Interesting fact: The term “breaking bread” goes back many centuries and crosses many cultures and religions. It’s a shared term for coming together in meal and friendship. The term applies today — you can find it in some urban dictionaries.
For as long as we’ve been around, we’ve come together and connected over a meal. We enjoy breaking bread and telling stories, restoring friendships, and creating new ones.
Bread has been a staple of diets for a long time, so it’s a natural choice to capture the essence of eating together. Also, it’s wonderfully symbolic. When we break bread, each of us gets one piece of a bigger loaf. It feeds our sense of connection.
It’s not surprising that bread-breaking is a touchstone religious practice. For instance, it’s part of Jewish tradition. Two thousand years ago, a Jewish rabbi chose it as a way for his followers to remember their unity.
Jesus spent the last years of his life teaching that everyone is responsible for everyone else and must live that way — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, care for the poor. Breaking bread is a reminder that our lives are about more than ourselves.
Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslims for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous, and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).
It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another. Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work, and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.
As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.
I empathize with people fleeing the local church. Churches can be battlefields instead of harbors, pits of condemnation or politics rather than wells of living water.
But the endless search for something “new” has trumped the life-changing story the body of Christ has nurtured and passed on for 2,000 years. This transforming story is the story the churches enacted weekly in Word and Sacrament before they forgot their original vocation as shelters of truth, life, and light amidst lies, death, and darkness. There were four revealed ways Jesus was present at the center of their public gatherings. These ways have been lost in too many places but are waiting to be rediscovered. More on that in a moment.
A young woman, a house church attendee, told me she longs for solid pastoral guidance, a message prepared weekly by an authoritative teacher, for worship that places Jesus Christ at the exact center of a public space where everyone is welcome, a place where she can bring her disbelieving friends whose lives are not yet transformed by self-sacrificial Love, a place where they can speak openly and honestly about where their lives still remain isolated from a holy God, a place of worship that does not lean on any one person's (or her personal) understanding and articulation of the Gospel but on the collective wisdom of the body of Christ.
Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East. I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own. In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood. Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope.
"No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview. When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it."
Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:
I love food. I love food even more when it's shared with people. Some of my fondest memories with friends and family happened while sharing food. My husband and I shared our first date over a meal, and we got engaged over a meal. There's something about sitting around a table partaking in sustenance for our bodies that also fills our soul and our hearts. That's probably why I love communion so much.
So I was struck by Paul’s anger over food in 1 Corinthians 11. Granted, Paul comes off angry in other letters as well, but this one I decided to linger on for awhile because of verse 27: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord."
Paul's letter is directed to a community in Corinth that was made up of the poor, the working class, and the rich. They lived together, shared communion with each other, and sought to be a community that reflected Christ. Now, this doesn’t seem too different from what we do at church today. But unlike how we celebrate communion — as it’s own “event” during service — for the 1st century Christians, communion was part of a real meal.
So what could be so "unworthy" about this shared meal?
Micah Bales asked a deep question. He suggests that the wealth in property we’ve inherited is hindering our work for social justice. He talks provocatively (as a spiritual challenge, he clarifies) about “burning the meetinghouse.” He asks, “What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?”
As I passed churches the other day I asked myself, “If there are so many churches in America, why does America look so unlike the Kingdom of God? Why are we strangers to our neighbors? Why do we have homeless poor among us? Why do sweatshops produce the majority of our goods? Why do we have the greatest per-capita incarceration rate in the world? Why are we choking the earth with fossil fuels?”
Many non-Christians lay the sins of our nation and even the world at the feet of the church. After all, a 77 percent of us self-identify as Christians (in 2009). So why is it that the Christian faith, the self-avowed enemy of greed, has allowed this world to happen?
I think that our churches have been slowly converted by the logic of the market, a logic which Paul called “the world.” Jesus called his disciples to disregard the economy, and later, in the midst of the Roman empire, the Acts church built centers of economic and spiritual wholeness that offered a concrete alternative to the mandatory emperor-worshipping cult which was physically represented by Caesar’s head on the golden coin: the money system. There was a prophetic imagination alive in the Acts church.
Kevin Finch was a pastor's kid and a pastor's grandkid. Two of his uncles were also pastors and so was his cousin. It was the family business. Finch doesn't tell many people that he, too, became a minister.
The idea behind Big Table isn't about proselytizing, praying or preaching. Finch's only goal is to befriend local food industry workers and pamper them at the regular Big Table dinners.
"God is big enough to show up when he wants to show up," Finch said.
As a recent evening of fine dining wound down, Finch picked up the microphone and looked at the 45 people sitting at the big table. Together they had drunk wine and chatted over a lavish five-course meal.
It was time for full disclosure.
"I was a pastor," he said sheepishly, "but whenever I mentioned that to folks in the (food) industry they would stop talking to me. It could clear a table in about 30 seconds."