It’s easy enough to compare our contemporary communion practices with the practices of the First Century and see a huge difference. We’ve managed to turn a real meal involving real fellowship among believers into a symbolic meal involving virtually nothing akin to fellowship.
Indeed, some of us are so focused on the vertical dimension of worship that we take offense when church members enter into the assembly talking to one another, as though actual interaction among people might offend God — a God who evidently called us into assembly so we can ignore one another!
The problem is easily traced: it’s the form of the assembly itself. We structure church as though we are going to a theater production or concert: a stage, an audience, chairs facing the stage, and a few specially approved performers and all else required to sit and quietly watch the show.
On the other hand, we’ve adopted this format because sometimes our assemblies are too big to conduct any other way. On the other-other hand, we’ve taken the theater model, useful for very large gatherings, and turned into an unwritten, unspoken pattern (the most dangerous kind) so that when only 20 people show up for church, we dutifully arrange ourselves in horizontal rows facing a stage — although we’d never do such a thing in such small numbers anywhere else! Surely this is the will of Almighty God!
But, in fact, the early church met in homes, in groups of 30 or so (the most an unmodified First Century home would accommodate, except homes for the exceedingly wealthy). And there was no stage, and there were no pews. There was a kitchen and table. And believers gathered to eat and drink and pray and worship together — around a table.
I’ve had occasion to experience some creative efforts to upgrade our communion service. Here are a few ideas:
* Communion stations with bread and wine (I’ll say “wine” without distinction between fermented and unfermented grape juice) arranged at the perimeter of the auditorium. Church members are invited to enter into a time of worship — singing and prayer — and when they feel so inclined, to approach a station and serve themselves. Over the course of 20 minutes or so, the entire congregation moves quietly to a station, takes some bread, sips from a communion cup, and returns to their chairs.
* Communion stations are set up at the ends of the aisles, and the church is invited to walk to a nearby station where they serve themselves or an elder serves them. Members who cannot easily walked are served by members on an ad hoc basis.
* Communion is passed aisle to aisle in the customary manner, except each person holds his cup or piece of bread until everyone has been served, and then all take together.
* Communion is passed aisle to aisle in the customary manner, except when the members are asked, as they pass the trays to their neighbors, to say, “The body (or blood) of Christ sacrificed for you.”
Call me a curmudgeon if you must, but none of these really work for me. I particularly dislike having to hold a cup or piece of bread for 10 minutes to take simultaneously, as though Paul’s point on waiting for each other was exact simultaneity. It wasn’t — and the bread melts and gets gooey, and it’s all just so hokey.
And while I’m very tolerant of change and all that, I just don’t see how any of these things actually accomplishes the goal of horizontal community. In fact, communion stations at the wall, with people going when the spirit moves them is even more individualized than our traditional practices! Now we’re communing staring at the wall while standing, rather than sitting among friends and brothers.
Standing to take communion together is at least, you know, together. But it’s still essentially an individualized act of worship done in the presence of others engaged in individualized worship. We’re just standing instead of sitting.
So I’ve thought about this, and I don’t think communion can be done in an assembly the way we do assembly — not and come anywhere close to the early church’s practices. It’s a matter of group dynamics. People behave differently in differing group settings, and we cannot change that.
But what we can change is the setting — and the ideal setting for communion is not the assembly of the entire church but the home — small groups. And in small groups, we can come very close to what the early church in fact did — and we can even begin to see why they called the meal an agapē.
Imagine that you live in First Century Rome. You aren’t wealthy, and so you live in an insula, that is, a tiny apartment. And this week, it’s your turn to host a part of the church in Rome.
The Roman church is organized as a single congregation under a single eldership, but the members normally meet in homes, because the authorities will not allow the Christians to meet in an amphitheater or other large public space. Occasionally, a kind-hearted official allows the church to meet as one, but usually the church meets strictly house to house.
One of the elders visits most Sundays to teach and to encourage the members present. But his presence is not essential to the meeting.
The members each bring a part of the meal — the love feast. The meal will be taken after sunset, because most members have jobs that require their presence until the day ends. No one has a watch or clock, and sundials don’t work at night. And so the members appear at different times.
The women busy themselves in the kitchen preparing food, and the men rearrange the furniture to try to fit 30 or so into the cramped, warm space.
Finally, the host declares that it’s time to begin, and the visiting elder teaches a lesson from the Old Testament prophecies, with frequent quotations from a couple of Paul’s earliest letters that the church has managed to obtain copies of. The elder has very nearly memorized the books we call Galatians and 1 Corinthians. (Romans has not yet been written.)
The elder then calls everyone to the table to eat, and the women bring out a veritable feast. It’s not nearly as rich or varied as Americans have come to expect, but for the poor, it’s the only meat they’ll eat all week. The custom has been established that the poorest are served first, so that if the food runs out, the well to do can later eat at home if necessary — although it would be very embarrassing if the meal was not sufficient. But just to be sure, the last go first.
No one has ever spoken this rule, but the hostess embraces the poorest members and serves them first, while the rest wait their turns.
After their plates are filled, the hostess hurries into the kitchen and brings out the bread — fresh from the over. The aroma of fresh bread fills the room.
The members had been noisily finding their seats and gathering food to their plates, but they knew to be quiet once the bread enters the room.
The host motions to the elder, and asks him to say a few words. The elder speaks of Jesus and his sacrifice and the meaning of the bread — how for Christians, the bread reminds us that we must incorporate Jesus into our lives. We must let his crucifixion become a part of who we are so that we are co-crucified with Christ, as the apostle wrote in his epistle to the Galatians. He then prays a short blessing over the bread.
The bread is then passed around, and visitors and children share because it’s the only bread course being served — a major part of the meal. The believers take the bread with obvious intention, that is, it’s clear that it carries a special meaning for them, and the visitors can see the believers renewing their commitment to Jesus as they eat. It’s a most serious matter.
Soon, though, the conversations begin anew, except this time some of the children and visitors ask for a further explanation of the ceremony, and the believers share what Jesus and his sacrifice means to them.
Near the end of the meal, the host pulls out a flagon holding his best wine and pours it into a large cup. Again the elder speaks, but this time about the blood of Jesus. He points out that just as God transforms grape juice into wine, God will transform our bodies into bodies like the resurrected body of Jesus. He speaks of the resurrection of Jesus and the promise this offers those who have faith in him. He concludes with a blessing over the wine, and he sips from the cup and passes it around to all those present.
He reminds all that, to Christians, the wine is a reminder of the hope we have in Jesus, but to non-Christians, it’s just a cup of wine. He expresses his fond desire that all present will one day share in that hope.
And the cup is passed around to all present. Because children are present, the wine is cut with water, and the mothers help the children, to make certain each takes only a sip.
The meal soon concludes. A couple of members are out sick, and a member volunteers to carry a meal to them. After all, for many jobs, those who are too sick to work are too sick to be paid, and it’s essential that the members look out after each other. And who needs to remember our hope in Jesus more than someone sick in an age without antibiotics? The members are all too aware that disease can mean sudden death so that the meal will be a great comfort to those who missed the meeting. The elder accompanies this member, bringing along some oil so he can anoint and pray over the sick.
In that setting, when the Lord’s Supper is truly a supper, it’s hard to imagine excluding anyone present. It’s even harder to imagine calling visitors “dogs” unworthy of the group’s bread and wine.
Rather, everything falls into place when we remember that the point of communion is a remembrance and a proclamation. The power is not in the elements but in Jesus and his transforming Spirit, who will use the elements to shape us to be more and more like Jesus — the same Jesus who ate with publicans and prostitutes and Pharisees. The same Jesus who was condemned by the religious authorities for those he broke bread with. That’s the Jesus we are to become like.
And this is a meal we can do today — just not in a large room filled with parallel pews under a vaulted ceiling. It requires a table and chair, a kitchen, a meal, and a cup.
And if we were to do this, we’d no longer ask such questions as whether communion should be “open” or “closed” or whether children may participate or how often we can eat a meal with Jesus.
In fact, we could very happily take communion — a crumb and a sip — in the assembly, enjoying and benefiting from as the best we can manage in that setting, and then later in the evening, take communion once again, but this time in the First Century fashion.