The Politics of the Lunch Room

Today is World Communion Sunday and let me say that Communion is one of my favorite sacraments the Church celebrates. I think there is something so transformative in the simple act of eating together – of eating in common-unity. As Christians, we should pay very close attention to how we eat together.

As I was reading over 1st Corinthian 11:23-26 for today, it dawned on me that as Paul is reminding the Corinthian church of the words of Jesus, he is also teaching them. He teaches them to pay close to how they eat together – to the spirits they are bringing to the table.

What do I mean?

Well, I don’t know if it was like this for everyone, but maybe the middle and high school students watching/reading this can relate –

When I was a teenager, lunchtime at school was a terrifying time of the day. See, the lunchroom was deeply political space. Depending on which table I sat at or who I ate lunch with would contribute to my status in the class. It determined how everyone viewed me and whether I was “cool” or not.

Getting a good seat at lunch was very important to me because I was not very cool. I didn’t have very many close friends, and I was often picked on. All of this was compounded by the fact that I was a very short teenager. Like, for quite awhile, I was only around five feet tall.

By the time I got to high school, I knew I would be short for a while, so I was determined to gain as much status as I could in other ways – and lunch was the best place for that.

I set my eyes on the table of giants – the basketball players. These guys were like 6ft, 6ft. 5, some were even nearly 7 feet tall! They were like goliaths to me. Not only were they tall, but they also were the “coolest” most popular people in the school– they held all the status, and for some reason, they allowed me to sit at their table. I felt so honored!

Everyone watching me take my seat at the giant’s table probably thought I looked ridiculous. In truth, the basketball players only tolerated my presence – they weren’t my close friends and often simply picked on me during lunch. But in my eyes, I was gaining status – I was rising through the ranks of my class. Sure, the basketball players still picked on me, but I was becoming “cool.”

Well, that was at least until the basketball players wanted to invite someone else to the table. Since my presence was only tolerated, I would be the one expelled from the table in the middle of lunch to make room for other friends.

As I took the walk of shame, I was so angry. There was only ever one other table with open seats, and it was the least “cool” table. Everyone at this table was universally picked on and often found themselves here only after being expelled from other tables like me. This was the table of outcasts, and I was indignant. As I slowly walked toward it, I felt as though this table was beneath me – “I had become “cool” after all.”

As I sat at the table, it was clear that many of us shared this indignant attitude. Rather than finding friendship in our common circumstance – we often scowled at each other in silence. I guess we felt as though we were above each other – that sitting next to each other somehow lowered our status in the school. We did not come to the table with a spirit of friendship but with a spirit of rivalry, of competition. We came to the table of outcasts with the spirits that had been fostered at our “cool” tables – the very tables that excluded us.

Now obviously, during this time, I was not very Christ-like. I am not encouraging you to be like me, but why do I tell you this story? Because this is precisely what is happening in the Corinthian Church, and this is why Paul reminds the Corinthian church of Christ.

See, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, who you ate with was also a political act, and if a person wanted to gain political power, they would either host meals or vie for seats of honor at someone else’s meal. Who one ate with and where they sat during these meals would determine their honor and status (the key political currency) in the city. Since often these meals were open to onlookers, the politics of the meal either reinforced or resisted the current politics of the city.

Paul realized the political power of the meal, and it is no wonder that he called these gatherings of the poor, status-inconsistent, and outcasts the “ecclesia” – what we today translate as “church.” One of the primary meanings of “ecclesia” is the “political assembly” of a given city, but most Christians had very little political power in the traditional Greco-Roman sense. Instead, their transformative and revolutionary political power was expressed in how they ate together regardless of status or honor.

However, there were those in the Corinthian church who were much like me. They had felt like they had gained some sense of honor, prestige, or status in the city, and they didn’t want to risk that. For such reasons, they refused to eat with those who were poor, hungry, and outcast. How often have we felt this way when in the presence of others? How often have we felt above people who think differently, act differently, or look different from ourselves? How often, as Christians, have we thought to ourselves, “I am above this!” Paul corrects these Christians, and he would correct us. The table of Communion is not the table of power, honor, or status – but the table of the outcast Christ. Furthermore, our host, Jesus, does not call us to the table as servants as though they have to vie and compete with each other for a place to sit. Jesus does not call us servants but welcomes us as friends even those friends that would betray him.

Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 11 that we must not gather in the spirit of hatred, resentment, or competition. Instead, we must gather in the spirit of friendship, hospitality, and grace. When we gather in such spirits we have set the table for the Holy Spirit, and when this Spirit comes it does not just transform us individually but communally. Furthermore, its power affects all those looking in on our joy – those across the lunch room, the city, the nation, and even the world.

Lord, let it be.

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