I recently came into e-possession of some information on the so-called Love Feast or Agape Meal (sometimes, just Agape). This material came from the United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992, and it is an interesting mix of (1) a relatively small slice of history and (2) some suggestions. Here is a link to the document, found after the fact: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-love-feast.
The document begins with a statement that attempts to locate and tame the Love Feast within an illusory, historical milieu:
The Love Feast, or Agape Meal, is a Christian fellowship meal recalling the meals Jesus shared with disciples during his ministry and expressing the koinonia (community, sharing, fellowship) enjoyed by the family of Christ.
I’m not sure how anyone can know anything about the “meals Jesus shared with disciples,” and in any event the notion of “family of Christ” is anachronistic here. But let’s move on. Below is the only known reference in canonical scripture to the “Love Feast”:
These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts. They feast with you, nurturing only themselves without fear. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn—fruitless, twice dead, pulled out by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever! (Jude 12, 13, HCSB)
It also makes sense to share the some notes on Jude 12:
That some of the false teachers were believers or at least professing believers seems certain since they were participating in the love-feast, the most intimate service of worship the early church practiced. The love-feast was a communal meal that included observance of the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-22). (Dr. Thomas L. Constable’s Notes, via Lumina-Bible.org)
Several witnesses (A Cvid 1243 1846 al), influenced by the parallel in 2 Pet 2:13, read ἀπάταις (apatais, “deceptions”) for ἀγάπαις (agapais, “love-feasts”) in v. 12. However, ἀγάπαις has much stronger and earlier support and should therefore be considered original. (NET Bible text-critical note)
The danger of the false teachers at the love feasts would be especially pernicious, for the love feasts of the early church involved the Lord’s Supper, worship, and instruction. (NET Bible study note)
The word agapais is a unique word in literature and might not even refer to meals at all. (bc)
I included the above notes not because they are particularly authoritative or thorough but because they were readily available and also because two of them establish that it is common to view the Agape Meal or Love Feast as something that includes the “Lord’s Supper.” Insight on this word and the later practice of the Love Feast may be gained from other literature, but connection to whatever was going on in Corinth (11:17f), or to whatever this Jude author had in mind, may be spotty.
It is not in question, as far as I know, that special believers’ meals did occur (see Acts 2, for instance), at times involving worship and memorials of the Last Supper genre. It has been supposed that the Love Feast tradition disappeared relatively early in Christian history, possibly because of abuses of the type obliquely referred to in Jude, but that vestiges of some practices were seen in western European church in the Middle Ages.¹ The Methodists seem to believe that “the modern history of the Love Feast” began with John Wesley’s experience in Savannah, Georgia in 1727, yet the very telling of this event appears to ignore the fact that those Moravians already had a regular practice, at least at that time and in that place.
Back to the UMC document now. . . . I suppose it shouldn’t be curious to me that anyone from any church tradition feels it is incumbent on him to legislate. The more structured the system, the more likely the presumption. I’m interested in denominations’ perspectives as historically informative, or possibly as resources for my own practice. If someone in a church organization (no matter which one it is) wants to tell me what’s OK and what’s not OK, I’ll try to listen politely, and I might learn something, but instructions that come from tradition, in and of themselves, are neither here nor there. If I find scriptural principle or historical precedent or logical rationale, I might just do a thing even if the UMC or the CofC or the R.C. Church or any other group says it’s not supposed to be done!
It is very odd to my way of thinking that whoever compiled the Methodist documentation felt it was important to say something (in paragraph 2) about the distinct “services” that should not be confused with each other. “The Lord’s Supper and the Agape meal must be thought of as distinct from one another,” say the Methodists, effectively, “with the former ‘authorized’ and hierarchically administered and the latter, more organic and familial.” Stranger still is that the writer of the UMC material found it necessary to say when and where a Love Feast may occur, such as . . .
- during the practice of Covenant Discipleship groups
- during a congregational supper (I envision someone standing up and interrupting good supper to say, “Now we’re going to have a Love Feast”! Why wasn’t the whole thing a Love Feast from the get-go?)
. . . as though the when and where are up to anyone other than the people who are engaging in it. Either it is a freewill feast or not, right? Apparently not, because directives are given:
It is customary not to use communion bread, wine, or grape juice because to do so might confuse the Love Feast with the Lord’s Supper.
The Love Feast has often been held on occasions when the celebration of the Lord’s Supper would be inappropriate—where there is no one present authorized to administer the Sacrament. . . .
It seems clear that the UMC idea of the Love Feast has been comfortably ensconced within the comfortable tradition of comfortable “dinner on the grounds” (my words, not theirs), and it was not to cross over the border into the land of remembering Jesus. However, the document had earlier acknowledged that the “two services” had once been interconnected. Either it is the Lord’s Supper or it isn’t, right? (I get the odor of vested interests here. “The hierarchy must be maintained,” they must think, “so we have to make sure the laity doesn’t start thinking they can do things on their own!”) Perhaps we have all been too concerned with what is or isn’t Communion, what is or isn’t the Lord’s Supper, rather than simply remembering Jesus with reverent gratitude in various kinds of gatherings. (This is not to detract from intentional, planned observances. They have their place, as well.) But do see my closing paragraph below.
I often utilize various tools available in my Logos Bible software. Logos scholars, in their infinite (sometimes politically minded) wisdom, decided on a middle ground when describing the sense of the term “Agape Meal”: “a meal expressing and fostering mutual love . . . held by believers before the celebration of the Lord’s supper.” See how neat that is for the Logos folks? They allow for the best of both worlds: connect the Agape feast with the Lord’s Supper on the one hand, but make sure it’s not threatening to those who have interest in clergy administration. How very unfortunate, though, to make the Lord’s Supper out to be something so formally ceremonial that ordinary people cannot attain to it on their own. “Better just have your little meal first, and get it out of the way, then the officials can administer the actually meaningful sacrament,” they seem to say.
The UMC information is of value within the Methodism house, but beyond that province, it has little to say about what Christians might do to remember the Lord in the context of a meal. What is described here is a relatively specific tradition of relatively recent origin. Whether the Moravian manifestation that Wesley experienced (or later circuit-riding preacher’ Love Feasts) bore some conceptual resemblance to the Love Feast referred to by Jude, I can’t say. Some feel Paul referred to the so-called Love Feast in 1Cor 11, and that type may be yet different. I myself am not so concerned with specifying what was a Love Feast and what was Communion and what was a common meal (or any other designation). I am far more concerned with the prerogative to remember the Lord. At any table with other believers seems like a good place to do that. A formal ceremony officiated and administered by someone in vestments—not so much.
So, what might or might not be done in a Love Feast? In Communion? In the Lord’s Supper”?
At some churches here in our town, many “observe” the “Lord’s Supper” relatively formally, with official, more-or-less scripted thoughts shared from a pulpit and men officially designated to pass official trays in official patterns.
At another church, I noticed this little table setting, not five feet from the front door, for people to serve themselves on the way in or out. (It can’t be very communal or thoughtful when you’re by yourself, blocking people on the way in, or rushing out to get in your car.)
At yet another church, although a more typical “communion” is observed monthly, on the other Sundays, two tables are prepared at the front corners of the gathering hall, and some share communion alone or with a friend or two. (Something about that method makes me ambivalent, but I can’t put my finger on it. I haven’t availed myself of the opportunity.)
In our own home a couple months ago, in the course of delving into the “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2, we shared communion (unleavened bread and juice, a repeated meditation-song, and thoughts based on scripture) with our small group of seven. (This was not a Love Feast in terms of other food, but it was a feast in terms of spiritual gratitude and meaning shared with like-minded siblings.)
At a church in another part of the country, a friend related that, once in a while, he pulls out round tables and sets them around so that communion—yes, the “Lord’s Supper”—can be shared in small groups.
The last two options above have the most merit, in my opinion. No method need be perfect, or even perfectly thorough. I have a hard time picturing my Lord with a disapproving posture, looking at us and saying, “No, no! That’s not the whole ceremony!” or examining us by grilling us with “Are you trying to do a communal meal or a regular meal or a Last Supper reenactment? I mean, you know, you can have a nice Love Feast, but don’t you dare remember me communally during it!” I am drawn to combining communion with elements traditionally associated with Love Feast, i.e., regular food around a table or living room, while sharing something about the intersection of Jesus and life. I don’t care much whether it’s called a Love Feast or Communion. (It’s certainly not a “supper” if it’s just bits of crackers and a tiny swig of juice in the morning, but such observations, important as they are to common sense, are not central here.) I do care very much that Christians remember Jesus. I suggest that communing in small groups may foster inter-connectedness and meaning.
Just over three years ago in rural, western New York, a group met in our home every Sunday evening and shared (what could be called) an Agape meal. This meal had occurred most times the group met for the prior three+ years. I actually don’t feel that many of our table efforts were all that imitable or admirable, but neither do I feel they were out of place or in some way to be devalued simply because they were informal and familiar. They were good, bonding times, and they were just as important as anyone’s formal communion ceremony earlier that day! In fact, I would go so far as to say to the Methodists: “Our community, although smaller, had just as much right to say it was observing communion in our Agape meal as you have to say that communion should be separate from the Agape meal.”
Why shouldn’t we remember Jesus at more meals? At every meal? I eagerly await a friend’s written reflections about doing this very thing at his family’s table. I doubt his thoughts will be any less significant than a historical theologian’s ideas about formalities.
¹ Philip Schaff, church historian