One of Tim Chester’s newest books is called A Meal with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). Since I’ve benefited from some of Chester’s other works (including You Can Change and Total Church), I picked up this newer book. FYI, the subtitle of A Meal with Jesus is “Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table.”
The book is a discussion of the meals found mostly in Luke’s gospel. In six chapters, Chester discusses Luke 5, 7, 9, 14, 22, and 24. All of those chapters of Luke have stories of Jesus eating a meal or talking about food. Chester does a good job of explaining the OT background, the redemptive historical aspect of meals, and how Jesus feeding and eating with sinners is a picture of the gospel of grace. I appreciate the book because it has lots of Bible discussion and is gospel centered.
However, I also have to say I don’t recommend this book. Here are a few reasons why.
First, I can’t stand the trendiness of it. Chester uses the terms “mission” and “community” far too much. He talks about Jesus being a “party animal” whose “mission strategy” was a “long meal stretching into the evening” (p. 13). Chester also uses words like “reshaping community,” “enacted community,” “Christ incognito” and “enacting mission.” Those terms aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are somewhat ambiguous because of their trendiness. What is an enacted community? Can I enact community? These buzzwords annoyed me already after I finished the first chapter.
Second, I think Chester far overstates the importance of meals in the Bible. I do agree that the Bible has much to say about meals, and that they are significant to some extent. However, it seemed like the theme of meals is the lens by which Chester approached the Bible, which made him overstate the case quite often. Here’s one example of an overstatement: “Meals…embody God’s grace and so give form to community and mission” (p. 15). Here’s another example: “If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission” (p. 89). I love the fact that Jesus ate with sinners, but there are tons of other threads in the Bible to which we must pay attention if we want to remain balanced. Chester doesn’t really talk about verses like Rom. 14.17 (the kingdom is not a matter of eating and drinking) or other similar texts (i.e. 1 Cor. 6.13 and 8.8). I didn’t like this book because it made too much of one small biblical thread. Perhaps it would have been better as a short 50 page booklet.
Third, I strongly disagree with this sacramental (mystical) theology that Chester espouses: “Our life at the table, no matter how mundane, is sacramental – a means through which we encounter the mystery of God” (p. 10). Later he says, “Hospitality can be a kind of sacrament of forgiveness” (p. 48). This too was pretty bad: “Meals enact mission. But they enact mission because they enact grace” (p. 88). The list goes on. To view regular meals as sacramental is unbiblical. I don’t have the space to give a description of the Lord’s Supper here, but it certainly is not me, my family, and a neighbor eating left over pizza on Friday night before a baseball game. Holy Communion has to with the church publicly gathering together to partake of bread and wine after hearing the word of Christ and self-examination (1 Cor. 11). If Chester allows regular meals to be sacramental, why not snacks in the afternoon?
Fourth, the book was far too romantic for me. By that I mean all the meals Chester describes are quaint and charming. He talks about long parties, kebabs, music, Bengali cookbooks, laughter, homemade curry, and people talking for hours over different cuts of meat. Some of those things are great – but many are very culturally conditioned. I’m not sure a three-hour meal is possible in all cultures (especially when you have to work at 5AM and kids to put to bed at 8PM!). As I read, I often thought, “Who has meals like that?” A great meal setting in one culture is not necessarily the same in another.
In summary (no surprise here!), I don’t think this is Chester’s best book. In fact, I’d say don’t bother getting it. If you’ve read other RE:LIT books, you won’t need to get this one since it re:states (pun intended!) a lot of the same “missional” and “community” themes that all the RE:LIT books talk about. I suppose I’m old-school, but I prefer the Reformation teaching that the only means of grace are the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. I love meals with Christian friends, but they do not feed my soul like the bread and wine of Holy Communion.