An oft-repeated axiom about our society is that we are radically polarized. It is true that even within our congregation people hold a variety of opinions on gun control, same-sex marriage, abortion, the importance of January 6th, and a host of other issues. But the early Christian church would look at us and say, “The differences that distinguish you are miniscule! Consider the challenges to creating unity that we faced as an early church.” Those challenges were indeed formidable! The early Christian fellowship had Jewish Christians, shaped by centuries of Mosaic law tradition and observing a strict kosher diet, rubbing shoulders with Gentile Christians, who still bought their meat from pagan butchers who sacrificed a small portion of each piece of meat to a local idol. The early Christian church had slave owners rubbing shoulders with their slaves and with slaves who belonged to their peers. Of course the early Christian church had men and women worshipping together for the first time, after more than a thousand years of being separated in worship by rigid tradition and social structure. Even Jesus’ small group of original disciples held widely disparate approaches to life: Simon the Zealot came from a background where he sought to assassinate Roman officials and any Jewish leaders who cooperated with them. Matthew was a tax collector whose very job entailed working closely with the Romans in collecting revenue. The early church was not just a theological wonder. It was a sociological phenomenon! The early church brought together elements of society that had viewed each other with distrust or even outright hatred and disgust. Yet through the love of Christ, the Spirit eliminated all of the distinctive categories that separated people and molded them together into one functional fellowship. God was able to eliminate all of the pods in which people were slotted and was able to knit them together into the cooperative body of Christ. As Paul reminded the Galatians, “When you were baptized into Christ you put on Christ.” So these disparate people became one in Christ Jesus.
I share all of that with you as a prelude to examining a short story penned by Karen Blixen, better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen. Dinesen was responsible for writing a book that turned into one of the most boring movies in cinematic history, Out of Africa. (Never go to a movie whose sole Academy Award is in cinematography!) But another of Dinesen’s stories conveyed a profound theological lesson which also became a movie, a heart-warming tale entitled Babette’s Feast, in which a meal becomes a tool of redemption and reconciliation.
The story was set in Denmark in the late 19th century in a small, isolated town whose life was profoundly shaped and governed by an old minister whose stern Christian faith was tempered by wisdom and love. He was blessed with two beautiful daughters, one courted by a dashing young Swedish cavalry officer, the other by a rising Parisian opera star. Both daughters spurned their suitors in order to remain close to their father. When he died, both daughters took on the responsibility for carrying on his work.
Many years later, a woman named Babette appeared on the sisters’ doorstep, bearing a letter from the now famous opera singer explaining that she was a refugee from a war-torn area and recommending her to the sisters as their housekeeper and cook. The daughters had no money, so Babette offered to work for free, and stayed many years in their service. She retained one connection to her former life in Paris: every year she had a friend renew a lottery ticket worth 10,000 francs. One year, wonder of wonder, she won the fortune! But she didn’t use the money to resume her past life in Paris. Instead, she asked the town elders for permission to prepare a fabulous feast for the entire town on the occasion of what would have been the old pastor’s one hundredth birthday.
The town agreed to let her do this, but when they heard rumors of all the sumptuous ingredients Babette was purchasing, many from far away, they began to fear that maybe the meal would become a sensual sin. So they agreed to eat it in silence. It so happened that the young Swedish officer, now a famous general, returned for the meal and, being unaware of the town’s vow of silence, proceeded to offer expert commentary on every aspect of the amazing menu. He observed that he could only compare this extraordinary meal to one that he enjoyed in Paris many years before. It turned out that Babette was the celebrated chef of that famed Parisian restaurant.
As the townspeople enjoyed the feast, something miraculous happened: past grudges were set aside, old love affairs were rekindled, forgiveness was extended and accepted, walls of estrangement were breached, and a general spirit of reconciliation was engendered. As people began to partake of this sumptuous fare, feuds were forgotten, grim faces relaxed, laughter abounded. At the end of Babette’s feast, the entire community held hands around a fountain in the village square and sang a hymn together.
The thing is, Babette had spent the entire 10,000 francs in providing this feast for the town. So at the end of the meal she was just impoverished as she had been. Yet she now enjoyed the gratitude and love of an entire community who thanked her for bearing the cost of the meal that had brought them back together.
Our Lord brings us together this morning for a feast. This feast cost Jesus more than any earthly fortune. He gave us something more dear – all that he had, his life, his body, his blood, his entire ministry. He did so that by his Spirit he might knit us together. He provides for us this morning a meal of reconciliation. Through Christ’s ministry, we are not defined by our social status, our bank account, our politics, our race, or our school affiliation – all of the categories in which we place people have been obliterated by the grace of Christ. The same Christ who obliterated the categories of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, that same Christ lifts us out of our little pods and restrictive silos and knits us together as one family. When we come to this meal, we know that it is meant to be a feast for those who are newborn in Christ, meant to be a feast shared by a group of people daily trying to put to death that impulse to divide people, to abandon that instinct to separate people by categories. When we come to this feast, symbolizing the broken body and shed blood of our Lord, we know we are summoned by Christ to put our alienation aside and be filled with a spirit of reconciliation, appropriating the amazing truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus. All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have “put on Christ.” So we are no longer divided and defined by the sundry categories in which others place us or we place ourselves. We are one in Spirit and one in the very body of our Lord Jesus. That is what this meal, this feast, creates in us: a willingness to extend grace to each other and to receive it. Such is the power of Christ’s feast on this day.