Food for Thought: How to Dine with Sinners

A few weeks ago I sat in a room filled with hundreds of people, listening to a man share a piece of his story. In sharing this story, he made a comment about Jesus dining with sinners. “I love how Jesus sat down and ate with these people. He listened to their stories and got to know them as people.” That got me thinking about how often we as believers actually engage in communion in this fashion--the way that Jesus did. In my time submerged in the Christian Church culture, I have noticed that Christians love their post-service gatherings for food (brunch, lunch, dinner… geez! We sound like hobbits!) Many churches hold a breakfast for their men's/women's groups and we love our Bible study/coffee dates! One of the greatest “how-to” tools that I learned for ministry in college is that people will show up if there is food, especially free food. We’ve got the dining together aspects covered, I think. Especially in America.

The issue I see is not in the food but in the company. Far too often those lunch buddies are like-minded people that we have pre-approved as worthy of our fellowship. I do it too, but the flaw in this is that we are not leaning into the tension of the teachings of Christ: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32). If we do happen to get together with those who think or believe differently than us, there is far too often an agenda involved. Rather than taking the time to hear their stories and hear their hearts the way that Jesus did, we come armed with a bible study fashioned to shed light on all the ways that they are wrong. If we forgo the Bible study, we still keep the judgment masked with a gentle chuckle and phrases like “Oh, I just love how you don’t care what people think of you.” or “You’re so opinionated. I get a kick out of that.” I’ve heard it all, within ministry and without, among Christian circles.

This past Lenten Season, I joined a few friends in “giving up God”. Now, just to be clear, I still believe in God and the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and all the pillars deemed necessary for the Christian faith. Yet, in partaking of “Atheism for Lent” led by the Brilliant Irish philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins, I discovered a God beyond religion. I didn’t deny God but rather denied religion and took God out the box I had placed Him in that refused to believe He could operate outside of my own preconceived notions. I think we’ve all been there. Looking at different mediums such as philosophy, comics, mysticism, etc, I realized God was far more loving and greater than I will ever be able to comprehend in this life. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these exercises was the realization that believers and nonbelievers are really not all that different. Everyone puts faith in something and everyone desires the same thing… love, community, purpose.

I feel one of the greatest injustices the Church has done to its own ministry is othering the “unsaved” or anyone that doesn’t fall under the same banner of Christianity (i.e. Calvinism, Catholicism, Mormonism… etc). We seem to have made Science and Faith opposing forces rather than something that might actually serve the world better when they both work together, believing that God is in Science and Science will, in fact, often serve to prove God. We have written off too many great minds--people who can/do change the world for the greater good--simply because they don’t look at the world the same way that we do. Here’s a revolutionary idea: Maybe we might learn something from them… something valuable!

In any case, I am realizing more and more than in our pride we have allowed ourselves to hide behind our own perspectives, or even--dare I say it--the story of Jesus, and reduced these people down to mere numbers and statistics. Our egos, which are structured from our upbringings, education, experiences, etc, often get in the way of allowing unreserved openness in learning a person’s heart. Those people then become social experiments for us to test our doctrine, rather than flesh and bone with beating heart and soul. Individuals with their own experiences and reasons why they believe what they believe. I’m not saying this is the case for all Christians. I am simply stating that this has been true more times than I can count and this should not be.

What’s more is that we can spend time with some of these people or have them as Facebook friends and we begin to believe that we know them. I have people in my life that have been around for years--people I go to church with, taken classes with, even members of my own family--that I can honestly say don’t know me. They know about me. They know certain aspects of me. Yet to say that they truly know me would be a stretch.

The fact of the matter is, it takes time to truly know people. It takes tension and willingness to get messy and invest in their crap, if even on a small scale. It takes being vulnerable and allowing a safe place for these people to be vulnerable with us. I think that is part of the reason why Jesus liked to eat with people, namely sinners. I’ve noticed that people are the most unmasked when they are eating, sleeping, laughing, or crying. The facades fade and the walls fall, if even for a moment and we are reminded of the humanness of every single person alive. They aren’t always what our world would deem “pretty” and yet it is the most beautiful and vulnerable the human soul can get. You see it in those sorts of moments. Unless it’s a first date and you are self-consciously picking around your food with you fork held nimbly in your dainty hands, chances are, your look goofy--at least to some degree. Humans are funny creatures and we need more moments in our lives when we allow for the vulnerable, goofy, and perhaps even the unglamorous sides of ourselves to shine through.

So next time you get together after church or go out with friends to the amazing bar with the best cheese fries or the cute little Thai place down the street, invite someone you might not otherwise. Invite them without any agenda or intention other than hanging out just like you would with your other peeps and get to know their stories. Some of the best people in my life became close friends doing this over brunch, going to bookstores, or walking around at the local farmer’s market. It doesn’t have to be a traditional meal. Just go be like Jesus to the people in your life and get to know them, the real them. See if you can get them to share something they might not otherwise. Do this by leading with your own vulnerability and showing them that it is a safe place to be real. You might discover that they aren’t so different from you after all. I am convinced we can change culture from the Facebook friends list and the number of Instagram likes to raw, messy, beautiful relationships if we take the risk to do so.