Monday, May 7, 2012

Feasting & Covenant (part 1 of 2)

When we consider the fourth chapter of the first letter of Peter, we should do so from a position at the table of fellowship, hearing these words along with their original hearers from within the context provided by the meal culture of the ancient world and the meal culture of the church.  Thusly, we interpret their meaning accordingly, and are therefore are able to make the intended application when we hear “For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire” (4:3a).  What are those things?  In relation to the practices and customs of the banqueting tables of the ancient world and to what we have learned about them, Peter adds, “You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, drinking bouts, and wanton idolatries” (4:3b), all of which would feature prominently in feasts and celebrations, as honor and exploitation of position was a primary pursuit. 

Christians, as we would expect, were to be different.  Their table was to represent far more.  It represented their Lord and God and His rule, so it must be different and look different, and it will command the attention of the watching world.  Peter writes “So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you” (4:4).  As has been noted, Christians (noting that this letter is the only New Testament letter to employ the term) were accused of heinous activity in association with their meals (e.g. cannibalism), charged with atheism and with having a destructive effect on the social cohesion of their communities and of the empire itself.  Indeed, vilification took place, and it did so in conjunction with the derisive name of “Christian” (kristianos as opposed to kaisarianos), so it is quite interesting that Peter takes up its usage in the sixteenth verse of this chapter, mentioning suffering “as a Christian,” as well as in the third verse, using it negatively with the term “non-Christians.” 

Based on what comes in between the use of non-Christian and Christian, it becomes strikingly clear that Christians were to be primarily identified by their meal practice, from which would stream their good works for the benefit of their communities and ultimately the world.  This would, of course, be in keeping with the fact that those with whom God has entered into covenant, have largely been identified by meal practice of some form.  This is patently obvious when it comes to the Jews, as the major provisions of God’s covenant involved keeping His Sabbaths, which were the feasts ordained in the Mosaic law.  This also included dietary laws that would come to be used as a means to readily identify an individual as being in good covenant standing and able to participate in the rule of God.  This notion, however, stretches back to the very first covenant of Scripture. 

In Genesis, we read that “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it.  Then the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.’” (2:15-17)  There, the bearer of the divine covenant, who was charged to represent God in and for the whole of the creation, has his covenant marked out by what we could term as meal practice.  Keeping ourselves in Genesis, the next covenant, which God made with Noah when He “blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (9:1), was codified with “You may eat any moving thing that lives.  As I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.  But you must not eat meat with its life (that is, its blood) in it” (9:3-4). 

From there we move to Abraham, and though we do not see any type of meal associated with the initial report of God’s covenant with him that occurs in chapter twelve of Genesis, we do find such things just two chapters later.  After Abraham defeats the kings that had captured his nephew, we see that “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine” (14:18a), learning that “he was the priest of the Most High God” (14:18b).  Though it may be somewhat disconnected, and though it may be a tenuous stretch, as we reach the eighteenth chapter, we should note with interest that Abraham, the one that was blessed of God so as to exemplify divine blessing, “looked up and saw three men standing across from him.  When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.  He said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by and leave your servant.  Let a little water be brought so that you may all wash your feet and rest under the tree.  And let me get a bit of food so that you may refresh yourselves since you have passed by your servant’s home.  After that you may be on your way.’” (18:2-5).  It is further reported that “They ate while he was standing near them under a tree” (18:8b). 

Though we do not presume that Abraham washed the feet of his visitors, as this was most likely performed by a servant, we should be unable to pass by such words without a contemplation of the washing of the disciples’ feet that Jesus undertook before returning to the table where He would speak of “the one who eats My bread” (John 13:18) before passing a piece of bread to Judas.  While we naturally associate this action with Judas’ betrayal, the record of the Gospel of John only makes this clear in retrospect.  When Jesus gave Judas the bread and accompanying instruction, “none of those present at the table understood why Jesus said this to Judas.  Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor” (13:28-29).  

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