Potluck Theology (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

Revealing Christ at the Common Table

by Shelley Nielson
July – August, 2003

When Jesus was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (Luke 24:31).

We sang the last verse of “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” and heard the words “You are dismissed,” and we were free to go. It was a Potluck Sunday! For an only child of a single mom the potlucks in the musty basement of the South Burnaby Church of Christ felt, well . . . like what I imagined heaven would be like. There were always lots of desserts, lots of noodles (my mom wasn’t big on pasta—rice and potatoes had more food value), lots of hugs and a kind person to help me jiggle the Jell-o salad onto my plate.

In my memory potluck dinners after church on Sunday were frequent. We had potlucks when new people came, potlucks when people left, and I’m pretty sure we had potlucks for no reason at all. As we ate and talked and laughed, I watched strangers become friends and friends become family. These were sacramental occasions when we demonstrated the truth Barbara Brown Taylor describes, that as the body of Christ we are called “to take, bless, break and give the stuff of our own lives.” Yes, food was brought and shared, but more significant than that was the love that was given and received.

I still remember how shocked I was to discover as a college student attending a Christian college, that there were those who believed that potlucks were an inappropriate activity for Christians and that kitchens in church buildings were somehow unpleasing to God. I was incredulous. How could potlucks be offensive to the God who commanded Israel to celebrate with numerous feasts and festivals his saving and sustaining work on their behalf? I couldn’t fathom a theology that separated table fellowship from the gospel. It was and is around a table—partaking of a covenant meal sealed by blood—that the people of God find their identity. At the Passover and then the Lord’s Supper God calls a new people into existence.

As we read through the gospels, I’m struck by the frequency with which Jesus makes his point with bread, or around a table, nourishing both bodies and souls. He sits at tables not only with those who are “honorable” but also with those who bear shame. He tells parables of banquets open to all who will come with pure hearts and clean hands. He describes a heavenly realm to which “people will come from east and west, from north and south to eat, in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

It seems no coincidence that the church, called to manifest the reign of God, to demonstrate authentic Christian community; has a longstanding history of potlucks, covered dish dinners, Sunday socials — call them what you may. Though we may joke about them, even grumble about the inconvenience, something transcendent happens when people gather around tables. The phenomenon is not unique to ecclesial circles. It seems an inherent part of our human nature to be drawn into relationship by the sharing of a common meal whether simple or elaborate.

Consider the story “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Dineson, beautifully brought to life in the French film by the same name. In this tale the estranged residents of a small Puritan village in Norway, living austere and reduced lives, find themselves unwittingly reconciled as they share in a meal, the extravagance of which is beyond their comprehension. The one guest capable of appreciating the lavish feast, with his tongue loosed by fine wine and sumptuous food, speaks these words: Grace my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. . . . Ay that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

While the other dinner guests were uncertain as to the exact meaning of his words, they each certainly experienced at the table an abundant outpouring of grace, which left them chastened and changed.

In a world where the powers and principalities of this present age seem bent on isolating people from one another, I hope for the sake of the kingdom that we do not abandon the practice of gathering together around a common table. I believe it is of no little significance that it was not on the road to Emmaus that the disciples recognized Jesus, but when he broke the bread at their meal, blessed it and gave it to them. Daily we encounter people yearning for genuine relationship, yearning for connection, ultimately with their creator. And we, the church, have at our disposal the power of the potluck—the power of the common table—to demonstrate the invitation of the gospel. With glad and sincere hearts, like the first century church, we can by breaking bread together welcome one another and others to the table where Christ is revealed, where mercy and truth meet together in the kingdom of God.New Wineskins

Shelley Neilson has served as children’s minister for the East County Church in Gresham, Oregon for the last eight years. Her oversight of that ministry includes moving the congregation toward celebrating and integrating children into all aspects of congregational life. Shelley and her husband, Paul, have four children. Later this year Shelley will begin serving as the children’s minister at the Highland Church in Abilene.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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