As I’ve been reflecting on today’s reading together with this theme of The Lord’s Supper, I’ve been reminded that there’s nothing quite like the joy of eating with friends…

And just yesterday, I was reminded of it, when we were invited to a friends place for dinner...

The fire was on, the board games were set, and we talked and laughed, ate good food and enjoyed each other's company.

And when I think of these times, I am convinced that a particular celebrity chef has it right:

If you can eat with mates or friends or family, I mean, it's such a brilliant thing isn't it? If you feel really rubbish and you have a nice bit of food it makes you feel good.

Jamie Oliver

And it’s a joy that’s universal, isn’t it. We see it evident in all the different dining customs that have evolved all over the world.

Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, director of The Etiquette School of New York explores customs that reflect the delight of eating with others:

Get this. The people of Ethiopia have a tradition of hand-feeding each other, called gursha. It's a gesture of hospitality that builds trust and social bonds between those sharing the food.

Diners in Europe enjoy feasting so much their meals take a couple of hours, while in many Muslim cultures, if you happen to drop bread on the ground, diners will pick it up, kiss it, and raise it to their forehead before putting it back on the plate, to show respect for the food and the people who made it.

In Japan and China, slurping your noodles shows appreciation for the meal. And if you like haggling over who gets to pay when eating out, you’d be very welcome in Mexico. Apparently, Mexicans like to make a show of it… and I don’t mean, “No you pay, no you pay!” They love to show their generosity by picking up the tab., which is fine, by me.

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you think of eating with others? What is it that you appreciate about the dining experience? Is it the good food, the conversation, the time to connect with friends and family?

And just in case we doubted the importance of the shared meal, psychologists have discovered that it’s not just what we eat that matters, but how we eating together, that’s critical. The Family Dinner Project, sites a number of key benefits to sitting around the dinner table. For those that sit down for five meals a week, researchers indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and promote healthy eating patterns and also raise levels of both mental and emotional health.

So perhaps, dinner should be at the table and not just around the TV.

But what may come to a surprise to us, is that the shared meal is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. All the way through the Gospels we discover Jesus Himself engaging in this pattern of extending and receiving invitations to dinner. Big deal, we might think. Jesus had to eat. But it seems that something else is happening here that has an important message for us.

The first thing that stands out about Jesus’ dining habits is, that he seems to do it a lot.

He ate and drank with people so much he was accused by the Pharisees, the religious law-keepers, as being a glutton and a drunkard...

But more important than this, is who Jesus chooses to eat with...

To paint the backdrop to this, convention stated that people in first-century Judea, usually ate with extended family. This was the usual context for eating and it signaled that you belonged, to an integral, accepted group. It was like for example, being a boarder here at King’s. You ate with your House.

If people ate beyond the home though, folk ate only with persons of their own social class. As a rule, people invited those who were social, political and religious equals; in other words, those who were in a position to return the favour.

Added to these conventions, the pressure the Pharisees put on people to make sure they lived out their holiness in the privacy of their own homes, by choosing carefully who to eat with and by observing exacting rituals for washing, and you can begin to see why Jesus’ dining habits caused such an uproar.

You see Jesus ate with anyone and everyone. He throws convention out the window. He eats with Simon the Pharisee, but at the same time allows a social outcast to wash his feet while reclining at the dinner table.

He invites tax collectors and other “sinners’ - like Levi, bestowing on them a remarkable privilege and in the same breath outraging the Pharisees that are also invited…  

Why? Why is Jesus doing this? Why is he drawing in the kinds of people most people of his day would cross the street to avoid?

There is something profoundly gracious goings on here...

Jesus is showing us what God and His kingdom is like…. Like the Parable of the Wedding Banquet found in Luke 14, he is showing that God wants everyone, and I mean everyone seated around His table, not just those who think they have got their lives together. In dining with Levi and other sinners, he challenges the Pharisees’ idea that you had to deserve your place at the table. Instead, Jesus shows us how faith and life is to be practiced. It’s to be open, and it’s to be radically inclusive.

For in doing so, people’s lives are changed.

The interesting thing is that when people sit down with Jesus, they leave profoundly changed. Levi leaves his career in tax, and becomes a full-time disciple of Jesus.

Zacchaeus – right in the middle of the dinner, gets up and says he will give half his possessions to the poor and promises to pay back four times the amount he’s owes people.

And it’s same at the Last Supper, itself. Look around the room and see who’s there… and again it’s a strange collection of people who shouldn’t be there. Some coarse and rowdy fishermen, a couple of tax collectors, a rebel leader called Simon the Zealot. All people who were once far off, being brought near, by the grace of Jesus, end up living profoundly changed lives.

And right there in the middle of it all, Jesus takes both the bread and the wine, and tells then about how his body will be broken for them, his blood shed for them to purchase their forgiveness. To set them free.

His message, as we come to the Lord’s Supper, is the same today as it was to everyone who has ever been invited to eat with Jesus. You matter to God even though others might not think so. You are forgiven, every mistake, every regret, every offense. It is finished and I have a place for you at my table and in my kingdom.

I love the film Chocolat directed by Lasse Halstrom, for it represents to me again the magic of grace. An elderly grandmother, called Armande, played by Dame Judy Dench, becomes estranged from her daughter, and is prevented from seeing her only grandson, a grandson she loves very much. A woman called Vianne, who owns the local Chocolate shop, befriends her and after several months discovers that it is going to be Armande’s birthday. Without family willing to come, Vianne invites all the lonely and eccentric villagers, to this birthday feast. Vianne even manages to secretly invite Armande’s grandson along as a surprise. Well, what a feast they have!

Everyone arrives rather stiff and unsure, but how the act of gracious hospitality changes things. Chocolate in every dish. Chocolate chicken. Chocolate sauces, chocolate gateaux. It is fascinating to watch how Vianne’s grace-filled gesture of hospitality works it’s magic. People find themselves laughing and telling stories and making friends. It draws people in. It’s a work of grace.

And it’s a work of grace that Christ Himself invites each one of us; to eat at the table of grace.

Let’s welcome His hospitality and extend it those in need of it. Amen.