Tables

(Psalm 34:8; Matthew 11:16-19)
O taste and see that the Lord is good.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking

People often ask me what I talk about when I meet with student groups who come to Volmoed. The answer, in short, is many things. Usually the format for our time together is an ongoing conversation about things that matter to them, and things that matter in life. The topics cover much ground, some to do with the church, some with politics or theology or art, and so it goes, backwards and forwards. We go where the conversation takes us. And sometimes it takes us into interesting places as it did last week when the final year theological students from Stellenbosch came to Volmoed and we ended up talking about coffee shops, shebeens and the smell of baking bread.

Why is it, asked one student from Delft, a tough township on the Cape Flats, that young people prefer to spend their time in shebeens and taverns rather than church? Is it the booze, or maybe drugs, or is there something deeper, something about being human? We humans might like solitude on occasion, and we might make much use of social media, but most of us hanker after community, being together with others. We are social creatures. Being on line is not the same as being together, laughing and crying together, seeing each other face to face rather than on Facebook.

Understandably, many people, young and old, find a greater sense of community outside the church and even on the internet than they do sitting in pews and listening to sermons. Which is also why pubs play such a central role in every village and suburb in England and elsewhere. Of course, there are many churches and youth fellowships that do provide community, churches whose worship builds and sustain community, and there are many people who find friendship and a sense of belonging in the church. But too often building community is not regarded as an integral part of worship, or as important as preaching the Word. There is, in fact, little appreciation that our deep desire for community is part of our hunger for God, part of our hunger for an authentic Word.

In August 2007 we had a visitor on Volmoed by the name of Barbara Glasson who, while here, wrote the prayer that is now on the back cover of our prayer book. At that time Barbara was a Methodist minister in England. One morning she shared her story with us. She had been sent by the Methodist Church to start a new congregation in the centre of Liverpool where the old Methodist church had closed after its membership had dwindled. When she got to there, she had to start from scratch. She rented an apartment in the city centre above a store and each Sunday began to bake bread in the kitchen. But she left the windows open so that the smell of the fresh bread drifted down into the street below. Soon people began to arrive attracted by the smell, some of them homeless and most of them down-and-out. As the weeks passed, a community began to form around the kitchen table, attracted first by the smell and taste of bread, and then by becoming a community of caring people. So the church was born. "O taste and see, the Lord is good!" Thank you, God, she wrote in her prayer, "for writing us into your story!"

And how much of that story of our journey into the mystery of God has to do with tables around which we meet others. The kitchen, dining room and coffee tables around which we gather with family and friends, or on which we play games. All these are important in shaping our lives and in meeting our hunger for both bread and the bread of life. But for us, at the centre is the Lord's table where everyone should be welcome, where there should be no winners and losers, but where we all should be reconciled as friends, the table around which we gather each week and Jesus becomes known in the "breaking of bread." Every table should, in fact, be an extension of the Lord's Table, every meal, every meeting over coffee, can become a Eucharist, an occasion when we experience the presence of Christ in a way that binds us both to him and to each other. Indeed, according to the Psalmist, God prepares tables for us to gather around as we journey in the wilderness (Ps. 78:19), even in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23:5). Table fellowship is at the heart of Christian community. Breaking bread together binds us together.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was as often at table sharing meals with his friends as he was in the synagogue, and even ate with sinners, publicans and those who challenged him! Jesus' ministry often occurred in the equivalent of our coffee shops and pizzerias. Jesus was infamous among religious people because, unlike John the Baptist, "he came eating and drinking!" So it is not surprising that on the night before he died, he had his last supper with his friends and told them to keep on doing that till he came back. And every time we do that we become the body of Christ, members of one another.

But every table can become the Lord's Table, a place of meeting where the body of Christ becomes a reality; the focal point where community is formed, where we "taste and see that the Lord is good!" No matter how big or small, how splendid or crude, whether round, square or oblong, no matter whether it is in the sanctuary or the restaurant, the kitchen or the wilderness, every table can be the Lord's where meals become celebrations, where conversation builds community, where enemies become friends, where Jesus is known in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Every table can become an altar, every meal a Eucharist, every room a sanctuary where Christ is truly present to feed our hunger for genuine community, our human hunger for God. The church is being the church of Jesus who came eating and drinking when it helps people hungry for food, hungry for community, and hungry for God, to sit at table and taste and see that the Lord is good.

(John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus.)