Our text today is one of my favorites in the Bible. It is one of the few times when the church got things right. Of course, it is the very beginning of the church, immediately after the Holy Spirit’s launching, but it describes the ideal church. These qualities are not new, Luke says, because they are the fulfillment of the promises of God to & for his people since the beginning of time.
The place is Jerusalem, for the word of the Lord is to go forth to all people from Jerusalem. The time is Pentecost, a festival celebrating not just the early harvest but the giving of God’s commandments on Mt. Sinai. There are Jews present from every nation, for through them are all nations to be blessed. In that setting, Luke says, God poured out his spirit on all flesh. The apostles preached, witnessing to the resurrection of the crucified one. Thousands repented & turned to God & something old, yet new, something new, yet old, was begun.
It is the habit of Luke, following an account of activity or conflict in the church, to pause & reflect on the quality of life within that church. The descriptions are always brief, clear, & positive. And so, it is in our reading. In 5 short lines, that vibrant church becomes clear. There was vigorous leadership: signs & wonders were done by the apostles. There was evangelism: The Lord added day by day those who were being saved. There was fellowship: all who believed were together & had all things in common. There was stewardship: they sold their possessions & goods & distributed them to those who were in need. And there was worship: they attended temple together & praised God. But why, among all these attributes describing the model church, are we told they ate food with gladness & simplicity, breaking bread in their homes? Is Luke reminding us that those church members had to take time to eat? Couldn’t we assume that? Maybe those sentences should be in parentheses, & simply considered a side bar. But no.
If I were to ask you to draw a picture that would be titled, The Church, what would you draw? A beautiful building with a steeple? A sanctuary with pews filled with worshipers? A small group in a circle studying the Bible? Perhaps an altar & pulpit? When Luke portrays the church, whatever else is included, he always places in the center a dining table. More than any other Gospel, Luke describes Jesus at table. Read through his Gospel & you will be as surprised as I was to find how many of the great lessons Jesus gave were given while at a table.
In the home of Mary & Martha, Jesus spoke of pots & pans & the kingdom of God. Sitting at the table of Simon the Pharisee, he taught of love & forgiveness. While a dinner guest at a certain home, he warned the other guests that when you are giving a big banquet, the guest list must include those who cannot return the favor. He was at dinner when he said that the kingdom of God is like a man who gave a great banquet. Those invited made excuses & so the room was filled with street people. The most beautiful parable Jesus ever told was of a dinner party for a prodigal who had returned. And it was at a meal with his friends that Jesus spoke of his death.
After his resurrection, Luke says Jesus’ appearance to his followers began with 2 disciples walking home from Jerusalem, discouraged & downcast. The day faded into evening & the 2 asked a stranger to stay for dinner. As he took the bread & broke it & said the blessing, the Lord was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In volume 2 of Luke’s writings, Acts of the Apostles, he pictures the risen Christ with his disciples. And Luke says that they were eating together, literally “sharing the salt.” While eating together, he gave them the Great Commission to witness in all the world. However, this would only be possible if the great barrier between Jew & Gentile was broken. And how was it broken? Of all the many stories, I will mention 2.
Luke tells us Simon Peter was on a housetop in Joppa, hungry & waiting for lunch. As he napped, he had a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven filled with all kinds of creatures that were not kosher to eat. Get up, Peter! Kill & eat! Three times he saw the vision & 3 times Peter refused. Then the voice from heaven became unmistakable. Never consider unclean what God has made pure. When the wonderful story ends, Peter has entered the house of a Gentile, an Italian army officer in Caesarea, & eaten with the man, his family & his servants.
The second story concerns Paul. It began about noon near Damascus. He too had a vision & was called to preach to the Gentiles. Broken & penitent for having persecuted the church, Paul refused to eat or drink for days. Then the pastor of the church in Damascus came to him, called him brother, embraced & baptized him. The congregation then surrounded him & accepted him, demonstrated by sharing a meal with him.
Why does Luke continually picture the church sitting around a table? Because for him sharing food is a basic definition of a church. There is nothing more spiritual than sharing a meal with someone. A tale is told of a certain village where a rabbi was absent on the eve of the Day of Atonement (the holiest day of the year for Jews). His absence was explained this way, “Our rabbi has ascended to heaven to make intercession with his people.” A visitor to that synagogue heard that explanation & made light of it saying, “No one ascends to heaven & returns; that’s foolish.” The next year the same thing occurred & the same explanation was given. The visitor said, “That’s just foolishness.” The third year the visitor was determined to find out the truth, so he hid outside the rabbi’s cottage, waited & watched. Early in the morning the rabbi got up & gathered what food he had into a sack & started out through the woods. He traveled into the forest where he chopped down a tree, cut it into firewood, tied it in a bundle, & put it on his back. He continued through the forest until he came to a clearing where a very shabby cottage housed a widow & her children. The rabbi gave the food & wood to the poor family. The next Sabbath, the congregation explained the rabbi’s absence by saying, “The rabbi has ascended into heaven.” But the visitor stood up & announced, “No, he has gone even higher!” Friends, you cannot go any higher than sharing your food. Wherever some eat & some do not, you do not have church.
In our Scripture from last week, it was not just in the bread that Christ was present. It was in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of the bread. The nature of the church is contradicted when some must eat alone. When Paul was forced to come up with a punishment for a disobedient member in the church at Antioch, the worst penalty he could devise was that the man should eat alone. The church member was living with his father’s wife, & the church not only permitted it, they did not raise objection to the arrangement. Paul said the man was such a poor example & brought such disrepute on the church that he had to eat alone. That punishment continues today. We call it excommunication.
The secular world has followed suit. The harshest punishment a criminal can receive is to be placed in solitary confinement. It happens in many places today, even churches, albeit not necessarily on purpose: the neglect of the increasing numbers of aging & widowed members. Punishment is not the intention, but the pain is no less severe. Just ask those who sit alone somewhere amid cold trays, forced to eat alone when their only crime is growing old. But in this Acts church, Luke says eating together was the test & proof of their common life. Was there full love & acceptance of each other? They ate together, didn’t they?
There was a very tense occasion in the church at Antioch which Paul describes in his Letter to the Galatians. He & Peter were attending a fellowship dinner in that church made up of Jewish Christians & Gentile Christians. It is remarkable that they were eating together. But certain members from the church in Jerusalem arrived. They whispered in the ear of Peter & he along with several others moved to a separate table. Paul stood up, walked over to Peter & said: If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile & not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews? Can you imagine these 2 great apostles standing eyeball to eyeball, with the eyes of all attending on them? It was a crisis of major importance. What was at stake? Everything!
When you form a separate table, you have destroyed the church. It is not a church when some refuse to sit with others. How profound is this simple picture drawn by Luke? The church is a group eating together with gladness & simplicity. It is theologically key that he began his story of the resurrection with the account of the 2 men asking a tired stranger to stay for supper. They did not know who he was; they only knew the hour was late, the trip had been long, & they were hungry. Wherever the church exists, God’s people will break bread at home & eat their food with gladness & simplicity. And today, as it was over 2,000 years ago, the Lord will be known in the breaking of the bread.