[Since I haven’t had much Internet access on this trip, I’ll rerun an older post.]
In the modern world, with the spread of restaurants, we’ve grown accustomed to eating in the company of strangers. Many of us have eaten in a roomful of people where we knew no one by name. This would have been almost unheard of in the ancient world, particularly in the Middle East. Sharing a meal with someone implied a bond, almost like family, a pledge of mutual aid and mutual protection. Violating that bond was an act of treachery, as seen in Psalm 41: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” (Psalms 41:9) To share bread with someone and then betray them was a terrible thing.
John emphasizes this aspect of Judas’ betrayal when he tells this scene from the Last Supper: “After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” (John 13:21-30) Jesus made sure that Judas realized the full impact of what he was doing.
As we come together to share the Lord’s Supper, we experience a similar moment. By taking the bread and the wine, we not only make a pledge of faithfulness to God, we also proclaim the depth of our fellowship with one another. When we accept the offered bread, we accept our responsibility to one another; as we receive the cup, we receive one another in fellowship. Sharing the bread makes us one. Sharing the cup unites us. This moment is truly a fellowship meal.
In the Old Testament, under the Law given through Moses, there was something called a “peace offering” or “fellowship offering.” These animal sacrifices were offered for a variety of reasons: gratitude to God, the making of a vow or a mere desire to honor God through sacrifice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that many of the offerings would have been a community event. The meat from the offering had to be eaten within two days, or in the case of an offering of gratitude, the same day. If the animal that was offered was a cow, this meant that hundreds of pounds of meat had to be eaten in a short amount of time. The only way to do this would be to bring together a large group of people. That’s why the book of Deuteronomy speaks of offering peace offerings, eating and rejoicing in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 12:6-7; 27:7) and Psalms talks about offering with “shouts of joy” (Psalm 27:6).
When writing to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of something similar, saying “Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:18) Sharing in the table after the sacrifice meant sharing in the benefits of the sacrifice itself. As we come together around the Lord’s Table, we are participating together in His sacrifice by participating together in the meal. We eat the body, drink the blood and are joined with Him and with one another. In this same passage, Paul says: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
This is a community moment, one in which the family of God shares together the table of the sacrifice. This isn’t the altar. The sacrifice was offered but once, yet the meal is celebrated again and again in an unending chain of fellowship. That is the wonder of the Lord’s Table. It’s not a funeral, but a time of rejoicing in what God has done for us. Let us share together in this meal that binds us to one another and to the Lord.
I hope I don’t seem to be dragging this out. It’s just that so many times we criticize yet offer no suggestions for improvement. So let me write one more post on this subject.
Were I in charge of the Lord’s Supper, it would admittedly take a good bit more time. While I think it would ideally be taken while sitting around tables, I think it can still be done in an auditorium.
The first thing I would want is a time for reconciliation. Have a time of prayer where people are urged to move around and pray with one another. One of the main purposes would be to offer a time for people to put the idea of Matthew 5:23-24 into practice. There should be no disputes between brothers that remain unresolved.
I would also encourage a full explanation of what is going to be done, maybe not every time, but frequently. We have visitors among us that don’t know what is expected of them, we have children that need to be learning, we have adults that need to be reminded.
I would have tables around the auditorium. The ideal would be to have one of the deacons at each table, accompanied by their families. Small groups would gather around the table, greet one another, pray together and share the bread and the wine. Families would be encouraged to stay together. Talk should be encouraged, speaking of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, the significance of the covenant and the reality of our unity. After a “reasonable” amount of time (this calls for sensitivity), a central song leader could begin a song, the groups would finish their time together, and the whole assembly would continue their time of encouragement and praise.
I would even be satisfied if this were only done once a month, with other ways of taking the supper being used the other weeks. My high school choir director used to say, “A rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out.” I know that C.S. Lewis argued otherwise, but I think that variety is good in our worship. We too easily turn routine into tradition and tradition into law.
Those are my views. I would love to hear the ideas of others.
So far I’ve had five suggestions on improving our participation at the table of the Lord:
Emphasize the good news of the gospel
Take our time with the Lord’s Supper
Re-establish the table atmosphere of the Lord’s Supper
Think about the way we distribute the Lord’s Supper
Think about using something other than pasteurized grape juice
Let me conclude this section of suggestions with a few final thoughts:
The emphasis on the Lord’s table needs to be communion, fellowship. It’s a bonding time between Christians and between us and our Lord.
We need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make the Supper a more meaningful experience, even if it’s not practical nor popular.
We need to remove all legalistic thinking from the communion experience and see it as an opportunity to draw closer to our Lord. It’s not about punching a time card; it’s a relationship opportunity.
Worship experiences in the Bible are often teaching experiences as well. We need to regularly explain to our visitors, our children and even ourselves just what it is we’re doing. That includes explaining who is and who is not expected to participate, how the elements will be distributed, etc.
I’d like to hear your suggestions. I’ll offer one more post after this where I describe what I would like to see in the Lord’s Supper.
My fifth suggestion is slightly off-topic, but I’ll make it any way: lose the Welch’s. Oh, dear! Now I’ve gone too far. But the more I think about, the more that I don’t care for what’s in our cup.
In case you don’t know the story, ordained Methodist minister Thomas Welch (dentist by trade) was disturbed because the congregation he attended used fermented wine. In 1869, he developed a process of pasteurization which kept grape juice from fermenting. Although the elders at his church said this was “an unacceptable innovation,” the idea eventually caught on across the nation. Though Thomas never accepted money for his invention, his son developed Welch’s into a formidable company. (Read the story here)
From the time of Martin Luther forward, men fought about almost every aspect of the Lord’s Supper. Except whether or not to use wine. Wine was an accepted part of life and an accepted part of worship. Until the 19th century, in the United States.
How can we insist on unleavened bread, yet allow the use of something that didn’t even exist until 1869? Yes, there was grape juice. Yes, there were ways of preserving unfermented wine. But nothing similar to what Mr. Welch came up with was around before that time.
If you can’t get past the cultural hang-ups (and that’s what they are) against alcoholic beverages, use non-alcoholic wine.
Before I finish this series, I’ll get back to some more meaningful suggestions. Still, this one deserves some thought at least. If the thought of Wonder Bread on the Lord’s Table is upsetting to you, ask yourself why you put up with Thomas Welch’s “unacceptable innovation.”