Today marks the anniversary of the most revolutionary dinner party in history.
Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, is remembered for the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper almost 2000 years ago. In Latin, the word for commandment is “mandatum”, from which the word “maundy” is derived.
“Despite all of our differences, that meal is the one uniting factor.” – Rob Douglas
It’s significant that this commandment was given by Jesus at a meal he hosted for his closest friends – the 12 disciples – in an upper room in Jerusalem. Knowing it was the last meal they would eat together before some of these friends would betray and disown him, Jesus uses the opportunity to lovingly wash all the disciples’ feet. Through this act, Jesus teaches them “a new command”: “to love one another” (John 13:31-35).
The Last Supper should be the starting point for sharing the Christian faith, according to Rob Douglas, minister of WA’s Maida Vale Baptist Church.
“Within the Christian Church there is a huge difference between the various denominations, whether it’s Catholic, Orthodox or the many, many denominations within the Protestant church … But the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper or the eucharist – whatever you want to call it – is celebrated by every one of those divisions within the church,” he explains to Eternity.
“So despite all of our differences, that meal is the one uniting factor, and it is the uniting factor because it brings us back to Jesus and to Jesus’s death and resurrection. And that then becomes the central focus of all that we do.”
The radical hospitality demonstrated by the Last Supper is the central theme of Douglas’s new book Come Eat With Me, which reframes the entire Bible through the lens of shared meals. His book retells “a smorgasbord of stories that highlight God’s role as a God of hospitality” from both the Old and New Testament. Douglas starts with the invitation to dwell in the Garden of Eden and ends with the table prepared in Heaven. In doing so, Douglas endeavours to give “a bigger picture of what the Christian faith is all about for those who are investigating.”
“I’ve been thinking about this over a number of years, and I had this sense that God is inviting us to a meal.
“The more I looked at the Scriptures and at the different stories from Genesis right through to Revelation, there are all of these stories about meals and food. And I thought that’s a really interesting way of thinking about the Christian faith.”
“When God invites us to his table, he is not just calling us to simply eat, but to enter into a relationship.” – Rob Douglas
His primary aim is to show those considering Christianity that “when God invites us to his table, he is not just calling us to simply eat, but to enter into a relationship” – a relationship that is transformative.
“I want people to have that sense that a relationship with God is something really amazing, something really wonderful. That it’s not just a set of rules and regulations … ”
“I think of people like Zacchaeus [a tax collector] who when Jesus said “can I come to your place?”, Zacchaeus was suddenly challenged about his wealth and the way he handled his wealth. Now there’s nothing in that story in the Bible that says Jesus addressed that issue. It seems that just being in the presence of Jesus and accepting Jesus’s invitation was enough … for him to feel challenged.”
Douglas also believes there are key lessons for the church in biblical stories which reflect God’s hospitality as the “consummate host”:
1. Gracious leadership means stepping back
“Sometimes Jesus is the guest and sometimes he’s the host … My understanding of leadership has changed as I’ve thought about this,” explains Douglas. “Because I realised if my role as a leader is that of a host, then there are times that I have to step up and take leadership, in terms of direction, but there are other times that I need to step back.
“There is an approach in many churches where the leader is seen as a person who dictates what is going to happen – who puts the vision out there and makes it happen. It’s very much an authoritarian approach, whereas a host leader creates spaces where things can happen, so there’s a greater dependence on the Holy Spirit.
“For instance, instead of necessarily dictating what’s going to happen, you create a place where people can come together to read the Scriptures together or to discover what God is saying about a particular thing.”
“People who don’t know Jesus are more likely to want to sit down at a meal with us than they would come to a church service.” – Rob Douglas
2. Hospitality is a mission activity
“Shared meals are a really important part of what we do at church … I think in the past, churches have often seen meals as a social activity.”
“I actually see those meals as a mission activity because people who don’t know Jesus are more likely to want to sit down at a meal with us than they would come to a church service to hear somebody preaching,” asserts Douglas.
“And in that very simple way, we are able to share with people. It breaks down barriers.”
Douglas has run Messy Church in his congregation for a number of years – a church model originating in the United Kingdom which spread to Australia a decade ago.
“We do activities that children can be incorporated into, we have a celebration time, worship time and then we have a meal together,” he explains.
“We found people have come to this who wouldn’t attend a traditional church setting. They’ve come into this and found Jesus, and they’ve found a group of people who are supportive and loving … You start to see changes in people’s lives in that kind of setting.”
3. We need to show hospitality to our enemies
Come Eat With Me contains many of the biblical stories that show Jesus eating with sinners and extending hospitality to outcasts, which echo God’s invitation in Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!”
Douglas notes these examples have two main applications for the church today: 1. Be more gentle in evangelism; 2. Be more inclusive.
“If God has invited me to sit at his table, what happens if he invites somebody who I don’t like? What happens if he invites somebody who’s different to me in some way?” Douglas asks.
“For me to see … that I’m sitting at a table with a person next to me who God has also invited – and that person has a different theology, a different skin colour or a different way of doing things – it actually helps me in my relationship with that person when I recognise that we have both been invited to the table by the same maker.”
“We need to learn that same sense of grace in the way in which we reach out to others to invite them to sit at the table with us.” – Rob Douglas
He continues: “It means that we have to think very carefully about how we go out and share the story of Christ – that we don’t do it in an aggressive way. Because [God] hasn’t done it in an aggressive way; he’s done it in a very gracious way.”
“And so we need to learn that same sense of grace in the way in which we reach out to others to invite them to sit at the table with us.”
In the final chapter of his book, Douglas highlights a key verse in Psalm 23 that directly reflects Jesus’s position at the Last Supper: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”
“I think we have to sit and ponder that question,” he says.
“If God has set that table for us and Jesus has said that we need to love our enemies [and] to love our neighbours, then we need to investigate what that means – and really seek to find out from God what is he saying in relation to that. I think it might differ with different people and different situations, but to actually hear what God is saying to us is absolutely critical.”
Douglas also hopes his illumination of God’s hospitality will give “a new sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the things of God” to those who “have become rather jaded by the church” or “who have perhaps lost their vision for God because they’ve been hurt by the church or they find the church is not meeting their needs.”
“God wants to have a relationship with me – if we can really get that sense of relationship and understand what God wants of us and what it means, my hope is that will refresh people.”