Border Protection and the Lord’s Supper – 3: the early church

Posted: February 13, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Mission, Pastoral issues, Theology

Ben Meyer comments on how radical Jesus’ table practice was in a Judaism where rule-keeping and cleanness were a prerequisite and a condition for table fellowship:

“The innovation in the act of Jesus was to reverse this structure: communion first, conversion second. His table fellowship with sinners implied no acquiescence in their sins, for the gratuity of the reign of God cancelled none of its demands. But in a world in which sinners stood inescapably condemned, Jesus’ openness to them was irresistible. Contact triggered repentance; conversion flowered from communion. In the tense little world of ancient Palestine, where religious meanings were the warp and woof of the social order, this openness was a potent phenomenon.”

Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus. SCM, 1979, 161.

If this was so, if Jesus was an innovator at this point, then we have to ask: what happened to his innovation? How did we get to be back in the old Jewish structure: conversion first, and only then communion – as it is in our evangelical churches today? Perhaps it was the early church. Did the apostles abandon Jesus’ radical approach?

In Acts, the early chapters contain no controversy regarding meal-sharing. But the theme enters in dramatically in chapter 10, with Peter’s vision and mission to Cornelius. The burden of the vision is, that foods are no longer unclean, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.’ The direct payoff of this vision is that Peter is able to go and offer inclusion in the community of Jesus to the Roman Cornelius and his people. In Peter’s vision, then, food functions symbolically, standing for the ‘unclean’ Gentile world (Acts 10:28), which God is now making clean through Christ.

The instruction, ‘sacrifice and eat’ (Acts 10:13) makes it clear that the context in which this revolution is to be enacted is that of the table of Yahweh. We have seen that for Israel meals were intrinsically sacrificial: this is not changing. What is changing is that Israel’s sacrificial meal practices are no longer restricted to Jews. For in Christ God has called all foods and all peoples clean, and welcomed them all to his table. The barrier that keeps Gentiles out has been swept away in Christ. Now Gentiles can share at the table with Israel – the table of Yahweh, which has for the Christians become the ‘table of the Lord’.

This new reality is played out immediately: Peter enters the Gentile Cornelius’s house and stays with him several days (10:48). This would certainly have included sharing Cornelius’s table and eating his food, in effect extending the table fellowship of Israel to these Gentiles. Because of the ritual considerations involved, visits like this were traditionally forbidden to Jews: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (10:28). But Peter is breaking new ground, guided by the vision. The MO is the same as that of Jesus, reconciling people to God through the meal table – but now the scope of the mission has expanded massively, from ‘the unclean in Israel’ to ‘the whole unclean world’.

It is vital to notice that Peter enters into this fellowship before these people have been converted to Christ. Once again the pattern identified by Meyers (above) is at work: communion first, conversion second.

This breakthrough is the logical extension of Jesus’ own practice, welcoming the outsider and the sinner to his table, not protecting against uncleanness. Now the practice is seen to be a more universal principle of the kingdom, and is expanded to include all who have been labelled unclean: i.e. the whole Pagan world.

This inclusion of Gentiles at the Lord’s table dominates the entire rest of Acts. The story of Paul’s missionary journeys is the story of how Gentiles come in to share the ‘kingdom feast’ while Jews are left out. Controversy over Gentile inclusion dogs Paul’s every step from here on. It is the reason for the Jerusalem council. It is the cause of Paul’s unpopularity, and eventually of his arrest and subsequent trials.

It can be seen that, far from betraying Jesus’ radical missionary table practices, the apostles actually extended them, under the guidance of the Spirit, beyond the border of Judaism and out to the nations. In the apostolic ministry, all people everywhere were welcomed in to share in the meal. For, as Peter said, through Jesus “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

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