I offer some material from the uninspired writings of early Christians to prove that I’m not crazy — not to establish a theology of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, we in the Churches of Christ are bad to reach into the Patristics to lock down a point we can’t prove from the scriptures themselves. We — quite literally — fill scriptural silences from the Patristics, which I find wrong. No commandment or prohibition can be built on uninspired sources.
The Lord’s Supper as described in the Didache (about 100 AD) is summarized in H J DeJonge, The Early History of the Lord’s Supper.
The supper pictured by the Didache is both a real and a sacramental meal. Through their participation in this meal, the members of the community participate proleptically in the eschatological kingdom of Jesus, which is the new shape of the kingdom of David (9 2) The function of the meal is still the bringing about of the umty of the congregation In this case, however, the unity is not founded in the death of Jesus (as in Paul), but in the fact that the bread that is broken at the beginning of the meal, “once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf.” In eating from this loaf, the congregation becomes one. Similar ideas occur in blessings which are pronounced over the bread at the beginning of Jewish meals, as is well known.
Our next witness is Pliny the Younger (around 112 AD), who tortured Christians to learn about their practices. DeJonge summarizes —
Alongside the supper held on Sunday evening, a cultic assembly began to be held on Sunday morning before dawn. We learn from the younger Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor from 111 to 113 C.E., that the Christians in that area “met regularly before dawn (ante lucem) on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ, as if to a god (. . .). After this ceremony it was their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind” (Pliny, Ep. 10.96). Since the Christians are said to reassemble at the end of the day in order to have a common supper, the “fixed day” on which the morning office took place was probably also the Sunday.
The Lord’s Supper continued to be a full meal into the Second Century —
Justin speaks of the meal as consisting of “food dry and liquid” (Dial. 117.3). According to the same author, it was a communal meal, consequently an evening meal, but preceded by a service of lessons, admonition, and prayer (? Apol. 67.3-8; analogy: the sabbath meal of the Therapeutae). About 200 C.E., Tertullian stresses the charitable function of the Christian supper. The meal still conformed to the two-fold pattern of (a) the common meal proper (syssition), plus (b) the religio-social gathering, including the singing of scriptural or self-made hymns, and concluded by prayer.
Sometime during the Second Century, it becomes clear that the Lord’s Supper was taken more often than weekly.
The introduction of the eucharist in the morning Services occurred not later than the end of the Second Century. Obviously, many Christians felt that one eucharist a week was not enough. Out of sheer desire for the community with the Lord and fellow Christians, they began to celebrate it twice or more times a week early in the mornmg. Hippolytus’ Traditio Apostolica records eucharistic services on all days of the week (including Sundays), before working hours.
Over time, the love-feast and Lord’s Supper became separate institutions —
In the middle of the third Century, Cyprian makes some observations on the difference between the two Sunday meals of the Christian community, that is, the eucharist celebrated early in the morning (mane) and the agape (cena, convivium nostrum) held in the evening. The difference is that at the eucharist, the community as a whole (plebs, omnis friternitas) is present, whereas for logistic reasons the supper is only attended by part of the community, obviously by the poorer members of the community. Because of this Cyprian can say: “‘The true sacrament’ is the one we celebrate in the presence of the entire congregation.” …
At the same time Cyprian makes it clear that the differentiation in status between eucharist and agape was occasioned by the growth of the congregation: “When we have supper, we cannot invite the whole congregation.” In some places, the agape continued to be held until the Seventh Century.
We like to imagine that the apostolic church passed around a cup and a piece of bread while pensively staring at the floor. But in actuality, they had a meal that not only remembered the sacrifice of Jesus, it provided food to the poor. And to the early Christians, this made perfect sense —
(1 John 3:16-17) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
It was only as the church grew highly institutionalized and the congregations grew large that the practice ended — and even then, despite objections from church councils, some congregations insisted on continuing the ancient practice for centuries more.
It’s interesting that the Eucharist began daily (if that’s the meaning of “break bread” in Acts 2), moved to weekly, and then moved back to daily. The driving force of the move back wasn’t theology so much as a desire of Christians to celebrate Christ together more often than weekly.