Here are the disciples, gathered together in a home in Jerusalem, trying to make sense of their world, which has been turned upside down. Jesus, their dear friend, Lord, and leader has been tried, publicly mocked, and brutally crucified. Because of their cowardice, they have watched Him die from a distance and now find themselves huddled in grief, despair, and fear. And as they attempt to hatch a go-forward plan in someone’s living room, Jesus Himself, unexpected and unannounced, appears among them. As we picture this event, I want us to wipe from our minds any image of a clean and polished Jesus. This Jesus has been crucified, dead, and buried. Remember, when Mary first saw Him, she thought He was a gardener. Who knows, He may have been limping, and there are definitely large, fresh scars – if not wounds – on His hands and feet that tell the story of where He has been.
And the disciples? They’re freaking out. The Scripture says they are startled and terrified, because they think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus quickly reads the situation; knowing He has only precious hours left with these friends who will advance His kingdom, He has them come close, really close – close enough so that they can take His hands in theirs and rub His feet with their fingers. As they come in close, touching Jesus’ hands and feet, feeling His clothing, stroking His face to ensure He is no phantom, Luke says this: “While they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’”
While the disciples are disbelieving and still wondering, Jesus asks for some food. Quite forward of Him actually. In this culture, having someone into your home for a meal signified deep intimacy, friendship, and unity. You’ve touched my feet, held my hands, rubbed my back; now let’s eat.
So here is Jesus, having just returned from the brutal, lonely, and eternally victorious journey from life to death and back. But His executive team, His closest partners in ministry, the future of the Church, are freaking out and filled with disbelief. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned with their disbelief. He invites them in to touch and then invites Himself to a meal in their home. When they know that they belong, their minds understand the Scriptures. Again, we see the pattern: first you belong; then you can begin the process of figuring out what you believe and what you will become.
While the opening of the Scripture and the teaching are vitally important, they come after the fear has been dispelled and belonging has been established and a meal is shared. Recall what Christ instructs us to share until He comes again; it is not a lecture or an anthem or creed, but a meal. To repeat, regularly, the act of invitation, of drawing together, of sharing food, of pausing long enough to lean in and touch and taste and be fed and filled together. Eating together is an essential part of Christian behavior, right up there with caring for the poor and gathering for worship. The mission of the apostles begins not with a visit to a tomb that’s empty, but to a table full of food – broiled fish – and conversation.
We might call it Dining-table Discipleship.
This is important for us to digest because we sometimes underestimate the significance of what happens when we break bread together. This is eucharistic theology here, missional theology, discipleship (practical) theology. We need to remember that the disciples first recognized Jesus when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30). Jesus gave the apostles their marching orders as part of an after-dinner conversation.
As we think about the bond between Jesus and His disciples, clearly, there is a sense in which there’s a theological form of nepotism, if you will, going on here. Preaching the good news is a family legacy that Jesus wants His followers to be a part of – a legacy of proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness. He wants the disciples to maintain the cycle of gratitude and generosity that they’re feeling in His presence – gratitude that death has been conquered by the resurrection, and generosity toward those who need to hear this good news.
Jesus leaves everything to His spiritual brothers, including the keys to the kingdom. He promised the Holy Spirit and says, “You are my witnesses of these things.” But He is not giving them this opportunity with any selfish goals in mind. They are being sent out in the power of the Spirit to take the good news of the resurrection to all the nations of the world.
It all begins right here. Around the table. Eating with a ghost. Or, in our case, eating with others; particularly those who are seen as “other.” By that I mean other than human – someone who is looked passed or through.
As the disciples embark on their mission, they maintain a cycle of gratitude and generosity, and carry forward the legacy of their Messiah. Luke tells us that they are “continually in the temple blessing God” – that’s gratitude (v. 53). In his second book, Acts, Luke reports that the disciples share their possessions, and there’s “not a needy person among them” – that’s generosity (4:34). Acts also tells us that Peter proclaims that everyone who believes in Jesus “receives forgiveness of sins through his name” – that’s the legacy of the risen Christ (10:43).
So how can we better use our table conversations to influence our children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors? We can begin by talking about gratitude. One of our contemporary problems is that we’ve come to see the good things of life as an entitlement, rather than a gift, and we’ve lost the sense of wonder and surprise that gives birth to true thankfulness. Says John Sandel, a pastoral psychotherapist in Milford, Connecticut, “I think when we recognize that we are being given a gift, we feel joy, and gratitude is the experience that flows from this joy.”
Sandel counsels individuals to understand and practice gratitude as the one quality that can make a person truly happy. Focusing on the gifts we have been given, rather than wishing for others beyond our reach, creates contentment. Because the disciples received the resurrection of Jesus as a pure gift, they felt tremendous gratitude and contentment, and they blessed God continually.
Another Christian family value is generosity, shaped by conversation around the dining room table. Too often we keep decisions about our charitable giving to ourselves, and treat them as a private matter. But why not discuss giving as a family, and involve children in decisions about where the family generosity will go? This not only brings acts of giving out of the shadows, but it teaches children to see themselves as givers – instead of only recipients. Because the first Christians created a culture of generosity, there was not a needy person among them.
Other possibilities include: the message that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness and new life. Jesus Himself mentions this in the text, verse 47.
And then there’s love. You can’t have a discussion of the cross without getting to the heart of Jesus’ life and work: selfless love and service. Love which God lavished on us.
The question is: How do we do this?
In her book Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese stresses that when people look to the church, they are seeking to join with people whose lives are centered in a relationship with God. They’re not looking for a social club! So prayer needs to be an important part of the life of any person who wants to spread the message of Jesus.
Then, when you begin to develop relationships with people outside the church, realize that they’re looking to have their lives changed, and even transformed. They don’t want to be seen as “other”; they want to feel welcomed and accepted – to know they belong. They want to learn about God and how to experience spiritual growth. They want the forgiveness and new life that comes through a relationship with Jesus. The good news is that we can help people to experience this kind of transformation, because we have been shaped by the family values of Jesus and the disciples.
Prayer? We can do that. Providing a warm welcome? Shouldn’t be a problem. Forgiveness and new life? We can talk about what Jesus has done for us, and in so doing help others with the spiritual growth they desire. This can happen around tables in our homes, or tables at church.
The story of Easter morning will always be at the heart of the Christian faith, because it proclaims that God has conquered death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But equally important is the tale of Easter evening, which tells us how a mighty spiritual movement began with a talk around a table. It is at a meal that the “ghost” is revealed as the Lord. It is around tables that the “other” become revealed as what they have always been – folks just like you and me searching for a place to belong.
Our strength does not come from our certainty. Our faith is not about etiquette. It’s about community. It’s about identity. It’s about grace. And when we’ve touched grace and tasted community, we can be witnesses, even while we continue to wonder, in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth.