Moravian Lovefeast

Theology of the Lovefeast in the Moravian Church

Old Salem Visitors Center, Sept. 22, 2008 Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        It is good to be here with you tonight for this special event. We are enjoying beautiful music, and in a moment we will have a little food. Lynda and her cohort has worked very hard to make this evening possible. Most of you are familiar with the Moravian lovefeast, and I bet some of you have been participating in lovefeasts since before you can remember. Julie and I have always brought our children to church, even when they were infants, and folks often asked if we had put lovefeast coffee in their bottles. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about lovefeasts, for instance, did you know that a lovefeast bun can substitute for a paper towel when a child spills hot coffee on you. You probably have your own tales of things going wrong in a lovefeast. My family often reminds my mom about the time she dropped her bun and we watched as it rolled all the way down the aisle toward the pulpit. Moravians like to share stories about lovefeasts, but tonight we’re going to talk about some of the deeper significance of this old Moravian tradition.

Dieners                        Before we do that though, I want to invite our dieners to come out so you can see them. Tonight’s program is called “variations on a Moravian theme,” and we wanted you to see that Moravian traditions have more variety than you might think. You will notice that our dieners are wearing a variety of outfits representing different congregations and provinces of the Moravian Church. (List: Honduras, Tanzania, Nepal, New Philadelphia, Lititz, Bethlehem.)

Congregations in the Moravian Church are free to dress their dieners any way they want. The dieners’ outfits should highlight the special nature of the lovefeast, but there is no single way to dress a diener. Far more important than the style of clothing is that the congregation remembers that the men and women serving the lovefeast are a vital part of the worship service. They are doing more than providing people with something to drink and eat; they are living examples of Christian service. Tonight I want you to ponder the meaning of dienership, which is a word I just invented.

Dienership:                        Diener is from a German word for one who serves. In the Book of Acts (chapter 6) we read that in the early days of Christianity seven people were set aside to help with the common meals and make sure that everyone who was hungry was taken care of, particularly the widows. Those who waited on the tables were called deacons, which was a Greek word for one who serves. There were male and female deacons in the early church, and eventually deacons had other duties besides helping with dinner. Today denominations use the word “deacon” in many different ways, and in the Moravian Church deacons are ordained ministers who can preside a communion. We Moravians have not lost the New Testament idea of setting aside people to serve food, though. Our lovefeast dieners function much like the original deacons. When dieners serve the congregation a lovefeast, they remind us all that Christians are servants. When people ask me what makes the Moravian Church different from all other churches, I sometimes reply that I often see bishops and denominational leaders serving as dieners rather than being served at lovefeasts.

History of the Lovefeast                        The lovefeast is one of best known contributions the Moravians have made to the broader Christian Church. Especially in this part of the country, there are many denominations that have adopted the Moravian lovefeast, but I haven’t found any non-Moravian church that can serve you a truly hot cup of coffee. Moravians are so closely associated with the lovefeast that it comes as a surprise for many folks to learn that we did not invent the lovefeast. You might say that the Moravians rediscovered the lovefeast, and we certainly made it into a distinctive form of worship, but the lovefeast was part of the church of the apostles.

We read in the NT that the followers of Jesus met regularly for a meal called the Agape, which is a Greek word for Love. We don’t know the details of what happened in those Agape meals of the first century, but there are numerous references to them in Paul’s writings and the Book of Acts. There is no doubt that the early Christian Agape meals were actual meals. They may have been a lot like a modern fellowship meal in a church. It appears that people brought food to share with other members of the church, and Paul had to remind some of the early Christians that everyone should contribute according to his or her ability and eat according to his or her need (I Cor. 11:18-22). For Christians who were poor or enslaved, this fellowship meal was particularly important.

The Agape meal was probably in the evening after work, perhaps at the end of the Sabbath. The people probably sang psalms and hymns; they listened to stories about Jesus or memoirs of the apostles; and they prayed for each other. The meals were probably similar to the dining clubs that were popular in ancient Rome, but in the Agape meal Christians of every social class ate together in love. This kind of behavior was criticized by the pagans. Rich and poor, slave and free, men and women breaking bread together and singing hymns about Christ? It was shocking. It appears that the Agape meals often ended with Holy Communion, and the church may have lost something when the symbolic meal replaced the more practical meal. As Christianity became a legal religion and worship moved out of people’s homes and into large public buildings, the intimate Agape meals died out. This was also about the time that Christians stopped called each other brother and sister. Bishops became rulers; priests were exalted; and worship became very structured and formal. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed, Christians were no longer brothers and sisters sitting together in a meal.

For over a thousand years, Christians did not have lovefeasts. Sure there were feast days, but the feasting was done outside the church.  There were Carnivals outside the church and fasts inside the church. When the Protestants tried to reform Christianity, they studied the NT and dropped many of the practices of the Catholic Church, but only a few Protestants tried to recover the lovefeast. Toward the end of the 1600s a German historian named Gottfried Arnold carefully examined the early history of Christianity, using the NT and writings of the Church Fathers. He rediscovered the centrality of the Agape meal in the early church. Arnold’s historical writings were very popular among the German Pietists, especially the most radical Pietists who wanted to recapture the zeal of the early church.

Revival of Lovefeast                        Arnold was an active participant in a large religious revival taking place in Protestant countries at that time. Pious people began meeting in small groups, often in someone’s home, to read the Bible, discuss basic Christian theology, support one another in prayer, and try to live as Christ taught his disciples to live. Many of them read Arnold’s books and they tried to revive ancient Christian practices, including the Agape meal, which they called the Liebsmahl, or meal of love. One of those Pietist groups became the Church of the Brethren, and to this day Brethren observe the lovefeast as a very solemn meal. In the Church of the Brethren, the lovefeast is a full meal served in church before Holy Communion. The Brethren include footwashing as part of the communion ritual.

You are probably familiar with the story of the first lovefeast on August 13, 1727, but Zinzendorf had known about lovefeasts before he introduced the idea to the Moravians. Like many Pietists, Zinzendorf had read Arnold’s historical work, and he wanted to recapture some of the spirit of the early church. It appears that the Count was experimenting with lovefeasts in Dresden long before the famous event at Berthlesdorf. The rediscovery of the lovefeast among the Moravians was part of a long period of experimentation following the signing of the Brotherly Agreement in May, 1727. Zinzendorf and the Moravians tried to find ways to make their community of faith more like the church of the New Testament. They elected their own elders and appointed people to the various offices mentioned in the NT. They began experimenting with the liturgy and they started having footwashing services in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in John 13.

One of the rituals they revived from the early church was the Agape meal, which was sometimes held in the evening and sometimes for breakfast. It was a simple meal, but it was actually a meal, unlike the “love snacks” that most Moravian churches have today. It always strikes me as odd liturgically when a congregation holds a lovefeast and then invites everyone down to the fellowship for lunch. If we understood the meaning of lovefeast better, we would make the lunch the lovefeast! There was no set food for lovefeasts in olden days. At least one lovefeast in North Carolina consisted of pumpkin mush, but generally there was a sweet roll, which was to remind the worshipers of the sweetness of faith. The beverage was usually tea, which is still the case in most European congregations. For Christmas, our Moravian ancestors sometimes had spiced wine or hot chocolate.

The type of food and beverage was not all that important, so long as it could be enjoyed during a worship service. In our program today, we have a variety of styles of lovefeast buns prepared according to recipes from around the Moravian Unity. We will have spiced tea tonight, but since we’re Southerners, we’ve put ice in it. And you get to keep the glass as a souvenir. All of the buns are home made, which is also an old Moravian tradition. In the 18th century, individuals in a congregation might volunteer to provide a lovefeast for the congregation or a smaller group, such as the Single Brothers. The people in charge of the lovefeast would provide the food and beverage and arrange for special music. Giving a lovefeast was a type of stewardship and a way to serve the congregation.

Since a lovefeast is not a sacrament, like Holy Communion, you don’t need an ordained minister to preside over or plan a lovefeast. Anyone can do a lovefeast! Lovefeasts can also be held for almost any special occasion. In the old days, the Moravians would hold a lovefeast to begin the harvest or when it was time to start a new building. There would be lovefeasts to welcome visitors or to say good-bye to those who were leaving on a journey. There might be a lovefeast for all the people whose wedding anniversaries were on a certain day, or a lovefeast to celebrate birthdays. Lovefeasts could be very large formal church services, or smaller intimate affairs. One year in Bethlehem, there were over 250 lovefeasts, large and small. One of the great things about the lovefeast is that everyone is welcome to share in the meal, whether you’ve been baptized or not.

Jesus and Food                        When thinking about the Moravian lovefeast, it is important to remember that this tradition is deeply rooted in Scripture. When you have time, read through one of the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke or John, and pay attention to how many times we see Jesus sharing a meal. At times it sounds like he went from meal to meal. He told the penitent Zachaeus that he was going to eat at his house, he provided wine for the wedding banquet at Cana. He ate at the home of Martha and Mary. Several times he was the guest of honor at the home of prominent Pharisees, but he also ate with tax collectors. A sinful woman anointed his feet at one meal, and Mary anointed his head at another. Each of the gospels tell the story of Jesus taking five loaves and two fish and feeding a multitude beside the Sea of Galilee. He shared his last Passover meal with his closest disciples, and after the Resurrection, Jesus ate with them again. One day on the beach he offered them fish, and he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Then he told Peter to “feed his sheep.” This is the meaning of lovefeast. This the question that should burn in our hearts as we share in the lovefeast. Jesus asks, “do you love me?” Then he commands, “feed my sheep.”

Why do the gospels focus so much on Jesus eating with Pharisees and sinners, men and women, the powerful and the powerless? It is because eating was a prophetic action that spoke louder than the words Jesus preached or the miracles he did. In the ancient world, Jews did not eat with Gentiles, and the rich did not eat with the poor. Slaves did not eat with their masters. Roman society had very strict rules governing dining. Dinner clubs were strictly for people of the same social class. But Jesus intentionally and provocatively ate with outcasts, sinners, and women. He ate with those who thought they were righteous and those who truly were. He ate with lovers and dreamers and fools. At almost every meal, Jesus was breaking down barriers and setting an example of the Kingdom of God on earth. Rather than writing letters to the editor about the plight of the poor, Jesus ate with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.

Today                                    If you think about our world today, we are still divided at mealtimes. You may remember what it was like in high school to enter the cafeteria and see the social hierarchy of the school laid out. Remember the controversy if one of the jocks sat with the geeks? It was even worse if someone uncool sat at the table reserved for the popular kinds. The rock group Bowling for Soup has a song that says we never really left high school, and it seems true. Think about restaurants and similar establishments today. How often do you see the wealthy and powerful eating with the lower classes? We still use food to divide people. That is our human nature.

Jesus showed us a different way. Rather than using food to divide people, he used food to unite them so they could journey toward the kingdom of God. At his last meal before he was betrayed, Jesus did more than eat with his friends; he washed their feet. In doing so, he taught them the meaning of love and sacrifice. In that Last Supper, the meaning of all those other suppers became clear. Our Moravian lovefeast is distant echo of those meals of Jesus. It is a ritual that should remind us of the meals that Jesus shared; of the Agape meals of the early church; and all the times Christians have ignored barriers and offered food and drink in the name of Christ.

This traditional Moravian custom can and should be deeply moving. Even though we may do it the same way year after year, it is important to remember what the lovefeast is all about. There are only two things are necessary for a lovefeast: food and love. Someone told me recently that he once saw the word lovefeast written with a hyphen between love and feast. It struck him how different the word looks when both parts are emphasized. It is a love feast; a meal of love; a festival of love. You can have a love-feast with hot coffee and cold buns or milk and cookies. You can have a love-feast with ginger beer and cinnamon rolls, but you cannot have a love-feast without love. You can have a love-feast with beautiful 18th century music or down-home gospel hymns, but you cannot have a love-feast without love. This is what we need to rediscover in our day.

Conclusion                        As we share in a simple meal of buns and tea tonight, I hope you will particular attention to one aspect of this old tradition. The dieners will serve those at the end of the row, but those people will serve the people next to them. You will all serve and be served in this simple meal. Most important, none of us will eat until all have been served (except for the musicicans, I’m afraid). This is not simply a matter of politeness; it is a living reminder of how the kingdom of God works. Just think if we took this lovefeast theology out into the world. Just think if we chose to make sure that our neighbors are fed. What if we use our lovefeast tradition to tear down the walls that divide people, and to reach out in love to the world. 

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  • Rev. Maggie Wellert  On November 25, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I would like to make this a link to our church website. Thanks. Pastor Maggie Wellert

    • Brendy  On January 12, 2015 at 10:53 am

      That’s a smart way of thkniing about it.

  • theflamingheretic  On November 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Feel free to link as much as you like. This is for the public!

  • Mandy  On September 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Thanks for your great article! I’m from a Wesleyan church and we are focusing on Acts 2:42-47 for our Sunday school promotion service. Our adult class was trying to think what we could do. I was familiar with both the love feast tradition and the impact the Moravians had upon John Wesley and after my short explanation, they decided to go with it. I’d like to quote you in the handout I was going to make to go with the buns- I’ll give you credit if I do. Thanks again!

    • theflamingheretic  On September 7, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      So glad to hear this is useful!

  • Erin Power  On March 30, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for this reflection. I am putting together a resource for our congregations (ELCA) to use a Lovefeast if they are without a pastor the weekend of our synod assembly. Can I share part of this in our packet (giving you proper credit of course!)

    • theflamingheretic  On March 30, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Absolutely! I hope it goes well.

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