Two years ago our family and four friends decided to move into the same house together. If this sounds a bit ridiculous, I can assure you, it is. We aimed to pray and offer hospitality to friends, colleagues, coworkers, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight (and everything in between), our neighbors and travelers passing through. Idyllically, we hoped to remove some of the boundaries between ourselves and the outside world; to open the doors of our hearts and home, and to welcome people to the table. To say the least: its been an interesting journey.

One particular afternoon I found myself eating a kosher meal with a Jewish Rabbi, a transgender woman, a young gay man, a muslim and a few Christians. I can remember sitting back, pausing as the conversation was happening, thinking to myself of how strange this gathering was. It was incredibly loud; loud in a lovely way. Twenty or so people crammed around a dinner table built for fifteen. “Pass the salt; who has the salt?’, one of my kids shouted. “I haven’t had the salad yet, where is the salad?”, another opined. Conversations were taking place between people who had never previously met, and might never meet or associate in normal daily life. People who would never normally sit around the table with each other were talking, getting to know one another, talking about things that were deeply important to the other, and most of all – astonishingly in some cases– becoming friends. Something has happened around our dinner table over the last two years; enemies have become acquaintances, acquaintances have become friends, and friends have become family; boundaries have been crossed between demographics of people who would not normally mix.

I can remember the feeling I had that afternoon. The sense that our decision to ‘host the table’ and to offer a welcome was doing a tiny little bit of good in a fragmented, ever fracturing world.
I have had many similar moments since then. I have begun to see the table in our house as a place of healing and reconciliation. To be sure, there has not been angelic visitation, or some sort of voice from the sky, or any other sort of ‘big’ moment. Actually, the healing I speak of and see has happened through a whole bunch of really normal, every day encounters. Forgive my elevated rhetoric, but something powerful and life changing happens when people who are different from one another will continue to come together around a table to eat, talk, care, listen and host each other.

It needs to be said that the encounters with people across the dinner table from me have changed me. I was pretty sure when we began offering hospitality to people that we would leave a mark on them, but I don’t think I was prepared for the mark they would leave on me. A bit hubristic of me, really. There is something about spending your hard-earned money, setting the table, giving of what you have to sustain the life of another; to provide another human being with a moment of peace, joy and safety. The whole experience does not just change them, it changes you – they leave a mark on you. It’s inevitable really.

Over the last few years I have made countless connections between what has happened around our dinner table, and what happens at the Lord’s table. But before I briefly explicate one such connection, think about it for a second: A meal? A little bread and a little wine? I mean, couldn’t a worldwide religion find something a bit more grand to articulate what it’s about? Think about it. When we gather as a community, all around the world, week after week, we participate in sharing a meal. Jesus said that when we gather together in his name we should do this. Week after week, after week, after week. If actions and rituals ‘speak’ to us about something, what does this ritual say about Christians, and about their God?

One of the things this central ritual does, similar to our dinner table, is that it calls people of difference together. The rich and poor, the old and the young, the skinny and the fat, the educated and the non – everyone is called to come to the table of the Lord to receive His hospitality and to be sustained by His life.

I was raised in an evangelical church in western Canada. When we did the Lord’s Supper we used individual little cups. The elements came together in hermetically sealed individual packages. We also didn’t use real wine, and the wafer was typically stale. The focus was usually on remembering one’s personal salvation, not much voice was given to the corporate reality of the rite. So when the time came at the end of the service, we would take our little individual bit of grape juice and stale wafer and have a private experience.

The first time I attended an Anglican church I was a bit shocked by the fact that we shared a common cup. Thirty, forty, or fifty people drinking from the same cup! Instead of having this lovely personal experience, the only thing going through my mind was the dental hygiene of the person next to me. The first time I stood at the communion rail beside a man who smelled, drank too much, was missing most of his teeth – and the ones he did have were a deep shade of brown – I found this so damn difficult. I didn’t want to share a cup with him; I wanted my own cup – fully sanitized, with only my own germs, germs with which I am comfortable.

But this fully-sanitised-individual-cup-stale-wafer-thing is not what Christianity is about. It’s a people of difference who are called to a common table by a loving and gracious Host. We do not come to this table parading our individuality, boasting in our position in society, trumpeting our academic credentials or other fabulous characteristics we use to isolate and position ourselves in the world outside the church. We come to this table together as equals – all sharing our common need of the Host. At this table we cross the artificial boundaries that divide people and together receive the radical generosity of the One who has called us to the table. In some ways it would be true and accurate to say that around the table of the Lord a new humanity is created; a new way of dealing with the differences that so often segregate us from each other. To be sure, the eucharist is not an erasure of difference, rather it’s the radical convergence of difference experienced when we, corporately, bring all that we are to the table in response to the invitation of the Generous Host.

In the Church of England when we prepare ourselves to take communion we sometimes use these words:

“As the grain once scattered in the fields and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
are now reunited on this table in bread and wine, so, Lord, may your whole Church soon be gathered from the corners of the earth into your Kingdom.”

Our world is increasingly scattered and dispersed, fractured and fragmented – the rich against the poor, the educated against the non, men against women, old against young, straight against gay etc – but in the Eucharist we turn away from these naval-gazing divisions and turn together toward the generous Host, receiving His invitation, and as we do this a miracle happens: the Host makes us one in Himself. As we pass the bread and the wine to one another, and receive the lavish gift of grace given to us in Christ, oceans of mercy overwhelm the damn that divides us from our fellow human beings. The sin, the brokenness, and the pain that fractures our relationships is confronted by the reality that Christ’s fractured, broken body experienced healing and resurrection. You could say that a new way of being human is born at the table; a new humanity is being made possible. You could say that week in and week out, we are being made into something different, something new, something that might act as a beacon of hope in our shattered world.

You could say that we are becoming the church everytime we come to the table.

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Ryan Cook

Ryan Cook is Church of England Chaplain to students at the University of Liverpool and John Moores University. He is also a Doctoral Candidate at University of Chester doing research in public theology. He lives in Liverpool with Chantelle (wife), Judah, Anna, Greyson and Biscuit (dog).

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