There is no more sacred moment in many Christian denominations than Communion, when members share bread and wine that they believe becomes the real presence of Christ.
In the ancient world of biblical times, no agreement was made without a feast. In ratifying the covenant between God and humanity, Moses and the chief men of the people of Israel beheld God, “and they ate and drank,” according to an account in Exodus.
If it sometimes seems religious groups today are preoccupied with sex - what acts are allowed and who can be ordained - people in biblical times were more concerned with food, says Jeff Smith, the popular cooking instructor best known for his television show on PBS, “The Frugal Gourmet.”
“Feasting was the most intimate thing you could do. The bedroom was way down the line,” Smith says.
So it was a natural for Smith, a United Methodist minister, to combine food and theology in a new show, “The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast.”
The weekly show, produced with United Methodist Communications, airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on the Faith and Values Channel, a religious cable network (channel 43 on Spokane’s Cox Cable).
Smith said he first had the idea in 1964, but it was only recently that he finished writing a book that accompanies the series.
He still does his PBS show, but on the Public Broadcasting Service “theology is illegal,” he says.
The new show gives him the freedom to talk openly about the connections between food and spirituality.
The show opens with a church choir inviting viewers to come sit at the “Welcome Table.” In the next half-hour, Smith will prepare recipes with foods available in biblical times while peppering the lesson with theological reflections.
In the Bible, Smith tells viewers in one show, “Food functions as God talk.”
For example, bread is for strength and wine is to gladden hearts.
What Smith says Americans have lost due to their Puritan heritage is the ability to freely express their emotions at the table.
One place this is evident is the Communion table, which many people in churches approach with the expressionless faces of those on a forced march.
For his part, Smith says of the experience of encountering Christ in the Eucharist, “I don’t know how you can’t whoop and holler.”
Another of Smith’s food sermons deals with biblical lessons to share food with strangers, even one’s enemies.
In early biblical times, there was a social norm that required people to share food with strangers, although foes were not permitted to eat at the table with their hosts.
Biblical accounts of Jesus show him eating with tax collectors, people with contagious diseases and all sorts of sinners.
“It’s very apparent Jesus ate with all the wrong people in order to say the kingdom is near,” Smith said.
That’s very different from today, when most people exclude even uncomfortable relatives from their own dinner tables, Smith says. And it’s a far cry from the House of the Lord envisioned in the 23rd Psalm where God prepares “a table before me in the face of my enemies.”
When things come to fruition, Smith tells viewers, we will sit at a table with everyone we’ve ever known, including all the people we have disliked.
“I know it’s a horrifying thought,” Smith said, “but it’s also the most beautiful I can think of.”
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