1 Corinthians 11:17-25
As we gather today, after a wonderful brunch, we are participating in what was the ordinary practice of the earliest apostolic community.
The early pattern of New Testament worship was: eating a meal together, followed by teaching and then the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. We see hints of this pattern even in the ministry of Jesus. Think how often we see Jesus having dinner at someone’s house! And then he teaches them at the table.
The epitome of this practice is found in Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples just before he was arrested. From what we know of the Passover celebration, the brief discourse we read in the Gospels is much abbreviated. We hear about the beginning of the gathering, when it was left to Jesus to wash the feet of the dinner guests. And then there are bits and pieces – dipping bread and giving it to Judas, breaking of bread, several cups of wine. And in the midst of all of this is a great deal of conversation and teaching – we don’t know what order all this happened, as each of the gospels recounts it differently. But we know that the Passover meal was and is a big meal of the best food possible. The first Lord’s supper was a big meal with lots of people and hubbub! And within it, was Jesus’ teaching.
The early church practice clearly involved meals together from the very beginning. Deacons were chosen because some were complaining that the serving was not fair. Paul gave instructions about the same problem in what we read today. People were bringing their food and wine, but not sharing it in the spirit of love. The Love Feast acted out the abundance of God’s provision for us in our lives, just like the Sabbath, sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee. All of these practices were there to ensure that all people benefited from God’s grace.
Since the Love Feast is the most ancient Christian gathering practice, it is surprising that I never heard of a “Love Feast” until I was 20 years old. I was serving on a summer mission. There were about 20 young people from all over the world who had come to this big house next to the International Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, to engage in conversation with young travelers. Every night we opened our ground-level hospitality room and invited anyone to come in and take a break. We had music, often live music, coffee and tea, and not much else. It wasn’t fancy. But it was an opportunity to sit down with strangers and to tell stories and make connections.
As human nature would have it, we ran into some tangles in our community – we who lived and worked and studied together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So our community leaders decided it was time for a Love Feast. Our building had the canal off our front steps and a courtyard off the back. We always used the canal side. And the back courtyard was decrepit from non-use. It was decided that the feast would be in the courtyard. I don’t think I had ever gone out there before! But, we worked together to clean it to Arie’s satisfaction – clean enough to eat off the floor! I remember Arie supervising the table. Actually…, it wasn’t a table. In Eastern style we sat on the ground with a long cloth filled with God’s bounty running down the middle of the people. Some folks had gone to the flower market to get roses for the table. Our French chef, “France,” dreamed up a wonderful menu and soon the kitchen was filling the house with wonderful smells. There were candles, live music by our own recorder trio, and talented singers and other instrumentalists, dancers.
It was a beautiful summer evening. The food was amazing! And, since it was a Monday, we had the evening off, to relax and chat with our friends. I can’t imagine a more beautiful way to heal the rubs in our community. We saw in each gift given by others, that we were truly blessed! Everyone had a hand in it, and it wouldn’t be the same without each contribution. The whole thing was almost magical in the way it brought us back together. It changed our perspective, opened our eyes. It was holy.
Some of you have seen the film, “Babbette’s Feast.” If you haven’t, I highly recommend it! It is a story much like the one I have told of our little community in Amsterdam. Babbette, a famous French chef comes to a little coastal village in Jutland, Denmark. Everything is barren and gray, including the life of the local Lutheran community, which has become rigid and depressing. At the death of their pastor, the community begins to fall apart into squabbles and bickering. The little community, only enough to sit around one dining room table now, decides to mark the 100th birthday of their deceased leader. Babbette asks the great favor of preparing the meal. And she goes to work preparing the most elaborate French culinary experience imaginable, with all the foods and wines imported from France by ship. The community begins to see the extravagance arriving, and realize that their acetic discipline is being threatened. So, they decide to eat the food, but to make no comment, nor to appear to enjoy it.
But the elaborate, artful meal Babette prepares brings them together. They experience joy again and are reminded of the good all around them and their love for one another. They realize that they have been given a gift, an opportunity they will likely never have again. And the blessing is for Babbette as well. She spends her fortune to create this experience for them, but it is also the way she reconnects with what has been her heart all her life. To create beautiful delicious food and for people to be transformed with joy by it.
What we have today is the pot luck. One thing I have loved about having Marsha Johnson as part of our community is her ability to make our pot luck gatherings into Love Feasts. What is it she has encouraged in us?
The first thing I think of is Beauty. Food is not just about filling our growling stomachs. The touch of beauty, color, flowers, welcoming smiles, remind us of abundance. It is not just, sit down and feed the hunger, but much more. A Love Feast fills all our senses. Marsha, along with the others inspired by her have reintroduced us to the Love Feast.
The love for beautiful, colorful food, for the flowers on the table and the place prepared, these bring us together. They allow us to encounter each other, converse with friends and strangers, tell our stories. And in these connections, we are changed, we gain courage to live the life Jesus taught, we are held, we find joy.
So here we are talking about feasting on the eve of the year’s great fast – Lent. How does talk of feasting help us prepare? What kind of fast are we preparing? What kind of fast does the Lord desire of us?
At the Passover, Jesus’ last recorded meal, he had all the pleasures of the high holidays. The best food – a roasted lamb – and plenty for everyone, because they were required to eat it all. It was a meal of abundance!
Perhaps as we enter this season of fasting, we might reconsider what fasting is for. Do we want our fasts to be seen as dour disciplines, pinching our faces and dousing our smiles? Is this the kind of fast the Lord loves?
What about fasting from all (or at least a few) of the things which pinch our faces, bring lines to our foreheads and tighten our stomachs? What about fasting from hurry? What about fasting from the things that distract us from God’s way? For me, one of those things is the media. The subliminal (and sometimes blatant) messages of the media tell me to be afraid and that there is not enough for everyone, so grab my share and protect it!
In contrast, the Love Feast is a celebration of abundance – that God has provided enough, more than enough for our heart’s desires. Can we fast from the messages which tell us otherwise? How?
One way is to be conscious about what we are putting into our hearts, minds, ears. For this reason I have prepared a reading guide. It is the centuries-long daily reading guide from the Lectionary (read it here). It is a lot of reading for some of us, but being conscious of what we put into our minds and hearts is a good fast for Lent.
Before you decide on your Lenten discipline, over these next few days, notice when you become afraid or anxious. What causes it? What are the subliminal messages of fear and scarcity which we take in every day? Take a count. Make a little mark every time you feel fear or worry, when your stomach tightens or your jaw tightens. What causes this? These are the things to give up. Ask: What might I give up in order to live a more beautiful, happy and fulfilled life?
In losing the Love Feast, Christianity may have lost one of the most important realities of our faith – that God has given us to each other as a community. Whatever we face, we do it together. We are never alone. Never. And that is reason to rejoice.
What if this Lent, we fast in order to make room for joy? Ironic? Yes. But why not? What more could possibly honor what Jesus brought, how Jesus lived in this world? It is all joy! For we are held in the heart of love.
It is in the context of the Love Feast that we partake of the Lord’s Supper today. After eating together, laughing and enjoying ourselves, we recognize at this table, the one who gave us this joy in the first place, God, our Creator who made us for this, our Lord, Jesus Christ who showed us what love is like, and the Spirit who connects us with one another for love’s sake.
Come meet Jesus at the great Love Feast!
If you would like to read an article about the the Love Feast in church history, here is a good place: http://www.earlychurch.com/LoveFeast.html