Believers from three countries gathered around the communion table in Yaracuy, Venezuela. Erwin Mirabal, president of the Venezuelan Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Oriente (Evangelical Mennonite Church of the East), reflected with the group on how many of Jesus' experiences revolved around a table and sharing food. He emphasized how reading the Bible from an Anabaptist perspective guides their church's response in an economy that leaves more than half of the population under-nourished, calling it Jesus' "theology of the table."
"As Mennonites … we announce the good news of peace and reconciliation, and cultivate nonviolence and the love of enemies in our own lives," said Mirabal. "We gather around a shared table and trust in God, our Provider, who frees us from the tyranny of goods to follow Jesus in his dedication to give abundant life."
The Jews expected the Messiah to come as a king, but instead, Jesus came eating meals with people who were outcasts. In Luke's Gospel, many times Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. So much so that his enemies accuse him of being "a glutton and a drunkard." Jesus himself said in Luke 7:34: "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"
Sharing food with love is a powerful expression of welcome, and Jesus' meals embodied God's grace. Likewise, the churches in Venezuela find ways to practice this today by serving meals to people whose only home is the public plazas.
José Díaz, who was baptized during our visit in Caracas, described how he first grew to know the church through receiving soup in the plaza. "I liked the way they treated us with a lot of love," said Diaz. "They invited me and so I started attending the church two years ago. I felt the love of family …"
In all four Gospels we find the story of the feeding of the multitude. We read of how Jesus cared about the people who were listening to him. The disciples wanted to send the people away so they could find food for themselves, but Jesus said, "You feed them." As the Gospels tell us, there was a boy who offered his five loaves of barley bread and two fish. The disciples questioned how that would be enough, but Jesus prayed, and once the food began to be passed among them, there was more than they could eat.
During the communion service, Carlos Moreno, from Colombia, noted that perhaps the first miracle was that the boy shared, and possibly that led others also to pull out food they had with them that they were saving for themselves. This spirit of cooperation has also inspired the Venezuelan church manifesting itself through a program they offer schools through teaching cooperative games for peace.
Significant things happened when Jesus ate with people. The night that he was betrayed, he was eating the traditional Passover meal with his disciples. And on the road to Emmaus, the disciples didn't recognize Jesus until they broke bread at the table. When we eat together, we create a common experience. And by opening ourselves and our tables to others, we strengthen bonds and can talk about our common needs.
In Venezuela coming to the table has become so central to the churches that they share a simple meal together after their services. "The Anabaptist vision teaches us that when we are willing to follow Jesus and behave like the lamb, then we have the strength of a lion (Revelation 5:4-6)," said Mirabal. "Although this vision may seem weak, we have been able to experience its power. What we have may be very simple, but we share it together …"
José Díaz (center) listens as he prepares for baptism by Carlos Moreno and David Boshart during a partnership visit.
José Díaz (right front) enjoys a bowl of soup together with the congregation after a Sunday service in the El Paraíso neighborhood of Caracas. The Mennonite churches in Venezuela regularly enjoy a simple meal together after services.