The traditional Church of Christ approach to the Lord’s Supper is to take a tiny crust and a sip in silence, meditating. The ritual is conducted in a congregational setting, but it’s an utterly individualistic event. There is zero interaction among the members. Indeed, any kind of speaking is frowned upon.
The early church took communion as part of a common meal, called the love feast, and they ate together. It was the centerpiece of their community life. To be disfelllowshipped was to be told that you could no longer eat with the rest of the church. Peter was upbraided by Paul for eating only with the Jewish members and not the Gentile members of his church.
The Gospels are filled with parables about common meals — wedding feasts and great banquets. Revelation pictures eternity as a great banquet with Jesus. Jesus’s ministry was defined in large part by his willingness to eat with the poor and rejected of society.
And we eat crusts and sip juice alone in our thoughts — as though Jesus is best found in private meditation rather than at a dinner table. We’ve missed one of the central gospel metaphors and symbols.
But most of us have figured out that church isn’t really church without fellowship meals. Most Churches of Christ have a fellowship hall — even if the elders insist that it be detached from the meetinghouse. We instinctively realize the value of times spent together eating and drinking — whether it’s a wedding reception, a quarterly zone meeting, or a covered dish dinner on the grounds.
I’ve said this plenty of times before, but I believe we’ve misread the words of Jesus —
(Luk 22:19 ESV) 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
We read Jesus as saying, “Remember me by doing this.” I think he’s really saying, “When you do this, remember me.” “Do this” means “eat your common meals” in remembrance of me. In other words, when you gather as disciples to eat together (which you will, of course, do often), remember me. Since you’ll be eating bread and drinking wine together — as these were elements of every Mediterranean dinner — let these ordinary elements mean something special to you: the sacrifice of your Savior.
With the repeated celebration of Passover as precursor, and with this linguistic background for the understanding of remembrance, we may understand Jesus as instructing his followers not only to continue sharing meals together, but to do so in a way that their fellowship meals recalled the significance of his own life and death in obedience to God on behalf of others. This recollection should have the effect of drawing forth responses reminiscent of Jesus’ own table manners—his openness to outsiders, his comportment as a servant, his indifference toward issues of status honor, and the like—so that these features of his life would come to be embodied in the community of those who call him Lord. “A meal in memory of Jesus is one which celebrates and prolongs his lifestyle of justice and of serving the Father’s food to all.”
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 762.
Exactly right. The point of the meal isn’t to properly conduct a ritual to please a distant deity. It’s part of our spiritual formation — the meal should shape us into the form of Jesus. And mere meditation doesn’t get it.
So what do we do? Well, we get creative and we forget about the encrusted rules that make us afraid of making a mistake — and so guarantying that we get it wrong. So perhaps we —
* Take communion as part of a covered dish meal — especially a meal that invites to the table those whom we’ve so often rejected. Perhaps we start with quarterly meals to which we invite other churches of other denominations. To those of us raised in the Churches of Christ, the “denominations” are the other. We need to physically fellowship over the table with them to get over our sectarianism. And who knows what they’ll teach us about communion worship.
We should serve each other at the table. No one should serve himself. Everyone serves everyone.
There should be a bread course that interrupts the conversation and fellowship and — for a few minutes — brings Jesus to our memory. Someone should say a few words — a very few words — connecting the ritual with the memory.
There should be a wine course — with a shared cup — passed down the rows. Again, a few words should be enough. Perhaps the story of the wedding feast we’ll enjoy together in the new heavens and earth. Perhaps a parable of Jesus based on a common meal. Perhaps a reading from the Prophets about a shared meal at the end of the Exile. Perhaps Exodus 24 or Jeremiah 31 — passages to which Jesus himself alluded.
* Take communion in homes as part of small groups. Same idea as above. The shared meal that is part of the small group experience will be sacralized by taking a bread and wine course and pausing to remember our Savior’s death and the promises we have because of them. Small groups will be transformed.
* Maybe we can learn a better way to do a communion meditation. There’s something about dessert waiting in the kitchen that should teach us to be brief but poignant. We don’t need a speech — just a reminder of what this means. But because our teaching in this area has been so stagnant, it may take a while to shake off the encrustations and learn to see the scriptures anew.
* I once visited a church that had communion sitting on the Lord’s Table in the auditorium all week long. Every time any group gathered for church business, they took communion. Every elders’ meeting, every missions meeting, every Bible class planning session.
We don’t have to do that, but we might give it a try. It has to be better than what we’ve been doing — and it will make those meetings more holy — sacramental. We’ll plan better Bible classes if we begin not only in prayer but in remembrance.
* When we meet at a restaurant with an accountability group or with a couple of deacons to go over the budget, the bread and wine/fruit juice/ice tea course becomes a sacrament. Just a few words, but enough to realize that Jesus is present, that we represent him there, and that we desperately want him among us as we discuss his affairs.
Extreme? I hope so.
And if we were just to try this, imagine how the community life of the church would change! Rather than being about me being with my friends and having a good time, our time together will also be time with Jesus — and we’ll be reminded over and over how Jesus treats the poor and invites them to the table and how he reached out to the other — the stranger, the sojourner, the rejected, the oppressed — and offered them table fellowship.
It will change us.
In fact, we might even find an identity other than a cappella music.