Over the last year, I have engaged in an exercise of defining worship on this blog. I’ve looked at what is the definition of worship, as well as what is the primary element of
worship. Some time back I was asked what would I do if I could start from a blank page with no expectations of tradition or influence from the past to create a worship service.¹ Based on how I have defined worship and what I have named as the key element of worship. I would start with a meal as the basic foundation for a worship service/experience.
I believe the two primary functions of worship are to proclaim the story of God as we find our place within that story and to give thanks to God for his wonderful gift of grace. The primary place where we give thanks is in the Eucharist. As we gather around the table we are giving thanks to God for the gift of grace, encountering the risen Christ in the sacrament, and being nourished for the journey of discipleship. So, it is at the table that we are in our truest sense of worship. It is at the table where we are in the presence of Christ. It is at the table where we receive grace.
In Luke 15:2 we read “He welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This passage shows us the heart of God, the nature of salvation, and the experience of grace. Like a loving parent, God’s compassion grows as Jesus welcomes sinners. Key to this is that Jesus graciously receives all, even sinners and this is shown by welcoming them at the table. God shows his compassion upon all, including sinners, and we know this because the relationship with God endures through all. The sign of that relationship, the sacrament as the church calls it, is the act of Holy Communion. We know we are in relationship with God as we come to this meal, eat together, receive grace, remember, give thanks, and experience the presence of Christ eating with sinners.
Holy God desires greatly to be in relationship with an unholy people and he wants to get that message across. The best way God knows how to do that is with a meal. We as humans, after all, do respond well to food. So, the message to us is that God loves us, wants the relationship between us to endure and that he is the one who gives us life and cares greatly for us, This message comes to us through the life and person of Jesus Christ. To get this point across God decides we will have a meal and Jesus will preside at the meal eating with the righteous and unrighteous, the worthy and unworthy, the faithful and the unfaithful as we break bread together and receive grace in the presence of the God who loves us. In this act, we, in the words of Charles Wesley, are all welcomed to the Gospel Feast.²
Why a meal? Why a feast? Well, I believe God chose a meal to reveal himself to us, to offer us grace, and to commune with us because meals go far beyond the utilitarian function of satisfying hunger and providing nutrition for our bodies. Meals break down barriers, show we care for one another, express love and fellowship. Most importantly they help us connect with one another. Most of us have at least one good memory around a table that involved good food and great company. Maybe it was your wedding reception, a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, a backyard BBQ or crawfish boil, or that very important “meet the family” dinner.
Meals connect us to each other and provide much more than just nourishment for our bodies they nourish our heart and soul. When we pay careful attention to scripture we will notice that concept of breaking bread together is all throughout scripture and is vitally important to the story of God, the story of salvation Abraham receives strangers and prepares a feast for them in Genesis 18:1-16. Israel is told to welcome the stranger within their gates to be hospitable to them. No doubt an act that requires a meal. The 23 Psalm proclaims that God has set a table for us in the presence of our enemies. A way of leveling the playing field, calming the situation down and bringing peace. Jesus, constantly ate with sinners as we’ve already discussed Christ, fed the multitudes and he ate with the tax collector Zacchaeus. After the resurrection, Jesus ate breakfast with the apostles. We could go on and on, but two of the most important meals in scripture are the Passover, which calls the Jews to the story of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and to be thankful. It is, of course, the Passover that Christ and the apostles were celebrating when our Lord instituted what we know today as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, which tells the story of Christ’s death and resurrection of how he brought us out of the enslavement of sin and death and gave us life.
Meals mean so much more in the culture of the Bible than they do in American culture and that meaning has found its way into our holy scriptures and into the teaching and practice of our faith. In the Middle East to eat together is a sign of lifelong devotion and undying loyalty to one another. It is clear through scripture that breaking bread together is important to our relationships, to building community, and to our faith. Breaking bread both at the communion table and at the dinner table are vitally important to who we are as a Christian community.
There is a movement among churches and worship communities of gathering around the table as the focal point of worship. When I say table I don’t mean just the communion table but the dinner table as well. This movement is known as the dinner church movement. There are many new church starts and worship communities that have formed around the practice of sharing a meal together as a part of the liturgy in worship. This liturgy includes a meal and the Eucharist as well as music, prayer, scripture study, and confession. If I could design a worship service from the ground up with no expectations of tradition or influence from the past in the local context I would design a worship service that is based on sharing a meal together as we celebrate the Eucharist and share our place in the story of God….the story of salvation…the story of grace.
Besides being what I believe is a good theological practice of worship the dinner church model merges my love of food and cooking with my love for God, calling to vocational ministry, and my deeply held conviction that the Eucharist should be celebrated often. This I believe is a reason why this blog has grown into what it is today. A place to share ideas about the practice of ministry, the Christian faith, and recipes for good food. It is at the table where barriers are broken down, relationships formed, love shown, and we become one under Christ be that the dinner table or most importantly the communion table.
¹ Influence of the past being the past of the local context.
²The previous two paragraphs are sourced from week four sermon notes of the series Vital Elements of Worship by Kenneth Carter, Jr. at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/3249/sermon-series-vital-elements-of-worship accessed July 13, 2016.