When was the last time you read the book of Jude? It’s there tucked between John’s letters and the book of Revelation. Well, I am on a reading programme that brings me through the whole Bible and presently I am in the book of Jude. A large part of the book warns us against false teachers, something we need to take more seriously today. But it’s the glimpses into early church life that reinforces what I have long believed the church should be — that the main gathering of the church is a meal, not a formal worship service, and that all followers of Jesus have a responsibility to help each other grow in the faith.
Jude 12 reads:
These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. (NIV)
Gene L. Green comments:
The ethical characteristic that marked the early Christian feasts was “love,” the principal virtue of the Christian community that reflected the very nature of God himself . . . The virtue of love was so dominant in both the consciousness and experience of the community that, by extension, the sacred meal came to be known as an agapē. Jude is the first witness that we have of this use of the term, which became very prevalent in the early church . . . Jude has in mind the whole Christian feast and not only the Eucharist, for he describes the heretics as those who “feast together” with the church. (Gene L. Green, Jude & 2 Peter [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008], 94.)
Two things. First, the early church was defined by the love the members had for each other. Second, a key expression of that mutual love was their practice of eating together. This was the main activity of the church. The church came together regularly over meals. At such gatherings they would hear the Word, care for one another, sing to the Lord, and yes, celebrate the Lord’s supper as an integral part of the meal.
Today, the main activity of the church, or at least until Covid, was the Sunday worship where there was little fellowship, and where the Lord’s supper was highly ritualised and celebrated apart from any real experience of community.
We are not surprised that later in his letter, Jude reminds the recipients to build each other up. The early church was highly communal, and a key responsibility of the community was to help each other grow in their faith.
But you, dear friends, must build each other up in your most holy faith, pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, and await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life. In this way, you will keep yourselves safe in God’s love. (vv. 20–21 NLT)
Green reminds us:
Jude is not merely exhorting the individual believer to grow in faith but also calls the church to labor together for its corporate growth, which certainly integrates and benefits each particular member . . . Nor is this a function exclusive of the leadership of the church: each member seeks to contribute to the corporate building in the faith . . . The early church was not wracked by the rugged individualism and consumer mentality often found in contemporary Western congregations. Community is the soil where faith grows. (Gene L. Green, Jude & 2 Peter, 120.)
If community is the soil where faith grows, could a key reason why many believers do not grow in Christlike maturity today be the fact that our church experience is mainly anonymous, where we might gather for corporate worship and other events but, by and large, we are mostly strangers to each other. The early church met regularly at communal meals where loving relationships were norm.
The Covid crisis has been very disruptive for the church. For one thing, it has been so difficult to do our Sunday morning corporate worship. Many are just longing to get back to business as usual. I wonder. I see this period of disruption as a God-given time to step back and re-look at how we do church in the light of Scripture.
I know of a number of churches who have decided to make their small groups the main expression of church life and for the large corporate worship, when it resumes, to support their small groups and not the other way around. I would suggest they go one step further and get the small groups to meet over a main meal, that is dinner or lunch. They may find that they will experience a deeper level of agape over an agape feast.