Recall that a special hallmark of the Greco-Roman banquet was that invitations were sent ahead of time to request a guest’s presence. The early Christian meal-meetings, on the other hand, took place in believer’s homes, and appear to have been open to any who had been baptized as believers as well as those who claimed to believe. Moreover, following Jesus’ teachings, the meals would have been evangelistic in nature in that they would also have been open to the maligned and risky fringes of society.
So, now we not only have Jew and Gentile together at a fellowship meal, but men and women, slave and free, educated and illiterate, the economically advantaged side by side with the poorest of the poor. The heterogeneity of the people at this kind of meal, or gathering, would have been a radical occurrence in that day. Actually, if you think about it, it would be a radical occurrence in our time too.
Radical hospitality is risky. It involves the kind of love that sent Jesus from heaven as a fully human being and set his face toward the cross. It’s the kind of love that denies the fear of the rhetorical ‘what ifs’ with sincere determination that Jesus’ love for ‘the least of these’ is the life to which all believers are called. In the end, radical love accepts the likelihood that others will take advantage of the generosity and servant-heart of those willing to empty themselves of pride, fear, and security.
Apparently, this was no different in the early church, because the writings of both Peter and Jude address a form of Gnosticism evident in the lives and actions of some who claimed to be believers (2 Pet 2:13 and Jude 12). Both authors mention the immoral behavior of some at the “love feasts”, or agape meals of the early Christian communities. Gnostics believed that the sinfulness of their behavior, particularly their sexual proclivities, was “covered” by their salvation through Christ. In other words, they used their salvation as a kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card to justify their ongoing lustful immorality.
Try to imagine, if you will, the meal-meetings of the early believers. Given the heterogeneity of the participants, it is not hard to envision that some of those present were, in their ‘former’ lives, accustomed to attending meals followed by an evening of drinking, entertainment, and revelry, including sexual escapades. Others, still Jews by self-description, would hold to a habit of meals in which ceremonial purity rituals were still adhered to. Still others could be in attendance even though they were not believers at all, perhaps joining in for a free meal, or to find out what The Way was really all about. “In such a socially porous environment it would not be hard for false teachers claiming to be Christians to slip in and freeload, and cause trouble… Christianity was an evangelistic religion, and so this meant risk for the Christian community because they were open to having guests and strangers attend their meetings.”
These are ingredients for a very interesting, even disastrous meal indeed, and the warnings from Peter and Jude would have us understand that the revelers may have gained an upper hand as false teachers. Still, the premise of the fellowship meals was to share the love and fellowship of Christ in ways that were edifying and promoted the virtues of a Christian life. There was, and always will be inherent tension and risk involved here. While we are called to “expel the immoral brother” from our fellowship (1 Cor 5:13), and “with such a man do not even eat,” (1 Cor 5:11), we are also to be open and inviting even to the worst of sinners. The distinction revolves around one’s claims to be a believer, baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. If such a one continues in sin despite loving confrontation and counsel from believers, that one is to be excluded from the fellowship to the point that we not even eat together. It should not, however, ever prevent us from inviting the unbeliever to our fellowship or our meals.
In Post 38, we will look at the hard truth: our tables are too often empty.
~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.
 Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2007), p.89.