Dining Together – A Holy Communion

Dining Together – A Holy Communion

Glynn Cardy 11th September 2022

Eating together always has a cost.  There is the cost of the food of course, and the time spent in preparation.  There is also the cost to those who attend who might feel awkward, or worse, about coming and sitting next to someone whom they’d prefer not to.  That sibling they’d fallen out with.  That difficult aunt.  That strange stranger. 

You mix and mingle at dinner tables.  Comments or opinions by younger people might not be appreciated by some of the older folk, and vice versa.  Some things, and some people, some or even most of the time, can be hard to stomach.

Many of us, maybe most of us, though do not think of dining together – whether as family or as guests – as a hardship, but rather as a joy and privilege.  We know that children grow and are gone, and their returning to the table will be dependent on many variables.  So, we enjoy them while they’re there.  Similarly with our older relations.  They too will be gone soon. 

We know also that dining with friends or family is one of the things that makes life worth living.   Sharing not just food or ideas or concerns, but something intangible, a connection feeling, that is part of the mix in humans becoming humane.  We call it, whether at our table or at church, a communion.

Many of the stories of Jesus are about eating.  Rarely is he the host, and the gospel editors never seem to put him in the kitchen.  But he’s there, at the table.  And often making trouble by saying troubling things.  A bit of a stirrer really.  I mean think of that banquet parable, and imagine Jesus is sitting in a fellow religionist’s home when he tells it.

In short, the banquet parable is about a wealthy man who threw a party, but his friends at the last minute all made lame excuses and didn’t show.  So, the man was slighted, insulted.  He also had all this food prepared and didn’t want to waste it.  So, he decided that instead of bottling it up and stewing on it, he’d invite all the town riff-raff.  All the people that not only he didn’t know, but people who were a bit dubious, who slept under hedges, who weren’t of his class.  And you know what?  All the riff-raff came and they had a ball. 

Well, if you were sitting at that table when Jesus told this story, in the house of a person who could afford house, table and food, surrounded by your friends and this guest called Rabbi Jesus, and heard this parable, you might feel a little uncomfortable.  Like: ‘Are you suggesting Mr Jesus we should invite the riff-raff here?  Really??  They’re unclean.  They’re probably smelly.  They wouldn’t fit.  They’d be uncomfortable (and so, if we’re honest, would we).’

Then there is the story we heard today.  Which is also a dinner table story, as the introduction says.  Even though it’s about a shepherd and leaving 99 sheep.  Not that flocks were that size in those days.  Leaving 99 just to find one errant escapee from the flock.  So, the 99 get left to their own devices, and that of any wandering wolf.   

The purpose of this tale is to encourage, maybe to shame, the Pharisees (which is to say the religious ‘denomination’ where Jesus belonged) into sharing their table and food and company with the riff-raff.

A point about the shepherd.  Times change.  And so do images, and theology, and just about everything else.  The shepherd of Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, being likened to the divine, comes from a time of nomadic sheep grazing, a time now gone.  By the 1st century BCE Israel was primarily an agricultural and urban economy and shepherds (rather than being esteemed as in the past) were now disdained as marginal members of society.   Shepherds were now not to be trusted, and classed instead with tax collectors and publicans.  Ministers who like to be called ‘pastor’ should think about that.

So, the listener at the dinner table with Jesus and everyone else has to make a decision early on.  Is this story’s shepherd a divine figure or a contemporary 1st century riff-raff figure?   Is Jesus inferring that his host is godly or an outcast?  And in both cases is Jesus inferring that the host should just leave us wining and dining here and go off wandering to serve the needs of some irresponsible deviant? 

The stories of Jesus encouraging a practice of eating at the one table with the righteous and the sinners, the good folk of the town and the worst, have come down to us today as pointers to what a holy communion might look like.

And it’s not a feeling of spiritual oneness between you and God.  Indeed, you might just feel uncomfortable throughout.  And it’s not a feeling of spiritual oneness with the others who have gathered around that communion table.  For you may have very little in common.  Or even unpleasant past history.  And the holiness of communion I’m suggesting is not about a belief or beliefs we hold in common (important though, at times, common beliefs can be).  And the holiness of communion I’m suggesting is not about our own morality, or our common morality (important though, often, morality can be).

Rather I’m suggesting that holiness – that which sets apart this kind of Jesus communion from any other type of communion – are the difficult actions of disregarding and trying to dismantle the barriers of social class.

I’m suggesting that who Jesus and the Pharisees ate with is not foremost about religious beliefs, following what’s written in the good book or not.  I think quite often people use religious belief, including verses from the Bible, to justify their existing prejudices and preferences.  Indeed, there are plenty of verses in the good book (as in the Torah) about welcoming strangers, dining with strangers, and caring for those who are travelling by (sleeping under hedgerows) or are down and poor.  And I think some of Jesus’ fellow religionists were using religion and belief as an excuse not to engage, and certainly not to welcome as an equal, those who were down and poor.  They were using religion to entrench the distinctions of social class.

New Zealanders by and large are uncomfortable with the word ‘class’.  It’s one of those words that our pakeha immigrant ancestors hoped to leave behind in the ‘old’ countries.  New Zealand was to be a classless society where the myths of anyone being able to get ahead, to get an education, to own property, to have security if you were aged or infirm, were the new creed that drove and still drives the political and social landscape of this country.  We don’t like to think these myths aren’t true, even when we know they are not.

Indeed, much of our church’s understanding of justice has been shaped by a desire to see the myth of a classless society prevail.   Equity issues around education, housing, and health for example.  Justice issues around race and gender are also often framed in terms of this myth – with the inference that all will be well if say discriminatory barriers (including attitude, practices, and law) in the workplace are dismantled.

One assumption is that a classless is ipso facto a just society.  Another is that class is a social construct that can therefore be deconstructed.   I’m not so sure about either assumption.

I think class – distinctions based on privilege, wealth, race, etcetera – emerges over time in every society.  It also gets entrenched via various structural mechanisms – like schooling, or marriage, or who determines and sets taxation.  Such mechanisms were around in Jesus’ day as they are in ours.  You could say its inevitable and like say many ‘ailments’ we might be able to mitigate its worst effects but we won’t be able to eradicate it.

Jesus had a vision of social class being disregarded and dismantled in order that people could know and celebrate their oneness with each other.  That no matter how much money or privilege we have, no matter how sick or not we are, no matter our sexuality or family connections, no matter our race or gender, we are fundamentally one earth family, woven together, connected, interdependent.  And holiness, the sense of the sacred, is both found and enacted when we try to break down the barriers of class which keep us from seeing that oneness and reaching out to honour the humanity and belonging we have with each other.  And what better way to proclaim this vision, to honour and belong together than to eat together.