Practising the Presence at the Table | Isaac Aho

Over the past two years Isaac has been one of my favourite people to eat, drink, think and pray alongside. His family have intentionally developed their meal table as a space to recognise the worth of Jesus, one another and the many guests they have. I asked him to write a little on what he is learning about spiritual formation and the deep connection to meal times. – Liam


I was recently listening to an audio recording of John Ortburg and Dallas Willard at a “Knowing Christ Today” conference in Santa Barbara, California. This recording is, in my opinion, one of the best teachings on discipleship I have ever heard in one compilation. Willard is a man who has given his life to the study and application of spiritual formation. Toward the end of the conference, Ortburg asks Willard a question. I can hear a certain desperation in his voice as he is a pastor and author who has also devoted his life to the idea that real discipleship can and should be happening in the church. We should look different as kingdom people.

Ortburg asks Dallas, and I paraphrase slightly, “How do we do this in a way that actually works? There are people in this room from common areas. We have all have had the experience where in a city there may be an interfaith council or gathering of pastors for prayer. This is a good idea but doesn’t have the kind of life to it that we need. It can become one more obligation to schedules that are full, rather than a life-bringing thing.” The answer Dallas gives is:

“We arrange our time together where we are actually sharing what is going on in our souls and we don’t just spend our time talking about community affairs, ecumenical efforts or comparisons between churches. You have to arrange your time where people are exchanging ‘soul work’, what is going on in them, and they are sharing their experience of the presence of Christ in their lives”

I have recently been working on a thesis project where I am exploring a deeper understanding of the Eucharist and how Jesus used meal-time as a place of discipleship. I have been learning how the “communion meal” was an actual full meal called an “agape” or “love feast” with the Eucharist bread being broken and shared before the meal, and the cup of wine passed around and shared at the end of the meal. I have a friend who often says, “When your newest tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So with that as a disclaimer, I will go on to say: If I had been at the conference, I don’t know how I would have kept myself from speaking up. In the full seven-hour conference on Christian formation, the communion meal, or Eucharist, was not mentioned once as a means of spiritual formation. A teaching on discipleship by some of our best teachers that doesn’t mention the table as a place of discipleship should indicate just how much we have lost the practice and importance of this sacrament.

Jesus left us with a certain kind of a meal as the center of our times when we come together. This meal was to be marked by the participants awareness that He was present at the table. It was an actual meal at an actual table that would culminate in an act everybody would participate in. Bread broken and eaten, a glass of wine shared. It was not what was said that was important but what was done.

In the early church, any person could sit through a church teaching, but when it came time to break bread, all non-believers would be asked to leave. It was not listening to Christ’s teaching that marked you as a Christian, it was participating in a communion meal which set you apart as a believer and earned you the death penalty if caught. Many were martyred in the persecuted church for confessing to eating the Eucharist meal. To participate under the threat of death shows just how serious they took this.

Jesus often chose the table as a place of discipleship. A full five chapters of teaching (John 13-17) was most likely done at the last supper where he gave us the Eucharist act. I like to think his prayer, “…they would be one as we are one…” (John 17), was offered with the bread and wine. He would often stop in the middle of a meal for a surprising illustrated lesson such as his impromptu foot washing in Johns last supper account, maybe in response to an argument they just had about who would be greatest. (Luke 22)

For at least the first 100 years, the church would practice Eucharist during an actual meal called a “love feast” or “agape meal”. Slowly, toward the end of the first century, the love feast and Eucharist, the taking of bread and wine, became separate acts, although both continued to be practiced. This could have been a result of persecution, as the Eucharist act was easier to perform without notice in comparison to a full meal. Slowly, over the last two centuries, the church has largely lost the practice of “agape” meals. I believe the modern church, in losing the “Agape”, has also lost the full understanding of the Eucharist and the importance of an awareness Holy Spirit and the person with us, Is there any wonder so many are sick and dying among us? Paul’s question to the church of Corinth really hits home today

When I sit at any table with an awareness of Christ as the host, I will naturally become more aware of others. The “soul conversations” that Dallas speaks of are a natural outflow of this kind of gathering. Like any spiritual discipline, the Eucharist act is not an end in itself but will bring about actual transformation in my awareness of my own self, others and Christ being present.

What could happen if I take the teaching of Jesus seriously and began to practice the kind of meal he desired: Christ present, the lame, sick and poor present (at least sometimes), diverse, hospitable, generous, joyful, an unhurried time of sharing food and my life with others? The next meal you sit at, consciously make Jesus the host. Wait until everybody is seated before starting to eat. Have a meaningful conversation with everybody present. Ask open ended questions and really listen to the others. Slowing our eating and tasting each bite with thankfulness can change any mealtime.

The simplicity of these acts lull us into thinking they are unnecessary, but I am challenging myself to participate more often at this kind of table.

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