Isak Dinesen wrote a delightful story in the middle of the 20th century called Babette’s Feast. The story is set in a small fishing village in Norway called Norre Vosburg. It begins with the description of an aged Luthern minister who had two daughters named Martine and Philippa. He was the founder of an austere sect. The two girls were beautiful young ladies who had to choose between their dreams and their duties. Martine was courted by a young cavalry officer—but she eventually rejected his advances and he went on to pursue an illustrious military career. Philippa sang as beautifully as she looked. A famous opera singer, Achille Papin from France, fell in love with her voice and eventually in love with her. He wanted to teach her and to some how gain some degree of immortality by passing on his gifts to her. She became frightened of her own new found feelings for him and dropped his classes. He returned to France dejected.
Every Sunday the little sect gathered at the home of the minister and his daughters to sing the songs of the New Jerusalem, to study, and to share in a simple fellowship meal. Years later, the minister died. Martine and Philippa tried their best to keep the little sect together as well as to serve the old people of the community. They prepared meals of cod fish and bread soup to the elderly every day. In spite of their best efforts, the community was falling apart. Fifteen years passed and the sect splintered badly. Although they still came together every Sunday to sing, study and eat, there was little joy. Their hearts were divided. One brother held a grudge against another who cheated him on a business deal years ago. Two women wouldn’t even speak to each other. A widow and a widower had an affair with each other 30 years earlier, and in their guilt each blamed the other for the sin. Although they sang together, studied together, and ate their Sunday meal together—they were separate and divided each from the other.
The Christians who met in the homes of Gaius, Chloe, and perhaps Crispus and Stephanas were at odds with each other (1 Corinthians 11:17-23). They came together for a common meal called the Lord’s Supper. And they could not get along. It seemed their culture carried over into the Lord’s Supper. The Greco-Roman meals at the time had very set rules of propriety governing them. Those who did not belong to the upper class were given the poor seats and were treated as inferiors according to the standards of the time. Slaves had no place at the table except to serve.
According to ancient writings at the time—and this is still practiced among orthodox Jews—the host would take bread, bless it, break it and give it to everyone. The meal would then commence. After the supper was finished, the host would take wine, bless it and distribute it to everyone else. This would signal the end of the meal. The early church observed the Lord’s Supper in this way. The church would assemble around a fellowship meal and worship together. Evidently, these Christians in Corinth were abusing the meal.
The issue was not they were eating a full meal together. But it had quit becoming the supper of Jesus—a supper which honored unselfish service and sacrifice, a supper where people demonstrated their unity with each other and concern for one another. It had now become a self-centered supper. Evidently the wealthier members came early to the meal, brought their food, and commenced eating without waiting for the poor and slaves who had to work longer hours and so had to come late. Paul tells them: when you come together, wait for each other! If you are so hungry you can’t wait, then eat something at home!
One night in the village of Norre Vosburg, during a terrible storm, Martine and Philippa were started by a loud knock at the door. When they open it, a woman collapses into their house. After reviving her they realize she only speaks French. She then gives them a note from Achille Papin, the famous singer who had fallen in love with Philippa. The note explains the woman’s name is Babette. Her family has been killed in the French civil war and she had to flee to save her life. He asks they take her in. He adds, “Babette can cook.”
The sisters are reluctant, but they agree to take her in. They show her how to prepare the boiled cod fish and bread soup for the elderly folk. She carefully observes. So every day Babette prepares the food. Somehow, her touch improves the taste of the food. As 14 years go by, she learns the language of her new home and shows herself not only to be a good cook, but also a shrewd bargain driver. So the sisters’ income seems to last longer through the deals Babette gets from the market.
Babette never talks about her past life. So you can imagine the sisters’ surprise when a letter arrives from France for Babette. It has been fifteen years. Babette reads the letter in silence and then matter-of-factly explains a friend has been entering Babette’s name in the national lottery every year. She has just won 10,000 francs! The sisters congratulate her, but their hearts sink. They know she will soon leave for home.
This was the year of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the women’s father. A few days after Babette won the lottery she makes a request of Martine and Philippa. She had never made any request from them since her arrival fifteen years ago. She has worked tirelessly for them. She would ask only one favor: to be in charge of the anniversary meal, and to pay for it. She wants to prepare a real French meal in honor of their father. She is so insistent the sisters agree. But they are frightened after a few days when supplies start arriving: cages of live birds, a huge live tortoise, wine and champagne. Hadn’t they heard the French eat frogs and horses? They call a secret meeting of their little church and explain their dilemma. The community agrees to go ahead and eat the anniversary feast but to say nothing about the meal. They would only speak praises about God so as not to hurt Babette’s feelings. After all, this would be her final meal with them!
Back in Corinth, Paul reminds the Corinthians of a final meal for thirteen people: twelve disciples and Jesus. Instead of directing their attention to the day of crucifixion, he brings their thoughts to the night before (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Now why does he ask them to remember that evening meal? What is so unique? There was division and fighting at the meal—twelve debating who would be the greatest. Jesus demonstrated unselfish love for the bickering and divided men by serving them, waiting on them, and washing their feet—even Judas who would betray and Peter who would deny would have their feet lovingly washed. Jesus personally served them bread and wine from his own hands.
Paul then warns the Corinthians no one can take this meal in an inappropriate way (1 Corinthians 11:27, 28). The phrase “unworthy manner” is better understood as “inappropriate manner”. Paul says the appropriate way of eating the meal involves discerning or judging “the body” correctly. To ignore the body is to bring judgment upon oneself! But just what is meant by all of this? What is this “self-examination” and “discerning the body”?
The day of the dinner arrived. A total of twelve guests attended. Among the twelve was a visitor to the group—the nephew of one of the old members: a general in the royal cavalry. As a young man he was the one who wooed Martine. Now, much older, he was a highly decorated general who still searched for answers. The table was spread beautifully and Babette served everyone with her own hands. The little church sat mute—remembering their vow to say nothing about the food. However the General was ignorant of this pact and he could speak of nothing but the meal. It was the finest meal he had ever eaten. Not since a party he attended years ago in Paris had he ever enjoyed such a meal. When he was served the quail in sarcophage he exclaimed there was only one place in France where this dish was served: Paris’ famous Café Anlais. It was their signature dish created by the chef who was, of all things, a woman!
The meal began to work its magic. The little group began to remember and tell stories of the old days when their sect was founded by the minister. They recounted precious memories of the founder. Then, the brother who cheated on a business deal finally confessed—they both laughed over the incident. The two women at odds with one another embraced and began to share. The man and woman who had an affair, forgave each other. The General rose from his place and spoke of God’s grace and how we in our foolishness try to grasp it when we should just accept and gratefully acknowledge it.
Babette’s Feast ends with two scenes: a reunited community gathering in a circle outside holding hands and singing the songs of faith. The feast had somehow opened the gate for God’s grace to flood in and they were reborn and reunited. The final scene is in the house where the sisters guiltily remembered no one had said anything about the meal. So they told the exhausted Babette, “It was quite a nice dinner, Babette.” “Everyone loved the dinner, Babette.”
She seems not to hear; and she says in a far away voice: “I was once the chef at the Café Anglais in Paris.” “We will always remember this evening, even when you have gone back to France,” the women tell her. Then Babette drops the bombshell: “I'm not going back to France. All of my family is dead. There is no one there for me. Besides, I cannot afford the passage.” “But what about the 10,000 francs?” “I spent it all for the meal.” Seeing their shocked faces Babette explains, “10,000 francs is the price for a dinner party of 12 at the Café Anglais.”
What does it mean to eat the feast properly? What does it mean to eat the Lord’s Supper, to examine ourselves and to discern the body or judge it in an appropriate way? It means we must understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper. In Corinth, there was no concern for the poor who came late with little food to add to the meal, there was no thought for those who had struggles. It was an each-person-for-himself experience. That’s not the Lord’s Supper—that’s a self-centered food grab. But the Lord’s Supper is a focus upon a moment of pure and unselfish giving: a putting aside of one’s needs to bless another person. It is a celebration and thanksgiving for what God has done to make us his family. This is not an individual solitary TV microwave dinner! It is a communal meal to celebrate our unity in Christ! We proclaim his unselfish sacrifice until he comes!
It means we examine our attitudes toward each other. Do I exhibit a spirit of humility as did Jesus? Am I as concerned about a Judas and a Peter as I am about John? Is my heart filled with unselfish concern even for my antagonists? Or am I angry and bitter?
It means we must understand what Paul means by “Body.” In the full context which includes 1 Corinthians 10-12 it is clear the word “body” refers to the church. We must be aware of those hungry. How about those hungry for encouragement, those hungry for a word of love or forgiveness? Is there anyone hungry for a touch or a hug? Is there anyone hungry for attention? Let’s take time during the Supper to make certain everyone is fed!
Now, as a side line let me suggest what applies to the Lord’s Supper should apply to all of our common meals together—including our fellowship dinners. I think perhaps we ought to reflect on this passage when we get together to eat any communal meal. Are we selfishly pigging out, thinking only of ourselves? Do those of us who can afford it end up bringing a little side dish and then pile up our plates in the front of the line? Do we teach our children to be polite and sensitive to others? Remember all of our meals should reflect our unselfish concern for others.
Through an exiled French woman’s sacrifice and unselfish service, a divided community remembered who they were. By remembering, they began to confess and reconcile. Through the gift of a meal, they experienced grace, love, and unity. Doesn’t this capture the essence of the Lord’s Supper? Doesn’t this capture the spirit of the one who lived in exile from heaven and sacrificed himself in order to save us? And as we share a meal together—isn’t it supposed to bring us together in his love and grace as we reconcile with each other and renew our commitment to him?
May you remember who you are and whose you are. May you remember the sacrifice and the grace you have received. As you remember, confess and reconcile. Examine yourself and root out any selfish bitterness and self-centeredness. Look at each other. As you share in the feast may you give your attention and your love to the body and may you spare no effort to maintain the unity of the spirit.