A number of recent studies have confirmed what we've intuitively understood all along: Eating with others keeps us healthier, happier, and better connected to each other. Even so, shared meals—especially ones at home—have been on the decline for some time. Busy parents find it hard to gather everyone around the table, much less have people over for dinner. Take-out and drive-through are a part of many Americans' routines. And let's face it: Having people over can be a pain. It's hard to get the house cleaned up and prepare several courses and spend hours eating and chatting and face a mountain of dirty dishes at the end of the evening. If there are children involved, things are that much messier; you face the prospect of pickiness, stains on the carpet, and people who scream or tell bathroom jokes at the table.

There is an element of vulnerability in all this: we may feel that we are on display, that we will be judged by our guests and found wanting, that our cooking may come out badly or our family will embarrass us. Having people over for dinner is intimate, more intimate than most restaurant meals ever can be. Maybe that's why we don't do it that much. But maybe, also, that's why we should do it. Recently, blogger David Swanson suggested that meals with friends at home, rather than in a restaurant, can be a sign of "our confidence in a hospitable God," as meals out avoid the sometimes-complicated and uncomfortable roles of host and guest.

And, writes pastor Tim Chester in A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table(Crossway), the early church didn't just have meals along with their worship services; their worship services were meals. Throughout the Gospels (Luke's gospel particularly), Jesus is the Son of Man "eating and drinking." Scandalously inclusive table fellowship, Chester shows us, was characteristic of Jesus' ministry and provided a real taste of his kingdom. When we sit to eat with one another, tasting the goodness of God with one another, we acknowledge our common creatureliness and dependence on food. There are to be no hierarchies at Christ's table. That's the source of the apostle Paul's annoyance in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. "I hear that there are divisions among you," Paul writes; "in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk." Why do you humiliate the poor? he asks; going so far as to say that when they have these inequitable feasts, "it is not the Lord's supper" that they are eating, but in eating without sharing properly, they are profaning Christ's blood and body. The opposite—meals shared equitably, without regard to social status—are a declaration of Christ's blood and body.

Is it possible that restaurant meals and The Food Network and images of idealized 1950s dinner parties have convinced us that meals with others must be orchestrated perfectly against a background of cleanliness, or else not hosted at all? Don't get me wrong: I would rather people not see my house when it is strewn with Lego pieces and toy train tracks, when my dining room table is heaped with clean laundry, all while I'm in the middle of an over-achieving food preservation project. But I have learned that eating together is a practice worth pursuing, even if the house is less than perfect. Even if the meal is nothing more than soup and bread.

When my husband and I lived in a small town in the mountains of northern California, the church where we worked was filled with older people, many of whom lived alone. Though our ministry included counseling, preaching, youth group, and hospital visitation, the part that seems to have made the biggest difference was our meals. At first, we simply had people over for dinner. A lot. Then, we started having potlucks after church. Pretty soon, the unchurched spouses of some of our members started showing up for the lunches. And other members began bringing their unchurched neighbors. Several of our older singles began meeting for casual, simple meals during the week, which helped enormously to ward off the cabin-fever blues of small-town single life. It's now five years since we left that church, and the potlucks, they've told us, still keep them together.

Were all of those meals perfect? Not really. Sometimes the food choices were weird. Sometimes the conversations were awkward. When our son was born, there was regular crying. Once, everyone brought only dessert except me, and we had to make my pot of soup go all around and then feasted on apple crisps and green Jell-O. Another time, my friend Ruth's lentils remained hard after simmering all day in the slow cooker. (We improvised some waffles.) But always, we were refreshed, and not just by the food. We were refreshed by one another, and by the presence of our Lord and Savior among us in the breaking of that bread.