The Lord’s Supper: Reaching Some Conclusions, Part 1

The Churches of Christ have defined themselves by their insistence on weekly communion. Our members will come late and leave early, but they’ll be certain to take the Lord’s Supper. And we have members who’ll sit at home, taking communion by themselves, rather than condone the sins of the only church in town. We are so big on communion that we offer it twice on Sundays and take it into the homes of the shut ins.

But we treat the communion as the least important part of our service — lavishing funds on paid preachers and song leaders and focusing the service on the sermon and invitation. Rarely do we focus a service on the communion.

We’ve sucked the fellowship — the love — out of an event that’s supposed to draw us closer to each other and break down social, racial, and economic barriers. We’ve found so many rules about how not to do it that all we can do is sit there silently.

And while we ought to be teaching children as part of the event, we announce our position on consubstantiation, just in case someone in the audience has Lutheran sympathies — or thinks we might.

The gift

And our communion theology is worse than shallow. Indeed, we find repeated opportunities to damn each other over our disagreements — turning a celebration of our unity into a basis for division. We greatly sin against the body and the blood when we do this.

We need to consider some alternatives –

1. We sometimes think the Lord’s Supper is our payment of a one-week premium on heavenly life insurance. We have to sip the juice and eat the crumb to be saved for the next week. But, of course, such a theology is utterly foreign to the meaning the meal and even more foreign to the doctrine of grace. We can do better.

2. We sometimes think the Lord’s Supper is one of only 5 authorized acts of worship. Don’t do it and your worship is no better than that of Nadab and Abihu! We are plainly commanded to assemble weekly to worship and to take communion in this manner — and those who get this wrong are damned to hell.

Again, it’s just so not in the Bible. And turning worship and fellowship into a law sucks the love and worship right out of it.

3. We sometimes think the symbolic nature of the communion means it has to be taken in a purely symbolic way — so the bread and wine have to be in symbolic amounts taken in a symbolic way under the leadership of people saying symbolic words while lined up in symbolic rows. It’s ceremony, not substance.

In reality, I think the communion is not a command: it’s a gift. God has given us this practice to remind us to be united by showing us how to be united, to care for those less fortunate than us, and to show the world our love through our table fellowship.  We do this in remembrance of Jesus, but remembering Jesus necessarily includes those very things. Indeed, to take communion without unity, with little concern for the poor, and with no testimony to the world is to show that we remember nothing.

He gave it to us for our good. And we’ve desecrated God’s gift.

“Cup” and “loaf” are parts of a meal

To see that, it helps, I think, to realize that a cup of wine and loaf of bread was standard for First Century meals, especially meals shared with guests. To us, “cup of wine” or “loaf of bread” sounds like something added to the meal, whereas to First Century ears, these words would sound like courses of the meal — rather as “salad” and “dessert” would sound to us.

Imagine reading this –

(Mat 26:26-29)  While they were eating, Jesus took [the salad bowl], gave thanks and [divided it], and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took the [dessert], gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not [eat this dessert] from now on until that day when I [eat] it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

(1 Cor 10:16-17)  Is not the [dessert] for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the [salad] a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one [salad bowl], we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one [bowl].

Okay. That sounds a little silly, but it’s pretty clear in both passages that the “elements” are part of a common meal. You see, to Western ears, “salad” and “dessert” sound like meal courses, and so 1 Cor 10 becomes the description of something happening at a meal. Obviously, you can can eat and drink separate from the meal, but that’s not at all a natural reading.

Of course, the Gospel writers plainly state that the cup and loaf were provided “while they were eating,” and yet this did not become a part of the “pattern.” Why not? Well, not becaue of the Patristic evidence! Rather, it was because there had been no common meals since the Dark Ages. The 19th Century Restoration leaders read the passages through Reformation and Catholic eyes.

(1 Cor 10:18, 21)  Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? … You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.

Paul compares eating meat or drinking wine sold at the market after being sacrificed to an idol to participating in “the Lord’s table.” Paul sees the Lord’s table as comparable to table at which a full meal is served. That’s the essence of the argument.

Now, I’m not saying that communion = love feast. That’s not right. But I am saying that it was surely typical for the communion to be taken as part of a meal.

“Cup” and “loaf” are sensual

Imagine that you’re sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper. The “cup” isn’t a teeny tiny plastic cup. It’s a cup large enough to share with 12 other at the table — 12 men who’ve come in from a dry, dustry climate to eat. It’s no surprise that the cup would have been passed several times during a traditional Passover!

And it was filled with wine. It may have been cut with water, but it was certainly a rich, flavorful drink.

The loaf would have been freshly cooked in a brick over outdoors, with flour, oil, and salt. It would have served hot – fresh from the over — and still soft. Each man would have torn off a large piece to eat and then passed the bread to the next man. And the aroma would have filled the room. For me, one the best smells in the world freshly baked bread.

This changes the symbolism of bread and cup, body and blood, in dramatic ways. Rather than a spiritualized, abstract experience where the lesson comes from the speaker or our own meditation, the lesson comes from bread and the cup. If these symbolize Jesus, and if our eating and drinking symbolize our faith, then the flavor, odor, and texture tell us that Jesus is good and faith is delightful. Indeed, Jesus sustains us. He fills us. Very few words would be needed because the message would be in the elements.

But when the cup is too small to slake a thirst and the bread too tiny and dry to be enjoyed, then the unintended message is that Jesus is small and our faith leaves us hungry. We must make up what’s lacking by our own efforts.

Table fellowship

Imagine your parents inviting you to join your family for Thanksgiving dinner. Your father begins by reminding the family of the many things we should be thankful for. Then, as he carves the turkey, he tells us that we’ll desecrate the meal if we talk, laugh, or sing during it. We must sit silently and either read, pray, or meditate. Well, we’d commit our dad to the asylum, right? That kind of behavior completely misses the point of a family meal!

You see, we’ve let Greek, Gnostic thought slip into our communions so that only “spiritual” activities are permitted. Indeed, even a cappella singing is too enjoyable for the Lord’s Supper. It’s too holy for that!

Obviously, the event has to be about remembering Jesus, and it should be about building the unity that it symbolizes. After all, sitting next to stranger, eating a crumb, sipping a sip, and pensively reading the scriptures does not bring me any closer to the person sitting next to me. It may bring me closer to God — but God didn’t ask us to assemble so that we could do what we could do at home. He didn’t say, “Gather so you can pray in closets”! He called us together so we could be together.

(1 Cor 11:29)  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.

This is not a passage for or against transsubstantiation. Nor is it about intensely meditating on the crucifixion. Rather, in the immediate context,  Paul uses “body” in 1 Corinthians to refer to the congregation –

(1 Cor 10:17)  Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

(1 Cor 12:12)  The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.

There are, of coure, plenty of nearby verses that use “body” to refer the physical body of Christ — but I doubt that Paul would have seen it as one or the other. We are his physical body now. When we were baptized, we were crucified with him (Rom 6) and resurrected with him. We are in and help constitute his body.

If you were to read 1 Cor 12:12, quoted above, by itself, you’d think that “so it is with Christ” means he’s about to talk about the physical body of Christ. But he’s actually referring to the congregation as “Christ.” We could spend quite a few posts on the question, but to Paul, the church is the body of Christ in a way that goes beyond mere metaphor.

How to fix things

In Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper John Mark Hicks suggests several possible approaches. He notes that there are several practical barriers. For example, most congregations simply don’t have room in their auditoriums, and most auditorium have pews bolted to the floor. Let me focus on just a few ideas (some mine, some his, some a mixture), and I’ll leave the readers to buy and read the book for the rest.

* For larger churches, the natural solution is to go truly First Century. Break up into small groups and break bread from house to house. Most larger churches already have small groups. Just suggest that they (1) eat a meal, (2) envision Jesus eating with them, and (3) serve freshly baked, unleavened bread and wine (or Welch’s) as part of the meal, remembering and proclaiming Jesus as they do so.

I’d leave the instructions pretty vague and let the group design their own practice. Then I’d ask them to share their ideas and experiences with each other — at a leader’s meeting or, better yet, via an internet discussion board all participants can share in. Encourage them to share not only the idea but how well it worked, how they felt, and whether they’d like to do it again.

I’d still serve the traditional communion in the Sunday morning service for lots of reasons, but we could even do what Saddleback does — have 120% of their Sunday morning attendance in small groups — we could actually relocate the service to the homes, as the early church really did. The Jerusalem church had large gatherings in the temple courts — a massive area that could hold a crowd of thousands — and broke bread in homes. That’s still an effective plan.

* A church could hold a periodic special communion service in an area large enough for chairs and table. Leave the rectilinear auditorium and meet in a fellowship hall, gym, or borrowed space.

* Or do the traditional service the traditional way, but with hot, freshly baked, unleavened bread passed hand to hand in ample amounts, followed by a substantial drink.

* A church could do a congregational covered dish meal and incorporate the Lord’s Supper into the meal.

* Replace the communion table with a dinner table and have the church come forward to eat and drink in groups.

* Have a service dedicated entirely to the communion. Begin with the sermon and end with the communion.

* Have a joint service with other churches in town.

* Connect via Skype (internet videophone) and a projector to a sister congregation — a church that supports you or that you support — and have a joint service across national or state lines.

* Have the “greet and meet” between the cup and the bread — and emphasize that the communion is about communion (also translated fellowship) with each other as well as God.

You get the idea. Personally, I’d start by having a quarterly special communion service and try something new each time. After a while, two or three favorites may become the routine. Or for some creative churches, the approach may vary forever. There’s no end to the artistry that can be found in the Lord’s Supper.

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6 Responses to The Lord’s Supper: Reaching Some Conclusions, Part 1

  1. Guy says:

    Jay,

    These are great ideas. i have heard from a couple people, and in particular one guy i go to church with, that our de-emphasis of the LS during Sunday morning is a particularly American phenomenon. He said that while he was in Scotland, the congregation he worshiped with their always devoted the entirety of their Sunday morning service to the LS–that it was one lengthy taking of the LS with prayer and scripture reading and singing all designed to spotlight the event. Have you heard of non-American churches doing things with the LS differently than us?

    –Guy

  2. Jerry Starling says:

    In reality, I think the communion is not a command: it’s a gift.

    This is a great insight! Thank you, Jay.

    My own contribution in the way of "insight" is that Jesus did not say "Do this in memory of My death." He said, "Do this in memory of Me." Does this include His death? Of course it does – but it includes much more that is seldom if ever mentioned in most congregations.

    My third entry when I began my blog about nine months ago was about this very thing. You can read it here.

  3. Nick Gill says:

    Jerry,

    I think that tradition (of focusing on the death to the exclusion of all else) stems from our elevation of Paul over the gospel writers (and Jesus himself sometimes) as chief lawgiver of the New Law.

    When Paul says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim his death until he comes," in 1 Cor 11, we've understood that to mean that Paul wants us to only proclaim Jesus' death during that part of our worship.

    Another symptom of the greater illness – we're convinced we know what this book is for, even though every time we use it for what we think it is for, we end up doing more damage than good.

  4. Randall says:

    Guy,
    For what is is worth, I am familiar with a church in Dallas (Believer's Chapel – right down Churchill Way from Prestoncrest CofC) that observed the LS on Sunday evening and the entire meeting (approx an hour long) was devoted to observing the LS.
    Hesed,
    Randall

  5. A long time ago, I remember a friend telling me that he sometimes thought that maybe it wasn't about the ritual event at all, but that maybe Jesus wanted to change the way the disciples thought about things that they normally ran into.

    Whenever you eat bread, think of my broken body.
    Whenever you see wine, think of my blood. Think of our covenant together.

    Certainly not a full interpretation of how the Lord's Supper evolved in the early church, but it's still a loaded line of thought.

  6. Nancy says:

    Maybe. God was certainly into visuals.

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