Eating Food with Glad and Generous Hearts
They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46b NRSV).
This article is part of a continuing series on the early Christian church as depicted in Acts 2:41-47. Previous articles in this series can be found in the author’s archives.
The first Christians in Jerusalem formed a community of faith wherein they met in private homes for corporate worship while also continuing to participate in the life of the Temple. In this context, God worked many signs and wonders amongst the people through the presence of God’s Spirit. Nurtured by the teaching of the apostles, the people grew in a spirit of generosity and unity. While they assembled in homes for worship and to receive the Lord’s Supper, the book of Acts also suggests that Christians assembled in homes to share ordinary food. In Luke’s description of the early church, he says that the people “spent much time together” and that they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).”
The Importance of Hospitality
In biblical cultures, the practice of hospitality is one of the highest virtues. The story of Abraham welcoming three strangers in Genesis 18:1-8 illustrates this point well. While the narrator of the story makes it clear that Abraham is hosting God (Gen 18:1), nothing in the story indicates that Abraham immediately suspects that his mysterious guests might be divine visitors. Whether or not Abraham discerns the true identity of the three figures, he greets them with the utmost respect, bowing before them and addressing them as “my lord” (Gen 18:2-3). After greeting them, Abraham offers them water, foot washing, rest, and bread (Gen 18:4-6). Sarah sets to work on baking cakes for the guests while Abraham arranges the preparation of “a calf, tender and good (Gen 18:7).” Once the calf is prepared, Abraham offers the calf along with curds and milk to his three guests (Gen 18:8).
This text highlights several of the key elements of biblical hospitality. Abraham begins by treating his guests with the utmost respect and dignity. He then inconveniences himself for the sake of another’s benefit. Genesis 18:8 ends with a line that suggests that Abraham himself did not partake of the spontaneous feast he arranged for his guests. His hospitality is an act of pure sacrifice, service, and generosity. Furthermore, Abraham offers more than a minimum level of hospitality, going so far as to offer the luxuries of meat and dairy.
Possibly drawing on the story of Abraham’s hospitality toward strangers, the book of Hebrews implores Christians to be hospitable people: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Heb 13:1-2).” Whether or not one’s guests are actually angelic, the message remains the same. Christians are to open their homes and tables to one another, as well as to strangers. Even more, one never knows when one might be hosting the Lord himself (Lk 24:28-35; Mt 25:34-40)! The first Christians in Acts followed this admonition with great eagerness.
Meals in the Ministry of Jesus
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus frequently shares meals in homes. In the story, he shows himself willing to accept invitations from all people–sinners, tax collectors, disciples, and religious leaders. Sometimes Jesus is criticized for this openness to dine with the full spectrum of humanity. When some scribes and Pharisees complain about Jesus’ habit of dining with sinners, Jesus responds saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:31-32).” Therefore, when Jesus eats with a person, it is profound theological statement on his part and a sign of the presence of God’s kingdom.
When Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs to announce the coming of the kingdom, he instructs them to find houses where the people offer them peace and hospitality. When the disciples find a gracious host, they are to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide (Lk 10:7).” In this style of ministry, an open table is a sign of spiritual openness. When the disciples find someone open to the good news of the kingdom, they should remain in that place and accept the hospitality offered to them. Jesus even warns not to “move about about from house to house (Lk 10:7).”
While Jesus seems to prefer to visit the house of a tax collector, Luke also records several instances where Jesus dines at the house of a Pharisee (Lk 7:36; 14:1). Both dinner scenes result in confrontation between Jesus and these religious leaders. Jesus ends up telling parables that challenge the prideful spirituality of the Pharisees. In Luke 14, Jesus challenges social norms of honor and reciprocity by telling his dinner host not to invite friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors to future dinner parties (Lk 14:12). Such persons have the ability to repay the debt of hospitality. Instead, Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you (Lk 14:13-14).”
Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus sits at the table one last time with his disciples. As they assemble, Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Lk 22:15).” Once again this shows the passion Jesus has for the intimate fellowship of the dinner table. In his final hours of life, he wants nothing more than to eat with his disciples and celebrate the story of the Exodus. At this Last Supper, though, the symbolism of the seder meal is transformed and Jesus institutes the sacrament of communion.
In each of these stories from Luke’s Gospel, the importance of table fellowship is made clear. Eating with others is in many ways a spiritual discipline and a means of spiritual formation. Furthermore, it is a sign of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom and a foretaste of the messianic banquet to come.
Barriers to Intimate Table Fellowship
In the New Testament epistles, it becomes clear that table fellowship is not some utopian ideal. Sinful human nature often undermines the goodness that God desires to create through a shared meal. The book of James warns against showing favoritism toward wealthy guests who might be able to benefit the host in some fashion, while scorning the poor person who enters the assembly (Jas 2:1-4). This practice of showing favoritism directly contradicts Jesus’ teaching about inviting the poor, lame, and blind to share in table fellowship.
Paul chastises the Christians in Corinth for undermining the spirit of Christian fellowship through their sinful behaviors. He says that when they come together “it is not for the better but for the worse (1 Cor 11:17).” This contrasts sharply with the spirit of gladness and generosity described in Acts 2. What went wrong in the years between when the faith began in Jerusalem and when the faith arrived in Corinth? Paul describes the Corinthians as divisive, motivated by wrong desires, gluttonous, selfish, and self-centered. By their actions, they turn Lord’s supper into an opportunity to get drunk with no regard for the members of the body who “have nothing (1 Cor 11:18-22).” Christian fellowship is easily distorted by members of the body who put their own needs and desires first, while simultaneously neglecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community.
Jesus set a pattern of hospitality and intimate table fellowship for his followers to imitate. The first Christians did this by eating food at home “with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).” When Christians eat together in love and unity, it is a profound theological statement about the kingdom of God. Those who are gathered around the table are nourished in both body and soul, and the sharing of meals becomes a means of spiritual formation. However, without a measure of cautiousness, the beauty of table fellowship can easily be corrupted by favoritism, pride, divisiveness, and selfishness.