Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table
Somewhere in a parallel universe, there exist shelves and shelves of theological books that are well written. Unfortunately in this regard, we live on earth, where good theology is often poorly expressed (and sketchy theology reads like buttah). Throw in the Z-axis of quality missional reflection, and you’re seeking the holy grail hat trick of Christian literature. But hey, anything’s possible.
Enter Tim Chester, from the parallel universe of England. On a steel horse he rides across the pond to give us A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table, and he serves up said hat trick. Chester has apparently written many books for IVP and others in Great Britain, but I only became aware of him last year with his You Can Change, which is a wonderful work that details the dynamics of gospel growth in our lives. For all of You Can Change’s strengths, however, I agreed with a perceptive critic that thought the style of the book rather pedestrian and decried, “Unfortunately, Chester writes more like a butler than a buccaneer.” I wouldn’t have put it in such a stroppy way—horses for courses, and all that—but it seems that Chester has taken that criticism to heart with A Meal With Jesus, and what we have is a remarkable short volume that blends deep biblical theological reflection with a bracing call to mission, all produced in a manner that is neither overcooked nor underwritten. Bob’s your uncle!
I loved A Meal With Jesus so much, in fact, that I’ve invited all of us at Providence to buy a copy, read it, and open their homes to others this summer for the purpose of joy and mission.
Chester builds his book around the gospel of Luke and notes how frequently there Jesus is at a meal. “How did Jesus come?” Chester asks, “He came eating and drinking.” I never quite thought of it that way, even though I spent years preaching through Luke, but Chester is sussing out something important: “Jesus spent his time eating and drinking—a lot of his time. He was a party animal. His mission strategy was a long meal, stretching into the evening. He did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine.” This might not feel like a stonking revelation in itself, but the implications that Chester builds from this premise are striking. For example, argues Chester, Jesus’ meals are a strategic way to throw a spanner in the works of the religious establishment and engage in kingdom mission:
Jesus is called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” This is why eating and drinking were so important in the mission of Jesus: they were a sign of his friendship with tax collectors and sinners. His “excess” of food and “excess” of grace are linked. In the ministry of Jesus, meals were enacted grace, community, and mission. So the meals of Jesus represent something bigger. They represent a new world, a new kingdom, a new outlook. But they give that new reality substance. Jesus’s meals are not just symbols; they’re also application. They’re not just pictures; they’re the real thing in miniature. Food is stuff. It’s not ideas. It’s not theories. It’s, well, it’s food, and you put it in your mouth, taste it, and eat it. And meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community, and welcome. I don’t want to reduce church and mission to meals, but I do want to argue that meals should be an integral and significant part of our shared life. They represent the meaning of mission, but they more than represent it: they embody and enact our mission.
I believe this is true. Sharing a meal is a great equalizer—just like grace itself—which is precisely why the Pharisees couldn’t stand Jesus. Have you ever been in the house of a friend (or an erstwhile stranger) for dinner and not wanted the meal to end? Isn’t there something intuitively correct in Chester’s assertion that “around the table we offer fellowship and celebrate life”? When Christians practice such simple hospitality with a true sense of joy and inclusion, “Our meals offer a divine moment, an opportunity for people to be seduced by grace into a better life, a truer life, and a more human existence.”
If Christians want to engage in mission, then, better perhaps than entering an evangelism program or attending a conference on the subject is simply opening their homes and dinner tables to others. According to Chester,
Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.
I wish that I had encountered this message years ago—and yes, ironically enough, this message really just derives from the Bible, which I’ve read before—and have done a better job of doing mission in this way and of communicating this vision to others.
Alas, here is also the problem: all of this theologizing is brill, and suddenly Chester makes mission sound so much easier than the hair shirting alternatives, but why don’t I share meals with others more than I do? Because I’m often a Pharisee. It was those in the religious upper class that lorded their status over others and only practiced hospitality to buttress their own status and reciprocal gain. Jesus, however, gives the toodle pip to that way of thinking and says instead, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brother or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” This teaching is hard for anyone to practice, but when it happens, it’s beautiful. Then I turn back around to gaze in upon my own cold heart, and Chester warns me, “It’s easy to love people in some abstract sense and preach the virtues of love. But we’re called to love the real individuals sitting around the table.” Or again, “Our meals express our doctrine of justification. It’s possible to articulate an orthodox theology of justification by faith, but communicate through your meals a doctrine of justification by works.” This is profound. My meals really do express my “vision for life,” and whom I invite and how I practice them says more about me than I want to admit.
Nevertheless, A Meal With Jesus holds out hope to me on two levels. First, getting on the Chester bandwagon is as easy as giving someone a quick call or email to come over for dinner. It’s not rocket science. In addition, Chester continually draws the reader back to the grace of Christ, grace that forgives, grace that renews, grace that says, “Try again.” That’s what I want to do, and I believe that the ethic of A Meal With Jesus could transform Providence and its mission in some permanent ways. And best of all, as we press ahead with sharing hospitality, we are orienting ourselves to abiding, future joy. Chester one more time:
What are the Christian community’s meals for? They achieve many things. They express so much of God’s grace. They provide a glimpse of what it’s like to live under God’s reign. They express and reinforce the community that Christ has created through the cross. They’re a foretaste of the new creation. They’re a great context in which to invite unbelievers so they encounter the reality of God among us. But they’re not “for” any of these things. It’s a trick question. Everything else—creation, redemption, mission—is “for” this: that we might eat together in the presence of God. God created the world so we might eat with him. The food we consume, the table around which we sit, and the companions gathered with us have as their end our communion with one another and with God. The Israelites were redeemed to eat with God on the mountain, and we’re redeemed for the great messianic banquet that we anticipate when we eat together as a Christian community. We proclaim Christ in mission so that others might hear the invitation to join the feast. Creation, redemption, and mission all exist so that this meal can take place.