51. Reaching In, Reaching Out: Meals, Food, and Church

I have taken a long hiatus from the blog to relax, rewind, refresh, and rest in Scripture this winter.  Thanks for sticking with me!  Here is the beginning of the final chapter of this e-book about shared meals as a Christian practice.  This, and the following weekly posts can help nudge you to think about the food ministry at your own church.

There are multiple approaches to food and hunger through food ministries in the North American Church. All do good things. Some give out food from a pantry or a cash gift card to a grocery store. Others prepare or organize a meal to feed new parents, the ill, the grieving, or the aged. Still others use a meal for evangelical purposes, always letting participants hear that God loves them. And some intentionally create a formal atmosphere more similar to the original practice of marrying the meal with worship and teaching. Some churches work alone, others together, often in partnership with local secular organizations.

I interviewed stakeholders from multiple and different ministries in an attempt to describe the scope of mission and vision where meal ministry is concerned, and to get a sense of how that is working out in practice.[1] Certainly, feeding the hungry is an action believers are called to do, no strings attached. But my visits were predicated on the desire to know if feeding someone a meal rather than sharing one around the table together were practices with different motives, possibilities, and results.

Going in, my intuition said that feeding people can become a community’s collaborative way of loving neighbor without necessarily bringing Jesus and the kingdom of heaven into the shared conversation. And this phrase shared conversation is critical. If the shared meal as a distinctive Christian practice was and is always about being around the table together in God’s presence, and giving voice and assent to that presence, then programs in which one can stop in to pick up some food (no shared meal), or come in and be seated and served by church members (a meal served but not shared between visitors and believers) is fundamentally different from the shared meals of the first century church.   The people providing the meal go away feeling good about themselves, about having met the physical needs of their neighbors, but with little to no acknowledgment that we are all hungry and in need of God’s grace-filled presence and provision, no different than my experience in Seattle with the unnamed and hungry homeless woman. (see post #18)

In essence, it is a fulfillment of the second commandment that may give little or no regard to the first, and as a practice it is not distinctively Christian because it misses this point: we should know the names of the hungry and share with them a meal and Jesus’ favorite mealtime teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We must remember that a Christian practice is only a practice when it is done together, regularly, and with a focus on the presence of God and his kingdom. The meal, then, is meant to be an intimate shared practice, one which most of us must admit is an uncomfortable proposition because adding strangers into the mix intrudes on our personal space and plays on our insecurities.

It might be easy to become defensive at this point and insist that the shared meal of the first century church was shared among believers. But scholars contend that although the early church did meet for worship and teaching and the breaking of bread together, all were welcome to eat and hear and see God’s goodness, believers and unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles alike. These meals did feed the hungry, but they were not focused first and foremost on that goal. The emphasis was (and still should be today) on Christ and the kingdom.

Moreover, the distinctive Christian practice of hospitality is at play in the shared meal. The four components of hospitality outlined by Amy Oden elegantly describe how these meals should proceed. First, the greeting and welcome. Second, nourishment and dwelling together (food and Word). Third, a challenge to know God and live a life which pleases him (this is a most important component of the practice that is usually missing when a meal is not shared). Fourth, the sending back into the world fortified with Word and prayer as well as a full stomach. And so I set out to do this research because I wanted to find out what people and programs are doing and why.

Over the course of two years, I met with stakeholders, visionaries, pastors, and lay members of various churches-inner city, rural ones with membership challenges, and suburban ones with lots of resources. Several overlapping program characteristics emerged from these interviews, including the type of program and individuals carrying out the programming, as well as the ownership, faith basis, and sustainability of each program. My main goal was to try and identify the commonalities and substantive differences across programs, and see if the shared meal-as a Christian practice- was an ingredient in the recipe of various church food ministries.

In Post 52, we will begin to survey the themes that arose from these interviews. Stay tuned!  As always, your comments are helpful as I continue editing the book.  Use the LEAVE A REPLY box below!

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

[1] As part of the formal research process, interviewees were required to give written consent to be interviewed in exchange for guaranteed confidentiality.

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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.

33. Glad Hearts Eat Together!

In the first chapters of the book of Acts, Luke picks up exactly where he left off in his gospel, reviewing Jesus’ last moments on earth eating with and teaching the disciples before ascending to heaven. The disciples, now referred to as apostles by Luke, return to Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension to wait for the promised baptism by the Spirit. They spend the next fifty days praying with believers (in Acts 1:15 Luke says there were about one hundred and twenty gathered), until the day of Pentecost. From this point onward, the fellowship of baptized believers grows under the preaching of Peter and the apostles.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

This passage in Acts 2 contains several important clues about how “church” may have operated in those earliest days. Obviously, there were no church buildings or church staff, no pews, fellowship hall, or Sunday school rooms for the first Christians, and no trained clergy, except possibly for converted Pharisees and scribes with a schooled understanding of the law. There was no set liturgy, no New Testament gospels or letters yet written, nor any prayer books or hymnals to use. In other words, the early church had no formal infrastructure, and no real recognizable identity through a set, much less standardized set of Christian practices across the Roman Empire.

From a sociologic and historic perspective, nascent social undertakings often rely heavily on the infrastructure already present in society at large. For example, when we plant a new church today, it is common to meet in an existing school or office building otherwise empty on Sundays. Likewise, when a new belief system is born, it will often be imbued with elements of the culture out of which it emerges, and Christianity, born in Jerusalem during Roman occupation in the Hellenistic era is no different.

We know from Scripture that these earliest Christians met together on a consistent basis. In Jesus’ day there were two main ways people regularly met together, at the temples (Jewish or pagan), and at meals. In other words, worshipping together and sharing meals were common social practices of that era. Peter and the apostles prayed at the temple and taught in the temple courts where Jewish religious teaching in Jerusalem had always been done, until this became increasingly difficult because of the opposition of Jewish leaders. This leaves the shared meal as the one standing social practice by which early Christians could meet together in small groups.

We should ask ourselves why we don’t do the same.

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