You shall know them by their food

School children were asked to bring, for show-and-tell, a symbol that would describe best their religion. Each would take a turn to stand in front of their class, hold up their object and first, without saying a word, wait until one of their peers would successfully guess to which religion they belonged.

The first child held up some prayer beads — a rosary. “Roman Catholic,” someone called out. Later, the second child held up a picture of the Star of David. “Judaism,” another said. There was an awkward pause before the third child rushed through the door to the front of the classroom. In her oven-mitted hands she held up a piping hot casserole dish. There was silence.

The girl’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “You mean you can’t tell?” she croaked. “I’m Lutheran!”

After this month’s well-attended men’s breakfast group where we basically took over a whole corner of the restaurant, we joked that pretty soon the men’s breakfast group might have more out for their monthly gatherings than we get out for midweek worship! So true — if there is food on the agenda of any social gathering, you’ll likely find at least one Lutheran in the crowd.

Indeed, eating together is central to not only Lutheran identity, but for Christians in general. Someone once noted that in each chapter of the Gospel of Luke you will find at least one reference, directly or indirectly, to food or eating (Kelly Fryer, The Lutheran Course).

And that explains why when Christians gather to worship, the Holy Meal is a cornerstone of the liturgy. What distinguishes us from every other religion in our worship practice is that we eat together. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., don’t differ from Christians when it comes to practicing their faith in word, song or spoken/unspoken prayer. But the Holy Communion — the meal — distinguishes a truly Christian worship service.

And a truly Christian worship service is done together, with others. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The author of Hebrews exhorted the followers of the Christian way to meet regularly: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because around the table where bread is broken and wine is poured, the love and presence of Christ is experienced.

The Holy Communion is the climax of Christian worship because it best embodies a communal experience of God. We can eat alone. But sharing food causes us to love another.

Last month the Lutheran clergy in Ottawa met for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they serve Dim Sum: This method of sharing food is truly a communal act: We all sit around the same, round table — a rather large one. Then, from menus, we choose the food.

But what we choose is not an individual dish. It is a plateful of the same food that we share by circulating the plate around the table. When we order, we need to check in with all the others to see if that’s also something they would like to try. Eating Dim Sum, as unfamiliar as it may feel, and challenging to coordinate, is worth the work. It is an experience of community building and of practising a self-giving kind of love. Because we need to compromise, give-and-take, and take some risks — all for the sake of the community.

Lutheran worship is not about creating a space for private, individualistic encounters with Jesus. Lutheran worship is not about providing individuals with a what-is-in-it-for-me kind of entertainment. Lutheran worship is not about removing ourselves from the actual social context of the service.

In other words, when we kneel at the railing and come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are doing so in a profound awareness of who is standing or kneeling with us, beside us, at the table of The Lord. We seek their forgiveness, as we forgive them. We are doing this together — sometimes a hard work, but well worth it.

On Maundy Thursday we pause to consider that last evening Jesus had with his followers, his closest disciples. And we recall what he did: He had a meal with them to assure them, and us over two thousand years later, that whenever we eat this meal in his name, Christ is there with us. To underscore his ever-present promise, Jesus kneels in humility and love to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13), and then prays for their unity (John 17) in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On this night we gather not as individuals seeking private, abstract encounters with an imagined God, but as the broken Body of Christ — his body, the church. We gather together to receive the assurance of his forgiveness of our sins, to regard one another in love as co-travellers on the journey of faith, and to share in the food which is his loving presence in our lives. In so doing, we bear faithful witness to the world, that Christians are united in the passion of Jesus.