Food as Fellowship
What can we do to shift our focus, change our approach and honor God's pattern for communal meals?
"The table is the place where broken sinners find connection and belonging." — Barry D. Jones
In the Christian walk, food can be one of our biggest stumbling blocks. Lusting after our cravings, eating mindlessly and promoting disordered eating patterns are all traps into which we easily fall. From gluttony to selfishness to poor stewardship of our bodies, our approach to food can be a slippery slope that leads us right into sin.
But food isn't inherently bad. It can't be. God created it and gave it to us as a gift out of His abundant riches and grace. Food is good. And we can learn to embrace its goodness in fellowship—without our shared meals devolving into vehicles for sin.
There are times when it's right and beneficial to celebrate with food. Both secular culture and Biblical history paint a picture of meals as occasions for hospitality, bonding, fellowship and worship. When shared in the proper context, food can have great spiritual significance.
So, let's take a breather from where we're going wrong with our approach to food and see how we can recapture the essence of God‘s intention for communal meals.
Food in World Cultures
Food traditions are central to cultural identities around the world. From signature dishes to mealtime rituals, the way food is prepared and eaten reflects something about each native population's shared values.
In Central America, food is a form of art—a means of self-expression. Familial and communal food preparation creates stronger relationships, and the food itself can be a way to share stories about the people and the culture. Spain‘s tradition of sharing small dishes—tapas—exemplifies what it means to bring people together around food.
European societies emphasize fresh ingredients in their meals that reflect the unique natural surroundings of each area. The French in particular are known for lingering over multiple small courses, taking the opportunity to connect with each other as they dine.
Middle Eastern cultures connect around a large meal as the central point of the day. Sharing small side dishes creates connection and facilitates communication.
In Asian countries, it’s not unusual to see communal sharing of side dishes to accompany a main course. Food in these cultures can be a means of communication: the Chinese reflect a shared value of harmony through the spices they use, and the Japanese use locally sourced ingredients to reflect their respect for nature. Much effort goes into cooking and preparation to create beautiful results that honor cultural traditions.
A particularly unique thing happens in countries where different food cultures come together. Food traditions cross over as people experiment with each others’ practices. Such intermingling can be a way to celebrate different approaches to food and may also result in new ways of cooking and eating. These amalgamated traditions may not only change the food landscape but also strengthen an entire nation’s identity.
Learning From Food Culture
As we examine these patterns, we can learn several things:
In both preparation and eating, sharing food is often synonymous with communicating and creating stronger bonds.
Food traditions reflect shared values and strengthen bonds within cultures.
Food can break down barriers to facilitate communication and cooperation between cultures.
Shared meals can be opportunities for hospitality and deep connection.
Mindful food preparation celebrates natural bounty by turning meals into art.
Many of these patterns have their roots in Biblical practices that extend all the way back to Old Testament times.
Food as Fellowship with God
Food preparation was an elaborate affair in Biblical times. There were no refrigerators, no canned goods and no delivery apps. Making meals "from scratch" was literal, starting with growing grain and raising animals. Any food obtained through trade incurred some kind of cost, usually in the form of goods that required a lot of labor to produce.
It's no surprise, then, that the Israelites—God's people—had a very real sense of food as a gift from God. Sitting down to a meal could, in and of itself, be an act of worship.
Eating and Drinking on the Mountain
We see a clear example of this in the book of Exodus. After God made His covenant with the Israelites, His chosen people, through the giving of the law (see Exodus 24:3-8), something truly awesome happened: God called Moses, His messenger to the Israelites; Aaron, the high priest; Aaron's sons; and the elders of the people up to Mount Sinai to worship.
God's presence had wreathed the mountain in smoke, and the people had been warned not to come near—all except Moses, through whom God delivered the covenant message and the law. But through this call, God set the stage for a significant event:
Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel:
And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.
And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink. (Exodus 24:9-11, KJV)
Together, this group of men represented the entire nation of Israel at a critical time in its history. On the mountain, they saw a form or shadow of God's glory and ate and drank in His presence. .
It was both an act of worship and an act of identifying themselves as God's people. Through the sharing of the meal, they had fellowship with each other in the presence of their God—a literal communion.
The meal itself may have been a means of sealing the covenant, which was a common practice at the time (see Genesis 31:51-54). As a sign of peace between God and the nation of Israel, it shows us something greater about what God intends for communal meals. As David Camera points out in Tabletalk magazine: "Sharing a meal together is one of the primary ways relationships are established, deepened and enjoyed both with God and with others."
Food as Fellowship in the Early Church
In the New Testament, Jesus often shared meals as part of His ministry. Gathering around food was part of everyday life, and Jesus took these communal occasions as opportunities to speak God‘s word and share Kingdom truth. He sat and ate with people from all walks of life: lawyers and Pharisees, prostitutes and tax collectors, homemakers and fishermen. Every meal was an opportunity to teach, preach and minister.
Jesus’ disciples continued this practice throughout the days of the early church. With no official meeting place, they worshipped and ate in each other's homes. This act of coming together “in communion“ signaled their trust in a God Who provides both physical and spiritual food. It also reflected the care early church members had for each other: Sharing food was part of their practice of pooling resources to ensure everyone's needs were met.
Some form of communal meal has been practiced in Christian circles ever since. Whether in the weekly "love feasts" of the early days or today's church potlucks, food accompanies worship and community. Uniting around a meal is an opportunity to reflect the mutual care that God calls Christians to have for each other.
Reflection in Prayer
Prayer is another Biblical aspect of this shared experience. "Saying grace" before eating is meant to give us a moment to pause and consider, to express our gratitude to God for the unmerited favor He shows in the daily giving of all we need—including food. In this, the act of eating becomes and act of worship.
Jesus Himself took this posture. The first thing He did before feeding 5,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish was give thanks (see Matthew 14:15-21). He did the same before passing the bread and the cup during the Last Supper (see Matthew 26:26-28). In each instance, He acknowledged the One Who provided the food—and, in the case of the Last Supper, the very Bread of Life (see John 6:35).
Grace isn't just a thing Christians do before a meal; it's a way to humble our hearts before God and set our minds on Him instead of eating in a mindless rush as so many of us often do. In these moments of prayer, we have the opportunity to slow down and rethink what it means to eat, particularly with others. Saying grace frees us from the societal default of eating on the run so that our minds are in the right place to fellowship with God—and with those around the table.
America’s Great Food Disconnect
Despite clear Biblical examples and strong cultural practices throughout the modern world, most meals in the U.S. conspicuously lack the values of community, fellowship and worship—including meals shared at church.
This hasn't always been the case.
When farming was the backbone of life in the nation, the entire family was involved in growing, harvesting, preparing, preserving and eating food. It was a true field-to-fork experience, a corporate affair that began when fields were plowed and seeds were planted.
As people from various cultures came to the country, a rich food landscape was born. Each group contributed its own style of cooking and eating, many of which are still reflected in regional cuisines like Southern soul food and the many seafood dishes found across New England. And, although each culture preserved elements of its own traditions, people ultimately came together to create the "melting pot" that makes the U.S. unique.
Today, that act of creating community and connection around food has largely disappeared. Sitting down at the dinner table has ceased to be the norm for families. Americans eat one-fifth of all their meals are in the car, and one-forth of the population grabs fast food for at least one meal per day. Neither scenario allows much room for reflection or fellowship.
Stressful or Mindful?
When we do come together for meals, we often feel pressured to impress—rather than refresh—each other. Thanksgiving is a prime example, a holiday so fraught with tension that it's become the butt of jokes throughout popular culture. By the time we actually sit down to eat, we just want the day to be over (and someone else to do the dishes).
Such an approach causes us to miss out on the joy that can be found in preparing and sharing food. Instead of doing our best Martha impersonation as we rush around the kitchen in pursuit of perfection, we could be communing with God as we craft the meal we'll later share with people we love.
What can we do to shift our focus, change our approach and honor God's pattern for food and fellowship?
Food as Fellowship with Each Other
The apostle Paul gives a straightforward guideline for how to honor God with our meals, shared or otherwise:
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31, KJV)
Straightforward, yes, but not easy, particularly given our propensity for self-indulgence. It’s useful, therefore, that Paul doesn’t deliver this instruction in a vacuum; rather, he gives it when addressing this very problem, which ran rampant in the early church at Corinth.
The Wrong Way to Share a Meal
Corinth was a decadent place, given to excess and indulgence. Many in the city’s first church came out of such lifestyles and didn't understand how to behave in the context of Christian fellowship:
“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.
For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21, KJV)
This behavior would have been appalling in any setting where food was shared, but it was even worse given that these meals were meant to commemorate Jesus’ death and look forward to His return. Each gathering was supposed to be a time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice: the body He gave and the blood He shed for the sins of the world.
In their greed and gluttony, the Corinthians blasphemed the name of Christ by misusing the time as an excuse to satisfy themselves. These feasts were opportunities to glorify God, serve each other and build a strong Christian community that reflected the love of Christ to the culture around them—but they chose to be self-serving instead.
A Humble Approach
Disorder and division characterized the church in Corinth. They lacked compassion and displayed no sympathy for those less fortunate. Instead of creating a communal atmosphere where everyone received a fair portion, some took more than they needed while others were left wanting.
It was the exact opposite of the church in Acts, where fellowship around food went hand in hand with going to the temple for worship (see Acts 2:46-47). Theirs was a much clearer reflection of Old Testament communal eating and worship, a way to come together and identify as Jesus' followers both in sharing meals and in the love they showed for each other.
For these early believers, eating together was a natural part of the Christian experience. Meals were shared in the context of daily life and all its struggles. They came together to strengthen each other, pray and rest in the context of fellowship—and so can we.
Following the Example Set Before Us
When we eat together, we share something rare in today’s society: uninterrupted face-to-face time. Meals provide a context for building bonds and strengthening relationships between ourselves and fellow believers. The simple act of gathering around the table becomes a kind of hospitality that demonstrates the love of Christ to those inside the church and without.
These implications appear to have escaped the early Corinthian church. Living in a culture that was either apathetic to or outright hostile toward their Christian values meant the Corinthians had a special responsibility to show what Christians were supposed to be like. The way they behaved during their weekly meals said something about the wider Christian community—and their example was, unfortunately, a poor one.
But ours doesn’t have to be. If we look at the patterns given in both the Old and New Testaments, we see shared meals as acts of worship, fellowship, hospitality and sacrifice.
And therein, perhaps, lies the key to returning to God‘s pattern for shared meals: For a meal to truly be communal, each person must make some measure of sacrifice. We must set aside our inherent desire for self-satisfaction to ensure that everyone is fed, acknowledged and edified—and that, through our behavior, God is glorified.
When the meals we share reflect the sacrificial love of Christ, we create an environment where everyone is welcome, selfishness absent, and we're able to recapture the sense of connection that God wants us to have with Him—and with each other.
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