In the last post, I introduced the idea that our customs are not the same thing as a practice, and promised to sketch out the common elements of a Christian practice.
Let’s start with the idea of customs. As an example, meal customs are informative. Why did Jesus recline at meals? Why did the Jews wash their feet before entering the dining area? Why did Jesus tell the story of the man who threw a banquet for friends who were no-shows? As we will see in subsequent posts, the meals that Jesus attended were shaped by the influences of Greece and Rome, as well as Jewish tradition, and, as a result, diners’ behaviors were circumscribed by particular customs. A fundamental question for us is how did Jesus’ first followers move from those religiously and socially-traditional meals into the practice of the first century church in which shared meals were an integral part of the worship experience?
If a Christian practice is an activity that is regular, shared with other believers, and designed to strengthen our common life together as Christians, then it might be helpful to try and sketch out what I believe are the common elements of a Christian practice on our way to showing how the shared meal qualifies as such a practice.
As noted, there are several distinct Christian practices which we do together in Christian community, including worship, prayer, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, stewardship, the Lord’s Supper, forgiveness, and, as I claim, the shared meal. The common elements of these Christian practices are invitation, provision, gratitude, nourishment, and formation.
God invites us into a particular practice whether it is worship or prayer or a shared meal. We are invited to enter the practice by entering into God’s and one another’s presence, entering into rest and restoration, and entering into community and communion with God and one another. Thus, there is always a kind of prologue to each practice, in which we mindfully enter into the practice by divine invitation to do so. From the perspective of a shared meal, we accept God’s invitation to take time out to eat and share and rest together at table and in God’s presence.
There is an element of mutually beneficial provision in each of the practices. We are individually and corporately provided for with charitable care and concern out of God’s grace and abundance, paradoxically finding in each practice an opportunity to serve as a way of providing for others. We commit to praying for others, we fast together in lament and petition for a particular provision, and, when we worship and share in the sacred meal of Holy Communion, we realize God’ provision for our own life through Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and coming consummation. Moreover, we learn, with grace and humility, to accept others’ service to us despite our ever-undeserving state. Most importantly, God provides this time that we may to set it aside for Himself, others, and for our in-common well-being.
Each of the Christian practices contains the attribute of gratitude. There is nothing we practice together which does not raise up an unquenchable desire to thank God as the source of all things good, and praise him for being our Creator, Savior, Counselor and King. When we share a meal, we say grace before eating because we are so grateful for God’s ongoing presence in and provision for our lives, and for the food before us that will fuel our service to the kingdom.
The Christian practices nourish us by both feeding and satisfying our physical, emotional, and spiritual hungers to the point that we, in turn, are energized and able to serve God and neighbor. We often enter into a particular practice with a mindset that there must be “something in it for me.” The reality, as is often the case in our Christian walk, is that God intends the practice to show his glory, and create in us as the body of Christ the deep love and sacrificial posture we need to love him and serve our neighbor.
Lastly, the Christian practices all share the element of formation. The profoundly formative nature of the practices is nearly beyond comprehension. The practices introduce us to the kingdom of God, then reinforce and direct our discipleship. We begin to grasp that all the Christian practices are inter-related, and that the more we practice them simultaneously in community, the stronger the weave of our life in common together. To put it another way, the practices of the first Christians give us a firm anchor in how to live out our common lives (Acts 2:44). Moreover, the practices act as a compass to direct us-in Christian community– along a path of growth and maturity in our faith, what we often call our ongoing development in Christlikeness. It is the daily practice of our shared prayer, worship, meals, Sabbath-keeping, and forgiveness that leads, over time, to human flourishing- for ourselves and those we serve- to God’s glory.
Finally, then, we can ask if, in the lives of Christians, the shared meal is simply a custom handed down from earlier generations, or if Christians should view it from a faith perspective as a Christian practice. It has always been a universal custom for people to eat together, no matter what their belief systems entailed. As far as family and church family are concerned, it seems to me that we treat the shared meal as custom, easily shaped by the culture and the times, when it may actually be meant to be approached as a central communal practice in the Christian home and in the Church. The shared meal, like other Christian practices, embedded with invitation, provision, gratitude, nourishment, and formation has the deep potential to fortify and direct our individual and common lives in ways that might surprise us. So, it is to the notion of shared meals as faith practice we wll turn next time.
Thanks for sharing this space! We are steadily moving into the MEAT of the shared meal as Christian practice! There is a button below to :LEAVE A COMMENT. I would appreciate hearing what you think.
~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.
(Featured image photo credit: K.Richardson. 2016)