My dad and I both have busy schedules. Every week, we may see each other for around a few minutes each night before we both crash into bed after a long day away from home. The other day, though, I came into the living room and discovered him sitting on the couch watching Star Trek. It was the original series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy - my family is more of a fan of Next Generation, however - on a movie called The Voyage Home where they traveled to 1980s California to rescue a couple of whales. Captain Kirk tries to naturally observe the whales on a tour led by a lady who headed up the whale program, but upon seeing them, the tour group watches Spock in the tank swimming down to communicate with the female.
Needless to say, both the tour group and the aquarium employee were flustered to see Spock. Kirk then tries later to resolve the issue by Kirk-ishly asking her out to a meal, saying "Perhaps this would be better discussed over dinner." It struck me then that there is a stark similarity between Spock's Sunday dive into the fish tank and the Christian ministry.
If we were to view this scene as an allegory, you could say that Spock is the epitome of religion to the outer eye. "Boldly going where no man has gone before," he dives head first into the clear fish tank of trinitarian dichotomy, Hebrew text and Puritan poems, speaking to a great big whale, audible to Spock, but silent to others. Standing behind the glass, there are the startled old ladies, disapproving nuns, burned-by-religion police officers and clueless middle aged men in turtlenecks. Everyone is wondering 'Why in the world would that pointy-eared man be speaking to that whale? And where are his pants?'
Spock in the tank, you could argue, symbolizes the full Christian life. It is satisfying, good, full and joy-filled. Spock is having a great time swimming alongside that whale in the great expanse of the fish tank. However, how does it look to those standing outside the glass? They, in our culture, symbolize those who drive past the church buildings, the Awana programs, the John 3:16 billboards and can't understand why we exist in the fish tank. Jesus explains why in the meaning as to how he speaks in parables to the apostles in Mark by saying, "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."
What do we say to these people? The answer is in what Kirk said: "Let's bring it to the dinner table." Recently, I read a book by Tim Chester called A Meal With Jesus. His main argument is that Jesus came bringing a radical message, the grand fish tank, if you will, to a massive group of people, some of whom wanted him dead. He did this, consistently, at meals, sitting at the dinner table.
The meal table has symbolized for humanity an area of meeting for thousands of years. Friends have been made, families have been forgiven, people have fallen in love, tears have been shed, laughter has been had, and truth has been shared while eating ordinary food.
The table, though, is just a table. It resembles and communicates something much larger, which is essentially the essence of the Gospel. Community with God, made manifest by self-sacrifice and service. If the Gospel means nothing to the ordinary, both us and the food we eat, what good is it to us? If God became man, wouldn't he eat man's food? This truth is spectacular: the divine came in contact with the ordinary when God sat down to eat a meal with man.
The Gospel, when communicated this way, breaks the glass divide between Spock and the startled tourists, flooding the room with all of God's love, mercy and grace. How much more could somebody understand where not only Spock is, but where the whale is when they're swimming in the same space? This happens when the Gospel is communicated through love without bounds, and without price.
However, as in all things we do, they are not perfect. The dinner table has also been the platform for argument, strife, pride, disservice and contempt. As it were, the people outside the glass are not always confused. In fact, many of them have their minds made up. They look inside the fish tank and see civil intolerance, hatred and fear. Things like the recent Religious Freedom Law passed here in Indiana and Focus on the Family will have those behind the glass looking for something sharp to break it.
Wes Anderson is a favorite director of mine. Recently, he released his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The movie is about a hotel situated in Europe, run by an eclectic M. Gustave. Wooer of women and lover of L'Air de Panache, he ran his hotel like a drill sergeant. Every flower, napkin and rug was to be placed perfectly and effectively at all times, so that the hotel was without reproach.
There is a scene in the movie, before M. Gustave is accused of murdering one of his rich lovers, where the hotel staff is sitting down before a meal at a long table. He stands at the head of the table behind a podium, giving an announcement and subsequently beginning to recite an obnoxiously long poem. His second in command waves to the crowd to begin eating as he serenades them from a copy of Romantic Poetry.
Meals as a gathering of the church can be the same way, hurriedly eating all that we can while a man standing behind a podium reads us an inspiringly and beautifully eloquent message that nobody can seem to remember the next day. The problem, though, is not with the meal, or even with drill sergeant-hotel manager behind the podium. The problem is with us. Meals were doing splendidly before "she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate."
There are a few things that the meal has been a victim of over the years. Specifically, it has been selfishness and pride. This means that we don't serve others first, or we fail to invite them into that event in the first place. Also, it has been abused in some ways by being over-institutionalized. A program is not a bad thing, but do you have a schedule for your normal Tuesday dinner night? Why should we have one for our church gatherings? Lastly, it has been plagued by exclusivity. Walking past the politically incorrect, the homosexuals, the downhearted and broken on your way to invite the rest of your normal Sunday morning small group is a contra-ministry to Jesus'.
How is the meal redeemed? The same way we are: through joy in the Gospel. When we view the meal event as an opportunity, a privilege, and a service, it transforms into a tool by which we can see an effect in our communities, families and normal spaces (the gym, work, coffee shop, etc.). Swords are put down and forks are picked up; hearts that were cold are made warm by good food; the leader leaves the podium and grabs the bucket to wash feet; sinners are gathered as sinners, joyful in a redeeming God; the doors are opened, all are welcomed; the feast is bright with light and truth.
The meal is also not an end, but a means to an end. An allegory or allusion, a hope, if you will, of a meal further off. We have dinner parties because it reminds us of the final party. It is our chance to remember, to commune, and to love God and love people.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread...