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A Season of "Social Capital"

Seven Easter Services around Seven Tables in Luke and Acts

Have you ever dined with a Muslim? Or with a person from South Africa? Ever shared a meal with a homeless person or with the mayor of the town or city where you live? The answers to these deceptively simple questions communicate more about our “social capital” than we might at first expect.

In recent years the term “social capital” has become a buzz phrase with many different definitions. Most of these definitions refer to human relationships within society and distinguish between three different kinds of social capital: bonding, bridging, and linking.

Bonding, Bridging, Linking

“Bonding capital” occurs when, for example, people of the same group come together for Sunday morning worship in a specific congregation. “Bridging capital” refers to relationships in which individuals from different groups meet—for example, when two or more congregations come together for a communal worship service. “Linking capital” refers to the way in which individuals or groups from different levels of society link with each other. For example, richer and poorer congregations or church members who have very little in common on a societal level may establish links if they worship together.

There are many boundaries around individuals and groups, some of which are more evident than others. Less than two decades ago, South Africa still had laws defining many of those lines or borders within society. These days, although the laws of apartheid are to be found only in history books, there are still many different boundaries segregating groups from each other in South Africa, as in all other societies around the globe. When these boundaries are no longer defined in terms of race, they are often made on the basis of other distinctions, such as income level or faith group.

Knowingly (and sometimes unknowingly), individuals and groups define and uphold these boundaries through their actions. Among the factors defining these boundaries most clearly are food and table customs. South African philosopher Martin Versfeld once commented, “Nothing is more indicative of what you are than your food and table customs.” The table at which we dine is a symbol of the society we live in. Therefore, by closely observing the table customs of different groups, and by watching how people act and interact around the table, we can learn about the boundaries of those groups.

Linking table fellowship with the concept of social capital makes it clear that meeting around a table has the potential to create a bond between people—or to create divisions. Bringing people from different groups around the same table has the potential to generate bridging capital. At the same time, it can be one of the greatest obstacles to bridging. As Versfeld puts it, “To take a man into your house—or your pot—is to open up your heart to him.” The same applies for linking capital (although even Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 11 about some eating too much and also of the poor being humiliated at the supper).

Enrich Your Congregation’s Social Capital

In 2008 we tried to enrich our congregation’s social capital (that is, the ways in which we believers bond, bridge, and link) by means of a worship series, around the Word and table. New Testament studies show how Luke uses the tactic of bringing different groups together to create a bond as a very deliberate strategy to communicate his message in Luke and Acts. So there are numerous texts in these two books dealing with table fellowship that can be used in such a series.

What happens at the tables in Luke and Acts shows an exceptionally close relationship with the concept of social capital. Jesus deliberately encourages bonding, bridging, and linking by means of his (sometimes intentionally poor!) table manners.

We chose seven “table texts” for our series, which means they fit together as a series in a liturgical season such as Lent or Easter. We chose our texts for an Easter series (the first table is Emmaus), but another very good option would be a series starting with Pentecost (the last text in the series comes from Acts 2). These services can also be used during other times of the liturgical year and may be adapted to fit your local context and traditions.

In churches from the Reformed tradition in South Africa, there is a very old Pentecost tradition that originated in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Dutch Reformed Church. Each year, during the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost Sunday, churches hold a series of sermon and prayer services in the evenings. The idea of “seven tables” thus fits rather well into this tradition.

What follows here is the broad outline of the series we celebrated in our congregation during 2008. Each service outline includes the choice of Scripture text followed by a short description of the theme of the day and its link to social capital. Also included are creative ways of maintaining table fellowship and some liturgical ideas that accompany the text and sermon, either within the worship service or linked to it. A reading of the chosen texts with the idea of showing how they have the potential to generate a kind of biblical social capital opens up wonderful possibilities for recognizing and promoting God’s ongoing work through his Son and Spirit in our societies.

Table 1
To See God

Text: Luke 24:13-35

At this first table Jesus takes the disciples through a series of events, including the opening of Scripture, fellowship, prayer, the option of being hospitable towards a stranger, and also the breaking of the bread. Thereafter their eyes were opened to see God, whom we know in his Son Jesus Christ.

The Last Supper at Emmaus

The painting The Last Supper at Emmaus by the Spanish artist Velasquez (see above) is packed with theology. The maid in the kitchen communicates something about the character of Jesus as the Servant, and of how seemingly insignificant everyday things can be important. The ordinary elements of water, wine, and bread have the potential to help ordinary people encounter an extraordinary God.

Furthermore, the mirror in the top left corner reflecting Jesus breaking the bread at the table indicates that the viewer of the painting is in the same room as the resurrected Lord. Velasquez understood something about the meaning and ongoing significance of the mystery of the resurrection. Wherever you are now, there the resurrected Jesus is present.

Table Fellowship

Between the table and the pulpit a very rough piece of cloth was draped over the cross. Every Sunday during the service of the table, we invited people to bring pieces of paper (from newspapers, artworks, magazines, and so on) and fasten them to the cloth, thereby bringing the social reality in which we live right into the liturgical space and connecting both pulpit and table directly to that reality, anchoring it on the cross of Jesus. Among the papers displayed on the cloth was a little handwritten note with the words: “Dear Sir/Madam. I am an experienced Malawian man looking for job as gardener, house keeper, painter. Yours, Khumbo Desire.”

During the course of the series we often held gatherings in the evening. Each of these gatherings concluded with this blessing from Luke 24:29:

As we depart we pray with the people of Emmaus and the church through the ages.
Stay with us Lord, it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.

Table 2
God Is with Those at the Table

Text: Luke 7:36-50

According to Luke’s story about Jesus dining at the table of Simon the Pharisee, God in Jesus Christ is with sinners, such as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. Jesus also took time to recline at the table of a Pharisee.

This is a good Sunday to recall Q&A 81 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Who may come to the table of the Lord?”

Popular hymns throughout our series included the hymn “Break Now the Bread of Life” (CH 413, PH 329, PsH 282, TH 146, WR 665) sung as an epiclesis before the Scripture readings. We also sang the Taizé “Eat This Bread” (PsH 312, SNC 254, WR 697) and “Ubi caritas et amor” (SNT 242, WR 399) when we celebrated the Eucharist. Often we incorporated instrumental pieces such as “Panis Angelicus.” (In his book Worship, Keith Pecklers shows how Latin became the official church language because too many church-goers were no longer able to understand the Greek used in the liturgy. Sometimes when our celebrations are of a more multicultural nature, Latin (such as Taizé lyrics) can be helpful as a shared church language.)

Table 3
We Are How We Eat

Text: Luke 14:1-14

During this morning service new church council members (deacons and elders) were ordained. The elders and deacons were encouraged to help us as a congregation to acquire better “table manners.” The elders should constantly be asking the question: “How are we eating? Who is included and who is excluded at our table?” And the deacons should go out and actively fetch those whom Luke mentions, not to take food to them as charitable givers, but to seat them at our own table and eat with them.

In the evening the congregation visited a ministry that feeds the hungry in a neighboring congregation and dined with homeless people. Eating with people who literally live on the streets and cannot bathe proved to be a stretch for some members of our congregation. Initially some were unsure of what to make of the experience, although later they realized that it helped them to understand the radical nature of Luke’s table texts. It also highlighted their own lack of awareness of what life is really like just ten blocks or so from where they live so very comfortably. The challenge, then, was not to go and serve or feed people, but to actually eat with them.

Table 4
God Is How He Eats

Text: Luke 14:15-24

In the parable of the supper in the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us what God’s heart looks like: it looks like his table. At God’s table there is always more room, and there’s a special place for those who are poor, or blind, or cannot walk.

Article 4 of the Belhar Confession links directly to this theme and could be used in the worship service:

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace
    among people;


  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;

  • that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering . . .

Note: To read the entire Belhar Confession online, visit http://www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/Belhar_Confession_English_Translation.pdf

Food Memories

Last year a woman in our neighborhood collected recipes and published a beautiful cookbook entitled Onthoukos (roughly translated, “Food Memories”). She asked people this simple question: “If you could ask your mother to cook supper for you tonight, what would you ask her to cook?” The resulting book is packed with traditional South African recipes that take readers back to their childhood years. After a morning service during which we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper, we asked her to present the book to the congregation. Afterwards we had a potluck lunch. Of course the dishes on the table represented quite a few “food memories” that opened up some wonderful conversation!

Table 5
We Are What We Eat

Text: Luke 22:7-23

Here the basic idea was that Christians become what they already are through participation in the Lord’s Supper. We are or become what we eat—that is, broken bread for a broken world.

The Last Supper

Luke 22 describes in a powerful way that this night was also the night on which Jesus was betrayed. Da Vinci’s Last Supper (see above), which represents the moment in which Jesus indicates that someone seated at the table will betray him (vv. 21-23), can bring out the significance of this truth. Joy Engelsman’s article “Finding Your Focus” (RW 88) is packed with creative ideas to enhance the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In our series we incorporated many of these ideas, which really enriched our experience at the table of the Lord. On this particular Sunday we based our service at the table on a liturgy from The Companion to the Book of Common Prayer (PCUSA), which is a responsorial liturgy between minister and children based on the classical Jewish Passover liturgy: “Why do we give thanks and praise before this table?” and so on. The children also assisted in the distribution of the elements and were themselves seated at the table in front of the pulpit.

Table 6
God Is with Those with Whom We Eat

Text: Acts 10:1-11:18

Today’s theme is derived from the well-known story in Luke about Peter’s vision that leads to bringing together Jews and Gentiles. For people to cross a boundary in order to come together and form a bond is a matter of conversion. It is something that only the Spirit of Christ can accomplish.

On this particular Sunday morning we closed our church building and worshiped with a very poor neighboring congregation. Right after the service, the members of the two congregations enjoyed a meal together—a Cape Malay curry that provided a foretaste of the “Cape Town table” in the kingdom!

Acts 10 and 11 say a lot about prejudice. In Afrikaans we use the expression “witbroodjie”; literally translated it means “little white bread.” It refers to favoritism—being, for example, the teacher’s pet. We used this expression, of course, with a real piece of white bread at hand to explain to the kids that God has no favorites, that all people are equal before God. God shows us this by the way he invites us to his table and shares his bread of life with us all.

Another good illustration to communicate to children God’s love for all people comes from South African theologian Flip Theron. He asks children to stand in a long line, one after the other. He then asks which one of the children in the line is first and which is last. Of course, the answer to his question is obvious—one child is at the front of the line, and one is at the end. Then he has the children form a circle and repeats his question, which is now unanswerable. The message is clear: before God, all are equal; the first will be last and the last will be first. In this picture, the congregation is celebrating the Eucharist in the form of a circle around a table as an expression of this biblical truth.

Table 7
To See Each Other

Text: Acts 2:41-47

Luke’s description of what it means to be church, of what happens in congregations after the sermon (in this case, Peter’s), is radical. It is a very real koinonia, a type of community in which people share both spiritually and materially.

Throughout the series, worshipers were challenged to give up one meal during the week and to bring the value of that meal to the worship service in the form of nonperishable food. This food was collected during the offering and then donated to a local ministry that feeds hungry people.

We started the sermon with questions about the different types of people with whom we have or have not shared a meal. These questions can be a kind of barometer of social capital. An even more important question any believer or congregation should ask is, “Do you regularly share a meal with Christ?” In Afrikaans there is a saying “Die sleutel is in die slot,” roughly, “The key is in the conclusion.”

In the spirit of this truth, the first table that opened up the series was the table at Emmaus. By starting with the Emmaus text in the final chapter of the gospel of Luke, we begin with the continuing presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus who is, through his Spirit, always present at our tables and helping us to know God, ourselves, and others better—and thereby also transforming our society.

In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, we need more of this kind of biblical social capital. The saying “There’s no such thing as a free meal” implies that this kind of action can literally take us out of our comfort zone to places where we are, in fact, not that keen to venture. By bonding, bridging, and linking with other individuals and groups, we can make many new friends. Conversely, as New Testament scholar Richard Karris reminds us, our table manners can also make enemies: “Jesus was killed because of the way he ate.”

Excerpt

During this series you might also want to gather for a viewing and discussion of one or more of the excellent “food movies” that are available, including Babette’s Feast, Chocolat, Mostly Martha (or the remake No Reservations), to name a few.

For Further Reading

There is an abundance of literature available on this topic. The sources I mention will lead the reader to more sources. Mary Douglas writes from the perspective of social anthropology, Martin Versfeld from philosophy, and Jerome Neyrey and Reta Finger from New Testament studies.

  • “Deciphering a Meal” by Mary Douglas in Myth, Symbol and Culture by Clifford Geertz, ed. W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, pp. 61-81.
  • Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, by Reta H. Finger. W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.
  • The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation by Jerome H. Neyrey. Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.
  • The Philosopher’s Cookbook by Martin Versfeld. Old Castle Books, 1983, 2007.