The tables were all set with festive tablecloths and centerpieces, and light twinkled from votive candles as we awaited the arrival of our guests.

Christmas was in the air.

As more than 40 of our close friends gathered in the warm Florida December evening to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I addressed the group to give direction for the meal loaded onto our dining room table. Nearly all of us work in full-time Christian ministry far away from our physical families. When my husband and I stopped taking our kids to my parents’ for Christmas many years ago because it stressed out my mom too much, we knew we didn’t want to spend the holiday alone. Thus, began a tradition that is now counted on by everyone who comes.

It had been a hard year physically for me. I had been experiencing a racing heart and lots of skipping and fluttering that, in the coming weeks, would be diagnosed as Atrial Fibrillation. I knew stress was a factor. Having upward of 40 people in my home didn’t help. I considered cutting down our numbers.

But, as I looked out over the crowd, each face a beloved friend, I just couldn’t do it. I told them, “You are family. I can’t even imagine one of you not being here.”

Opening my home to large groups of people has always been life-giving to me. I love the people, and I love the noise. We share the cooking responsibility for whatever occasion, from birthdays to baptisms to holidays, so the variety of dishes is plentiful. We could come together without the food, but the gathering seems to mean so much more with it.

I recently listened to a conversation between friends who have been following a pretty strict dietary protocol. One thing they said struck me: food is just fuel. Once you’ve logged the nutrients you should have in a day; you’re done.

Is that true? I wondered. Or is there a lot more that goes into sharing meals together?

When I consider the hospitality I love to show to friends who have no family near, meals seem to play an integral part. So, I set out to see what the Bible has to say about food and fellowship.

In Leviticus, where all those rules are set up for the nation of Israel, Moses writes of “food offerings” which have a “pleasing aroma” to the Lord. I’m no expert in Levitical law, but it seems to me that God did not want just anything as a sacrifice. If food was given as a sacrifice, it had to have particular importance to God.

In the end, when we are with God for eternity, there will be a wedding feast. Our entrance into heaven and eternal communion with God will be celebrated with food. I can’t begin to guess at what kind of food it will be, but I’m guessing it’s going to be rich and delicious and to be enjoyed. The wedding in Cana gives us a glimpse of what takes place when the steward says to the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).

Good wine probably wasn’t just served alone. The people would have been treated to delicious and plentiful food as well.

Jesus enjoyed meals with everyone from his disciples, to the Pharisees, to those others considered “sinners.” (See Matt. 9:10-17; Mark 2:15-22; Luke 5:29-39 for the story of Jesus eating with sinners.) Luke 14 describes a time Jesus ate with the Pharisees and proceeds to tell them stories of other banquets and feasting. During the Passover supper, Jesus gives deep meaning to the elements of the meal.

He even called himself the Bread of Life. Not only do we need him to live, he wants us to enjoy him as well. By likening himself to food, I believe Jesus was inviting us into a full and satisfying life.

The problem is, as in many areas, we take food to an idol level. It becomes so important to us that we became extremely picky about what is served and how we prepare it. The meal becomes more valuable than the relationships. In too many instances, food controls us. And yes, we have created many unhealthy foods with chemicals and processing and automation, that food addictions are now a very real mental health issue. There are an estimated 70 million food-addicted adults in the United States.

But some, in scaling back the place food might be taking in their lives, can unwittingly lessen the importance of sharing a meal together. The key, as in all things, is balance. Too much emphasis can tilt things in the direction of obsession or addiction, and too little emphasis can rob us and others of the benefits of hospitality that meets more than physical needs.

When Jesus fed the 5,000 with a small loaf of bread and two fish, was he simply meeting a need? They were hungry. He fed them.

Or did it go deeper than that?

What did experiencing that miracle together do to those people? Did they see each other in town later that week and speak of their experience? Did it bond them in a way that just sitting and listening to Jesus speak wouldn’t have done? Whenever they ate bread and fish in the future, were they reminded of this event and glorified God?

In his article “A Meal Says More Than You Think: The Importance of Hospitality,” Jonathan Leeman, Director of Communications at 9Marks Ministries, says, “Hospitality can reveal the unity of those who belong to the kingdom of God, specifically in the context of shared meals. For instance, the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus for who he was when Jesus assumed the role of host and broke bread.”

When our friends talk about our holiday gatherings, it’s not the food we talk about. Well, sometimes it is the food because some recipes just need to be revisited; but mostly, it’s about how much we love being together. It’s about the family we’ve pieced together through the years of shared experiences. It’s about how all our kids are growing older and how we now have the next generation with us in the form of grandchildren. It’s about how the love of Jesus binds us and shines to others.

No one is ever turned away. We’ve had friends call and say their previous plans have fallen through and can they come be with us? We’ve heard of others who have nowhere to go for the holiday, and it’s unthinkable that they should be alone, so we invite them too.

So yes, hours are spent planning and preparing sweet and savory dishes, concessions are made for various food allergies, sensitivities and restrictions, the table is laden with deliciousness, and stomachs are replete after the feast.

But more than that, our hearts are full to bursting from the fellowship we enjoyed around our shimmering tables. Food not only fueled our bodies, it energized our souls because it was shared in sweet community.

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