What You Bring to the Table

A Time to KeepOne could easily assume, based on my reflections over the last couple of weeks, that the plight of the single, celibate adult is the bulk of Ephraim Radner’s point in A Time to Keep.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  What Radner does well is follow the thread of the single adult making sense of faith in light of the Great Transition for a chapter or two in a way that treats the body of Christ with a dignity not often found in discussions of church culture.  And so, while the thread of the single adult remains as the book comes to a close, the real thrust if things is on the place of “working and eating” in the context of church community.

It turns out that there’s a lot at stake in eating.

One eats in order to survive; one eats together for the same reason and out of the same dynamic . . . food is our life in the material fashion . . . Hence, food marks the first and basic level at which societies engage in self-repair, and it is just where churches have most frequently expressed their ministries: soup kitchens, basement meals, celebrations, and, of course, particular liturgical actions.

That last phrase, of course, is a strong arrow point in the direction of the Lord’s Supper.  Radner brings the Johannine recounting of the Last Supper into play in a way that can help us understand how language brings out the role of food in community.

In the same way, “I have called you friends,” says Jesus to the disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:5).  The language of friendship here is aimed at just this creaturely gathering at the meal.  Among the most potent terms of friendship are those related to sharing bread, as in Psalm 43:9, quoted by Jesus in John 13:18: love “betrayed” most deeply is the love of one with whom bread has been broken.  It is what in English we call a “companion,” or literally, “one with whom we share bread.”  Companions are common bread eaters.  Hence the eucharistic meal moves from the disciples back to the common table, to a community, to married life, to family; it stretches back to genealogy, to generation, to survival.  And all of these are gathered into the probative reach of friendship in Christ.  This is our creaturehood as it is given, fallen and otherwise.  This life we live as just these creatures is how God does what God does and is God.  For “this is my body, given for you . . . .”

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In the end, for Radner, both working and eating are ways of being mindful of the Psalmist’s request: teach us to count our days so that we can apply our hearts to wisdom (Ps. 90:12).  And eating brings both work and friendship together.

If anything, that’s been one of the odd tensions of getting older and finding community rooted in both working and eating.  When I was younger, I think the friends and I had the eating part down quite well.  And there was enough overlap with daily life that the two felt connected (even if we weren’t always “doing ministry” together).  There was a healthy personalization of work because of the fellowship around the table.  Now, farther down the road, there’s lots of working and still some eating, but the overlap feels less.  Sometimes, in what are really blessed moments for me, I get to sit around the table with others and there’s a real sense of “in things together” that still catches me by surprise.  Other times, there is eating for the sake of the program, a kind of instrumentalization of fellowship that can be okay in the short term but dangerous in the long.  What Radner does as he brings A Time to Keep to a close is he rightly elevates these seemingly mundane things to remind us of the high and holy stakes of our daily lives together.

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I think I’ve got one final post to bring up in the vein of single adults, the church, and the place of friendship and work in the overlap.  More on that tomorrow.

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