Why Christians should gather at a round table

roundtable

FRIDAY FORUM

It took me awhile before I finally found and bought my dining table. My specifications were: it must be round and big enough for at least eight people. A round table is much easier to share food (the Chinese usually place all the food in the centre of the table and share). By the way, I bought a lazy Susan before I bought the table.

Food for the Chinese is not simply food; it has multiple layers of meaning. It is about hospitality, respect, generosity, friendships, connecting, relationships and love.

Those who know me know my passion for good food and cooking. For me cooking is both a creative enterprise and stress relief. Food is my love language. Few things bring me more pleasure and joy than preparing a meal for people I care about. It’s one of the primary ways I show people I love them.

Sharing a table is one of the most uniquely human things we do. No other creature consumes its food at a table. And sharing a table with other people reminds us that there’s more to food than fuel. We don’t eat only for sustenance.

Tables are important places of human connection. We’re often most fully alive to others when sharing a meal around a table.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find that throughout the Bible God has a way of showing up at tables. In fact, it’s worth noting that at the centre of the spiritual lives of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments, we find a table: the table of Passover and the table of communion.

According to New Testament scholar N T Wright: “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”

In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, theologian Christine Pohl has observes: “A shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality.”

The table is a metaphor used for the relational presence in the church. This metaphor extends to the communion table. And so Christians are people of the table, Christ’s table. Christ’s table is open. Christ’s table is inclusive. Christ’s table is uniting. Christ’s table is invitational. Christ’s table is always diverse.

And many marginalised groups have asked the question: “Is there more room at the table?”

Making room at the table is an ongoing missional challenge for the people of God. It requires risk-taking and leaving our comfort zones to ensure that all are indeed welcome at God’s table where there is no preferential treatment or preferred place (Luke 14:7-11).

That’s why I prefer a round table. It has no corners. No beginning and no end. Everyone sitting at the round table is equal. Christ’s table is a round table!

Nationalism and populism are on the rise in Europe and the USA. Trump won the election with the ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ rallying cries. Such nationalist feelings may make people ‘feel better’. But populist rhetoric, xenophobic violence, religious discrimination and inward-looking will not solve complex socio-economic issues.

In Australia, we see the politicians from all tribes playing the nationalist card.

The government’s immigration changes reflect an unabashed effort to counter the rising popularity of Pauline Hanson and Bill Shorten.

Turnbull pledged abolition of the 457 temporary visa class. His message: “We are ensuring that Australian jobs and Australian values are first, placed first.” It reflects what Donald Trump is doing in the US. “This is about putting Australians first,” Turnbull declared.

Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and many white people embraced it. Nationalism is tribalism. White supremacy is tribalism. Nazism is tribalism. Racism is tribalism.

Tribalism is not an open table. Tribalism dictates who would be invited and who would be excluded. Tribalism leads to a narrowing of the guest list.

Hospitality is the foundation of Christian faith and an unconditional command of Christ. Extravagant hospitality is the antidote for all kinds of tribalism.

There is always room at God’s table. The question for the people of the table is: “Is there room for others at our tables and who do we invite to eat at our tables?” It seems to me the same-sex marriage debate is also about who are allowed to eat at our table – the marriage table?

If I remember my Greek, the key Greek word for hospitality in the Christian Bible is philo-xenia, which etymologically means, “Love strangers.” Christ made it even stronger: “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Mathew 25:40)

How as a church and nation should we practice “extravagant hospitality”?

Swee-Ann Koh

Director of Intercultural Unit

 

Image: Daniel Kwok/Flickr

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