Feasting in a Fast-Food World

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Who is Jesus? Your substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and your robe of righteousness and immortality. What is his kingdom-and thus the mission statement of the church? The forgiveness of sins. A kingdom of grace now, a kingdom of glory at the end.

According to Eric Schlosser's book Fast-Food Nation, only a generation ago in the United States three-quarters of its food expenses was spent on home-cooked meals, while today half is spent on restaurants-and mostly fast-food chains. This transformation has been referred to as "the McDonaldization of America." And it's now an essential part of what Francis Fukayama calls "the global cliché culture." Nearly everything in our lives today can be reduced to a commodity, and every important goal can be set aside for immediate gratification. Life is a food court.

Something analogous is happening in the church. The values of convenience, autonomous individualism, self-expression, and instant gratification turn the search for the sacred into a banal exercise in narcissistic futility. We settle for a drive-through window Happy Meal when God offers us a feast with him in the communion of saints.

The Main Event: Eating and Drinking with God

The theme of eating and drinking in the presence of God is prominent from Genesis to Revelation. In the ancient world, an official meal between the suzerain (great king) and the lesser ruler (vassal) was a treaty-making ritual. With this background, we encounter God's promise of the fruit of the Tree of Life as the Sacrament of consummation held out to humanity through our covenant head. Instead of waiting for their host to give them the fruit of life, Adam and Eve wanted their Happy Meal now and ordered from their own menu. After Abram's battle with God's enemies, he is treated to a covenantal meal of bread and wine with the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem, who we are told was a type of Christ (Gen. 14:18, with Ps. 110:4, Heb. 7:1, 17). At Mount Sinai, after the golden calf episode, God graciously renewed his covenant, calling Moses, Aaron and his sons (Nadab and Abihu), and seventy elders to ascend the mountain into the cloud of his presence. There the Lord ratified the covenant as his guests "beheld God, and ate and drank" (Exod. 24:11). Moses then received the tablets of the Ten Commandments and remained on the mountain, in the cloud with God, for forty days and forty nights (v. 18). For their continued unbelief, however, most of the desert generation were barred (along with Moses) from entering the Promised Land. Instead of enduring the trial and entering the land flowing with milk and honey, that generation died just short of the Jordan River. Significantly, God commanded the Bread of the Presence to be placed in the Holy of Holies, as a perpetual confirmation of his provision for his people (Exod. 25:30).

The theme of "eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord" is carried forward in the New Testament, beginning with Jesus' trial in the desert-for forty days and forty nights, recapitulating Israel's trial (and echoing Moses' mediation on the mountain with God for forty days and forty nights). This time, however, Jesus rebuffed the serpent's enticements for "glory now." Instead of demanding the food he craved, Jesus replied with the words of Scripture: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4). Jesus fasted for us-fulfilling the law-so that we could feast with him in his kingdom.

The Goal of a Long Journey: The Feast in Luke's Gospel

It is striking how often in Scripture God, the Stranger, meets us as we are on the way to somewhere else. Going about their daily work, with their own plans and expectations for the future, the disciples were confronted by Jesus and called out to join him on his journey to the feast. Luke's Gospel particularly emphasizes the theme of Jesus as the journeying guest who is not received, even by his own (Luke 9:52-19:44). In fact, he is rejected in Jerusalem (Luke 19:45-23:49). "Eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord" (Luke 13:25) explicitly invokes the covenantal meals of the Old Testament. Only now, it is the "insiders" who, refusing the invitation, are cast out and the "outsiders" who are seated at the kingdom feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The theme of "eating and drinking in the presence of the LORD" runs throughout Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is the climax of the event in which God calls Moses, Aaron, and the elders to the top of Mount Sinai. Israel's journey to the Promised Land, "flowing with milk and honey," is a pilgrimage to a feast, yet the people test God, "demanding the food they craved," refusing to trust his provision. Later, God reminds Israel that bread and wine were withheld in the wilderness-except for the miraculous manna from heaven and water from the rock (Deut. 29:6; cf. 14:23). Eating the bread and taking up the cup of salvation are central to the Feast of Passover, and Pentecost is the annual call to "rejoice in the feast" (Deut. 6:13-15). Feasting with God is arguably the goal of these narratives-and, indeed, of the history of redemption.

Leading his people to the Promised Land, God spreads a table in the waterless desert. He gives them bread from heaven and water from the rock-and, as Paul reminds us, "that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). Yet, there was always more to come: the incarnation of the Rock in our own humanity. "Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests" (Zeph. 1:7).

This history is recapitulated both in the life of Jesus and that of his contemporaries. John the Baptist comes announcing the nearness of the kingdom, but is beheaded (although some believed his report). His ministry is not one of jubilation in the Promised Land ("He came neither eating nor drinking"), but of serious judgment and a call to repentance; while the ministry of Jesus will be that of calling sinners, outcasts, strangers and aliens to his festive banquet ("The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners"). He feeds the five thousand, but they were there for a free meal, like that wilderness generation: "But can he give us meat?"

Rejected by his own, just as he was by the unbelieving generation of Israelites when the spies returned with their firstfruits of the good land, he nevertheless sends his messenger "into the highways and byways" to gather guests for his banquet. Jesus moves toward Jerusalem; and as he does so, he teaches the disciples to invite to the banquet those who cannot repay them (Luke 4:14). After all, isn't that what God does with us?

The disciples did not understand the meaning of the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, even when Jesus repeatedly spoke of his death and resurrection as they neared the city. Assuming that it will be a victory celebration, they vie for the best seat on either side of Jesus' throne on coronation day. Even after being on the road with Jesus for three years, they fail to understand that the feast awaiting them will be the body and blood of their Master, as he gives his life for their sins. Then, in the upper room, he spreads his banquet in the "wilderness" on the verge of the Promised Land-his own death and resurrection. Only in this case, unlike Moses, the mediator of this new covenant will not die with the disobedient generation on this dark side of the Promised Land, but as the greater Joshua will, through his death and resurrection, lead his people across the Jordan. Jesus sends Peter and John ahead to find a place to celebrate this meal in Jerusalem, as Passover yields to Holy Communion (Luke 22).

Meeting a Stranger on the Way to Somewhere Else: Luke 24

It was dawn, on "the first day of the week"-the beginning of the new creation-as the women disciples brought fresh spices for their Master's dead body to the tomb, according to Jewish custom (Luke 24:1-12). However, when they arrived at dawn, there was no guard and the stone was rolled away, the tomb empty. Two angels appeared "in dazzling apparel" and the women were "frightened and bowed their faces to the ground" (vv. 4, 23). Luke 24:6-7 (like verses 26, 46, and 47) presents a creedal statement with the formula of crucifixion and resurrection on the third day. The women at the tomb should seek Christ "among the living" rather than among the dead, say the angels. Crucial also is the fact that they are told that Jesus is risen "as he told you" (v. 6) and the women "remembered his words" (v. 8). Throughout this post-resurrection appearance, the community is referred back to the words that Jesus had spoken. Everything now depends on recalling (reciting) Jesus' words, "hearing" it again for the first time! Faith not only moves from promise to fulfillment, but from fulfillment to a further promise.

Getting the plot of Scripture is crucial to the very existence of the church. Who is Jesus? We don't get to decide. The story tells us who Jesus is! He's not just anything and everything we want him to be in our lives. But even if everything else in your life seems to speak against this Jesus being the Christ, "the one who would redeem Israel," he has conquered your greatest enemy: the wages of sin, the sting of death, and the curse of the law. He is the one "about whom the scriptures spoke, that he should be crucified and rise again on the third day." Who is Jesus? Your substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and your robe of righteousness and immortality. What is his kingdom-and thus the mission statement of the church? The forgiveness of sins. A kingdom of grace now, a kingdom of glory at the end.

"That very day"-the day of Jesus' resurrection-two disciples were on their way to Emmaus, "about seven miles from Jerusalem," discussing the momentous events that they had just experienced in Jerusalem (vv. 13-14). This time, it is not an angel but Jesus Christ himself who appears: "But their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (v. 16). There are no trumpets, no thunder or lightening, no voice from heaven; Jesus simply joins these two disciples on their journey and asks them what they are talking about with such vigor. "And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, 'Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" "What things?" Jesus asked. Recounting the events with astonishment that the stranger had to ask, the disciples sigh, "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (vv. 19-24).

The Stranger Is a Guest (v. 29)

By drawing out the reasons for their disillusionment, Jesus was drawing out the misunderstandings of the kingdom that they had assumed. First the cross and then glory. That is the order that they missed. The kingdom of God had become for them a purely this-worldly regime here and now. They had gotten the "journey" wrong: a theology of glory versus a theology of the cross: first cross, then glory.

Remarkably, however, they stick to the facts: the witness of the women and the disciples to the empty tomb. Yet the empty tomb by itself did not establish the resurrection. They were confused by it all. Did someone steal the body? If so, who? The Romans, the Sanhedrin, some of the disciples? The disciples were walking along as dead men while the Lord of Life was walking beside them unrecognized. This Emmaus journey is like a recapitulation of the whole history of Israel. As Jesus interprets that whole history, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets," the hero of the epic is himself traveling at their side. He shows them that he not only is with them on the way, but is himself "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

Gentiles might be expected not to get this; Israel surely should have, and the disciples are even more culpable. Jesus rebukes them-not in wrath, but in gentleness-as he preaches himself from all the Scriptures. Instead of simply rebuking unbelief, Jesus preaches the gospel that creates faith. At this point, Jesus is still a stranger. Rather than referring first to his own teaching, he takes them to the Scriptures, which of course meant the Old Testament. Even before he reminds them of his words (v. 44), he reminds them of the words of Scripture.

Jesus knows the rules of hospitality, and rather than lording it over them as he could have (revealing himself as the Risen King all at once), he lets himself be a stranger, invited to dinner simply because "it is toward evening and the day is now far spent" (v. 29). Even after the resurrection, Jesus displays his humility, serving us in descending mercy. From their recollection in verse 32, these two disciples were no doubt pondering everything that the stranger had told them while the table was being set for dinner.

The Stranger Becomes the Host (vv. 30-35)

Reversing the proper roles of hospitality, Jesus becomes the host. Just as the disciples had entered the upper room for one meal (the Passover) only to receive in addition a new meal (the Lord's Supper), now Jesus takes over and transforms an ordinary meal into the first post-resurrection Eucharist. In doing so, their sorrow is turned to joy and their unbelief is turned to recognition. The formula here, reminiscent of the words of the upper room in Luke 22, is unmistakable: "took...broke...gave." As Calvin points out, not only in the action but in the form of words that Jesus repeated, the disciples recognized the one who had instituted this Supper.

The last day (Saturday) surrenders to the first day (Sunday) as the entrance of God's people into their everlasting rest. Tonight, and to the end of the age, Christ will host this meal from his Sabbath throne: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).

"And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight" (v. 31). Again, the resurrection is something that happened to Jesus and not simply a subjective experience of the disciples. It was not his memory or impact or influence or even his spirit that lived on, but Jesus of Nazareth the person himself! He was physically, bodily raised. Nevertheless, the recognition of this event is what happens to them. The same person, with the same physical characteristics, was present but not recognized. They had been kept from recognizing him until that moment, just as he "vanishes from their sight," not because he is a phantom but because their senses are being directed by him. This meal brings about recognition: "They said to each other, 'Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?'" (v. 32). The Sacrament ratifies the words that they had heard the stranger speak on the road. Through the Word and the Supper, the Spirit opens their understanding. He is no longer a stranger, but the host.

The Strangers Become the Witnesses (vv. 33-49)

Now everybody is on the road again: back to Jerusalem, back to the upper room, but this time to get everybody on board to go spread the Word to the world. The tables are turned: the preacher becomes the content of what is preached; the stranger becomes the host and the hosts are the strangers. Yet they too become recognized as witnesses and friends of the host. These two disciples on earth are like the two angelic witnesses from heaven, returning to the eleven in Jerusalem with good news. There they reunite with the eleven, who are already abuzz with the report of the empty tomb.

Now the church that had been scattered in denial, sorrow, and confusion is "gathered together" in joy, "saying, 'The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon!' There they told what had happened on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (vv. 33-35). Like the dinner guests in Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast" (see sidebar on page 11), it is possible to be strangers even with neighbors on a tiny island who meet regularly for prayer and Bible reading. On the other hand, it is possible for complete strangers to embrace and dance together in the streets when the news is big enough. Apart from Christ, as he delivers himself to us through the public service of preaching and Sacrament, "community" is a meaningless term. Other bonds (generational, socioeconomic, political, musical preferences, and so forth) created by other affinities have no place here. In comparison with the risen Christ in our midst, dispensing his gifts, the decisions and activity of committees, leaders, and parishioners are no more significant than the march of ants from mound to mound. Through Christ's action among them, his disciples are not only made one with him but with each other.

Now at last, the "breaking of the bread" in the upper room makes sense as the breaking of Christ's body for the life of his people. The good news begins with the nucleus of this first band of Christians and then works itself out to "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth."

First things first: the church receives Christ (vv. 36-49). They cannot become witnesses until they themselves have been made recipients of the Good News. "Jesus himself stood in the midst of them" (v. 36). Here is that covenantal language again: "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name." No longer outside the gate on the cross, nor inside the tomb, nor even alongside the disciples on the Emmaus road, but standing as the "pitched tabernacle" in the midst of his people, Jesus announces, "Peace to you!" A covenantal announcement, a benediction (or salutation), with which the liturgy is begun.

Again, the story is made all the more credible by their all too human reaction: "But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit" (v. 37). Not until Jesus begins speaking his Word does the frightening stranger become the most welcome visitor. He is not a spirit but resurrected flesh and bones (vv. 38-39). Jesus even condescends to their weakness by giving his hands and feet to their examination. The same body that had hung on the cross and lay dead for three days is now standing before them, resurrected but not yet glorified. "And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, 'Have you anything to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it before them" (v. 41). Ghosts don't eat fish. Since he is the firstfruits of the whole harvest, this assures that our resurrection will be bodily: restoring and glorifying rather than dispensing with our earthiness. The death of Jesus belongs to the past age of sin and death that he conquered; his resurrection opens up a future for us all.

Even though they see and examine him, it is his words that they must hear if they are truly to recognize him for who he is (v. 44). And further still, they must have their minds opened (v. 45). These are passive verbs: they did not come with an open mind, nor did they open their minds; their minds were opened by the Lord of the Feast. Only as their minds are opened to understand will they comprehend what he will say about himself and the next stage of the kingdom in verses 46-49. This witness, just as Jesus predicts, went out and "proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

Yet, they are not ready. They are witnesses "of these things," but they are not yet empowered "from on high" to be made witnesses to these things throughout the earth. The Ascension and Pentecost still lay ahead. Jesus will be with them for forty days (the period between the feasts of Passover-the feast of the "passing over" of God's wrath and Pentecost-the feast of the harvest's firstfruits). It's "40 Days of Preparation"-a little seminary, to turn disciples into apostles. It is a time to gather together in the upper room, awaiting the promised Spirit who will equip the witnesses for their mission. Micah had prophesied:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Mic. 4:1-2)

The proclamation of Christ in Scripture in terms of promise and fulfillment becomes the substance of apostolic preaching in Acts, as Christ himself "stood in the midst" of his covenant people who gathered for the apostles' teaching, the breaking of the bread, fellowship, and prayer.

Jesus told his disciples that he would not drink wine with them again until he returned in his kingdom of glory. Our Eucharistic table is not the heavenly wedding banquet. For now, it is the sacrificial meal in which Christ is the food and drink. Yet each time we gather, we not only proclaim Christ's death until he comes, we participate in the renewing powers of the age to come. We taste the morsels of that wedding banquet when the meal of Christ's sacrifice will become the feast of unending delight. For on that day, Christ will be the host rather than the meal, and we will eat and drink with him in an everlasting exchange of gifts.

No longer as obsessed with the problems that we brought with us to church, we are gathered as this Eucharistic community in thanksgiving and joy. No longer filled with disillusionment and fear, our hearts are once again cheered with good news to share with a needy world that still lies on the other side of Easter, in sin and death. As Frederick Buechner in Magnificent Defeat nicely summarizes,

There is little that we can point to in our lives as deserving anything but God's wrath. Our best moments have been mostly grotesque parodies. Our best loves have been almost always blurred with selfishness and deceit. But there is something to which we can point. Not anything that we ever did or were, but something that was done for us by another. Not our own lives, but the life of one who died in our behalf and yet is still alive. This is our only glory and our only hope. And the sound that it makes is the sound of excitement and gladness and laughter that floats through the night air from a great banquet.
Announced by his Word and sealed in his table-fellowship "in the midst of us," this Good News- "Peace be with you!"-wells up within us as a message to be proclaimed to others. "Gathered together in one place," we-on this side of Pentecost-are also scattered after the benediction out into the world as his witnesses to all that has been done.
The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed!

We are his people and he is our dwelling place.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "A Feast in a Fast-Food World" July/August 2009 Vol. 18 No. 4 Page number(s): 14-18

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