Table fellowship, or generous hospitality, is a theme that runs throughout the “orderly account” of the life of Jesus and the movement of his followers, as they spread the good news of salvation across the Mediterranean basin in the first century. (We know this “orderly account” as the two books in the New Testament—the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/an-orderly-account-a-quick-guide-to-luke-and-acts/)
The lectionary readings for last week (Acts 11) as well as this week and next week (Acts 16) include specific references to table fellowship. Peter and his companions in Joppa share at table with the men from Cornelius (10:23; 11:4-11) and then, when they have travelled to Caesarea, with the household of Cornelius and those who were baptised with him (10:48; 11:12-18). Indeed, the very point of the vision seen by Peter is to establish an inclusive, all-embracing table fellowship in the Jesus movement, open to both Jews and Gentiles, from this point onwards (11:3; and see 15:23-29, 16:4).
Later on, in Philippi, Paul and Silas share at table with the newly-baptised household of Lydia (16:15) and subsequently with the newly-baptised household of their gaoler (16:33-34). The communal dimension of faith is always evident in the accounts in Acts, of people who come to belief in the message of salvation, articulate their new-found faith, and are baptised into the community of this move,ent, which was known as The Way (9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Inevitably, table fellowship is integral to this whole process.
We can trace this theme right through the two volumes of the “orderly account”. Numerous scenes in the Gospels place Jesus at table—with people who, by and large, are not the expected table partners of a good Torah–keeping Jew. This is not unique to Luke (cf. Mark 5:15–16; Matt 9:10–11), but it is a feature which Luke expands and develops.
Jesus is found at table with Levi, tax collectors and sinners (5:27–32), a Pharisee and a sinful woman (7:36–50); these scenes parallel accounts in the other Synoptics. Later, Jesus reclines with Pharisees, a lawyer, and scribes (11:37–54) and then with tax collectors and sinners (15:1–32; verses 1–2 infer the additional presence of Pharisees and scribes). Luke adds these scenes, which introduce sayings of Jesus from the Q material.
Jesus is also found at table with a prominent Pharisee and lawyers (14:1–24); the first part of this section appears only in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus later sits at table with Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector (19:1–10), an incident reported only in Luke’s Gospel.
Soon before his arrest, Jesus is at table with the apostles (including Judas the betrayer and Peter the denier); the scene (22:14–38) is reported in each Synoptic Gospel, but Luke heightens the presence of Judas in particular by having Jesus move straight from the cup word to the saying about betrayal, apparently within the same speech.
Finally, the risen Jesus eats at table with the two travellers in Emmaus (24:30, reported at 24:35) and with the disciples in Jerusalem (24:41–43), in further “table fellowship” scenes unique to Luke’s Gospel. Thus, the theme is embedded in all the Gospel accounts from the beginning; it is highlighted by Luke by repetition and intensification of the material.
This theme continues in Acts, where numerous scenes of hospitality and explicit table fellowship are to be found; in the vast majority of these cases, the fellowship includes both Jews and Gentiles. Luke reports the daily table fellowship of the Jerusalem community (2:42, 46). He devotes a large section (10:1–11:18) to an account of Peter eating at table with messengers from Cornelius (10:23) and later, with Cornelius and his household (11:12).
In Philippi, Paul, Silas, Timothy gather at table at Lydia’s house (16:14–15) and later with their Gentile gaoler (16:34). In Corinth, Paul is found in the house of Titius Justus, a God–fearer (18:7) and on the Adriatic Sea, Paul eats a meal with the Gentile soldiers and the prisoners on board the ship (27:33–38).
The prominence of this theme throughout Luke–Acts suggests that it reflects an issue of major significance to the community in which the writer belonged: who should be sitting together at table in the fellowship of this growing movement? Indeed, the central pivot of Luke’s second volume is the account given of how fellowship at table for both Jews and Gentiles was made possible (10:1–11:18). It is at this point in the structure of Acts that the story turns, clearly and decisively, from its Jerusalem focus, to the wider hellenistic world.
Up until this incident, the Gospel has been preached largely in Jerusalem and in parts of Judaea, with a venture into Samaria. After this incident, the news spreads wider: “as far as Phoenecia and Cyprus and Antioch” (11:19).
The important regional centre of Antioch (13:1-3) then becomes the springboard for missionary ventures and the expansion of the movement around the Mediterranean basin (13:4 onwards). Over time, as the narrative continues, the good news spreads across Asia Minor (13:13-14:28; 15:36-16:8) into Macedonia and Greece (16:9-18:18), and then to Rome (19:21; 23:11; 28:14-31).
So table fellowship is a crucial theme in the story that is told throughout this “orderly account”. And table fellowship—hospitality and inclusiveness—remains a critical matter for the church in today’s world, as we seek to live out this ancient vision in a world wracked by tension, hostility, and fractured division. The Gospel invites us to embrace wholeness, to offer generous hospitality, to live with gracious inclusiveness.
Image: Sieger Köder ‘Table fellowship’