“Then he [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (John 13:5)
The account of Jesus washing his disciples feet is read when deacons are ordained, reflecting our call to service in contrast to a presbyter’s call to word and sacrament. It is because of our distinct sense of call that deacons do not preside at Communion, which is why, when Phil realised that it wasn’t going to be possible to lead an online Communion service, he asked me to host a love feast this coming Sunday instead.
The love feast is also known as an Agape meal and it is not clear whether it was originally synonymous with the ‘Lord’s Supper’ or whether it was an early Christian common fellowship meal. Paul in 1 Corinthians cites bad practice at the Lord’s Supper, which may, or may not, have been part of the move to separate the Lord’s Supper from a common meal. A temporary imperial ban on the evening meetings of clubs may have driven Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the morning and have house meals in the evening. Some Roman catacomb paintings have meals with ‘Love Feast’ captions and there are references to agape up to the 7th century.
Moravians, Baptists, Methodists and Mennonites revived the love feast in the 18th century. Revivals of the meal were often based on the passage from John 13, signifying fellowship and service. In 1738 John Wesley adopted the Moravian Love Feast after having experienced it with the Moravian Christians in Germany, America and Britain. It was held quarterly or monthly and was included in the first Methodist Conference in 1744. In 1748 Wesley wrote:
‘In order to increase in [the societies] a sense of all God’s mercies, I desired that we might together ‘eat bread’ as the ancient Christians did, ‘with gladness and singleness of heart’. At these love-feasts … our food is only a little plain cake and water. But we seldom return from them without being fed not only with ‘the meat that periseth’, but with ‘that which endureth to everlasting life’.
Charles Wesley wrote only one specific hymn for the Love Feast: “Come, and let us sweetly join”, which has 22 eight line verses in the original! A shorter version can be found in ‘Singing the faith’ – No. 646.