I am a huge fan of the church potluck.
Actually, I have taken to calling them “pot blessings” because, as a Christian, I no longer buy the concept of “luck.” I believe God does not believe in coincidence. (But that’s a subject for a different post.)
Anyway, I recently had occasion to study 1 Corinthians 11: 17:22 and it certainly made me wonder about its connection to the pot blessing:
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. (ESV)
The early Christians were in the habit of holding “love feasts” or agape. (Yes, that’s the same word we now use to refer to genuine, selfless Christian love.)
This agape feast began from the very foundations of the early church. It included a meal, followed by the Lord’s Supper. In the culture of the day, sitting down and eating with another person was a sign of trust and fellowship. (Hence the disapproval by the Pharisees when Jesus ate with “sinners” as referred to numerous times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
So, the agape feast was understandably a natural outpouring of Christian love in those early days when the Holy Spirit was moving in power over thousands of people.
Unfortunately, it rapidly went wrong, as Paul’s vehement words for the Corinthians attest. Most Bible scholars date Paul’s writing of this letter at about 57-59 AD, or less than thirty years after Jesus died on the cross and rose again.
Despite abuses, the practice continued for a long, long time—presumably in the manner intended with the focus on fellowship, sharing, and Jesus.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a student of John the Apostle, refers to the practice in his writings. So did Pliny the Younger about 70 years after Jesus. Hippolytus of Rome, (170-235AD) also mentions them, as does Tertullian (160-225 AD). By the middle of the third century, the connection of the meal to the Lord’s Supper had faded away, but agape feasts were still being held.
Sometime between 363 and 364 AD, the Council of Laodecia forbade the use of churches for agape feasts, but they did not fall into complete disuse until shortly after 692 AD when the Trullan Council declared that those who held love feasts in churches should be excommunicated. (The same council declared that honey and milk should not be offered on the altar.)
It wasn’t until about a thousand years later that several small Protestant denominations, in an effort to return to the practices of the early church, revived the agape feast. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, brought the practice to America after his conversion in 1735.
Now, the case can be made that the common pot blessing held in church basements all across this country are not technically, historically, or Biblically connected to the agape feasts of the early church. Certainly, the current practice is not connected to the Lord’s Supper. (Although I did find a pastor on one website who jokingly referred to the three sacraments of baptism, communion, and potluck.)
Nonetheless, although we may not be consciously attempting to duplicate what took place at the time of the apostles, I think a blue graniteware roaster full of scalloped potatoes and ham next to a quivering mound of red Jell-O with bananas hovering in it speaks volumes about love.
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 8:11 NIV)