For many Christians in contemporary America, it can be confusing (or even embarrassing) to note what was a (or even the) central controversy in the early church: with whom should I eat?
This is all over the pages of the New Testament. It's a key reason that Jesus is criticized throughout the Gospels (for example, see Luke 15:1-2), it causes an apostolic brouhaha when Paul calls out Peter (Gal. 2:11-14), and is behind the abuse of the Lord's Supper at Corinth (1 Cor. 11).
When you watch Downton Abbey, you can understand what biblical scholar John Elliott means when he says that "food and meals encode social relationships, cultural values and norms, and metaphysical worldviews." Everything about the Crawleys and their staff is different when it comes to eating: what they eat, where they eat, when they eat, and with whom they eat. Next time you watch the show, pay attention to how much of the show takes place in the context of eating, whether in the staff kitchen/dining room downstairs or the main dining room of Downton. Eating is a microcosm of the worldview of a society.
Numerous story lines from Downton Abbey highlight this fact. One of my favorite involves Tom Branson (nice name!), who is a chauffeur (which I can't help but saying internally in my best Dowager Countess, i.e., Maggie Smith voice) and Irish political revolutionary who violates all social-cultural boundaries and ends up marrying Lady Sybil. When Tom and Sybil return, his mere presence in the main dining hall is enough to cause quite a stir.
So think about this text in the context of a socially-stratified world: "My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts." (James 2:1-4)
You mean if Lord Grantham and his valet walk through the door at the same time, I should not show preference to Lord Grantham? Or that if Carson the butler and a footman both come, Carson doesn't necessarily get the place of preeminence? (Go ahead, you tell him; I'm not messing with Carson).
The instructions around the Lord's Supper also start to sound much more radical. This was an actual meal that the early church would celebrate together. At Corinth, there are divisions and factions (1 Cor. 11:17-22), embodied in the fact that some people go away from the meal full and drunk, and others leave hungry. The people are guilty of "eating in an unworthy manner" (11:27) and not discerning the Lord's body (11:29), i.e., not understanding what kind of new (social) body the church is. Paul doesn't mean that they failed to properly (and, of course, very guiltily) confess their sin while the organ music played before each individual took their tiny piece of bread and tiny drink of juice/wine. He means that the way they ate showed that they did not understand how Jesus had transformed their relationships with one another. So how should they eat? In 1 Cor. 11:33, Paul's instructions are clear: everyone must eat together. Got that? The Dowager Countess must wait until Mrs. Patmore and Daisy can sit down at the same time and table with her, if she really wants to understand who she is in Christ (I'd love to see that scene!). The entrenched British aristocrats must sit and sup with the Irish revolutionary.
The point of 1 Cor. 11 and other texts is that the kingdom of God is not simply like a feast (Matt. 22), it is a feast (Rev. 19). Although our world doesn't look like Downton Abbey, Christians today continually face the temptation of replicating cultural patterns of social stratification within the church. These patterns get ingrained in us from the time we're young (see the opening scene of Mean Girls for a great example of how this works in the school cafeteria). So when Christians hear the words, "Take, eat, this is my body," we must remember to be the kind of body that eats in a way that is shaped by the Bread of Life, the one who broke down "the dividing wall" between those who never would have eaten together otherwise (Eph. 2:14).
If you are interested in learning more about the centrality of eating together in New Testament times, you can click here to read a paper I wrote while in my Master's program back in 2004. The paper focuses on the practice of table fellowship, or eating together, in Luke-Acts. I'm no specialist on that topic, but you can check the bibliography and/or footnotes of the paper for good scholarly sources on this topic.