Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Worshiping at the Table -- Thoughts on an Open Table


There is a tendency for people in every age to try to envision something from the past in contemporary terms. Therefore, when my own denominational tradition was born at the turn of the nineteenth century on the "American frontier," the founders tried to "restore" the worship and practices of the early church, but did so in 19th century garb. That's understandable.  If we are to learn from the practices of the early church, it's important to remember that we probably won't be able to completely "restore" what went before.

I've been reflecting on the Eucharist and the Lord's Table (the recent lectionary reflections on John 6 can be added into this conversation, but this will be the third to draw upon Dennis Smith's From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian WorldWhat I want to take notice of here today is Smith's point that Pauline congregations likely worshiped at the tables where they ate their dinner. Dinner wasn't merely a time of fellowship separate from worship, but the eating of the meal coincided with worship, which took place in the same space. Smith writes:


Not only were these Christians gathering for a community meal, but they were also conducting their entire worship service at the table as well. This makes more sense of the data than the model often employed, whereby we picture their community meal as a mere appendage to the real meeting, much as a fellowship dinner is related to Christian worship today. But these were not "mere" fellowship dinners. Paul has attached too much importance to them.  
Practically speaking, it makes sense that they would worship at table. If they ate when they gathered, and insisted that all eat together, why would they then adjourn to another room to worship? And what other rooms would be available? After all, the Greco-Roman house was designed so that hospitality  and entertaining of guests all took place in one room, the andron or triclinium. Even if a gathering of Christians grew too large for the normal dining room and had to dine instead in the courtyard, since it was presumably ably the only space large enough to accommodate everyone, that would not change the conventions of hospitality. [Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist (Kindle Locations 2569-2574). Kindle Edition.] 
I'm not sure an every Sunday worship service is feasible in this fashion, but the point I'm interested in here is the nature of the worship experience at Table. My sense (reading into the text) that this was an open table, where everyone, no matter their level of faith profession was welcomed. While I think that things changed rather quickly as the church became more concerned with boundaries, my interest is how we might learn from this early Table experience to better understand our own Table fellowship (and worship).

Worship and hospitality go together, and hospitality is more than setting out a nice meal. It is welcoming the other, including the stranger into the worship experience.  And Smith adds:  "To cut the symposium short and adjourn to another location for worship would be the height of inhospitality. It would also be unnecessary, because worship as practiced by Christians, lacking any need for temples and altars, could be carried out quite well at the table." [Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist (Kindle Locations 2579-2580).].  So, here's the question -- was everyone welcome at that table?

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