I was raised in a heritage that often pitted itself against the world. We were encouraged not to hang out, or even make, friends at school, lest they poison us toward God. Church members bragged about only visiting other members’ homes for Halloween despite that meaning Halloween became a drive around the city rather than a neighbourhood walk. Persecution was believed to be occurring because public Christian prayer was not permitted in schools. Even my friends from other denominations were suspect because those churches were noted for not believing the “right” things (aka, what our church believed).
I wrestled with these views all through high school and college and even into my early years of ministry. All this while, I was reading the gospels and being captured by Jesus’ imaginative vision for a kingdom of nobodies. He healed people who were outcasts from society because of their disease, gained a reputation as a glutton and drunkard, and hung out with the dredges of society (tax collectors and sinners).
Jesus, in both his person and his mission, was very different from what I had believed in my youth. Rather than being exclusive, Jesus was inclusive in fellowship.
His fellowship was rooted in hospitality, one of the core virtues of Christianity. If nothing else, Jesus was hospitable. We see, in his hospitality, a vision for equality and inclusion around hospitality.
Emily M. D. Scott has written a wonderful book, For All Who Hunger, which touches on these themes through her work as founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn. Her book is largely autobiographical, but, as the best autobiographies do, she teaches us as her experience mediates a theological reality to us.
The book details table fellowship as a, if not the, sign of the kingdom of God. Folks from all backgrounds come together to prepare the table, prepare and share a meal together, participate in a shared liturgy, and clean up together. The emphasis is not the particularities of the people gathering, but their shared practices and the eschatological notes that are being proclaimed through gathering and sharing.
Three things in particular stand out for me from her book.
First, the way of the early church was a way of table fellowship, not gathered, building-centric worship. Scott writes, “[i]n the first few centuries of Christianity, worship took place not in a sanctuary full of pews, but around a handful of tables in people’s homes” (8).
This is an obvious point to make in our time where the effect of Constantine has been well documented. What is less obvious is the way that we note the priority of the early Christians for house-based table fellowship while we make apologies for maintaining our status quo. I’m not suggesting that churches need to sell their buildings and go back to houses. However, in virtually all cases, we can do better. Imagine a network of small groups in an existing church transitioning from Bible study group to neighbourhood, meal-based fellowships where neighbours were invited and stories were shared. What might be different for this church as a result of changing their practices?
Second, Christians must embody practices, not just rehearse rituals. Scott recounts a story from her childhood where, after sharing communion together with her church, her family sat down for Sunday lunch. Outside, she noticed two children who appeared to her to be homeless and were hungry, but who were not invited in to share a meal (31).
Jesus, on multiple occasions, ate with people, miraculously fed large crowds, and taught that small deeds of kindness done to people were more important than large things done to be seen by others. While we may rightly draw inspiration and encouragement from our rituals, we must also be transformed by them so our religion becomes something that is alive, something is rooted in ritual but redeemed by action.
Third, repentance must be at the heart of our practice. Scott reminds us that Lent is a church season that occurs every year and reminds us to repent (169).
Repentance is like a heart-check for ourselves, a way to remind ourselves to walk in the way of Jesus. Jesus’ first teaching, in fact, was about repentance -- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Repentance balances our activist-side with our contemplative-side. It keeps us grounded in Jesus, and reminded of the core values of hospitality and table.
Repentance also helps us work through our attitudes toward others that keep us from being hospitable and practicing table fellowship with them. It is the great equalizer, reminding us that Christ’s body, shared by us in the eucharist, is in fact an offering for all.
Practices are at the center of a Jesus-based spirituality. Hospitality, table fellowship, and repentance are all core to who we are becoming in Christ. If we will focus on loving our neighbours, being hospitable and sharing with those in need, and living in repentance, our communities also can grow to be Jesus-shaped.
[This article reviews For All Who Hunger, Emily M. D. Scott (Convergent, 2020).]