Sunday, August 16, 2015

Eucharist -- Expanding Boundaries

Continuing with my conversation about the Eucharist and the development of a theology of the Open Table, I want to once again draw from Dennis Smith's book From Symposium to Eucharist. I am still reading the book and I have questions about his approach, but I do think that he is on to something by suggesting that the Eucharistic practices of the first couple of generations owe much to existing Greco-Roman banqueting practices (though modified by Christian needs). In other words the forms and rules of typical banqueting practices served as a foundation, on  to which a distinctively Christian vision was stamped. In the earlier post I noted the role of boundary setting in these meal practices. Smith goes into great detail showing how meal practices were marked by boundary setting. Thus, while Jews could dine with Gentiles, there were dietary issues involved. There was also social stratification involved as well. As the old adage puts it -- "birds of a feather flock together."

So that takes us to the Pauline communities, where it appears that Paul was both utilizing existing Table practices and adjusting them in such a way that the boundaries were pushed outward. In fact, it was Paul's theology of inclusion that caused problems in places like Antioch, where Peter was caught between a new vision of community and that of the folks in Jerusalem. At Corinth much of the concern wasn't religious but social -- rich and poor mingling at the same table. He writes:

A quick summary of my argument will illustrate how the meal texts in Paul are firmly embedded in banquet ideology. The meal controversies at both Antioch and Corinth (and Rome as well) derive from the nature of the meal to create social boundaries. At Antioch, Paul's dispute with Peter arises when Peter separates himself from the Gentile table, thus creating two tables within one community, one Jewish Christian, and the other Gentile Christian. For Paul, this contradicts "the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14) because it implies a separation within the community of faith, a community in which there is to be "neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:28). At Corinth, Paul addresses an issue in which the community is eating separately rather than together. This has the effect of creating a collection of "individual meals" rather than one community meal. Only the latter can be called the "Lord's supper" (1 Cor 11:18-21). Thus Paul counsels that they should eat together rather than separately (1 Cor 11:33).  
As Paul develops his arguments, he will refer to the power of the meal to create social bonding and define social boundaries. His arguments for social ethics within the community will draw on banquet traditions of social obligation toward one's meal companions. He will respond to issues of social stratification at the table but will especially develop the theme of social equality. In his discussion of early Christian worship, he will utilize many features from the rules of banquet entertainment, suggesting that worship took place at the community table. These themes also inform other sections of Paul's theology and ethics beyond the texts immediately concerned with the meals at Antioch and Corinth.
[Dennis E. Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle Locations 2505-2514). Kindle Edition.] 

If we are practicing an Open Table theology, are we not redrawing the social boundaries? A good example is the concluding scene in Places in the Heart, where rich and poor, black and white, good and bad all eat of the same meal. So what do we make of the Table as a result?  Paul seems to have overturned previous sentiment both Jewish and Gentile!

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