March 29, 2020

Slow Church Week 5: The Church of Word and Table


Slow Church Week 5
The Church of Word and Table

Christian practice in matters of spiritual formation goes badly astray when it attempts to construct or organize ways of spirituality apart from the ordinariness of life. And there is nothing more ordinary than a meal. Abstract principles — the mainstay of so much of what is provided for us in contemporary church culture — do not originate in the biblical revelation.

Breakfast and supper. Fish and bread. The home in Emmaus and the beach in Galilee. These provide the conditions and materials for formation-by-resurrection.

– Eugene Peterson
Living the Resurrection

* * *

Two primary stories about how the first Christians experienced the risen Christ involve meals and conversations.

The first is told by Luke, a tale about two grieving disciples heading home from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus after their hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13:35). A stranger they do not recognize joins them on the road, inquires about their sadness, and teaches them some things they had missed in God’s Story and what it anticipated with regard to the Messiah. Arriving at their home, they invite the stranger in for a meal. At the table, he breaks the bread, their eyes are opened, their guest vanishes, and they realize they have been in the presence of the risen and living Christ.

John tells the second tale, which follows a similar pattern. Peter and his friends, forlorn after losing Jesus, decide to go fishing (John 21). They fish all night without so much as a bite. In the hazy early morning light, they see a stranger on the shore who directs them to place their nets on the other side of the boat. When they do, a great catch of fish! Peter recognizes the Lord and splashes to shore. All of them join Jesus around a campfire for a meal of fresh cooked fish. The risen Christ holds conversations with them, and in his words they experience restoration, healing, guidance and wisdom for the days to come.

The pattern is set.

The followers of the risen Lord meet him at the table, sharing food and drink and redemptive, transforming conversation. They are the church of the table and the word.

  • These meals remind Jesus’ disciples of all the meals and all the conversations he shared with them and with people throughout the land during his ministry. He ate with them in homes, on the road, around campfires, at banquets given in his honor, on mountainsides and by lakes. Jesus’ ministry centered around table fellowship.
  • Everywhere he went and with everyone he met, he also shared words about the dawning Kingdom of God. He spoke in sayings, parables, stories, instructions, and teachings. People asked him questions and he responded. He asked them questions and made them wonder. They discovered that he had the words of eternal life.

The traditional liturgy of the church is designed to reenact these meetings with the risen Lord. The liturgy is structured around the word and the table. We hear the life-giving words of God in Scripture, and speak our words to God in prayer and praise.  We “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” We come to the table where the bread is broken and wine is poured out once more as a new covenant. In the shape of the liturgy not only are the body and blood of Christ given to us that we might live, but we also, God’s people, are taken, blessed, and broken so that we might be distributed to our neighbors as bread for the hungry when we leave the sanctuary.

Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Menna_009Slow Church does not talk about the liturgy like this. Its authors are not members of liturgical churches. Nevertheless, they catch the ethos and significance of the New Testament resurrection and early church narratives with great insight.

In the final chapter of the book Smith and Pattison speak of the table and the word as the primary locus for congregations in their life together. They encourage churches to share meals together and to have what they call regular eucharistic conversations with one another that involve worship, the Bible, our Christian journeys, our relationships with one another and our neighbors, congregational decision-making, and a whole host of matters related to our common life in Christ. “Around the table,” they say, “we live into our common identity as brothers and sisters in Christ” (p. 215).

They encourage our congregations to become conversational in nature, joining together regularly in such ordinary settings as meals so that we might experience the risen Lord in our midst and learn to be led together by him.

Sharing meals, developing common postures and practices, and forging common convictions build trust and intimacy that we believe will ripple outward from the table and find their way into every aspect of our lives.

– p. 221

* * *

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison
IVP Books (May 6, 2014)

Previous posts:

Part One: The Convivial Church

Part Two: The Neighborhood Church

Part Three: The Contemplative Church

Part Four: The Overflowing Church


  1. “Sharing meals.” Now that’s a very difficult thing in our culture.

    • Robert F says

      Yes. Commensality, that’s the fancy word for it, and even families don’t seem to do much of it anymore.

      Of course, at work I eat lunch for five days a week in a cafeteria with more-or-less the same group of people, but it’s not as if we are sharing a meal or food, we just happen to be doing our own eating thing in the same place at the same time. I thinking “sharing meals” is different from that that sort of institutional, non-intentional mass-feeding.

  2. Susan R. says

    I’d like to write to Chaplain Mike, but the link doesn’t seem to be working!

  3. I am currently in Ukraine doing some research on simple churches here (‘simple church’ as in ‘organic church’ or house church, etc). Most of what simple churches do is gather in homes and eat together. There’s a strong emphasis on sharing real day to day life.

    I’m excited about this book you are reviewing, and just downloaded the Kindle sample. It looks like the authors call for some of the same things my simple church friends call for – with less of an emphasis on the particular church form, per se. Cool.

    • In the Ukraine? Interesting time to be there. Have things become relatively calm, or is there an underlying tension? Praying for ya!

    • My brother is in Zaporosia (phonetic, incorrect spelling).

  4. Sharing a table does breed and enhance community. It involves some of the most intimate parts of our bodies…our hands and our mouths…and the smells, tastes, and satisfying nature of food relaxes us and has us let our guards down. This is why many extra-marital affairs start during work place lunch breaks. We open up, reveal ourselves, and invite others into conversational and physical parts of our being that not everyone can access. Think about it…Of all of the people you would consider to be close friends, how many have actually sat down at your table, in your home, and shared a meal with you? A small percentage, for me.

    I did a study a while back on how Jesus was often rebuked by religious people for his table manners, namely, the company he would share meals with.

    Good post today…makes we want to read the book!

  5. Sharing the Lord’s Table is what is important.

    But…to the unbeliever in us all…sharing a pizza or some casserole is a better deal.

    • False dichotomy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        With a side of passive-aggressive more-spiritual-than-thou one-upmanship.

      • ANYONE can share a meal.

        It’s a nice thing to do.

        But it means nothing other than good food and good feelings.

        What is truly important is the sharing of the Word…and the body and blood of Christ.

        • And that’s exactly where you are wrong, Steve. Though certainly the Eucharist is on a higher level of significance, meals of fellowship (once called agape feasts) are sacramental and tangible experiences of Gods presence and love in our midst. You are driving too big a wedge here.

          • Boy, I sure want to come to some of your potlucks now. 😛

            I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call the church picnic a “sacramental and tangible experience of God’s presence and love.” There isn’t really a promise of grace given through a visible sign for our salvation. Expressions of God’s love? Maybe. But I’d be very reluctant to baptize that which pagans freely enjoy, and often in greater abundance, too.

            Don’t get me wrong, there is something foundational to the Christian experience about the camaraderie that develops between disciples doing life together. And God’s love is experienced through all the goodness of creation, the “first article gifts,” like the air and the sunshine, a beautiful sunset and delicious meal, and even companionship. But I don’t really know if we want to spiritualize these. I not sure we need to. They are good things, gifts given us by God, fit to be enjoyed for their own sake. Surely they ought to stir up thankfulness in our hearts towards God, and to the extent that happens they can be spiritual, but if God’s presence can really be found there, then they are enough for us.

            I think the tangible presence of God is found in the “second article gifts,” and delivered through the “third article gifts.” Sacramental spirituality is a truly Trinitarian experience.

        • Danielle says

          It’s cryptic day on Planet Danielle, so I’m going to post a link to Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small, Good Thing.”

          Carver says what I wish to say, about 5000 times better.

          Also, the link is a diversion. Your casserole will be unguarded. (Mine! All mine…)

    • Christiane says

      Before my father’s death, the hospice nurse said, ‘I heard you all talking Catholic. I’m a eucharistic minister and I carry communion with me. Would you all like to receive communion?

      We did. As a family. Together.
      I often remember that beautiful moment. My father had already received the sacrament of the sick, but this was something we all shared with him. We took and we ate. Our own ‘last supper’ together. Very special.

      Steve, sometimes in His Mercy the Lord helps our unbelief before we even ask Him.

  6. This seems to work better in smaller groups rather than a church wide potluck. Also, it takes a disciplined approach to keep the conversation on the “spiritual” level rather than the more mundane aspects of work, common interests, etc. In my experience potlucks end up being the same people sitting together, the room so noisy that you can barely hear, stuffing your face and then leaving the cleaning up to others.

    Recently we started a “Dinner for Eight” activity where groups of eight people, chosen by the organizers so as to ensure variety, get together and share a diner at a house or restaurant (usually homes). This seems to be a better approach, but there still needs to be someone appointed to make sure that the conversation stays withing certain boundaries.

    On the larger, more liturgical scale, Communion and Fellowship in the general meeting are still seen as symbolic and, as a result, lacking in the same impact, being more perfunctory and ritualistic than deeply meaningful.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      The focus here is, I think, more ecumenical: “They encourage churchES to share meals together and to have what they call regular eucharistic conversations with one another that involve worship”. But I could be reading it wrong.

      I agree that the pot-luck can be an awkward affair. But the informality can be valuable; it guarantees at least the *opportunity* for people to interact with each other.

    • David Cornwell says

      Hmm. Had a comment on this yesterday, but seems to have gotten itself stuck somewhere.

  7. Vega Magnus says

    This can be hard to make work for people like my dad, who has quite a few food allergies.

    • The last year of my brother’s life he was unable to take communion as he was unable to swallow due to throat cancer. In its place his pastor (United Methodist) came to the house and sprinkled water on him to re-enact his baptism and remind him of his salvation. It was an interesting solution to the problem, I thought.

  8. And here we are again, back to the theme of Babette’s Feast!

  9. I don’t know… this feels a bit like the re-inventing of the wheel. First it seems that when Jesus was breaking bread so to speak, it was not conversation, he was teaching. Second, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he stated this was not a place they were to come and fill their bellies, it was something more.

    What Christiane wrote above resonated with me. I too had Eucharist with my Mom before she past (I am a Eucharistic minister as well) and it was beautiful. No… this is not a pot luck get-together, it’s something more, something that keeps the focus on Jesus rather than the Mundane. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good food, good conversation, and even good spiritual talk, theological or heart felt faith sharing. And I have been in small group settings where this has occurred and has been powerful. But, when I just eat, it is different than when I eat the Bread of Life…

    More thoughts later…

    • As I said to Steve and could have said to Oscar, beware too much dichotomy between sacred and secular here. Plus read this in the context of the other posts this week. This is not a “method” designed to build something we call “community.” This is a natural part of sharing a common life together.

      And by the way, Paul wasn’t criticizing the Corinthians for seeing their gatherings as opportunities to enjoy a feast. He rebuked them for shutting some of their brethren out of that feast.

      • Actually, I think one of the more important ideas underlying this whole conversation is the false dichotomy between sacred and profane. It seems to me (and I may be off base here) that much of the slow church movement is based on the idea that Jesus has redeemed this whole sphere. There are no “super-spiritual” pursuits or actions. Eating, living, just being is holy because we are redeemed, and normal life is God’s means of grace for sanctification. I may be misunderstanding, and I’m not sure I even agree, but that is what I have gotten out of it.

        • Bingo.

          • Robert F says

            CM, how does such an idea fit in with your own Lutheran sacramental theology, in which the sacraments are most definitely special actions unlike ordinary actions, though they employ ordinary elements and gestures?

            • I think I stated it, though it would need more teasing out. There are Sacraments, there are sacramental experiences, and there is a sacramental perspective on all creation. In him we live and move and have our being and there is no place where we cannot find God at work. And especially when we are talking about the fellowship of God’s people, we should view all of our interactions as sacred, especially those that promote love.

  10. I’m shoehorning in Richard Rohr’s meditation today, not because it fits today, it doesn’t, but because it fits for the week:
    There is something in you that is not touched by coming and going, by up and down, by for or against, by the raucous team of totally right or totally wrong. There is a part of you that is patient with both goodness and evil, exactly as God is. There is a part of you that does not rush to judgment or demand closure now. Rather, it stands vigilant and patient in the tragic gap that almost every moment offers.

    God is a riverbed of mercy. It is vast, silent, restful, and resourceful, and it receives and also lets go of all the comings and goings. It is awareness itself (as opposed to judgment itself), and awareness is not, as such, “thinking.” It refuses to be pulled into the emotional and mental tugs of war that most of life is. To look out from this untouchable silence is what we mean by contemplation.

    In her book The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila says, “The soul is spacious, plentiful, and its amplitude is impossible to exaggerate . . . the sun here radiates to every part . . . and nothing can diminish its beauty” (I, 2). This is your soul. It is God-in-you. This is your True Self.

    • Richard Rohr is wonderful. 🙂

    • Danielle says

      Thank you for this!

    • Robert F says

      ” There is a part of you that is patient with both goodness and evil, exactly as God is ”

      This makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, how is that Richard Rohr knows EXACTLY how God is? And how is that knowing EXACTLY how God is can be commensurate with an “awareness” that is “not ..thinking”? How is asserting that one knows EXACTLY how God is not entering a “mental tug of war”? Rohr seems to be asserting a great deal of special knowledge about God, and I wonder how he came by it, and how he intends to stop it from entering into the great disputation of humankind about the nature and qualities of God.

      “This is your soul. It is God-in-you. This is your True Self.”

      I can only speak for myself, but my true self is the more often than not pathetic schlub who needs his perfectly dead self resurrected from the perfectly silent grave that he is headed to, the grave wherein all his earthly projects will die and wait with him in utter powerlessness for a new life that is not his but God’s.

      • To be fair to Rohr, there are no “one size fits all” theologies. But I definitely resonate with your last paragraph.

        • “identify” is probably better than “resonate”, given my generally non-crystaline structure. Paging Lore!

          • Robert F says

            “….given my generally non-crystaline structure. ”

            Are you not a carbon-based unit?

          • Sorry, can’t help you. I want to say, “Lighten up, Francis” but that would be making fun and I know you are very serious. All I can say is that when I read that, an ocean breeze blew through my soul and I loved God more at that moment and was more joyful and more grateful and my whole day improved. That was a visceral reaction which wasn’t subject to questioning or analysis by me. I just felt it. I know that’s not suitable for theological dispute so I leave him undefended.

          • Robert F says

            I obviously can not, nor would I want to, invalidate your experience. One must necessarily trust one’s own experience, or some part of one’s own experience, because nothing we know comes to us except as experience.

            I spent many years practicing meditative techniques in the hope of finding that place within that was grounded in “untouchable silence,” all for nought, so I’m hardened against the kind of language that Rohr speaks, and the kinds of experience he articulates. As far as I know and can tell, I’m a bag of dry bones with a little wind and spit inside, and I rattle more and more from besetting dryness the older I get.

            I have nothing against a touch of mysticism, in fact I insist on it, as long as it’s bound to earthy things, to the ordinary and to the all too human. Though all is grace, riverbeds should carry water, not mercy; otherwise they are dry.

          • My meat-space entity is a holographic projection.

          • Ahhh!! You have an avatar!!

        • Robert F says

          I have to agree: there are no “one size fits all” theologies. This, however, means not only that my size doesn’t fit him, but that his size, his observation about the similarity between God and the Self, does not fit me. Although part of him may be exactly as God, there is no part of me exactly as God.

          • Robert,
            My previous response was for you. I may have hot the wrong reply.

          • I will say that I would be quite interested in his response to you and wonder if he would satisfy you.

          • I appreciate your response Robert. While you are seemingly soured on the whole silence thing, and I’m sorry to hear that came to a close in your life, I continue to find true ground there that undergirds virtually everything about me. I can yak with the best of them but there is always the silence to return to for me so I see we approach things differently. For those bones and spit try two glasses of moderately priced Cabernet. It worked wonders for Timothy.

          • ChristS,
            I think you mistake me. I’m not soured on silence; I’m soured on the True Self.

            Thanks for the tip.


          • ChrisS,

            A little Zen thought regarding silence: if it is really enough, then there is nothing to say.

          • Robert,
            Funny that you typed Christ S for my name. Isn’t that the whole concept of the true self? How can we be one with Christ, really one in the truest sense, just as He prayed we would be, and not have our deepest self be Christ in us the hope of glory? Once I eat the bread there is no telling where I begin and it leaves off. You could get into all kinds of science and say its not me because I will eventually expel it but then you could say my skin is not me because I am always sloughing it off and my hair is not and so forth. Anyway, the True Self is the transformed being joined to Christ as the body and blood form a unified being. It’s who we are in eternity, not the persona we tote around and could take or leave depending on the day. For example, (you could tear this apart conceptually but just go with me here), we look forward to eternity from our current stance in time. Here I am this schmuck with hopes for the future and for what I will be someday in glory. Whole and perfect in the presence of God. What if I turn that on its head and look from the future back. Begin to search out who the scripture says I really am in Christ; the virtually imperceptible yet no less real me that exists in the eternal union. In other words, get with it. Get up to date; up to speed. Find the essence of who I am as defined by Christ when he created me, not the persona defined by my job and my Mom and my sin and my success, my intellect or prowess, my good looks, my aquisitions or my losses or my fat belly. The more I bump into that purely created, gifted Self in silent contemplaion, the more I find Christ in me because they are already cozied up in that eternity that we mistakenly perceive as not yet underway. It’s really a ‘pick ’em’ as they say in gambling. Search out Christ or search out the true self and you end up in the same place because they are in fact one, just as He and the Father are one. In fact, you and I are one in the same way and we don’t see that either. It’s a perfect parallel. In the same way that we live in contention and deprecate and seperate from each other, so we do within our own selves; grasping our persona for all we are worth and keeping vigil against its loss. Afraid of my own true self in Christ and the threat it represents to the claims and the territory I’ve worked so hard to secure. It’s right back to the cross. Lose my self and I wil find my Self.

          • Robert F says

            I must insist that my own experience has led me to affirm the distinction between Creator and created. I do not believe that Jesus Christ is my true self, but I do believe that Jesus Christ redeems me from my ruined self. I disagree with mystical languages that assert identity between God and anything (or all) created, and I don’t like the way they reduce distinction and multiplicity to mere appearances. I like distinction and multiplicity: I don’t want to become the cup of coffee I enjoy in the morning. Boundaries are essential to experience, both good and bad, and experience is essential to self. I think that when the New Testament uses language in which the self is swallowed up in identity in Christ, it is using metaphorical love language, not making objective observations, or it is speaking about the necessity of transformation of the ruined self; to insist that my true self must be Christ because Paul asserted the necessity of the self diminishing while Christ increases is to over-literalize the text in an unwarranted way.

            I don’t believe that my ruined self is redeemed by isolating it from the web of social reality to identify what is essential to the self; redemption is social, involving me in a community, the Kingdom of God, where the self/other distinction is not lost but enriched beyond what we can imagine. We cannot be saved alone, nor would I want to be. I lose myself for the other, not for my self, and in this way I become like Christ in relation to humanity. This is how the cross makes itself real in my social reality right now.

          • Robert F says


            The language of the identity of Christ with the self, or of searching for the True Self in Christ, is not the language of the main current of Christian mysticism. You will not find it in Augustine, you will not find it in Saint John of the Cross, or in Saint Francis ,or in St. Teresa of Avila, who you quoted above. The language of the main current of Christian mysticism is a language of love, the love between God and the self, and of the willingness of the self to be stripped of all its attachment to lesser loves to cling solely to its first love. The language of Eckhart, who Rohr echoes, is far more neo-Platonic than Christian, and although there is an element of neo-Platonism in much Christian mysticism, it is almost always subordinated to the language of love and the distinction between Creator and created.

          • Robert F says

            One last: you do not have to be a mystic, or become one, in this life or the next, to deepen in your love relationship to Christ. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with its strong mystical tradition, acknowledges, and even insists, on this point.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            >You will not find it in Augustine, you will not find it in Saint John of the
            > Cross, or in Saint Francis ….

            Regarding this I think you miss the important aspect of Hebrew literature and writings. You won’t find this kind of thing there, which is most important for understand what is meant when the Scriptures talk about such things. Many of the modern mystical concepts are far from a Hebrew understanding of things – which did not entail uber-unity, etc…

          • Robert F says

            Yes, Adam. The reason it’s not in the main current of Christian mysticism is precisely because it’s not in the Scriptures. But the reason I didn’t mention the Scriptures is because I don’t think you can find much in them that would be defined as mysticism in the narrow sense, and I was talking about the manifestation of mysticism as a separately defined phenomenon in the Christian tradition.

      • Regarding the Zen :

      • @ RobertF;

        There is a part of you that is patient with both goodness and evil, exactly as God is

        Doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I like how Capon said it;

        I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these.

        Is. 45:7 KJV

        “In God’s world good and evil are an ecology. The whole world is an ecology of opposites dancing with each other. And God loves their dance. The real sin at the tree of knowledge of good and evil was man trying to manage good and evil as God does not manage them. God lets evil be. Given the actions of people God is not, except in very rare circumstances, in the business of preventing their consequences.”

        “Patient”, “forbearing”–a very different God as compared to the gods lore.

        • Tom, I believe that God is patient and forbearing, infinitely so, and that the cross embodies this. But that forbearance and patience is costly to him, though the benefit from it for me is free.

          I don’t accept the balance, or ecology, of good and evil idea. Evil is a parasite on the body of good, and it cannot exist without good; it is a negation, or a distortion in right relationship Good has the principle of its own reality within itself, and relies on nothing else for its power and reality.

          I think Capon got this one wrong.

          • And the idea that God delights in the dance of good and evil gives me the willies. It reminds me of the Hindu metaphysical idea wherein all the world is merely play, lila, for God to take delight in, and every tragedy and atrocity merely thickens the plot for God to enjoy as both audience and actor. Tell that to the victims of the Holocaust, and the various “ethnic cleansings” throughout history and around the world. Human experience rejects this.

          • Robert, I fully agree that evil is a parasite.

            As true as that is, God leaves evil present with the good–aphesis–and actually uses evil for good’s advantage. Evil is ever present–and from what I see that doesn’t send God into conniption fits.

            “The things which are done in secret are things that people are ashamed even to speak of; but anything exposed by the light will be illuminated and anything illuminated turns into light” (Ephesians 5:12-14, emphasis added).

            God not only forgives and forgets our shameful deeds but even turns their darkness into light. All things work together for those who love God, “even,” Augustine of Hippo added, “our sins.”

          • Yes, Tom. I agree with this last comment of yours. I guess that in that dance of good and evil, it’s God who is leading, and his defining step was done on Jesus’ cross.

  11. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    I don’t know – the Quaker meeting my husband and I used to attend had (has) a fellowship meal every week, and I don’t feel like it really built community. If anything, for us, it built resentment because we had to travel over 1 hour each way to be there and it took up a huge chunk of our weekend to spend all that time with a very small group of people that when we were honest about it – we didn’t even really like.

    Now, we have Friends who have a once a month meeting on Friday night and, again, it causes resentment because it causes us to be out very late on a Friday night.

  12. Hmmm… word and table… Its as if the liturgy of the church were an archetype of our life together, a microcosm of the Christian experience. All real communication reaches its pinnacle in the true Word, and all eating reaches it’s fulfillment in the Bread come down from heaven. The ordinary and mundane are redeemed and made spiritual by the worship of the church, and the worship of the church is made up of the mundane things of the world. It’s almost like the means of grace flow from the font and yet overflows throughout all creation.

    This has implications for worship planning too. The important things is not so much “getting the liturgy right” as it is fostering this living, dynamic conversation and meal, as the very words and flesh of Christ, through which he dwells among us richly. You don’t have to be “high-church” to do this, but it’s very interesting how “slow church” the conversational feast of the traditional liturgy is.