Back to cranky old Emperor Julian. Remember that one of his pet peeves about the Christians was their practice of a surprising form of hospitality. He complained to his officials that one of the Christians’ methods for “perverting” the empire was their so-called love-feast, or service of tables. He appeared to be uncertain of the name of their gathering because, he said, “they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names.”
So what was he referring to exactly? And how many different ways were there of carrying it out? Well, to begin with, it is doubtful that he was referring exclusively to the Eucharist or the practice of the Lord’s Supper, although this was probably part of the original Christian love-feasts. We know the Corinthians were practicing a communal meal as part of their weekly habit because Paul rebukes them for conducting it so poorly in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. More on that later. In any case, it seems that the early Christians must have focused so much of their lifestyle and ministry around the table that outside observers like Julian were confused as to the exact nature of any given meal.
Around AD 112 Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (now in modern Turkey), wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan to ask for counsel on dealing with the church. He reported that the Christians would meet “on a fixed day” in the early morning to “sing responsively to Christ, as to a god.” Later in the same day they would “assemble again to partake of food —but ordinary and innocent food.”
In other documents of the time, there appear various references to the separation of the Eucharist from the love feast, as though they were seen as two very distinct gatherings. This might be why Emperor Julian had trouble keeping track. In any case, a rhythm eventually developed where it was standard practice for the early Christians to celebrate the Eucharist in the morning and the love-feast in the evening.
My point is that eating has been a central Christian practice since the beginning of our movement. And not only eating sacramentally, as in the Eucharist, but eating missionally as a way to express love to all. More than that, eating with others can be perceived as a profoundly theological practice. It mirrors the character of the Triune God. As Janice Price of the Church of England World Mission Panel says,
Hospitality, as the mutual indwelling one with another, becomes the modus operandi of mission as those in common participation in the life and mission of God meet and receive from each other. . . . Hospitality is an attitude of the heart which is about openness to the other. . . . This mirrors the hospitality of the Trinity as God chooses to open himself to the other through the Incarnation and to subject himself to the created order. . . . It is about a generous acknowledgement and meeting of common humanity as well as meeting the needs of humanity, emotional, spiritual and physical, with generosity. As such it mirrors the activity of God towards creation.
I want you to foster the habit of eating with three people every week. But I want you to know that this isn’t merely good missional strategy. It is a way to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2016)
.I have just completed a series of lessons based on this book. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.