ‘all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’. Parents and children talk together in a natural way about what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been planning, what books they’ve been reading, what problems they’ve encountered, how the day has gone.

And they view all those things from a Christian perspective. Even if the Bible is never quoted explicitly, all the members of the family are learning to think about the whole of life in the light of God’s Word.

Often, the family – if it takes seriously God’s commands about hospitality – will be joined by visitors at the meal-table. And those visitors enrich the life of the whole family. I’m sure my children will always remember some of the stories they’ve heard from the visitors at our meal-table – stories of God’s grace, of remarkable conversions, of wonderful providences.

And, for many Christian families, the meal-table is the best opportunity for family worship. There may be no other opportunity in the day for the whole family to read the Scriptures together, to sing a hymn, to pray. But before the family gets up from the meal-table and scatters, Dad can reach for the Bible, read a passage, and ask God’s protection and blessing on the whole family. Shared meals can become a great means of grace to a Christian family, of communicating with one another and with the Lord.

So for a family, shared meals are great opportunities for talking. But that’s not only true for families. For any group of believers, a shared meal should be an opportunity to talk: to share thoughts, insights, griefs, concerns, testimonies. We quoted above some of the passages which highlight the importance of shared meals within the local church. Whether it’s a few church members enjoying a barbecue together on a pleasant summer evening, or an organised ‘bring and share meal’ for the whole fellowship, Christians talk together as they eat together.

And often sharing a meal with unconverted people will provide the most natural context in which to talk about the things that matter most. What was the first thing Levi the tax-collector did after he was called by the Lord Jesus? He invited all his tax-collector friends to a meal where they could meet Jesus (Luke 5:29).

What we’re losing

Researchers have been pointing out for half a century that sharing meals is becoming less and less common. In fact, it has become a rarity even within families. The latest figures I have at hand are ten years old, but even then it was reported that almost one in three people ate at the dining table only a few times a year. The statistics showed that one in ten adults in the UK never ate a meal with their children, and another 10 percent only shared a meal once a week.

I suspect the figures would be even lower now. How many families sit down together for breakfast these days? Many of the children who live on our estate leave home in the morning without breakfast, pick up a bag of crisps, a Mars bar, and a can of coke from the corner-shop, and consume them on the bus. And in the evening, each member of the family will be in his or her room, watching a different TV channel, or browsing on their laptop. They’ll descend to the kitchen when they’re peckish, get something out of the freezer, heat it up in the microwave, and return to their room.

Family meals are becoming a thing of the past in the UK, and the consequences are evident. School-teachers report that children lack the ability to make conversation. They have no idea of good manners. They refuse to eat anything other than the high-fat, high sugar foods that they’re used to picking up from the takeout or supermarket. And their closest relationships are not with their parents or siblings, but with their Whatsapp or Instagram friends.

But even if family meals have become a rare thing, people have continued to eat together in other contexts. Not as often maybe as in the past, but it still happens. Businessmen discuss deals over a working lunch. Office workers go together to a local restaurant to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. Children invite one another to parties at home or at McDonald’s. Students eat together in the cafeteria. Neighbours invite one another to a barbecue in the garden. Churches hold fellowship teas and evangelistic suppers.

Or rather they did. Until the coronavirus crisis – and the subsequent lockdowns. And then it all stopped. No more inviting friends or relatives to eat with us. Restaurants shut. Picnics forbidden. Workers told to work from home. Students not allowed to return to their halls of residence. Just one concession: a person living alone could form a bubble with another household and eat with them. But apart from that one exception, shared meals have become virtually illegal for the past five months. Many people – including church members – have gone for months without sharing a meal with anyone.

When the government imposed lockdown on us, they did so because they were advised that that was necessary to protect life and health. Many people are only now realising that the advisers took into account only one threat to the nation’s health: the threat presented by Covid-19. It seems that there was little or no assessment of what consequences there might be from other factors: the cancellation of hospital appointments; the confinement of people to their homes; the separation of family members from their loved ones; the loss of jobs; the psychological impact of fear stoked up by the media.

Every GP and every pastor knows that these factors have done huge damage to the physical and mental health of the people we care for. And alongside all these other factors, the restrictions on eating together have been hugely damaging. Something fundamental to human identity and well-being has been thrown away and we have been left physically, psychologically, and spiritually impaired.

Well, from today, by God’s kind providence, we’ve been given back the freedom to share a meal at least with a handful of our fellow human beings. And I hope that by the time you read this, it will be legal for you to eat with larger groups.

Let’s grab that opportunity with both hands. Make a list now of the folk you’re going to invite to your home to share a meal with you. Clean up the old barbecue set now so that you can invite neighbours round during the summer. Ring up the friend you’ve not seen for months and suggest lunch together in the local café. Start planning a church fellowship meal. Make sure that your diary is full of shared meals. And enjoy those shared meals as a treasured gift from God to be used for his glory.

Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001

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