Returning to Paul with an awareness that he would have been cognizant of Jesus’ meal practice, with this knowledge combined with his own knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the picture therein painted of God’s end-time banquet, with all of it shaped by the implications of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, we see that in the letter to the Galatians, the concern with the meal table is overt. He writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led away with them by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (2:11-14)
Peter’s (Cephas) actions, as far as Paul is concerned, stand in contradiction to that which was modeled out by Jesus, and he will not allow it to stand. This was an area in which Paul was not going to compromise, and it eventually forced something of a showdown in Jerusalem. The church’s meal table, clearly, was of paramount concern. In the Colossian letter, Paul writes “do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink” (2:16a). In the first letter to Timothy, Paul again demonstrates concern for the church’s meal table, writing about a desertion of the faith in which people will “prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (4:3-4). On top of all of this, Paul would be well aware of and count on the fact that his letters would be read to the assembly of believers as they are gathered around the table of fellowship. Consequently, any references in the letters to their behavior at the meal table would become even more poignant, especially if it involves rebuke or correction, or if it causes the hearers to realize that they are not, to borrow words from Galatians, behaving consistently with the truth of the Gospel.
All of this again begs the question of what has this to do with Paul. Thinking back through our study, we reflect on the kingdom agenda that was set by Jesus and the fact that, when given the chance to follow through on the principles espoused in that agenda, He did not shrink back, but carried it through. We then looked at Paul. The fact that a fair amount of his dealings with the various congregations to which he wrote letters deal with matters of table practice and fellowship, we can allow ourselves to be convinced that part of the kingdom agenda, as understood by Paul and as he understood the table practices of Jesus and what was implied thereby, involved principles of meal table fellowship that were to be acted upon and embodied by the community of Jesus believers.
So with all of these things presented and on the table (so to speak), are we able to find an instance in which Paul demonstrates behavior that would line up with that of Jesus? Do we find Paul, in a time of duress, following through on the principles of his kingdom agenda, as this agenda centers upon the incredibly important issue of meal practice in the world he inhabited? Indeed we do. Turning to the twenty-seventh chapter of the book of Acts, we find Paul aboard a ship. Ultimately, he is not on board this ship by choice. He is there because of the events on record in chapter twenty-one of Acts, which is his arrest in the Temple in Jerusalem. From that point, Paul has been a prisoner of the Roman authorities, and much like Jesus was taken prisoner (basically owing to His words and actions against the Temple), with that imprisonment eventually resulting in an appearance before the Roman governor, Paul is now on board a ship, as a prisoner, on his way to Rome, presumably to stand trial before the Caesar, as he had requested. The ship on which Paul is sailing is populated by himself, other prisoner, members of the Augustan Cohort, a centurion, and presumably others, the total number of people on the ship being two hundred seventy six. The ship was being battered by storms, with this occurring for two weeks (27:33). The attitude shared by those on the boat, apart from Paul, was that they had “finally abandoned all hope of being saved” (27:20b).
In the midst of all of this, storms raging and despair rampant, we find the evidence we seek as Luke writes, “As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day you have been in suspense and have gone without food; you have eaten nothing.” (27:33) Paul, living out the principles of the kingdom and, like Jesus, opening wide his arms and inviting all and sundry to share a table with him in a recognition of the promise of the God that had told him “Do not be afraid, Paul! You must stand before Caesar, and God has graciously granted you the safety of all who are sailing with you” (27:24), goes on to say “Therefore I urge you to take some food, for this is important for your survival. For not one of you will lose a hair from his head” (27:34).
Prior to that, with words that could inform the church’s ecclesiology, if indeed Paul is enacting the principles of his kingdom agenda as we are insisting, “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers,” as some men were attempting to escape the ship, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (27:31). Returning to Paul’s urging the men to join him in table fellowship and his comforting words, we read “After he said this, Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat” (27:35). As Paul breaks bread with this varied group of men, the implications are clear. In this action that Paul undertakes, as he breaks the bread (as the author calls to mind, from the first half of his work, which was the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ feeding of the multitude) begins eating, we read that “all of them were encouraged and took food themselves” (27:36), eating “enough to be satisfied” (27:38a).
Paul draws on his understanding of the Jesus tradition when it comes to living out the kingdom of God, considers the implications of the crucifixion and the Resurrection, molds his embodiment of the agenda of God’s kingdom around the church’s meal table, shares his insights with his fellow believers, and enacts the principles of that agenda even when under significant duress. Surely, as we can safely take our cues from both Jesus and the church which sought to live out their understanding of the implications of His life, death, and Resurrection in the world; and, owing to the prominence of the meal tables in the life of Jesus, as they were encouraged to and indeed lived out that comprehension around the meal table, we can agree that the Lord of all creation demands no less from those who continue to raise His banner and herald His kingdom.