Local Church, Local Restaurant

Michael Brown
Monday, July 13th 2009
Jul/Aug 2009

That God takes a deep interest in food should come as no surprise. He created humans with the need for food. The first and last chapters of Scripture make references to food. The fall of Adam involved food. Israel's ceremonial law was largely centered on food. The Psalms frequently praise God for providing food. And in the Gospels we encounter the Son of God performing miracles with food, enjoying conversations over food, even instituting a holy sacrament with food. Food is important to God. It is an expression of his goodness and essential to the lives of his image-bearers. It is more than a mere battery to keep our bodies going; food satisfies some of the longings of the human soul. "If we ponder to what end God created food," said Calvin, "we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer." Perhaps Robert Farrar Capon said it best in his eccentric The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection: "To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste." Simply put, food is part of being human.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that God often compares eating food to hearing his Word. In Isaiah 55:1-3, God renewed his covenant of grace with Israel by inviting them to a meal:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

Although Israel had broken the Mosaic covenant and would soon suffer the curse of exile, they were invited to enjoy God's fellowship through his everlasting covenant-his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15; 17:1-14) and, subsequently, with David (2 Sam. 7:1-17). Such gracious invitations to Israel are found throughout the Book of Isaiah and, indeed, the whole corpus of the prophets. What is remarkable about this one, however, is the analogy God makes of hearing to eating. He deliberately uses gastronomic imagery to describe the spiritual sustenance and delight contained in his gospel promises.

In the same way, Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, commissioned Peter with the words, "Feed my lambs….Feed my sheep" (John 21:15b, 17b). Beyond the nourishment that food provides to the body and the enjoyment it brings to the soul, lies a deeper human need that can be received only from the Bread of Life, given freely to us in Word and Sacrament at the local church. In the new covenant, the local church is something like a local restaurant; it is a place where people go to eat a meal. The pastor, like a chef, works with fine ingredients and labors to prepare something excellent. Guests arrive, sit down, and a meal is served.

Granted, the two belong to different kingdoms. A local restaurant belongs to the kingdom of man; it is a business establishment frequented by customers. The local church, on the other hand, belongs to the kingdom of God; it is a manifestation of the body of Christ, created by his Word and Spirit. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss the analogy too hastily. Feeding the sheep is the chief part of Peter's exhortation to pastors in local churches to "shepherd the flock of God" (1 Pet. 5:2a; cf. Acts 20:28). It is the very fulfillment of God's promise in Jeremiah: "And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer. 3:15; cf. 23:1-4; 31:10). Just as a chef's vocation requires him to prepare meals for the body, a pastor's vocation requires him to prepare meals for the soul. "This feeding is by the preaching of the gospel," said John Owen. "He is no pastor who doth not feed his flock. It belongs essentially to the office." The local church, then, is the spot where this happens; it is where the sheep go to eat. It does not merely consist of people; it is also the place where Christ, through his under-shepherds, feeds his flock publicly and corporately.

Come and Eat

Pleading with Israel to receive what God freely offered in his grace, the prophet Isaiah used a Hebrew particle, one that usually functions as a cry of woe, to emphasize Israel's dire need to take God's offer: "Ho! Come!" Through the ministry of the Word, Christ calls his people to come into his restaurant and dine with him. He stands on the sidewalk, as it were, crying out to the passersby who are hungry, "I have something good prepared for you! Come and eat! Come to my table!" Money is not an issue. In this restaurant, people who cannot pay are welcome. In fact, our money is no good with God. You only need to be hungry to have a reservation. "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa. 55:1). There is no currency we can offer God to receive the redemptive benefits of his meals. We cannot, through our obedience, buy what he freely gives as a gift. He has already paid the cost in full through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We now owe nothing. There is no bill. God simply says, "Come and eat!"

The primary purpose of going to church, therefore, is not to serve God but to be served by him. The same Lord who once rose from supper, laid aside his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples, continues to condescend to his followers and serve them in Word and Sacrament. He summons us to a corporate, festive event in the call to worship. Each week, through the ministry of the Word, he spreads a table in the wilderness, setting before us excellent food and drink for the soul.

The beverages of which Isaiah spoke-water, milk, and wine-became scarce in Israel as they suffered the covenant curses for their disobedience (Deut. 28:18, 24, 30, 33, 39, 51). Water, milk, and wine correspond respectively to our human needs of refreshment, nourishment, and joy. Without water, there could be no life. Without the protein found in milk, there could be no growth. And without wine-well, do we really want to imagine a world without wine? God has given it as an expression of his goodness to gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15) and to grease the sandy gears of life. Without wine, we would be deprived of color, beauty, and exhilaration in this present evil age.

While Israel sat on the brink of destruction, the prophet's use of this imagery couldn't have been more timely. What water, milk, and wine do for us physically, the gospel does for us spiritually. It refreshes us with the living water of Christ (John 4:14; 7:37-38), nourishes us so that we may "grow up to salvation" (1 Pet. 2:2), and causes our hearts to rejoice in the promise of glorified life (1 Pet. 1:8). Every Sunday, in the public means of grace, Christ sets these beverages before us in abundant supply.

Living on McDonald's

In the animated film Ratatouille, a story about a gifted rat in Paris who dreams of becoming a chef, Remy, the main character, laments the fact that his fellow rats are content with eating garbage. "If you are what you eat," declares Remy at the beginning of the movie, "then I only want to eat the good stuff." His pragmatist father, however, disagrees: "Food is fuel. You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die." Remy is horrified watching his family and friends wolf down trash while gourmet food is available. "What are you eating?" he asks his brother in disgust. "I don't really know," says his brother. "I think it was some sort of wrapper once."

In a similar way, God does not want his people eating garbage. There is lament in the prophet's question, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"(Isa. 55:2a). Like rats comfortable with eating trash, we are prone to consume spiritual rubbish and junk food. Left to ourselves, we will spend our livelihood on a subhuman diet of drive-through spirituality, grasping for instant gratification in our quest for self-improvement. Or, if we are more desperate, we will go to the garbage bin to rummage laboriously through a pile of half-eaten crust and empty containers, searching for anything that might resemble practical advice or helpful principles for living. Meanwhile, we are oblivious to the fact that our Master has set the table and called us to dinner.

That is why preaching is so important. As Kevin Vanhoozer has noted, "The sermon is the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by secular stories that promise other ways to the good life." Curved in on ourselves in selfish introspection and idol worship, we need an external word, a voice that comes from outside of ourselves, to interfere with our make-believe worlds and tell us the truth. We need to hear that surprising message of a holy God justifying the wicked through Christ. The living preaching of his Word, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in Question 98, is God's ordained means to accomplish this. It is an intrusive act by the Holy Spirit, driving us out of ourselves and directing our faith to the promises of God, which in Christ are yes and amen. The Westminster Larger Catechism gets at this precise point when it describes in Question 155 how the Holy Spirit makes the Word effectual to salvation:

The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

But without Christ's divine emissary sent to us, how will we hear? Without an ordained servant to serve us a meal, how will we eat? If "faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ," as Paul says in Romans 10, then self-feeding will not work. Hardwired for law by nature, the gospel is counterintuitive to us. Someone must tell us this good news. Someone must serve us this meal that informs us of what we do not know by nature; namely, that in Christ we have passed from death to life, and from judgment to mercy. Without coming to the feast God provides for us, we will inevitably gravitate toward the drive-through lane of therapy and the garbage bin of moralism. Preaching is God's merciful act whereby he pulls us away from our toxic self-feast and serves us his meal of life.

Authentic Cuisine

God delights in giving his people the real thing to eat. "Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food" (Isa. 55:2b). The Hebrew word for rich is literally fat. The feast that he provides in the gospel is not a meager, low-carbohydrate, or low-fat diet. He brings the real thing: real bread, real steaks, real Parmigiano-Reggiano-the best food and the best wine. He blesses his people with a rich banquet and authentic cuisine, a cuisine that is redemptive-historical. In other words, the preaching served to the people in the local church should always use a method that preaches Christ responsibly from the whole Bible.

Of course, the term "redemptive-historical preaching" is somewhat elastic, at least in Reformed circles. It is similar to the phrase "covenant theology"; not everyone means the same thing when they use it. For example, I have sometimes heard people caricaturize redemptive-historical preaching as preaching that ignores the imperatives of Scripture and leaves little place, if any, for application. That is a most unfortunate misrepresentation of the term. Redemptive-historical preaching, in its most simple definition, is preaching that preaches Christ from all the Scriptures. It assumes that the Scriptures are not a collection of timeless principles in abstract, but a coherent record of progressive revelation that tells the story of God redeeming a people for himself through the person and work of Christ his Son. It takes seriously Christ's admonition to the Pharisees who missed the point of this story: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me" (John 5:39). It is the kind of preaching that Christ himself gave to his disciples on the road to Emmaus, where, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures, the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). It applies biblical theology to the meal, which, as Graeme Goldsworthy notes, "is nothing more or less than allowing the Bible to speak as a whole: as the one word of the one God about the one way of salvation." It proclaims Old Testament characters such as Noah, Joseph, David, and Daniel primarily not as moral examples to imitate, but as sinners in the unfolding drama of redemptive history who foreshadowed Christ. It is a method of preaching that takes seriously Edmund Clowney's warning that "it is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story."

The Bible is much more than William How stated: "a golden casket where gems of truth are stored." It is more than a bewildering collection of oracles, proverbs, poems, architectural directions, annals, and prophecies. The Bible has a story line. It traces an unfolding drama. The story follows the history of Israel, but it does not begin there, nor does it contain what you would expect in a national history. The narrative does not pay tribute to Israel. Rather, it regularly condemns Israel and justifies God's severest judgments. The story is God's story. It describes His work to rescue rebels from their folly, guilt, and ruin.

Starving, weary souls need to hear this story line and unfolding drama that culminates in the person and work of Christ. Sadly, however, there will always be local chefs who deviate from the Bible's cuisine. Let them be urged to keep it authentic. "The preacher's business," said R. L. Dabney, "is to take what is given him in the Scriptures, as it is given to him, and to endeavor to imprint it on the souls of men. All else is God's work." Fusion food might be a fun fad in our postmodern culture, but it has no place on the spiritual menu in the local church.

Hear and Live

As a pastor of a local church, I often walk alone through the empty auditorium of our building during the week. In the stillness, I look at the vacant pews and think of the people who will fill them on Sunday during the dinner rush. I contemplate the text I am working through that week and the sermon I am preparing. I look at the raised pulpit and large table and anticipate the food that will be served to them. I reflect on the movement of the liturgy, which, in some ways, resembles the structure of an Italian meal. The salutation after the invocation is similar to an aperitivo (aperitif). The absolution after the confession of sins is like the antipasto (appetizer). The sermon is the primo (first course), and the Lord's Supper the secondo (second course). A contorno (side dish) might be served, if there is a baptism that day, but the meal will always conclude with formaggio e frutta (cheese and fruits) and/or dolce e caffe (dessert and coffee); that is, a benediction. I think of how, throughout the meal, we will raise our glasses of fine Sangiovese or Nero d'Avola wine in response to the God of grace, singing his praise, and confessing his goodness and mercy to us. This is a dining hall where God meets his people and feeds them with the surprising feast of Christ. These are the means he has ordained to give us refreshment, nourishment, and delight in this present evil age, a foretaste of that great meal to come, which was prophesied in Isaiah 25:6-9:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
1 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.10.2.
2 [ Back ] Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), 40.
3 [ Back ] John Owen, "Sermon V," Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 9:453.
4 [ Back ] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 456.
5 [ Back ] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 7.
6 [ Back ] Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1988), 11.
7 [ Back ] R. L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence (1870; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 37.
Monday, July 13th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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