Monday, July 2, 2007

Our Common Meal

Here's an old essay of mine published in the November 1999 edition of Table Talk.

One of the earliest “church manuals” we possess includes a model prayer to be made over the communion bread: “As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (the Didache, c. A.D. 100).

This powerful symbolism—of innumerable grains harvested, mixed together, and baked into one loaf—delightfully combines the biblical imagery of God’s people as grain producing plants (Matt. 13:26; Mark 4:28-29; John 12:34; 1 Cor. 15:37), the harvest of the Gospel throughout history and at the Last Day (Luke 10:2; Rev. 14:15), and the Body of Christ as a loaf of bread (1 Cor. 10:17).

We glimpse here in this ancient prayer a dimension of the early church’s understanding of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we modern Protestant Christians need to recover. Our fathers understood this rite to be a Sacrament of unity and ecclesiastical community. When the church takes, gives thanks for, then breaks and distributes the communion bread she becomes what the Father has called her out of the world to be—a unified community Spiritually united to her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, since the Reformation at least, the communal dimensions of the Lord’s Supper have been buried beneath a heap of metaphysical polemics about the location of the humanity of Christ in relation to the elements of bread and wine. Too many Protestants think that they comprehend the meaning of the Sacrament when they come to firm intellectual convictions about the various erroneous answers given to this narrow question. While I do not slight the importance of this question, as pastor I wonder if the devil has not fanned the flames of this debate in order to see the grains once again scattered to the hills. The Sacrament of unity itself has become the source of disunity and ecclesiastical schism.

Without sidestepping or belittling theological issues, it seems that the authors of the New Testament, including our Lord himself, were more interested in doing the Supper, than in theorizing about it. Jesus did not say, “Think about this” or “Meditate on this” or even “Theologize about this.” He said, “Do this.” Similarly, the Apostle Paul’s only extended discussion of the Lord’s Supper arises not on account of the Corinthian church’s sacramentology, but because the people were eating and drinking in a manner unworthy of the Meal. They were not ritually doing the Supper as a unified church. They failed to “discern” or “prove” the unity of the Body of Christ in their manner of eating (1 Cor. 11:29, 33).

According to Paul, our relationship with and opinion of Jesus Christ is directly related to our opinion of and relationship with his church. And our relationship with the local church is formed not only by listening to the sermon or thinking truthful theological thoughts, but also by joining in the common meal and eating and drinking with the Body of Christ. The 19th century unbelieving philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach came very close to this with his maxim “you are what you eat.” We might tweak it a bit to get a more biblical dictum: “Who you are is revealed in how you eat” and also conversely “how you eat constitutes who you are.”

The unity of the church is not merely something we claim by faith every week when we sit at the common Table, it is also something we become every week as we eat the bread and drink the wine together. When we join our voices together with the gathered assembly in prayer, confession, singing, eating, and drinking we are weekly reconstituted by the Spirit as the Body of Christ, the very tangible public presence of God’s saving activity in the world.

Sadly, in evangelical Protestantism’s practice, we have too often reduced the Lord’s Supper to a means of providing mental stimulus for individual religious meditation. It is thought by many to be just another opportunity to exercise personal, private devotions at church. To some extent, the way we practice the Supper encourages this. Everyone closes their eyes, turns inward, and mediates privately. The corporate, communal dimension of the Sacrament gets smothered beneath what in effect becomes an opportunity for personal quiet time in church. There is, of course, room for silence during the rite of Communion, but there is so much more going on than merely private devotions with the visual aids of bread and wine. Surely the food on the Table is not merely God’s flannel graph for adults.

I was delighted to hear one of my parishioners explaining to a group of parents his way of disciplining his children when they were at each other’s throats during the evening family meal: “Is that the way you would act at the Lord’s Table?” This father’s rebuke is designed to remind his children that the common ritual of the Lord’s Supper establishes the way they ought to act toward one another at home and in the world as Christians. This is exactly right.

What we do at the Lord’s Table ought to form us into a particular kind of community—a community of sacrificial love united to one another in Jesus our Savior. The Didache, making explicit what the Scriptures teach, insists on the necessity of reconciling any fellow Christians who might be at variance with each other before they could eat the Lord’s Supper together. The unity of the church as the Body of Christ, symbolized in the one loaf, must not be violated by personal disputes among the members of the local body as well as formal ecclesiastical schisms in the larger communion of the saints.

If our faithful eating and drinking of the Supper means this much, then it ought to have a prominent, regular place in our assembling on the Lord’s Day. For the early church, it was never an optional ritual. Neither was the Supper celebrated occasionally in special services. Since the unity and community of both the local and universal church was something central to her existence, something that ought to characterize her normal, ordinary life in the world, the Sacrament of Communion would also have to be part of the every-week routine of the gathered church.

The Apostle Paul indicates that the church “comes together” precisely to eat the Lord’s Supper and that in a openly unified way (1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33, 34). The more we faithfully do the Lord’s Supper, the more we will experience the communal dimensions of the Sacrament, indeed, the community-forming nature of the ritual meal. Only then will the concrete oneness that our Lord petitioned the Father for be realized in the Church “in order that the world may believe” (John 17:23). After all, as Reformation Christians we do confess the Sacrament as a means of grace! The Lord of the harvest earnestly desires to gather his scattered grains together into one loaf, and all for the life of the world.

7 comments:

Justin Bertram said...

Jeff,

Thanks for posting on this, Jeff. I have been wrestling with this very subject as it relates to my own church, and I have reached many of the same conclusions. Your analogy of the grains becoming one loaf was new to me and very refreshing. I would love to hear your thoughts on a question that has been particularly puzzling.

Do you think an actual meal plays any role in the Lord's Supper (in conjunction with or even in lieu of the "token meal" that we often consume)? My research into first century Jewish culture and practice as well as hints from the text have led me this direction, but I haven't reached any solid conclusions just yet.

Also, have you found any resources (e.g. books, blogs, articles, etc.) particularly helpful in your study of the Lord's Supper?

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Jeff Meyers said...

A Quick answer to your question, Justin. No, I don't believe the Lord's Supper was meant to be a normal meal. It's an "actual meal" but it's not the same as our everyday meals. First, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have homes to eat and drink in. The Lord's Supper is something different. Second, the way Jesus institutes it makes it pretty clear that it's a ritual meal. Every meal has rituals, but not every meal is a ritual meal. To call it a "token" meal is too pejorative. It is meant to be a symbolic memorial meal in which the covenant is memorialized before God by the assembly.

Jeff Meyers said...

Justin, as for books on the Lord's Supper, what have yo read so far? I'd highly recommend Peter Leithart's Blessed are the Hungry, if you've not read it yet.

And although it is not about the Lord's Supper, Peter's new book The Baptized Body will help you appreciate the way the Lord acts through the rites of the church.

Of course, you can always read what I have to say in my book on worship, The Lord's Service.

There's a whole lot of good short essays and links here.

Justin Bertram said...

Jeff,

Thanks for the links. I've followed both Mark's and Peter's blogs for awhile now and I typically enjoy what they have to say. I have read several articles from Mark's website (hornes.org) on NT Wright, but nothing on the sacraments. I'll look into them.

As far as what I've read, I'm just getting started. I've read the article on the Lord's Supper from IVP's Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (article by I.H. Marshall), the relevant section of the New Interpreter's Bible commentary on 1 Corinthians (by J. Paul Sampley - a book I bought solely for Wright's commentary on Romans), and Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology (which didn't go into much depth). Marhsall and Sampley advocate an actual meal. Grudem doesn't seem to go one way or the other.

I've got a few extra questions that I hope you might help me answer. I'm really wrestling through this and I would love your continued insight.

However, before I begin let me define some terms so we are on the same page. When I said actual meal I didn't mean to imply the kind of attitude and ambiance that accompany the dinner that I would normally eat with my wife and child every evening after work. I meant to convey the idea of a ritual meal, pregnant with symbolism (explicitly explained as such with words like Jesus' own), but with the fare of a "normal meal" eaten in addition to the bread and wine. Depending on how you understood my use of actual meal in the previous post these next questions may be moot.

You said, "I don't believe the Lord's Supper was meant to be a normal meal." I know that some people, even though they don't believe the Lord's Supper was an normal meal, think that it is to be observed in the context of a normal meal. Would you include yourself within that group? If not, how do you account for Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 11:25, "In the same way also he took the cup, after supper..." (emphasis mine) which seems to indicate that the tradition he received "from the Lord" included a normal meal.

To your point about Paul telling the Corinthians to eat and drink in their homes (1 Corinthains 11:22) I have read an analysis similar to this (simplified of course): the main source of tension that Paul was addressing involved the rich flaunting their wealth and making the poor feel inferior (which caused a division which exactly opposed the unity the meal was meant to facilitate), cultural analysis of the times indicates that it was common for meals among the rich to be eaten in stages with certain guests arriving at later stages (i.e. not everyone eating together), Paul's recommendation therefore was that the rich eat some of their meal in private (in absense of the poor) before joining the rest of the body for the Lord's Supper which was still a meal with fare other than bread and wine. What are your thoughts of that analysis?

Do you think that the "breaking of bread" that Acts references (2:42, 46) was the Lord's Supper? If so, would that indicate the Lord's Supper was an actual meal (everything I have read indicates that the idiom "breaking of bread" indicates an actual meal). If not, what does that say about the importance of an actual meal in general to church fellowship?

What relation does the Passover (definitely an actual meal) have to the Lord's Supper? Does the Passover's "mealness" affect how we practice the Lord's Supper?

Do you think the Lord's Supper has eschatological significance in anticipating/foreshadowing the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation (which would seem to be an actual meal as well)?

I know that's a lot of questions, Jeff, but I'm a curious guy :) I hope all this isn't off-putting. Please answer at your leisure. In the mean-time I will start reading some of those articles you linked.

Jeff Meyers said...

Justin: these are all very good questions, and I'd have to write 25 pages to answer them adequately! Just a few quick answers.

1. The Passover was an "actual meal," even a family meal. There are all sorts of arguments against thinking that even the supper that Jesus and his disciples ate before Jesus instituted the LS was the passover meal. It was definitely AT Passovertime, but since when do married men with families have the Passover meal only with a bunch o' the boys? In any case, Jesus did something AFTER the normal meal. And it was those words and actions about which he commanded "do this." I don't think there's a problem with having the Lord's Supper in conjunction with (after) a normal "fellowship meal" at the church. But I don't believe that is part of what is commanded by Jesus. Paul is quoting from the historical record when he records the words "after supper." The taking bread, giving thanks, etc. is what is normative.

2. I've dealt with the problem in Corinth in my studies on paedocommunion. You are correct. They were eating in a divided manner. Paul condemns the way in which they were eating. They were eating and drinking "unworthily" That's an adverb modifying their action, not a noun describing their sate. It's not that unworthy people were coming to the Table, but professing Christians were behaving unworthily at the Table. Yes, as you say, the rich were eating together (and enjoying the best wine and bread) and the poor were left off to the side. That's why the big climax of chapter eleven is "wait for one another - if any one his hungry, let him eat at home" (33, 34). So the Lord's Supper is a ritual expressing the unity of the church (among other things, of course) and NOT for satisfying your physical hunger. Do that at home, Paul says.

3. I believe the church early on understood this properly and made sure that the Eucharist was a ritual meal. I find it a little presumptuous for modern Christians to think they've discovered something that the whole church has apparently missed - that the LS should be something more like a fellowship meal. Fellowship meals are great. They are logical extensions from the ritual (but real) communion with have with Christ and one another at the Table. But I do think the Holy Spirit has lead the church faithfully these 2000 years re: the ritual nature of the Supper.

4. Yes, I believe "breaking of bread" in Acts was the Lord's Supper or at least a proto-LS ritual. I have to wonder if it didn't take some time to begin to be able to do the full ritual. Nothing is said about the wine rite in these passages, so I'm reluctant to say that this early expression of corporate unity and communion is anything more than the beginnings of what would later become more settled and mature. It could also be that they broke bread daily in their homes, but got together for the full covenant meal (with wine) once a week. Again, the fact that this is early on in the book of Acts makes me reluctant to take this as normative.

5. The Lord's Supper is NOT exclusively an extension of the Passover. It is the fulfillment of ALL of the ritual covenant memorial meals in the OT. I'm not sure what else to say about that. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness. Paul tells us that was also a prophetic type of the LS (1 Cor. 10). People ate beef or lamb in conjunction with the "sacrifice of peace" at the altar, too. I don't believe that any of these old covenant meals necessarily imply that the LS should be full-blown meals.

6. As for the wedding feast of the lamb, the LS is definitely a foreshadowing of that. But I don't think it follows that it should be a full-blown meal. Maybe part of the problem here is that a full-blown meal includes much more than bread and wine. Bread and wine are "body and blood." Clearly the fact that the body and blood are eaten by the communicants has typological connections with the old world animal sacrifices. Body and blood were always separated (=death). But no one drank the blood (except the altar). Now, in the new covenant, we begin our service with body and blood on the Table, which means the death has happened and we get to participate in the benefits of the death. I guess my point is that if this were a full-blown feast we would eat so much more than just bread and wine. There'd be cheese, fruit, beef, chicken, and beer. The fact that only bread and wine are used in the LS is another argument that it should be a ritual meal, not a normal meal.

I do think we should eat a bit more bread and drink a bit more wine that we typically do. Grab a mouthful of bread and a good gulp of wine. If we use individual cups we need to make them bigger!

Well, that was a lot of rambling and I'm not sure it was worth that much. Take it or leave it. ;-)

nickg said...

It's been good to eavesdrop on you guys on this issue.

Jeff, I've so appreciated your exegetical work on 1 Cor 11 since I came across it some time ago. I always felt there was a logical/theological/covenantal inconsistency with being a paedobaptist and not being a paedocommunionist, but the application of 1 Cor 11 as a prohibition to children communing was always taught to me as so obvious that I figured it must be so (not very Berean of me, which is ironic because the first church I attended after coming to faith was a "Berean" church). Anyway, your work enabled me to bridge that inconsistency and, I think, come to a more Biblical understanding of Christ's sacramental gift of Himself to all of His people. So, thanks.

Justin Bertram said...

Jeff,

Thank you so much for your timely response. I want to continue our dialog. My points will be numbered to address yours.

1. I would be very interested to hear some arguments for why the Last Supper's immediate context was not a Passover meal. My reading of the text is pretty straight-forward. In my opinion Luke 22:8-20 is clear, "So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.' They said to him, 'Where will you have us prepare it?' He said to them, 'Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.' And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, 'I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, 'Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.' 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.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'"

I don't know why men with families would eat with Jesus alone, but the text says that Jesus "earnestly desired" to eat with them. Perhaps they left their families for a short time to spend some "quality time" with Jesus at his behest.

I am no student of Greek, but my understanding is that sometimes we can determine the objects of particular nouns. When Jesus says, "do this," is it clear from the text what this directly references? Is it the breaking of the bread, specifically? Or might it be a more general reference to the overarching observance of the meal? (I have tried to find an answer to this question to no avail)

Also, you highlighted that Jesus' institution of the ritual occurred after the meal. What do you make of the different orders which are presented to us in Scripture? Matthew and Mark seem to indicate that the bread/wine were consumed somehow during ("as they were eating" Matthew 26:26 and Mark 14:22) the meal. Luke doesn't make any indication of the order. Paul (1 Corinthians 23-25) is our only source for an explicitly after-meal ritual.

2. The whole, "eat at home," thing is very compelling evidence for a ritual meal.

3. I'm hesitant to invoke your type of logic on this point. I feel compelled to wrestle with the text itself and not what others have said about it for these past centuries. I can imagine there are traditions who have long observed the LS as a fellowship meal, and I also can imagine there are traditions who have done things in error for the last 2000 years as well. At the end of the day however, those potentials cannot shape my view of the text. Further, I imagine there are plenty of people who view the LS as a fellowship meal for reasons well grounded in the text without any hint of presumption. At this point in my study I can see both sides. In my view, the important thing is that the observance is focused on remembering Jesus and uniting the body in Him. It seems to me better to observe it slightly wrongly (whichever way that might be) than not at all.

4. Your point makes sense. I wouldn't know how to argue against it.

I have a corollary question. If the "breaking of bread" mentioned in Acts is not technically the LS but rather a more general fellowship meal do you think that says anything noteworthy about the importance of fellowship meals in general?

5. I agree with you that the LS is the fulfillment of all OT covenant meals including the Passover. This makes a lot of sense.

6. I don't necessarily see an issue with having more than just bread and wine as a part of the LS as long as bread and wine take a special role (i.e. the role they took for Jesus during his meal together with his disciples on that last night). You clearly think that bread and wine were the only elements of the LS. I'm not so sure.

To boil it down, my dilemma is mainly this. The backdrop of the LS is a meal (OT covenant meals, manna in the wilderness, the Passover - specifically the Passover when the LS was "instituted" (which you apparently dispute), the "breaking of bread" in Acts). The final eschatological consummation of the LS is a meal (the marriage feast of the lamb). If I only had these pieces of information I would readily conclude that the LS was indeed more than just bread and wine. However, 1 Corinthians 11 changes that. Paul seems to be indicating that the LS is not a meal substantial enough to satisfy hunger (1 Corinthians 11:22 & 34). So...I have to either somehow reconcile that the LS is not a meal (in contrast to the backdrop and consummation) or I have to somehow interpret 1 Corinthians 11 in a way that is faithful to the text but also maintains the meal-ness of the LS.

Jeff, am I making sense? What are your thoughts?