There’s a new movement afoot in our nation sponsored by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The movement is called “Family Day” which is scheduled for September 26th this year. The purpose of “Family Day” is to encourage parents to eat dinner with their children. It is the sponsors hope that in promoting this event, parents will make dinnertime a focal point of family life on a more frequent basis.
It seems that the communal family dinner has - like Sunday morning church attendance - fallen victim to all the competing activities and entertainment opportunities that vie for the attention of 21st century Americans. Evidently fewer and fewer people can be bothered to sit down together at a common table, and break bread, having face time together, sharing their lives. The results of this have been disastrous.
Studies show that children in families that do not sit and have the evening meal together on a regular basis are much more likely to become addicted to alcohol and drugs, do poorly in school and feel socially alienated. Conversely children who share dinner with their families five or more nights per week, are 32% likelier to never have tried cigarettes, 45% likelier to have never tried alcohol and 24% likelier never to have smoked marijuana. Children who eat frequent family dinners together are twice as likely to get A’ s in school as their classmates who rarely eat as a family.
Of course all of this then hampers children from becoming whole and healthy adults. My observation is that a parallel situation exists with children whose spiritual development is not nourished by their parents, as well. They too end up suffering serious collateral problems in their lives. But that’s another sermon.
A young couple with three young children interviewed by the New York Times about “Family Day” decided to make regular family dinners a priority by setting aside each Monday evening for a family dinner. After several weeks of communal dining the mother stated that, "It's crazy, but having dinner together reinforces the family unit."
Actually that’s not crazy at all! Breaking bread together is a fundamental act of what it means to be fully human. Throughout human history, meals have been important opportunities for the establishment and maintenance of relationships. In breaking bread together bonds are forged and intimacies are deepened. Meal time is a time when people can look each other in the face and have the kind of real, human contact that we all desperately need.
This is something that Episcopalians came to understand in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1979. The theologians and writers involved in that revision realized that our not sharing our family meal together on a regular basis- as Christ intended - meant our family unit was not being well nurtured. Our ability to relate to one another and grow into whole and healthy Christians was being hampered by infrequent meal sharing. And so to remedy that situation the Prayer Book was changed. The very first words in the new BCP are, “The Holy Eucharist [is to be] the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major feasts . . . for public worship in this Church.” (BCP page 13) Frequent sharing of our family meal - known as Communion - with one another, was made central to our communal religious life. And we have been a healthier and holier family because of that change ever since.
So for Episcopalians the understanding that one must share a common meal with one’s family and friends to be a whole and healthy person, is hardly a radical notion. But the claim to originality is not ours - although hubris tempts me to say it is! Of course the religious communal meal in Christianity originates with Jesus and therefore Judaism - a religion where the communal family meal has been sacred for millennia.
Jesus’ Last Supper was a communal Jewish meal - most likely the Passover Seder -that he imbued with new meaning for his followers. That communal meal in an upper room in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, is the reason why you and I gather here this evening on Maundy Thursday, as we commemorate the night Jesus gave us the gift of holy bread and wine. And his command to us was that whenever we gather to eat this bread and drink this cup, we do it, “In remembrance of Him.”
So just what exactly is it that Jesus asks us to remember about him by eating this bread and wine? That final night of His life? The sacrifice that he made for us in his passion and death? In those final hours of his life, does Jesus think he needs to memorialize this meal so that his friends will not forget him? After all they have been a rather obtuse lot up to this point!
What does Jesus mean for us to do when he asks us to eat this communal meal in remembrance of him?
There are several answers to those questions - all of them bear truth. But let me offer you what I believe Jesus truly meant as he looked around the table and blessed that communal meal and said, “do this in remembrance of me.”
He meant, remember the radical, communal, table fellowship. Remember what I have practiced my entire ministry among you.
Let’s think about art for a moment. Most artistic expressions of the Last Supper are similar in their portrayal of that event. Leonardo Da Vinci’s rendition, while it is not the first such depiction, becomes for most of us the template of our mental images of the Last Supper. A beatific Jesus, seated at the center of a one-sided, wedding banquet style, head table, with twelve men surrounding him. It is an iconic image in Western art and religion - and based on the Jesus of the Gospels, it is also an incorrect image.
There is an Australian artist named John Coburn who has painted a Last Supper that depicts a much more accurate portrayal of what the Last Supper most likely looked like. In Coburn’s painting the table is large and seventeen people are seated on all four sides, all the way around, and it includes men and women. Flanking the table are four standing people - two women and two men- who are serving the meal. FYI For those intrigued by the mysteries of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the person seated at Jesus right in Coburn’s painting is clearly a woman and she is dressed in red. So if your into codes the question is, Could this possibly be Mary Magdalene? Who knows?!
Coburn’s painting grasps the Jesus of the Gospels and renders the Last Supper as it really must have been: a radically inclusive, communal, family meal, just like the one’s eaten by Jesus’ during his ministry.
Throughout the Gospels it is in the context of meals that Jesus challenges the rules of exclusion and inhospitality that structured life in that time.
Think of the feeding of the five thousand plus, when Jesus took the bread, looked to heaven , blessed and broke the loaves and feed the multitude: men, women and children. And we can be pretty confident that there were Gentiles mixed in with that enormous Jewish crowd. And no one was checking membership I.D.’s either. ALL were just included and fed. Radical, communal, table fellowship.
Remember when Jesus goes to Matthew the tax collectors house for dinner, and the scripture tells us that the guest list is made up of yet more tax collectors and sinners. When we hear the word sinners think prostitutes. And Jesus eats with them all. Radical, communal, table fellowship.
Think of the parable of the Wedding Banquet where all those initially invited to the feast made excuses not to come when the meal was ready. So the king instructs the servants to go out into the streets and invite everyone who they see. And they, “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so that the wedding hall was filled.” (Mt.22:10a) Radical, communal, table fellowship.
An if you think about it, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is also about radical, communal, table fellowship. Not only is this Samaritan a woman and a religious apostate and half-breed, she is out in public, and yet Jesus deigns to speak with her by asking her for a drink of water from the well. Her ethnicity, religion, sex and public location make her quadruply anathema for Jesus in the eyes of the culture. Yet he sits, talks and drinks cool water with her. Radical, communal, table fellowship.
Even the classic depictions of the Last Supper point to radical, table fellowship. Renderings of this event invariably include Judas Iscariot at the table. Even the one who is to betray Jesus shares in the communal meal. (Although based on the newly released gospel of Judas, we may need to revisit our image of Judas’ and his sinister reputation.)
Again and again Jesus engages people by welcoming them to the table. With Jesus every meal is “ Family Day” for all people. And he cares not a wit about who or what they are. He doesn’t even ask if they are baptized. The only concern Jesus has is to build relationships with all people by breaking bread with them, and in that action forging deep, intimate, authentic bonds of love.
That is what Jesus is asking us to do when he tells us to eat this meal in remembrance of him: Offer each and every person radical inclusion and hospitality at this family table and in our communal life: Loving others as Jesus loved us. By doing so we continue to bring about the reign of God that Jesus inaugurated.
Eat this bread; drink this cup; encounter God. Do this in remembrance of me Jesus says, and you will truly be my disciples. Do this in remembrance of me and you will have a life that you never imagined possible.