To be a Christian is to be united to Jesus Christ, the source of all life. This life of communion with Jesus begins at the font where we were cleansed from our uncleanness and made whole in him. His suffering and resurrected flesh restores our impure and unclean flesh to wholeness and wellness.
As we journey toward the parousia, our restoration to health is ongoing by our communion with him in his holy Church where he is present in his flesh to continue our health and holiness. In his presence and the presence of a restored creation, we are fed by his flesh as he speaks to us in his Word and feeds us of his very body and blood at the banquet he has prepared. The goal of all preaching, catechesis, liturgy, and pastoral care in the Church is to bring God's people into communion with Jesus Christ. Through him we receive health and wholeness. This is the essence of Christ's fleshly presence in his Church's life and her ministry to the world. In his body, the Church, Jesus Christ bears witness to a fallen humanity that he, the Creator of all things, has come to his creation to take flesh and bring in a new creation.
Jesus and the New Creation
The evangelist St. Luke records how Jesus Christ brings in this new creation through his incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension. He first announces the new creation in his astonishing sermon at Nazareth. There he sets forth his program for the world based on the Old Testament prophecies from Isaiah 61 and 58 (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus the Messiah is present in the world to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to those who are oppressed, and the year of jubilee. Jesus declares that the essence of his proclamation is release: he is present to release creation from its bondage to demon possession, sickness, sin, and death. This release is always attached to his flesh, for he says "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).
These four categories of bondage-demon possession, sickness, sin, and death-are manifestations of the fallenness of the creation that needs restoration. Creation is restored only when it is released from this bondage. The word for release is often translated as forgiveness, release from the bondage of sin, but for Jesus there no distinction between spiritual and physical bondage. Both are demonstrations that we are captive to a world that needs restoration to wholeness. The captive and the oppressed include both those who are physically in bondage to sickness or demon possession, or spiritually in bondage to sin and death.
The good news is that this release is present in him. Christ was crucified to accomplish that release and raised from the dead to proclaim that now in him all of creation has been freed from the bondage of its fallenness. The fiftieth Jubilee year liberated slaves, forgave debts, returned people to their homes, and stopped all sowing and reaping (Lev. 25). The Jubilee year in the Old Testament anticipated the Messiah's eschatological salvation. Jesus announces in Galilee that the Jubilee year is now present in him and his ministry. Thus, this message of release unites the Old and New Testaments.
Jesus' ministry continually expresses release to the captives. In his teaching and healing, Jesus makes no distinction between physical sickness and demon possession. Immediately following his sermon at Nazareth, he rebukes the man possessed with demons (Luke 4:35), and then rebukes the fever of Peter's mother-in-law (Luke 4:39). Jesus rebukes both fevers and devils, saying, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose" (Luke 4:43). The kingdom consists of the proclamation that in him all things are released from bondage and that a new era of salvation is now present. "Which is easier," Jesus asks the Pharisees, "to say 'your sins are forgiven' or to say 'rise and walk?'" (Luke 5:23). Jesus tells them that the Son of man has authority both to forgive sins and heal paralytics. Both are a demonstration that the Creator has come to his creation to release it from its fallenness. When Jesus raises the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and Jairus' daughter (Luke 8:40-56) he shows his power to release them from the ultimate bondage of death. Jesus touches dead rotting flesh (which should render him ceremonially unclean), and through his flesh restores it to health and wellness. Jesus performs miracles as a sign that the new era of salvation is present in him. Miracles testify that in Jesus God is present to release his creation, to re-create it, and to restore it to wholeness.
As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and the Cross, he absorbs into his flesh the world's sickness and sin, releasing people from bondage through his flesh. The great and final miracle of release is his passion and death. Creation demonstrates that it is being re-created by the darkness that covers the earth (Luke 23:44). This is an act of God in his creation because the creator of all things has died. The darkness is a sign that the bondage of creation, which Jesus has been absorbing into flesh since his conception, and bearing publicly since his baptism, is now completely laid upon him. All demon possession, all sickness, all sin, all death is now placed upon him at his crucifixion, and this full concentration of the world's bondage creates an unnatural darkness for three hours. The creation is being re-created and healed, and the process of re-creation causes it to plunge into darkness. The Creator who has come to his creation is at this moment of death bringing in a new creation. The darkness is an eschatological sign that already now the end of all captivity and brokenness has come in the death of Jesus, even though it has not yet come in its fullness.
When Jesus rises from dead on the third day, after his Sabbath rest in the tomb, he brings all creation with him. Through his crucified and resurrected flesh, creation's restoration is ongoing in the life of the Church. His miracles continue in the Gospel and the Sacraments which testify that Jesus is still present to perform acts of release for his creation as he continues to re-create it and to restore it to wholeness. It is therefore in the Church's liturgy of Word and Eucharist that we find God re-creating the world through the flesh of his Son:
The Sunday liturgy is not the Church assembled to address itself. The liturgy does not cater to the assembly. It summons the assembly to enact itself publicly for the life of the world. Nor does this take place as a dialogue with the world, often a partner whose uninterested absence reduces the dialogue to an ecclesiastical monologue. The liturgy presumes that the world is always present in the summoned assembly, which although not of "this world" lives deep in its midst as the corporate agent, under God in Christ, of its salvation. In this view, the liturgical assembly is the world being renovated according to the divine pleasure-not as patient being passively worked upon but as active agent faithfully cooperating in its own rehabilitation. What one witnesses in the liturgy is the world being done as the world's Creator and Redeemer will the world to be done. The liturgy does the world and does it at its very center, for it is here that the world's malaise and its cure well up together, inextricably entwined. (1)
Jesus and Table Fellowship
The Lukan community was liturgical and sacramental, but it did not use the eucharistic nomenclature of later centuries. Table fellowship with God was a natural metaphor for Jewish Christians to describe how God communicates his salvific intentions. Indeed, the history of the Jews is a history of God's presence at significant times in the context of a meal. The Passover meal was central, but so also was the weekly remembrance of the Passover in the Sabbath evening seder that gave a weekly shape to the religious life of the Jews. In the various covenants made between Yahweh and his people, a meal often sealed the covenant, e.g., the meal on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24:9-11 where Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders "beheld God, and ate and drank."
It was within this milieu that Luke records the table fellowship of Jesus. God feeding his people in the intimacy of the table would not have been unusual for the Jews. But for God to become flesh and sit at table with them and give them food from his own, fleshly hands was scandalous. God was present as divine logos in the Old Testament; now he was present in the flesh of Jesus Christ who established a table fellowship of eating and drinking with his people.
The common ground between the Passover seder, the kiddush meals, and the early Christian Eucharist is that they are acts of table fellowship. This language more accurately describes the relationship between Old Testament meals, the New Testament repasts, and the early Christian Eucharist's, for table fellowship is the language of the culture in which these meals were celebrated. Luke makes use of table fellowship metaphors and language as he systematically develops Jesus' table fellowship to teach about the Eucharist, about Christian liturgy, and ultimately, about Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Because it is catechetical and liturgical, this is a dominant matrix in Luke's Gospel.
Jesus' table fellowship is one of the reasons he is put to death by the chief priests and the Pharisees (the rulers in Luke 24:20). (2) Table fellowship is just one expression of the role of food as a means of communicating God's faithfulness to his creation. But table fellowship must not be restricted to what is expressed around a table. Much of Jesus' teaching includes table metaphors that reflect his view of table fellowship and the eschatological kingdom.
The table fellowship of Jesus consists primarily in his teaching at the table. The act of table fellowship, including both the meal itself and the meal's participants, is also a form of teaching. (3) Neither the teaching nor the eating is of greater importance than the other; both must be considered together as one and the same activity. When one sits down at a table with friends, one talks and one eats; both activities are integral to table fellowship. The unique character of this juxtaposition of teaching and eating is reflected in the classic liturgical formulation of Word and Sacrament. (4) Table fellowship reveals something about the participants in that fellowship, particularly the host at the table. The table fellowship of Jesus reveals something about who he is, therefore it has a direct relationship to Lukan christology.
Table fellowship is one of the means by which the evangelist proclaims the arrival of the eschatological kingdom, the dawn of a new era. Table fellowship in Luke demonstrates that Christianity is a religion embracing both sinners and righteous, both Jews and Gentiles. Table fellowship reveals the most intimate nature of the kingdom of God, namely that God and man have fellowship with each other through teaching and eating together. This is the basic, elemental stuff of human existence that all people of all times understand. Jesus' manner at the table is one of service, and he renders the ultimate service to humanity as God's innocent, suffering Messiah by giving up his life for the world-and offering up that life at the table, for a table is the ultimate place of fellowship for those who will live together without end. This table fellowship "reveals a God who wants to sit down at table with all men and women and will remove all obstacles, even that of death, which stand in the way of the accomplishment of that communion." (5) Table fellowship, then, is an act of communion and revelation, making known to the world a God who comes to teach about forgiveness through death and resurrection, who offers that forgiveness in the breaking of the bread.
Luke's table fellowship provides the perfect vehicle for teaching about the nature of Christian eucharistic fellowship. Luke best develops this theme because he records many meals between Jesus and different categories of people: tax collectors, Pharisees, and disciples. There are numerous table scenes and metaphors which signal the meal as a place of fellowship and intimacy. Luke highlights there are three key elements to table fellowship: teaching, eating, and the presence of God. The presence of Jesus at the meal makes this table fellowship with God different from all other meals. At each table scene, Jesus is present to teach the participants about himself, a teaching of the kingdom of God in which he, the King, is present to offer the forgiveness of sins. The occasion is always marked by the theme of conversion, a turning to God in repentance and faith. The true participants of this fellowship meal are repentant sinners, personified by Levi the tax collector, who initiates the table fellowship of Jesus with his invitation to feast at his house (Luke 5:27-39), and by Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in whose house Jesus must stay and eat (Luke 19:1-10). In every Lukan meal, the teaching of Jesus is part of the table fellowship and essential to the meal. The meal becomes a seal of the forgiveness taught by Jesus. (6)
Each of these meals contain three elements of Jesus' table fellowship:
a) It is a table fellowship with sinners, i.e., it is an inclusive event;
b) It is a table fellowship where Jesus teaches about the kingdom; and
c) The table fellowship is itself an expression of the New Age.
From its initiation at the feast with Levi to its climax at the Emmaus meal, the basic pattern of Lukan table fellowship reveals that there is always teaching at the table, and eating as a seal of the fellowship, both of which take place in the presence of God. All of Jesus' meals are acts of table fellowship-teaching/eating in the presence of Jesus-even though every meal is not the Eucharist. Each meal must be measured against the cross and the resurrection.
During the Galilean ministry, the meals of Jesus establish that the essence of his teaching is the kingdom of God-a teaching about his rejection to the point of death-where forgiveness is the benefit of table fellowship with Jesus. Jesus' meals are for repentant sinners who receive the forgiveness of their sins because of their fellowship with Jesus (cf. the meals of Luke 5 and 7). The climactic meal during the Galilean ministry is the feeding of the five-thousand where the constellation of language links it with the Last Supper and the Emmaus meal, the other climactic moments in Jesus' table fellowship. Here the King rules his kingdom by offering now the food that satisfies, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet that is not yet.
As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, his table fellowship becomes increasingly eschatological. Luke 13, 14, and 15 all contain references to future, eternal eating that is now inaugurated in the meals of Jesus. The unmistakable elements of table fellowship are here. As Levi's meal was programmatic for the fellowship, the meal with Zacchaeus is climactic for Jesus' fellowship outside Jerusalem. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus represents all sinners. Jesus' words to him are representative of his salvific ministry to the world as it is expressed in his table fellowship: "Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:9-10).
Until the Last Supper, Jesus is present to teach and to eat in the flesh. But in the Last Supper in Jerusalem Jesus is present in the flesh and in the meal, that is sacramentally. The Last Supper is Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples that is prophetic for the future of the Church. The prophecy that he will eat and drink with them when the kingdom comes is fulfilled at Emmaus where Jesus teaches them on the road (the Word) and breaks bread with them at Emmaus (the Meal). He is present with them in a unique way, as the crucified and risen Christ in crucified and risen flesh. The evangelist's final word about Emmaus sums up the meal and is programmatic for all Christian dining until this day: "And they expounded the things he taught on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (24:35). In this description the church found the pattern for its liturgical worship. Acts 2:42 confirms that the Church from the beginning followed this pattern and celebrated meals in which there were teaching and eating and prayers.
This pattern is the basis for a liturgical theology that is eucharistic even though it is described in the language of table fellowship. New Testament worship is a continuing table fellowship with God that reaches back into the Old Testament and looks ahead to the eschatological banquet of God in the parousia. Jesus' table fellowship goes to the very core of the meaning of the kingdom of God as it is now present in the liturgical life of the church. (7)
2 [ Back ] This thesis was first suggested by Robert Karris in Luke: Artist and Theologian (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 47-78. In his chapter "The Theme of Food" he 47 states: "My major point in this chapter is that in Luke's Gospel Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate."
3 [ Back ] Cf. G. Feeley-Harnik, The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981) 167: "Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the difficulty of explaining his gospel in words, and indeed, most of the time his disciples do not understand what he is saying until he finally speaks to them in food."
4 [ Back ] Both R. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, 71-72 n. 7 and J. Neyrey, The Passion According to Luke (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 11 quote from anthropologist Feeley-Harnik's seminal study on food and teaching in the OT and NT. Neyrey synthesizes Feeley-Harnik's observations into his analysis of Luke 22:14-38 on p. 11: "These statements rest on the basic principle: as God gives food to the covenant people, so God gives Torah-instruction to them. Bread/food are a clear and unmistakable symbol of Torah-instruction ... Food and instruction are interchangeable symbols, replicating each other. In other words, a meal is a perfect setting for teaching, as Wisdom in the Old Testament or symposia in Greek literature indicate."
5 [ Back ] R. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, 80.
6 [ Back ] The essential Lukan meals are the following: Luke 5:27-38-The Feast with Levi the Tax Collector; Luke 7:18-35-The Bridegroom and the Ascetic; Luke 7:36-50-The Anointing of the Feet of Jesus and the Forgiveness of a Sinful Woman; Luke 9:10-17-The Feeding of the Crowd; Luke 14:1-24-Sabbath Healing, Meal Etiquette, and the Banquet; Luke 15:1-2,11-32-Meals with Sinners and the Prodigal Son; Luke 19:1-10-The Meal with Zacchaeus; Luke 22:14-38-The Last Supper; Luke 24:13-35-The Emmaus Meal; and Luke 24:36-43-The Eating of Fish.
7 [ Back ] Sections of this article were adapted from A. A. Just Jr., Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture, Luke 1:1-9:50 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996), and The Ongoing Feast: Table Fellowship and Eschatology at Emmaus (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1993).