eating with Jesus || a subversive Eucharist

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Eucharist lately. What is its significance? How does it challenge us and speak to or have meaning for our world today? What is its abiding relevance? While these questions may seem rather banal on the surface, they have been the catalyst for my existential grappling of late, especially as I reflected on and probed its intersection with Jesus’ table fellowship throughout his life and ministry.

Stories of Jesus gathered for a meal around a table saturate the Gospel narratives. In fact, this context seems to have been so central to his ministry that his opponents attempted to delegitimize him as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt 11.19; Luke 7.34)

Not exactly a typical trademark for a spiritual leader.

This raises the obvious set of questions: why and how was Jesus’ table fellowship considered so contentious (and, I would add, so radical and revolutionary), and what were the resultant implications of it.

The 1st century was the era of the Roman Empire and Caesar, whose vast domain included Palestine, the historic Jewish homeland and the birthplace of Jesus. Increasingly in the decades before and during the first century, there were numerous Jewish movements seeking the restoration and re-establishment of Israel as an autonomous entity—that is, outside of Rome’s (or any other foreign) rule. Some of these movements were violent and sought to establish this reality through force and revolt. Others, like the Pharisees, were non-violent ; they focused instead on living as closely as possible by their interpretation of God’s laws—which instructed them in every aspect of life. Living by these laws had two major functions:

  • First—to distinguish and separate themselves from those outside their group, whom they labeled “sinners”—this label included the great mass of people living in the land, who, though they were ethnically Jewish, were not part of a particular Jewish sect, as well as criminals and those they considered morally corrupt.
  • Second—it was hoped that true faithfulness to living by God’s laws would raise their cries to God and move God to act on their behalf (as YHWH had done during their enslavement in Egypt and exile in Babylon), restoring them from oppression under foreign empires and re-establishing their own autonomous rule.

One major way of distinguishing which “group” someone belonged to in Jesus’ day was asking this question: with whom and how do you engage in table fellowship?  What rituals did one perform before/during/after the meal, what kinds of people did one eat with, and what kinds of food did one consume? It may be hard to imagine in our world of fast food and drive thru’s, but table fellowship was one of the most central components of society in Jesus’ day. An invitation to dinner was an extension of the sacred notion of hospitality—it was an honor, an offering of intimate association.

It is interesting to note, then, that Jesus, through lived theater, flips many of these conventional notions regarding table fellowship on their heads, and, through it, what God desires from people.

Who do we find Jesus dining with?

Prostitutes, tax collectors, and “sinners”(!) among others.

In fact, it seems that Jesus had become infamous among religious leaders for explicitly going to, and often eating with, individuals ranging from the non-observant to the most scandalous and notorious sinners in the land. No matter which way you spin it, he was consistently hanging out with all the wrong people! But Jesus wasn’t only hanging out with the wrong people. He went even further by using his table fellowship to evoke the sacred Jewish image of the Great Wedding Banquet that would take place between God and God’s people at the final restoration. Through his table theatrics, Jesus proclaimed that the first among those with God at this Banquet would be all those with whom he was associating, those who not only had been marginalized, but explicitly excluded by the religious and political systems of his day!

Turns out the religious leaders didn’t like that. And neither did political ones.

As the Jesus movement grounded in this subversive table fellowship grew, so did the way in which it disturbed the religious elite and disrupted the status quo. And Rome was not about to allow their so-called peace be disrupted by another zealous religious leader. They had no time for such people or their movements, and there was only one way they dealt with them: making a public spectacle and example of them by hanging them on a cross where all could see. The message was clear: don’t disturb the pax Romana, or this will be you.

Which brings us back to the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples. At that meal, his last before being crucified, Jesus took a loaf of bread and broke it, saying that this was his body, broken for them. And he took a cup of wine, saying that this was his blood, shed for them. As often as they broke bread and shared cup, he told them to remember him.

And so we, too, participate in this ancient act wherein we remember Jesus. But I’m not talking about a warm, fuzzy kind of remembrance like when we reminisce about “the good ole days,” or look at an old picture of our first pet. Our remembrance is one of recalling the radical and revolutionary notion of table fellowship that Jesus lived out, a table fellowship that included all the “wrong” people: society’s outcasts and those rejected by the religious establishment. We remember that Jesus’ table fellowship was not simply an act of goodwill, but that it also had political overtones; it not only challenged the religious status quo, but also stood in stark contrast to the oppressive rule of Rome, for his table fellowship proclaimed a Kingdom where not only the marginalized were included, but also those explicitly excluded by their unjust systems.

Jesus’ death on the cross, symbolized in Holy Communion by the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup, was the inevitable result in his world of such a radical and revolutionary solidarity with the marginalized and explicitly excluded. Whether or not he intuitively knew this when he began his ministry, he had to come to recognize it at some point. Yet, that realization apparently did not lead him to shirk back or slow down.

But we don’t just remember this about Jesus.

The Bible says this crazy thing. It says that we are now the body of Christ.

Christ has no hands on earth but ours; he has no feet, no eyes, no ears, no intellect, no heart but ours.

Partaking in Communion, therefore, is not just an act of remembering Jesus; it is also an invitation—a call—to truly embody him in his table fellowship.

remembrance and embodiment.

We embody Jesus in the way of his table fellowship when we gather here and proclaim that all are truly welcome.

Not: all are welcome, but first you have to accept this and do that. No, Jesus’ table was open to everyone. Specifically, those who have been not only marginalized and ignored but whose humanity has been explicitly rejected or denigrated by the status quo of both religious and political systems: women, particularly single mothers; those who don’t fit within our narrowly constructed gender and sexuality binaries; people of all creeds; people with disabilities; and immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, to name just a few.

But our embodiment of Jesus and his table fellowship does not end once we leave the walls of our church building. That is where it truly begins! Our open table fellowship here is for us a paradigm and pedagogue for our engagement in the world. Will we embody Jesus on our streets? And if Jesus’ table fellowship was not merely an act of goodwill or charity—of simply being nice or thinking kindly of those in the “out” crowd—but an act that disrupted and challenged the very social, religious and political systems of his day, what might it look like for us to embody such a radical and revolutionary table fellowship in our global and pluralistic world?

Let us self-reflect critically and honestly. Who are those that the church and our society have long forgotten, ignored, and even explicitly rejected?

Do we truly remember and embody Jesus in our breaking bread and sharing cup with others?

What might it look for us, for our world, if we did?

all my love,

eric.joseph

p.s. here is a link to a song i wrote in the process of writing this

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