a version of this post first appeared on the Church of the Cross blog
Eating together is an intimate act.
Theologian and social psychologist Jean-Claude Sagne suggests that the meal develops close relationships because it promotes equality among those who otherwise might not share a similar social identity. Sociologist Georg Simmel offers that eating bonds people together in a physical and social sense because all humans share the need to eat and drink. The physiological sharing of food at the meal, he argues, is the basis upon which social and cultural sharing is built; and thus eating and drinking together can transform social relationships. Anthropologist Mary Douglas observes that eating is such an intimate occasion that the sharing of a full, warm meal is typical only among family, close friends, and honored guests.
The sensual process of sharing and enjoying food with others, the giving of one’s time and resources in cooking for another – commensality creates the space to know others deeper than simple conversation can allow.
In these first two weeks of Eastertide, I’ve been paying particular attention to the occasions through which Jesus reveals Himself after His resurrection. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked seven miles with two of his disciples. They conversed, likely for hours, about the events of the previous week. And yet as they walked and talked, they had no idea who their travelling companion was. They clearly felt that they had gotten to know this stranger well. “Stay with us, it is nearly evening!” they urged, inviting him into their home.
As they sat at the table and Jesus blessed and broke the bread, they finally recognized who was with them. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?” they asked. And yet, despite the power they felt in conversation, it was the intimate and physical act of dining together that finally opened their eyes.
Some time later, Peter too experienced the intimate power of dining with Jesus. As Peter stepped out of the boat, aware that it was Jesus calling him over, I’m sure his stomach was churning, unable to escape the shame of his earlier denial. While he had seen Jesus with the other disciples, as far as we know his denial had not yet been addressed. “I need to apologize!” he was probably thinking, “But how can I admit to Jesus that in his deepest hour of need, I denied even knowing Him!”
As Peter made his way to the shore, Jesus offered him a meal. They sat eating a breakfast of fish and bread, what appears to be Jesus first meal with Peter after the resurrection; in this action, Jesus made a physical offer of reconciliation.
Before Peter confessed what he had done,
before Jesus spoke words of forgiveness,
before the sin that was likely tearing at Peter’s soul was ever verbally addressed,
Jesus invited Peter to join him in the incredibly intimate and reconciling act of sharing a meal.
The later exchange between Peter and Jesus was not just a matter of convenient timing; it was their way of finally naming what had already occurred.
“Peter, do you love me?
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Peter, do you love me?”
“Peter, feed my sheep.”
Before asking Peter if he loves Jesus, Jesus offered a physical manifestation of His own love. Jesus restored Peter’s relationship to Himself before they ever even spoke of what Peter had done. The intimacy of that meal spoke volumes to Peter, strengthening him to confess to Jesus in the knowledge that his denial would never be held against him.
And with that intimate action having restored Peter’s relationship to Jesus, what was he asked to do next? To carry with him the power of the process.
To sit and dine with others.
Not first to evangelize with words and conversation (though those are of course involved) but to sit down, inviting others to join in the deeply intimate, sensual process of eating. It is by taking part in the sensual, intimate, social-boundary-breaking act of eating that Peter was commanded to prove His love for Jesus.
Kendall, do you love me?
The same question addressed to Peter has likewise been asked of me.
Kendall, feed my sheep.