This is an interview between Crossway and Tim Chester about his new book, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission Around the Table.
What does food have to do with grace, church, and mission?
Everything! Just think about how often food figures in the Bible story or how much of church life involves meals. I don’t think this is incidental. Food expresses our dependence on God and on other people. Meals embody friendship and welcome.
So food is a powerful way of doing mission and community. The Son of Man, Jesus says in Luke 7, came eating and drinking—this was the way Jesus did mission.
What do you mean when you say the way Jesus did meals was “radically subversive?”
Meals in Jesus’ day were highly stratified. Roman meals expressed the social order; Jewish meals were similar (think of the jockeying for position in Luke 14), with the added twist that Levitical food laws made it all but impossible for Jews to eat with Gentiles. So meals expressed who were the insiders and who were the outsiders. Jesus turns all of this upside down or, perhaps I should say, inside out! Outsiders become insiders around the table with Jesus.
How do the meals of Jesus image the gospel?
Let’s take one example. Jesus ate with tax collectors. Tax collectors were collaborators with the Romans, the people who were occupying God’s promised land. This meant they were not only betraying the nation, but they were enemies of God. God sits and eats with his enemies. That’s what happening in the meals of Jesus. It’s an amazing expression of Gospel grace. You would not believe it if it were not in the Scriptures. The Pharisees certainly could not believe it. And that is without considering how the feeding of the 5,000 points to the messianic banquet of the future or how the last supper points to the cross.
How would you practically encourage readers to begin associating with the marginalized?
No doubt there are lots of ways to begin, but in the book I highlight the importance of eating with people.
There is a danger that if we only do things for people, then we communicate by our actions, “I am able and you are unable.” Then the message we convey is not the welcome of God, but the message “become like me.” We may talk of grace with our words, but our actions communicate the need for social or moral improvement. But when we sit and eat with one another then we are together around the table. Then we can speak of grace as fellow sinners.
You say that our meals actually express our doctrine of justification. Can you explain that?
Paul’s great exposition of the doctrine of justification in the letter to the Galatians is sparked by a meal; by Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles. This is where a false doctrine of justification led: to broken table fellowship. Why? Because meals are such a central and powerful expression of community (and the withdrawal of community).
It was the same with the meals of the Pharisees. Their sense of how we are made right with God was reflected in their meals; their meals expressed who were insiders and outsiders on the basis of moral and religious respectability. The ladder of self-righteousness was represented in the positions of honor around the table.
“A meal in the presence of God is the goal of salvation.”
But Jesus freely eats with tax collectors and sinners. He expresses God’s grace through his willingness to eat with everyone—even self-righteous Pharisees! I’m not saying justification is merely about who we eat with. It is about how we are made right with God through faith in the finished work of Christ. But this will then be reflected who we associate with and on what basis. Our meals will mirror our doctrine.
How do your “missional communities” work?
That’s a big question! Our meetings always involve a meal. Plus we encourage people to share lives throughout the week as well as involving unbelievers in that shared life—and that often involves sharing food.
But meals don’t make community. They embody or express it . . . and I can’t imagine doing community without meals. But it’s the gospel that creates community. This is what makes communities “work”. So, in fact, we called our missional communities “gospel communities” (but then you can’t talk about the gospel story for long without bumping into a meal).
Do you have practical steps readers can take to encourage them to grow in initiating missional meals?
The great thing about using meals to do community and mission is that it doesn’t add anything to your busy schedule. We already have 21 ready-made opportunities each week. Nor do you have some kind to special missiological training. You just need to love Jesus, love people, and enjoy eating!
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Sometimes you may want to make a special effort and celebrate the goodness of creation in a fancy meal. But most of the time it is just a question of sharing an ordinary meal with people.
- Invite members of your Christian community for your evening meal.
- Meet up for breakfast with someone on the way to work.
- Use lunch in the canteen to get to know your colleagues.
- If you’re single, then entertaining families might be difficult, but invite them for dessert or cake.
Try to invite unbelievers together with believers so your unbelieving friends are introduced to the Christian community and get to see how Christians relate.
How can meals express a vision of the kingdom of God?
Once you start looking for it, it’s amazing how often food is used to express both judgment and salvation. A meal in the presence of God is the goal of salvation.
- The first thing God does for Adam and Eve in the garden is given them a menu, the fruit of every tree (except one).
- The climax of the Exodus (an act of salvation commemorated in a meal) is when the elders of Israel eat with God on the mountain in Exodus 24.
- Isaiah promises a messianic banquet of rich foods that will never end in Isaiah 25 and Jesus anticipates this perpetual meal with God in the feeding of the 5,000, a meal with more food at the end than at the beginning.
- The last supper looks forward to the time when Jesus will eat with his disciples in the kingdom of God.
- And the Bible story ends with a meal as we celebrate the wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19.
Every time we eat together as Christians we are anticipating this hope.
This interview was originally posted on theCrossway Blog about Tim Chester’s new book, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission Around the Table.