Although Tim Chester's book weighs in at a slender 138 easy-reading pages, it delivers a massive heavyweight punch in the penetrating insights it offers into the life of Christ - and their implications for the lives of his followers.
Chester's subject is the unlikely one of food - or more precisely meals. 'Unlikely' is a provocative term to use in this context because part of Chester's point is that meal-times were critical in Christ's ministry (especially in Luke's gospel), a pattern that the early church copied - but which we have rendered 'unlikely'. Through looking at the nine meals that Jesus shared with others in that gospel, 'A Meal with Jesus' sets out to re-capture our meal-tables as a place of grace, gospel, community, fellowship, hope, encouragement, and communion. In doing so it presents us with a wonderful theology of food, which is both instructive and inspiring. Anyone familiar with Chester's previous works will know that all these insights he brings will not be presented in a moralistic/legalist framework, but in a grace-soaked gospel-responsive way. This means that the Christian reading this book might well be confronted with several of their own misunderstandings and shortcomings - but will be so in a way that will inspire a joyful closer imitation of Christ!
There is a cliche in Christian circles that, 'worship isn't what you do in a Sunday service, its what you do with the whole of your life'. It's often repeated - but rarely explored. The implications of this for mealtimes that Chester shares are truly fascinating! The default understanding for many people is that while fasting is something we do for God, eating is for us. This book demolishes such thinking as well as the rather dubious Gnostic foundations upon which it rests. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking" the gospel insists and much of the life Jesus lived in perfect communion with The Father, was spent around the meal-table! The meal-table is a place of worship. Chester points out that the Biblical creation-fall-redemption narrative applies to food as much as to anything else. Eden=provision, Fall=alienation which leads to various problems of (i) ingratitude (ii) greed (iii) illness. But then he asks us, what will redemption look like as we apply it to this area and sit down and eat together? Our answer is found in the meals that Jesus shared.
In summary then, here are some notes and quotes through the book:
Meals enact grace. Sinners (that's us folks!) are invited. To eat with a person in Biblical times was to accept them and share fellowship with them. The Pharisees sought to exclude the prostitutes and others 'sinners' from the table-fellowship -but Jesus welcomes sinners. As we are welcomed, so we must welcome!
Meals as enacted community. The church was never intended to be an institution - but a community of faith, in which grace is the determinative attitude. Hospitality (messy, awkward, time-consuming hospitality) is therefore an essential element in sharing life together. This doesn't mean the 'institutionalised' hospitality of the pot-luck in the church hall but the sharing of normal meals. Being 'given to hospitality' was a requirement in the New Testament for the precise reason that the premises were a home and the church meeting primarily a feast!
Meals as enacted hope. The church community, as well as being a group of people who will seek to subdue their 'flesh' through fasting, will also be a people who celebrate the provision of God through feasting! God's physical provision, show his goodness. God's provision of a messiah, is the most wonderful moment in the history of the world. Just as the Old Testament people brought a thankful tithe to Jerusalem, and recognised the provision of God - and then feasted together; how much more should the messianic-community be one in which there are thankful, hopeful feasts!
Meals as enacted mission! (p89) "Jesus didn't run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals, and have a passion for Jesus, then you'll be doing mission. It's not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates so powerfully with what you are saying". If meals are integral to Christian living in a secular world, Chester also points out that the meal-table of the early church was the place where the lonely came for conversation and the hungry for bread.
Meals as enacted salvation. Just as the fall is pictured as a rebellious act of eating - so salvation through Jesus Christ is embodied in a meal - The Lord's Supper, (Eucharist or Communion). The bread and wine of communion call us to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ and anticipate his return. But Chester argues we have robbed communion of much of its significance by separating it from the meal-table. (p118-9) "The Lord's Supper should be a meal we "earnestly desire" to eat. We should approach it with anticipation. With longing. With excitement. With joy. The Lord's Supper should be a joyous occasion. A vibrant meal with friends. A feast. Our earnest desire must surely affect how we celebrate The Lord's Supper. Today it has commonly become ritualised. We're the group in town whose central meal involves a fragment of bread and a small sip of wine. How is this a foretaste of the messianic banquet? .... Communion should be the feast of friends shared with laughter, tears, prayers and stories. We celebrate the community life that God gives us through the cross and in the Spirit. we can't celebrate it with heads bowed and eyes closed, alone in our private thoughts and strangely solitary even as we're surrounded other people. When we recapture the Lord's Supper as a feast of friends celebrated as a meal in the presence of the Spirit, then it will become something we earnestly desire. It will become the high point in our life together as the people of God." I am so grateful to Chester for making this point so powerfully and eloquently. I am convinced he is right.
Meals as enacted promise. Chester concludes his book with the 'trick' question: 'what are meals for?'. The question is a trick he reveals because in the Bible - everything else is there for the meal! The whole point of everything is that we share in restored fellowship and communion with God and each other through Christ, and in Biblical terms this is usually pictured and celebrated as a meal. (Rev3:20) Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Placing the gospel and the church it births in relational, rather than institutional, terms places the meal table back at the centre of church life.
That summary is but a brief glimpse into the many, many things this book contains. A Meal with Jesus is one of the most stimulating Christian books I have read in a long time. It is wise, stirring, grace-filled, heart-warming and action requiring. It is utterly soaked in the gospel of Christ - but yet profoundly challenges many of the patterns into which our families and church fellowships have lapsed, summoning them back to an altogether more authentic, and joyful existence.
One word of warning however. If you are a reader in the UK, make sure when you get this book you get the version published in the UK by IVP, not the Crossway/reLit version. I bought mine in the States and it has been hugely Americanised, both in content and language to the point that it will distract the UK-English speaker significantly. The UK edition is apparently due out soon.
For those of us who endorse that old cliche about worship, ('it's not what you do on a Sunday morning in church, but the whole of life') but want to break worship out from within the confines of worship services so that all of life becomes worship; I cannot think of a better place to start than this book! This is my Christian book recommendation of the year.