A Shared Meal and a Vision for the Future

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

breadandwine2While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples . . . Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23)

Ritual is defined as “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.” All known human societies include rituals, and these rituals have anthropological functions. They’re a set of activities, symbols, or events that help to shape those who participate in them and assist them in making sense of the world around them, giving order to the chaos, and providing meaning for each participant. In the early Jesus movement, the ritual of a shared meal was at the center of the group’s rituals.

You can find the origins of the shared meal ritual in Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first time the ritual is mentioned is in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

Included in Jesus’ early followers’ shared meal ritual were the symbols of broken bread and spilled wine. I do not believe the early Jesus followers saw this shared meal as an appeasement of an angry god, a way to satisfy some divine demand for retributive justice, or another human sacrifice demanded by the gods. Instead, this ritual was rooted in the Jesus story itself, and it helped them make sense of what had happened to Jesus. It gave order to what had happened. And it bound them together with meaning, purpose, and a vision for their future.

It did this, I believe, in multiple ways. Let’s discuss these one by one.

First, notice how the elements of the shared meal memorialized all of the faithful ones who had been broken and spilled out before them.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels put Jesus’ rejection and execution, and the rejection of execution of his followers in the context of a long list of those who had been rejected and executed in Hebrew history:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?* Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matthew 23:29-36, emphasis added.)

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:47-50, emphasis added.)

These passages, spoken by a Jew to Jews, later became the root of Christian anti-Semitism, so I want to be especially clear here. The early Jesus community does become increasingly anti-Semitic within the first century, and this trend is reflected in each telling of the Jesus story after Mark: it starts with Matthew and becomes more overt in John. However, I do not believe that Jesus’ rejection and execution are a uniquely Jewish trait. On the contrary, Jesus’ rejection and execution remind us of the strong tendency within all subordinated human cultures to reject nonviolent confrontation and resistance as a viable means of social change, and to seek more violent means in its place.

The Jesus of the Jesus story emerged within first century oppressed Judaism as a prophet of nonviolent social change. As Jesus’ vision for nonviolent social change was rejected, violent militaristic methods took hold that would contribute to the events that lead to the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. and ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem by its Roman oppressors in 70 C.E.—the “this generation” he referred to. Who rejected Jesus’ method? Not the Jewish people as a whole, but the few, extremely influential, controlling class whose position of privilege in Jewish society at that time Jesus most threatened. These are very real human dynamics taking place within the Jesus story. They are not Jewish in particular. These realities have repeated themselves in all human cultures at various times and places throughout history: there is no excuse for an anti-Semitic interpretation.

I want you to notice that the writers of the gospels did not view Jesus’ execution and death as an isolated, solitary occurrence. Not only were Jesus’ followers to expect their own rejection and execution (see Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; 14:27), but the writers wanted them to see Jesus’ death as the latest in a long line of others whose lives had been broken and spilled out for critiquing the system as Jesus and his early followers did. The “blood of all the prophets from the beginning of the world” Included and preceded Jesus.

As well as being tied to prophetic history, in the Mark’s gospel the shared meal of the early Jesus community was also associated with the Jewish Passover meal of liberation from Egyptian oppression. The Passover ritual gave the Jewish people a way to explain what had happened repeatedly within their history, and it helped them build meaning, purpose, and a vision for the future.

That Jesus would use this Jewish ritual, reframing it for his own nonviolent liberation shows his ingenuity. Jesus came as prophet of social change, announcing liberation of the oppressed through self-affirming, nonviolent enemy transformation. Like the prophets of old, he would be executed by the domination systems he was critiquing. And he would call his followers to be willing to do the same.

The ritual of the shared meal, including broken bread and spilled out wine, therefore is quite appropriate. It was a memorial, first, of all those who had been broken and spilled out in the past by domination systems. It was a time to remember those who had gone before them. It reminded them that they were part of something larger than themselves, that their movement and their Jesus were part of a larger stream whose tributaries stretched back centuries before them.

Their shared meal memorial also centered Jesus, who stood in solidarity with all who have ever been broken and spilled out, and after his death, the ritual also kept his teachings at the center of the movement. It continually reminded them of the one who was broken and “spilled out for many” just as they were to be willing to be (Mark 14:24 cf. Mark 8:34).

This ritual not only helped these early followers to explain what had happened to Jesus, and not only gave them a historical context and meaning, it also helped them to cast a vision for future of human society. This shared meal was a protest, a demonstration that this new Jesus community was to form around a shared meal and shared table in significant contrast to the domination/subordination form of the wider society and of every human societies since. This was a vision of a way of relating that could liberate humanity from everything that hindered and oppressed it! We talked about Jesus the liberator in last week’s e-Sight (link).

This shared table was more than an economic symbol, though. Our new series, A Shared Table, explains that this ritual helped participants to more harmoniously live out the values of egalitarianism or equality, diversity, and basic, human inclusivity. In light of what we learn about the community of Jesus-followers in Acts 2 and 4, we see that it taught its participants to live in a society without domination, one based on the universal truth of the golden rule, sharing, justice, equity, and peacemaking.

The ritual begins within small communities, remembering the names and lives of all those who have gone before, celebrating a vision for what the world can be, and then getting up from the table and choosing to put it into practice. And through these small acts in small communities, the world is “turned upside down” (Acts 17).

HeartGroup Application

I want to encourage each HeartGroup to participate the ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples, the last supper. In the 1st Century, this ritual took the form of a shared meal that included “bread and wine.” The ritual both memorialized Jesus and those in the past whom he was standing in solidarity with, it gave meaning to the ways they too were being broken and spilled out for many, and it set before their imaginations what a world changed by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

This week:

  1. Schedule with your HeartGroup a special time when you can come together and participate in this ritual of a shared meal. Read some more historical background on the shared agape meal.

2. Take time during the meal to read the stories of Jesus’ last supper from each of the four New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Then share the broken bread and spilled wine with each other in whatever way feels comfortable and appropriate for you.

3. Remember and share stories about those in the past who have envisioned and moved humanity closer toward Jesus’ new world. Then spend some time sharing with one another aspects of Jesus’ new world that you are looking forward to. What steps can your HeartGroup take together to move closer toward that new world?

 

In the light of the resurrection event, the shared table ritual gave meaning and purpose to the early Jesus communities. I hope that it will do the same for each of you.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*I have explained that the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of the people rejecting the way of nonviolence. See The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus Part 1-9.

Newton’s Amazingly Inaccurate Grace Myth by Herb Montgomery (Title by Keisha McKenzie)

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“The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to set the oppressed free.” — Jesus (Luke 4.18)

I want to thank all of you for the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from last week’s eSight.

I also want to thank Keisha McKenzie for her timely correction of my comments regarding John Newton.  For those who missed our exchange on Facebook, let me share it here.

Keisha pointed out:

“John Newton didn’t turn away from slaving ‘immediately’ after his conversion. He didn’t confess support for abolition for another 40 years. He converted to evangelicalism in 1748. Stopped active trading in 1754 (but only for medical reasons—he had a stroke). And he did not write against the slave trade until 1788. In other words, his private conversion had no impact on his relationship to the slave trade for 4 decades. Christianity switched no lights on for him regarding the relationship of white people and black people. For 40 years.”

Keisha went on to say, “we don’t have that kind of time to wait for the privately pious to become publicly concerned.”

And I agree.

According to historians, John Newton gave up profanity, gambling, and drinking after converting to evangelical Christianity in 1748, but continued to work in the slave trade. Although Newton did say, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards” (Out of the Depths, John Newton), what I want you to notice is that while he saw nothing fundamentally wrong with the slave trade for another forty years, the first fruit of his Christian life was in giving up swearing, gambling, and alcohol.I do not fault Newton for this; I fault the type of Christianity that Newton became a convert of. Notice, Newton applied to be ordained as a priest in 1757; studied Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac; was a lay minister, and was finally accepted and ordained in 1764.  Mind you, he still would not publicly speak out against the slave trade, of which he had been a part, for another twenty years.

In 1788, Newton published Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (almost a decade after Newton’s famous hymn, Amazing Grace, was published).  He also apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders” (Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Adam Hochschild).

Newton later joined William Wilberforce in publicly working to end the African slave trade for the next twenty years. Still, he had privately been a “Christian” in the forty years leading up to this.

In last week’s eSight, I made the statement, “If one is privately a follower of Jesus, then one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege”. How does one privately become a Christian, publicly become a priest in the Church of England, but it takes twenty more years of being exposed to Jesus to publicly come out as believing that there is something fundamentally wrong with treating other humans as lesser beings or items of property?

I can speak somewhat to this, for this, to a degree, is my story too.

Before the night of August 27, 2010, when I encountered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I too was reading the Bible through the conventional, domestic lens that had been handed to me by white, evangelical, male-dominated, Christian culture. It was this encounter that marked a beginning for me. There I was, encountering Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount alone in a hotel room after a radio interview on the second largest Christian radio station in America, and feeling as if I was meeting Jesus for the very first time. I want to be clear: This was only a beginning. I’m still discovering ways in which I think and interpret the world around me, ways of reading the Jesus story, that are the product of a conventional, domestic Christianity that serves the purposes of a privileged class rather than Jesus’ New World.

This is a Christianity focused more on post-mortem destinations than on healing the world around us in the here and now. [1]

This is a Christianity intent on escaping this world, judging it as too far gone, instead of following a Jesus who is “making everything new”.[2]

This is a Christianity that directs its devotees toward a private, personal, individual, “spiritual” relationship with God, while neglecting the need to be publicly engaged in confronting oppressive systems and cleansing the modern day “temples” of the privileged.

It’s a Christianity that allows its adherents to live respectable, religiously pious lives, rather than be put on crosses or lynched for standing against the status quo.

It’s a Christianity that doesn’t need the resurrection, because it will never find itself upon a cross.

It will never find itself on trial before the economic (Herod), political (Pilate), or religious (Caiaphas) social structures of the day, in danger of an execution that is being demanded by the democratic majority (the crowd).[3]

It has very little to do with changing the world around us, for it is too preoccupied with “getting off this rock”. It fails to embrace the life-giving truth found in an old Spiritual sung by African slaves under the yoke of their white owners, “I gotta home IN that rock”.

In short, what I’m discovering daily is that I’ve been wrong. As I listen to the theological voices of those who read the Jesus narrative through the lens of oppression (whether it be in matters of race, economics, gender, or orientation), I’m discovering that I’ve been wrong. The Jesus I was worshiping was very different from the one I’m encountering and learning to follow in the stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Jesus I was worshipping conveniently never changed the world of the oppressors who hold their tickets to heaven in one hand and their oppression in the other. In the end, it will not be my white, evangelical background that I will be able to credit. Just like John Newton, this background did not “turn the lights on” for me.  When I one day take my place at the Creator’s table, it will be the intersectional lenses of black stories, female voices, queer theologians, and the wisdom of those who walk in our societies without two pennies to rub together, that I will be able to thank for introducing this straight, white, cisgender male preacher to the Jesus of the Jesus narrative.

I still believe that a New World began in the first century.

I still believe that those to whom the announcement of this New World was entrusted allowed themselves to experience a radical change.

To this day, many of their progeny are still unaware that their course has even changed.

Others, while feeling strangely out of place in their own spiritual communities, sense that something has gone wrong and spend their lives trying to rediscover what has been lost.

Others simply feel that it’s all too far gone.

Yet, undeterred, the Spirit has continued to speak in every generation. The New World grows—regardless of creed, race, gender, or orientation—in those who were willing to listen to its whispering.

This holiday season, it strikes me that although much of what I’m discovering in the Jesus narrative is revolutionary to me personally, it is a narrative with a long history among this world’s oppressed. I am discovering a path that not only stretches far ahead of me, but far behind me as well (this is not a path we are called to blaze). This is a pathway that reaches all the way back to the Gospels and has woven its way, not through Imperial Christendom, but along its societal fringes instead. It is also a path that we (especially white Christian males like myself) are being invited to step onto today, so that in humility, we may be taught by those already on this path what it has always, truly meant to follow a liberating Jesus: a Jesus who has been standing all along in solidarity with those at the bottom of our societies.[4]

Happy holidays to each of you this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns;

I’ll see you next week.

 

1. Luke 9:2—“And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”

2. Rev. 21:5—“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

3. Mark 15.15—Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

4. Luke 6:20-26—“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”