Thoughts on the Lord's Supper
For many years now I have harbored concerns about the way many Protestant churches practice the Lord’s Supper. My concerns are as follows:
- We practice it too infrequently
- Our “supper” differs in appearance from that of the early church
- We make it a time of sadness and fear rather than joy and hope
Let me briefly address each point in turn.
Biblically and historically the Lord’s Supper has been a regular part of the Christian gathering. Only after the Reformation did the sermon replace it as the most significant part of a service.
It seems the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper on a regular, if not weekly basis (I owe much of the substance to the following Biblical arguments for a frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper to an unpublished article by my friend, Nathan Hollenbeck). In Acts 2:42 we read, “They [the Christian converts] were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (NET Bible) While this could be a reference to general communal eating, the context suggests otherwise. First, eating is not a Christian practice to which converts must devote themselves. Eating is a practice common to everyone regardless of their religious affiliation. Secondly, the surrounding activities are religious in nature: doctrinal teaching, fellowship, and prayer.
In Acts 20:7 we read, “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul began to speak to the people…until midnight.” A few things should be noted. First, the purpose of the meeting was to break bread. It would seem strange that regular eating would be the purpose for which they assembled. It makes more sense to understand this meal as having religious significance, such as the Lord’s Supper. Secondly, it is explicitly noted that this was the first day of the week (Sunday). This was the day when the body of Christ assembled for worship. Thirdly, another religious activity is spoken of in tandem with this eating: apostolic teaching. These last two points solidify the conclusion that this meal was religious in nature. We have here, then, what appears to be a normative statement regarding the purpose of gathering on the Lord’s Day: to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This implies that it was a regular, weekly practice of the church.
Finally, in I Corinthians 11:20 we read, “Therefore when you come together at the same place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Again, this sarcastic remark shows that the purpose of gathering together involved the eating of the Lord’s Supper, and that it was a regular practice.
How do Pentecostal churches match up? How often do they fulfill the Lord’s command? Most churches only celebrate the Lord’s Supper once or twice a year. Why? While it is true that the Lord did not specify how often it must be done (“as often as you do this…”), looking at the example of the early church I would argue that we are not celebrating it enough. While it was of maximal importance to the gatherings of the early church, it is absent from most of our own.
In I Corinthians 11:20-22 Paul wrote, “Therefore when you come together at the same place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this!” In the apostolic church the Lord’s Supper was actually a supper. Eating the Lord’s Supper involved so much food that people were able to overeat, and involved so much drink that they were getting drunk (on grape juice of course!). I don’t know about you, but I think we would have a hard time getting full on our 1/16 of a saltine cracker, and drunk on our 1/4 of a swig of grape juice! While I don’t think we have to have a full meal to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, clearly this is the way Jesus celebrated His last supper with the apostles, and it is the way the church celebrate the Last Supper as well.
I have long been bothered by the mood created for the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. It’s always the same thing. We read the following passage:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. (I Cor 11:27-31, KJV)
followed by an appeal to repent lest God judge you (kill?) for your unconfessed sin. Then comes the sad music about the blood of Christ being shed for us, followed by weeping and wailing by a minority, and guilt by a majority for not being able to cry when they think they should. Why do we do this? While there are several reasons, the most important is a misunderstanding of the text when it speaks of partaking “unworthily.” We think it refers to our own spiritual state: if we are unworthy of the Lord’s body and blood due to unrepentant sin in our lives Jesus might kill us. This is hardly a festive thought! The grammar and context argues against such an interpretation.
Grammatically speaking the Greek word translated “unworthily,” anaxios, is an adverb describing the manner in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not an adjective describing the quality of our own spiritual state. Contextually speaking, the problem Paul was addressing was the manner in which the Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s Supper, not personal sin in the lives of the Corinthian believers. Those who brought a lot of food were not sharing with those who had little or none; those who arrived earlier did not wait for those who had yet to show up. As a result there were some who were turning this celebration into a gluttonous and selfish affair, precisely the opposite attitude intended by the celebration. Paul warned against celebrating the Lord’s Supper in this unworthy manner.
Not only is the “repent first, eat later” interpretation of this passage grammatically and contextually flawed, but it is theologically flawed as well. While I agree that one should repent prior to taking the Lord’s Supper, it is only because repentance should be a regular part of our lives. But to think one must make themselves worthy before they partake of the Lord’s Supper is another matter. None of us can make ourselves worthy before the Lord. Jesus is is the only one who can make us worthy, and He did so by shedding His blood at Calvary. That is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper: to commemorate what He did to make us worthy before God when we could not do so ourselves. How ironic it is, then, that we would use the occasion of the Lord’s Supper to tell people they must make themselves worthy lest God bring judgment on them. In the words of Hollenbeck’s unpublished article, “Truly, if we had to make ourselves worthy before we were able to partake of the Lord’s Supper, we would never be able to approach the table. The most basic meaning of the Lord’s Supper itself is that we cannot become worthy. Hence, Christ came to spill his blood and break his body on our behalf so that he may clothe us with his own worthiness instead. The idea that we should not celebrate his memory often because then we would be more likely to partake unworthily destroys the very meaning of the act itself. The Lord’s Supper emphasizes precisely the fact that while we could never become worthy, his mercy covered our unworthiness.”
Getting back to the mood…. While I find it acceptable to weep during the Lord’s Supper, it should be for reasons of joy and not of sorrow. Indeed, the Lord’s Supper ought to be a joyous occasion. How about some upbeat music for once? How about some dancing and shouting? How about some smiles on our faces? Let us celebrate and be glad for what the Lord did for us!
In conclusion, I hope to see the modern apostolic church move more in the direction of the early apostolic church in their practice of the Lord’s Supper. Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often (at least once a month). Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more food and drink (at least once in a while). Finally, let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper with joy and thanksgiving rather than sorrow.
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