from the November/December 2019 issue

“When I was a young 20-something and new to New York City, I stumbled upon a local church. For a few months, I attended Sunday worship and made awkward small talk after service. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking to see if I could fit in this thing called “church.” Could I fit in? Could this faith thing really be for me?

Then two girls invited me over for dinner. They were as different from me in life experience and personality as can be. Yet I accepted their invitation. Together, we cooked a meal and sat down to eat. And by the end of the night, something profound happened: we became friends. Inviting someone over and making a meal seems like such a simple thing. But a meal can change everything. That meal made me think maybe we’re not so different after all. Maybe there’s space in this faith for someone like me.

The first church understood the disarming power of hospitality. Rodney Stark, social historian, describes the early church as a movement that made room for others. In the footsteps of Jesus, the first century Christian community modelled a hospitality that changed the world. They believed that every person, made in the image of God, was worthy of dignity. And in doing so, this marginal and obscure faith defied institutional authority and challenged social conventions: its followers adopted unwanted babies, freed slaves, protected the weak and vulnerable, cared for the sick as their own and loved all members of society with the same sense of equality and fraternity. And it all started with a simple habit: breaking bread and drinking wine, face to face, elbow to elbow.

Yes, it was really as simple as that.

In contrast to the conventions of the day, Christians did not use Roman-style banquets to reinforce the hierarchy of the ruling class. Banquets, although social in nature, played a largely political and economic role. In this setting, allegiances were emphasized—to the government, and between powerful patrons and their subordinates.

They were the place and occasion to display the power of the elites over everyone else and to remind underlings of their place in the pecking order. Wealthy, high status guests were positioned at the best seats at the table. They ate the choicest food and drink. Lower ranking guests were given less desirable seats (or none at all) and less desirable food and drink. Favours were bestowed in accordance to loyalty; dependency on powerful benefactors was encouraged. Parties were meant to keep everyone in line and loyal to the people at the top.

Christians also threw Roman-style banquets. But they created a different kind of table—one devoid of status and class, where even the marginalized and oppressed were extended an invitation. Their love feasts sidestepped the traditional symbols of hierarchy altogether. Instead, everyone ate the same food and everyone sat down at the same table. And by doing so, Christians subverted the Roman way of eating and drinking to communicate an alternate vision of the good life: a community where everyone was equal—regardless of gender, social class, ethnicity, political affiliation and background. These meals were given freely, without payment. Extended to anyone, despite rank or status. Love in this way was risky, unconventional, and in radical defiance of the prevailing Roman ideology. These meals were tangible witnesses to a God who loved unconditionally.

Nowadays, we don’t consider an ordinary meal as the starting point of a revolution. But the practices at our tables can’t help but shape us. We eat together and build towards identity and community. We pass the bread and participate in a shared, memory-making experience. We sit at our regular places and in doing so shape our ideas of home and belonging. Our tables are the transformational context where our relationships and communities can grow and thrive.”

Read about radical hospitality in Dr. Rodney Stark’s book: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Harper San Francisco 1997).