It's no accident that the only miracle of Jesus narrated in all four Gospels revolves around a meal. Meals were very important both for Jesus and for the authors of the Christian Scriptures.

If you invited several first century Christians to your parish for a celebration of the Lord's Supper, and didn't tell them in which building the celebration was to take place, where would they automatically go -- to the church or to the parish center? If your parish center, like most, is set up with tables and chairs, there's no doubt where your guests would end up. They'd probably glance into the church, wonder what sort of things go on in that strange building, then quickly walk over to the hall. They'd logically presume that the Lord's Supper would be celebrated in a place in which we normally eat meals.

As Father John Meier points out in his multi-volume work on the historical Jesus, "Marginal Jew," modern Christians habitually emphasize the wrong word in the phrase, "the Last Supper." Jesus so frequently joined in "table fellowship" with others -- especially the "low-life" individuals whom Jewish religious and civil leaders consigned to the fringes of society -- that we would stress "Last," not "Supper." The night before He died, Jesus participated in the last of many suppers He shared during His historical ministry. Such meals were high profile events, moments of companionship in which He could best dramatize His basic message of God's kingdom being close at hand. By frequently dining with society's outcasts, Jesus proclaimed God's oneness with all people.

Miracle story

Though the Gospel multiplication stories (John 6:1-15) certainly have been influenced by Sunday's II Kings (4:42-44) account of Elisha feeding a hundred men with just 20 barley loaves, it was the Last Supper narratives which most determined how early Christian preachers described and passed on this miracle story. (Notice, for instance, how quickly the "couple of dried fish" disappear in favor of the "five barley loaves." Bread reminded the readers of the Lord's Supper more than fish. Meals simply conveyed a deeper meaning for the Lord's first disciples than they do for us.

Brought up with the single idea that the Mass is the place where Jesus becomes present in the bread and wine, we rarely notice that the early Christian community approached the Eucharist from a much broader perspective. They believed that the risen Jesus was already among them, one with everyone who believed in Him. Still, such oneness wasn't automatic. They knew that it constantly had to be preserved the deepened.

It was in the celebration of the Lord's Supper more than anywhere else, that Jesus' followers believed they could achieve the deepest possible unity with Him and with one another -- the kind of oneness Paul speaks about in Sunday's Ephesians passage (4:1-6). It's "the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force." The Apostle reminds his community of a truth which all Christians believe: "There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of your by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and works through all, and is in all."

Unity a trademark

Such unity, symbolized and strengthened in celebrations of the Eucharist, was the trademark of early Christianity.

Through the centuries, we've made participation in the Eucharist a reward for being one, instead of a help to become one. So it's easy for us to ignore the meal dimension of the celebration. We're concerned that the presider be validly ordained, that the elements of bread and wine be correctly baked and fermented, that the liturgical rules and regulations be scrupulously observed. This emphasis on externals could actually distract us from building the unity which characterized Jesus' participation in meals, the unity which His first followers worked so hard to imitate whenever they commemorated His Last Supper.

As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians, chapter 11, only those should be excluded from the Eucharist who make no attempt to be one with the other people taking part in the meal.