34. Worship & the Shared Meal

“They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people” (Acts 2:46-47). Luke distinctly tells us that they met together in their homes for meals, and that these meal-meetings included corporate praise. So it seems possible that “church” – the early practice of corporate prayer, worship, and the breaking of bread- occurred at these shared meals. Today, many scholars believe the shared fellowship meal was most certainly the primary venue for  the reading of circulating letters or in-person visits from itinerant apostles like Paul, Peter, and John.

“A primary way first-century “Christians” spent time together was at meals.  There they made decisions together about their inner workings and their  relationship to the broader world. Meals were the place where they taught and learned together and where they worshipped, prayed, and sang their songs together. This was the time that they had arguments, sorted out differences, went their own ways, and reconciled with one another. It was a central community event. These meals provided the primary experiential evidence for those who opposed them, those who dropped in for visits, and those who were curious about them.”[1]

These meals fostered fellowship and community and most likely served as a major factor in the development of both early Christian identity and its spread. If you recall from Chapter Five that the shared meal of the Roman era was on the order of the Hellenistic pattern of greeting, meal, and symposium, then it’s not hard to imagine these early Christians meeting together in one another’s homes and dining rooms, as any newly formed club or guild would quite naturally do.   Christians would greet each other with a kiss, offer water for washing of hands and feet, break bread during a common meal while reclining on couches, share the cup of wine, then participate in any number of postprandial activities such as singing, praise, teaching, testimony, preaching, discussion and prayer. Such meals would create not only a sense of community (koinonia), but of friendship (philia), and grace (charis).[2] In other words, the shared meal was very likely a critically formative practice giving rise to a new social and religious identity known simply as The Way.

This is especially important to note, because the gospel was for all people, not just the Jews. So, these meals brought together quite disparate groups of people not heretofore affiliated with one another. “Given the diversity that came to characterize Christian groups at a very early stage of development, how could a sense of cohesion have developed so easily? How could individuals from diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds come to call one another “brothers and sisters”? …The most likely locus for this development is the community meal, with its unparalleled power to define social boundaries and create social bonding.”[3]

In the next post, #35, we will begin to ask why so many NT letters address food disagreements in the early Church.  And, like a simple meal, please SHARE this post!

~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] Hal Taussig, In the Beginning was the Meal: Social Experimentaion and Early Christian Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 21.

[2] Taussig, p. 27.

[3] Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, p.184.

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