The use of food imagery, agricultural morals and communal dining in the Bible appears so often in the teachings of Jesus that some argue that gastronomic imagery was the central motif of the early Christian church. Jesus used an everyday and basic activity to upset the cultural and social structures of the time by creating a space where all were welcome and equal.
“Open commensality profoundly negates distinctions and hierarchies between female and male, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew. It does so, indeed, at a level that would offend the ritual laws of any civilised society. That was precisely its challenge” (42 MICHAEL SYMONS).
Agape feasts, also known as love feasts, are a Biblical method for Christian believers to experience God’s grace within the body and ultimately encounter “evangelization by gastronomy” (147, Food and Faith).
The term “love feasts” makes a Biblical appearance in Jude 1:12, the second to last book of the New Testament,
“These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead.” (NIV).
While the Bible frequently makes reference to dining and food imagery, this is the only place where the term love feast explicitly appears. In all other mentions of communal dining, there is instruction and encouragement to partake in the practical application of God’s love through breaking bread together. Love or agape feasts were often seen as a meal that captured the fellowship and fulfillment of God’s love as the early church developed (Bible study website).
The Christian American practice of “radical dining” (Symons 42) through love feasts was born out of German Protestant tradition, specifically the Moravians, German Seventh-Day Baptists, the Pennsylvania Dutch and Mennonites (Food and Faith, 147). Once introduced to the American Protestant community in the late 1700s, the United Methodists adopted the tradition and some Protestant communities continue to practice variations of the tradition in the present day.
Pieter Pourbus: An Allegorical Love-Feast (Dutch born, Flemish Renaissance painter)
Components of the Feast
Before the feast began, participants were encouraged to physically and spiritually prepare to partake in the blessed event. Often times this meant personal confession or prayer before arriving for the feast. Upon arrival, the participants would split into same gendered groups. They would remove their shoes and then wash each other’s feet, just as Christ washed the feet of his disciples. The biblical practice found clearly articulated in the book of John, was meant to humble, purify and serve others through loving actions. Feet washing fostered unity and was seen as a valid method for also cleansing your own heart with the love of Christ.
After washing the feet, the next phase of the event was the meal. The meals were often served family style and they featured celebratory foods. Menu options were diverse and varied heavily depending on the particular heritage and traditions of that specific congregation (Food & Faith, 158). For dining, specific seating arrangements were outlined as an attempt to erase lines of division such as gender, age, and occupation. It is also important to note that children as young as ten were allowed to partake in these events. Unity within the body was the goal and therefore the coordinators of the event especially encouraged new relationships to be developed.
The meal was often followed by a Biblical message of some variation, either through prayer or sermon. Personal testimonies or baptisms were incorporated in some application of the feasts dependent upon congregational style.
What the Love Feast Is Not
While the love feast was originally created to capture the communal elements of the last supper, it is not meant to historically recreate the momentous representation of the event in the same way as Communion or the Eucharist. A variation of bread and wine are essential at the Communion however a strict menu is not necessary for love feast preparations. The goal of the Communion is to remember Jesus by metaphorically consuming His body; this is not the intention for love feasts.
However, the love feast was more than a common meal. It was out of the ordinary and it possessed spiritual intentions. Therefore, while it was not the Holy Communion or a recreation of the Last supper, it was more special than a common church potluck. The event fell in the middle of the spectrum and really served as a way to intentionally care to the community but ultimately appeal to outsiders for inclusion.
A Tool for Inviting Outsiders
Many congregations who promoted the practice of love feasts recognized that food could serve as a potential attraction to “worldlings;” people who did not subscribe to the Christian faith (Food & Faith, 159). Love feasts became a way to care for the internal members of the church but also reach a broader audience. In fact, many argue that Jesus intended this outward approach from the origin of the feasts, “by dining with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ Jesus demonstrated companionship with outsiders (Symons 38). While partaking in love feasts, God presence was invited to create a spiritual environment for upward and outward connection.
Biblically, Jesus was a dangerous eater who included and dined with people of various backgrounds. Love feasts attempt to follow this model as a way to pass down the stories of Jesus in a similar manner to the way Jesus spread his own ministry. Love feasts are meant as “an invitation to consider themselves as the marginal who have been brought to the center of God’s hospitality” (McGowan 20). While a small number of congregations may have closed off these events to outsiders, most congregations saw the potential to evangelize through food. This overlap of food and faith demonstrates the power of food within the Christian church and the use of food as a tool to build community.
Food & Faith, Commensality and Love Feast by Heidi Oberholtzer Lee Chapter 7
Bible, ESV, Jude 1:12
Michael Symons, From Agape to Eucharist: Jesus meals and the early church
Bible Study - http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T3930
Dangerous Eating? By Andrew McGowan