Some beginning reflections on background for Dinner Church.
There are three factors that the earliest followers of Jesus had to face.
The Empire: the life situation in which they lived- the life of the common person in the rough and tumble of the Roman Empire. Their major issue was not what beliefs they should hold about this new faith and about Jesus. it was what were the the teachings of this Palestinian rabbi which would help them negotiate the harsh and oppressive life that was the lot of them many who lived marginally under the rule of the Empire. The Empire was all powerful; security was arbitrary. All but a couple percent of the 65 million population struggled even to have enough to eat. Any profit from their labor beyond subsistence went in taxes to the few who were unconscionably wealthy. Any who seemed to be unhappy enough with their lot so as to revolt would encounter the cruel steel of the Roman legions.
Christian sources they had to help them negotiate a difficult world. According to Burton Mack, before there were the Gospels, there was a book of the teachings of Jesus. This is the Q source, which, by several generations of biblical scholars, is thought to be the source that ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ used to add to the life accounts of Jesus found in ‘Mark’. Thus, in the earliest stage of the Jesus movement there were circulating, probably in oral form, collections of teachings and of stories of Jesus.
Their meeting context in which they encountered those sources to provide help and direction to live their lives– the Greco-Roman Meals. Hence, early Christianity began as a social project, not a set of ideas or doctrines. The focus was on the what do we do, not on what do we believe; how do we live by the Kingdom at the same time as caught in the forces of the Empire. There were many assemblies gathering for meals and struggling to apply the teachings to their lives in various settings. The church began not as ‘Christianity’ but as many ‘Christianities’. Just as there are many different ways that the Christian life is seen and taught and lived by our many denominations today, there were many varieties at the beginning.
It was not until the fourth century when Constantine, the new convert, wanted to use the Christian faith as the glue to hold together a disintegrating empire that the idea of one faith came to the fore. It was his underwriting the costs to bring the leaders together at his palace, in Nicea and in other councils, that a unity was imposed on the variety.
This says two things to me concerning the Dinner Church Movement.
First, as we discover that there was no singular model for the early church, so we should not expect a single model of Dinner Church to emerge today. There was a variety in the Spirit then; so shall we have variety today.
Second, as the early Christians struggled to apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives in an oppressive empire, so must we struggle with Kingdom teachings in our present world. To be faithful to our church ancestors, we cannot be satisfied with just reproducing the meal model. As we meet and eat, we must become aware of what the Empire was like. How did encountering the teachings affect them in the decisions they had to make? What is the empire that overshadows us? What should be the nature of our gatherings?