The text of the sermon I preached today at Agape Chinese Baptist Church
I think ‘Agape’ is a wonderful name for a church. In using it, you are using a word which sums up what church should be all about. Agape is the sort of love God has for us and the sort of love we should to have for each other and for Him.
One of the important things that showed agape in the early church was the agape feast, and it’s this that I want to talk about this morning. The agape feast was a shared meal that the church celebrated when it came together to worship. The wonderful thing about your church is that, unlike most churches, you are already practising the agape feast. I only want to fill in some of the background and its spiritual significance.
It’s weird to think that food and eating are spiritually important, but they are very much so. Indeed, the agape feast is one of the things which shows the world that Jesus is our Lord and that we’re different from the world. The agape feast is about both fellowship and mission. It remembers Jesus and makes us closer together – that is, fellowship. In the New Testament it was also a chance to include non-Christians in the kingdom – that is, mission.
1. The example of Jesus
Jesus set the example for the agape feasts of the early church in two different ways.
I. Table fellowship
First of all with his example of ‘table fellowship’. When you get to eat with someone, you feel included and accepted by them. This is true today in our culture; it was even more true in the time of Jesus. Jesus set an example of including all the sinful, left-out people who were some of his first followers.
In his ministry, we read about him going from town to town and house to house, eating with people. He deliberately ate with the people that no other good Jews would eat with. Who you ate with was really important to the good Jews like the Pharisees. It was a matter of being clean. They read their Bible very carefully and worked out that if they ate with sinful people, they would be unclean. They’d been concentrating on the details of the Bible so closely that they forgot the whole point of loving people. We should remember this when we read our Bibles too.
Tax collectors were one group of people good Jews wouldn’t eat with. They were collecting money for the Romans, the occupying empire and they were often doing it unfairly, cheating people. They also worked on the Sabbath and had continual contact with Gentiles. So they were seen as traitors and cheats.
In Luke 6:29-32 we read
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’
Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’
So Jesus eats in the homes of sinners and outcasts, showing his love and acceptance of these people. This was radically new!
Who we eat with shows something about us. Jesus realised it, and later on the disciples realised it in the early church. It’s something we need to realise too. Later on, in Luke 14:13, Jesus gives instructions about who to eat with, saying, ‘But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.’
I think we can carry that over to what we do as a church, and say that we should be seeking out the left-out people and offering them a place at our table of fellowship. It also applies to what we do at home. We should look for chances to invite people to eat with us, and not just the people we feel comfortable eating with, but the people who are different or left-out. Perhaps they are poor, or perhaps they have a disability, or perhaps they are just for lonely. We should obey Jesus by looking for chances to invite these people to eat in our homes and in our church.
II. The Lord’s Supper
The second way Jesus set up the agape feast was in the Last Supper. He ate the Passover meal with the disciples, and he told them that whenever they did this – whenever they ate together – they were to do it in remembrance of him.
2. The early church
The disciples obeyed him, and we read that once he ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost, they started doing what he said and eating together in remembrance of him.
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 favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
You can hear from this passage how eating together was a crucial part of what the early church did. All through the New Testament and into the second century of church history, the church ate together as an act of worship which was both fellowship and mission.
The main passages that talk about these agape feasts, or the breaking of bread, refer to when things are going wrong with it. So our knowledge comes from the negative. In the little letter of Jude, verse 12, we read ‘These men are blemishes at your love-feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves.’ In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul tells off the church at Corinth because in their agape-feasts, they aren’t showing agape. The rich are getting drunk and being greedy while the poor are going hungry.
Scholars have spent a long time working out how agape-feasts happened in the early church. As you probably know, churches met in houses back then. Most of the meal would be provided by the owner of the house, who was usually the richest family in the church. The others who had money would also bring some food. The poorest people would bring food if they could, but the main thing was that they could come and get a free meal. The shared meal would help look after them and make sure they didn’t go hungry.
Indeed, the passage from Acts we read shows something that also happened. Not only did they provide food for each other, but they also gave money to make sure everyone was looked after. When you share food and time together you become family, and it led to the early church sharing their money as well.
Singing and teaching probably happened during the meal. Discussion, prayer and prophecy would all take place around the dinner table.
As part of the meal, there would also be a symbolic breaking of a loaf of bread and sharing of a cup of wine. It is this part of the meal that the Last Supper stories focus on, and it is this part that became known as the Lord’s Supper. Originally, the Christians wouldn’t have dreamed of having the Lord’s Supper without the agape feast, because the agape feast was the chance to show the love and sharing that the Lord’s Supper was talking about.
However, the church changed over the centuries. It became more formal and less spontaneous. Soon after the Roman emperor became a Christian in the fourth century, everyone was saying they were a Christian. The church got very big. It had organisation problems. It wasn’t so easy to have a shared meal when you had a couple of hundred people gathering for worship. The church decided to turn the Lord’s Supper into a much more ritualised ceremony. It wasn’t convenient to eat together, so they turned it into just a sip of wine and a piece of bread. The food became symbolic, and the meanings the agape feast had, of looking after the poor and sharing with each other, were lost.
To sum up, eating together was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. His meals included people who were left out. The early church carried on the practice of eating together in its agape feasts. In your church, you do well by eating together. I encourage you to think of ways to include the left out people. I also encourage you to remember that what you are doing when you eat together is spiritual. It is a part of your new life in the kingdom. Don’t stop doing it, and do it with thanksgiving in your hearts knowing that you are remembering Jesus.