What shocked the world about the early church

19 Nov 2021 10:53 AM | Josh Hunt (Administrator)

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.”[10]

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.[11]

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.

English pastor and author Tim Chester once posed the question, “How would you complete the following sentence: ‘The Son of Man came . . .’?” There are three ways that the New Testament completes that sentence; while the first two are well known (and might have come to your mind when you read Chester’s question), the third is surprising:

  • “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, ESV).
  • “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, ESV).
  • “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34).

While the first two oft-quoted verses tell us about Jesus’ purpose in coming —to serve, to give his life as a ransom, to seek and save the lost —the third describes his method. How did Jesus come? He came eating and drinking.

Note that in these verses Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.” He uses various titles to describe himself in the Gospels, but this is one of the more dramatic. “Son of Man” comes from the apocalyptic book of Daniel and is used to describe the one who would come before God to receive authority over the nations (see Daniel 7). That Jesus attributes this apocalyptic (and somewhat esoteric) title to himself might at first sound spectacular, but he then goes on to describe this Son of Man not coming in glory on the clouds of heaven, accompanied by an army of angels, but simply eating and drinking.

It’s always interested me that the one thing Jesus actually told us to do every time we meet together was to eat. It’s not lost on me that his detractors regularly accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (see Luke 7:34). Jesus was neither of those things, but obviously his preparedness to eat and drink with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes gave his enemies plenty of ammunition. So, when he comes to give his first followers something to do to remember him by, what is it? Remember Luke 22:19: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” Yes, the “drunkard” and the “glutton” instructed his followers to eat and drink in remembrance of him. It’s beautifully subversive.

Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2016).

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