We had Communion (Eucharist) Sunday at church today. The message focused on Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth. Apparently in Corinth, the church would practice Love Feast wrongly. The love feast was an early form of Eucharist. A full meal was meant to be shared by the entire church… much like a potluck dinner. The big difference is that it wasn’t meant simply to demonstrate fellowship (koinonia). It was meant to commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus before his arrest, trials, and crucifixion. It was also meant to symbolize unity and equality in the church family. But this wonderful imagery was marred by members of the church who brought food for themselves while others who were poor got none.
This reminded me of a story from the Kankana-ey— a tribal group up here in the mountains of Northern Luzon. A friend of mine is doing his dissertation with this group. He tells a story that I will here paraphrase. There was a Kankana-ey man, wife and two sons. Sadly, the man died leaving his wife a widow. Other children would pick on the boys because they didn’t have a father. This community periodically had “Watwats.” Literally the term means share-share. Ceremonies would be held where animals, pigs and chickens, would be killed/sacrificed, cooked, and distributed to all of the people of the community. However, the family of the widow would be given the worst parts of the animals— chicken feet, pig hooves, and other meatless parts.
One day, the elders of the community came by the house of the widow to hold a house blessing. After the blessing, the sacrificed chicken as well as the items from the previous watwat were to be served to the elders. When the elders saw that they were being served hooves and chicken feet they were offended. However, the widow explained that that was what they were given at the watwats. The elders considered this matter. A watwat is an event for the whole community, sharing in the common blessing. It is not right that some are treated better than others. So they established the principle that widows and orphans are treated as well as all others.
Leaving this story now and going back to the Eucharist, today the Lord’s Supper is no longer a supper, but more symbolic (or sacramental, depending on one’s theological/tradition) meal. I feel that it is a bit sad that the Eucharist has changed… but I think it is too late to change.
But maybe there is a better solution. Perhaps we can consider the Potluck Dinner more sacramentally– “from those according to their ability, to those according to their need.” Koinonia, Christian fellowship, is well represented by the Love Feast, or as modeled in the Watwat. And the potluck dinner of many churches also well represents this, unity and equality in Christ… if people are helped to understand the meaning in the rite. Perhaps it can also look back on the sacred gathering of Jesus with His disciples, as well as the future marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19).
<Note: Like with baptism, I take a more Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or Eucharist). Thus I understand baptism as primarily symbolic rather than sacramental. The doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation are part of a number of Christian traditions, but the symbolic view, strictly followed, sees the blood and body of Christ related to the bread and wine by metaphor only. However, I think most all Christians would agree that there is a strong symbolic aspect to the Lord’s Supper. As such, hopefully there are thoughts here worthy of consideration by all. But since the Lord’s Supper, along with Baptism, is one of the biggest divisive issues in the Christian faith, I cannot promise you will find this edifying. Also, since experts have argued over this stuff for centuries, don’t expect to be “wow’d” by this post. Just some thoughts to think about.>
The Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Passover Meal. Unleavened bread and three or four cups of wine were part of the meal. The Passover meal pointed back to the blood sacrifice of the lamb prior to the Exodus. Jesus’ is described as the lamb of God, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper with Passover appears to be quite intentional. So one symbolic purpose is:
A remembrance of Jesus as the redeemer of His people.
But it does not appear that Jesus and the early Church limited itself to only this symbolic understanding. Some others include:
Looking forward to the return of Christ. In fact the formula linked the past with the present and future. “Do in remembrance of Me” is linked to doing this proclaiming His death until He comes again.
Shows our union with Christ and with each other. The eating of “blood” and “body” of Christ symbolizes this union with Christ, and doing it communally symbolizes the union of believers— often described as “the body of Christ.”
God as provider. The symbolism of Christ as the bread of life and as living water (drink) show Jesus as one who takes care of our needs.
Additionally, the Lord’s Supper is so intertwined with Christian history that our involvement connects us to fellow believers throughout history. As Islam may be drawn together by Ramadan and, to a lesser extent, the Hajj, Christians connect worldwide and through history by the Lord’s Supper.
If one takes a symbolic look at the Lord’s Supper, how might that affect its practice within the missions setting?
A. In the Cordilleras of the Northern Philippines, grapes are starting to be grown, and bread is available (although wheat must be imported). Wine and bread may have been the normal staples for 1st century Judea, but they are not that in the Cordilleras. The natural equivalents here could be coffee and kamote (yam). Another possibility might be bugnay wine and rice. Symbolically, switching makes a lot of sense. It does not hurt the symbolism… in fact, connecting it to normal staples makes clear the role of Christ as one who providess, even within a different cultural context. Perhaps the only area where the switch of ingredients harms is in the final one. The connection between the believers in the Cordilleras with Christians around the world and through time could be hurt by the change. This seems silly, but the use of unfermented grape juice by some Christians and the use of fermented grape juice has (strangely) led to divisions within the church (at least on an emotional level). So there is question on what is the ideal choice. But it seems clear to me that one should not be overly limiting in the components.
B. Who can join in the Lord’s Supper? Tradition puts a great limitation on who can take communion. But even within groups that view the Lord’s Supper as symbolic, not sacramental, there is often still a great deal of limitations. Some limit communion to those within the local church (curiously, some of the great traditional leaders within my denomination were deeply committed to “closed communion.”) Others may allow for communion with people of other churches as long as they from churches within the same denomination, or of common faith (on some level). This gets touchy. The symbolism makes sense within the context of believers. So having non-believers join in the Lord’s Supper spoils the symbolism. However, rejecting fellow believers because of being a member of a different church or denomination (I am assuming theologically orthodox denominations) fails to fit the symbolism of union with Christ and fellow believers throughout the world and throughout time. Since the Bible tells us how we may know we are His children, but does not tell us how to know if others are believers, I believe we must be generous in determining who is eligible for Lord’s Supper. While it may be justifiable to hold off new believers from baptism somewhat until they understand the symbolism of the act, it seems to me the value of the union of believers through Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper suggests that rapid incorporation of the believer with the communion of believers through the Eucharist is appropriate.
C. How should the Lord’s Supper be done. I was raised up with precut bread and grape juice in individual cups. Later on the church switched to precut wafers (because leavening at times symbolizes sin). Others share a common cup and common bread broken on the spot. Clearly, breaking bread is more historical, and the original unity of both cup and bread show Christ’s unity and the unity of the believers with each other better. On the other hand, the concern about disease has caused some to be worried about sharing a common cup. In the end, this is a matter of conviction. Having precut bread and separate cups does not destroy the symbolism… but it may be useful to find ways to show the unity. For example having separate cups but filled publically from the same ewer.
D. Who can lead the Lord’s Supper and where can it be done. Sacramental understanding of the Eucharist leads to only a very limited number of people who can offer communion. In some places, adjustments are made (like on warships where lay people are trained to provided specially blessed bread and wine), but major limitations on who and where remain. Even where a symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper exists, often it is felt that it must be offered by an ordained minister, served by that minister or by ordained deacons, and must be done in a traditional church setting. In the mission field there may be no ordained ministers, and the gathering of believers may be a small group in a house. If one holds to the symbolic understanding, the officiator and the server don’t really need to be ordained. Likewise, the place does not matter that much. What matters is that it is a community of believers. Of greater question would be whether there is value in doing the Lord’s Supper with one individual. With a sacramental understanding, it may be valuable to provide Eucharist for one. Symbolically, there are a couple of ways it could be looked at. On one side, the communal idea of the Eucharist is lost with serving on person. On the other hand, for shut-ins for example, serving Eucharist may help demonstrate that they are also part of the body of Christ.
E. How often to should Lord’s Supper be done. Within sacramental traditions, the Eucharist is done frequently. Priests may carry out Eucharist many times a day and laity are encouraged to attend frequently… even daily. With the symbolic understanding it does not need to be done as frequently… but how often. In truth, I don’t know. Sometimes there is a fear to do it too often because of Christ’s warning of “vain repetition.” But the key is the adjective “vain.” Repetition does not have to be vain. However, if the symbolism is not explained and reminded, the Lord’s Supper is likely to degenerate into vain repetition. I was in a church plant here in the Philippines where we did Lord’s Supper about once a year. Why? One reason may have been that many of the members came from a sacramental tradition, so there was fear that people were involved with the Lord’s Supper because it was thought to be a “dispenser of grace.” I think that the main reason was that the leadership (including myself) had lost the symbolic relevance of the Lord’s Supper so we did not value it. However, because of the significance of the Lord’s Supper (symbolically and historically), the end result was that we were too lazy to teach its appropriate role in the life of the church. So I don’t know the appropriate frequency, but clearly, the symbol of the Lord’s Supper must be taught and reminded. The educative value of the Eucharist should never be forgotten.
I don’t suppose this answers much. However, I believe that in the mission field, flexibility is necessary but not so as to destroy the symbolic value of the Lord’s Supper. As with all symbols, it should link the meaning with
Is the resurrection of Christ important to missions or tangential. beyond what was covered in part I, I would suggest it is important because it was central to the early church. And that centrality also adds credence to the historicity of the resurrection. How do we know the early church focused on the resurrection?
A. The first Sermon given after the creation of the Church emphasized the Resurrection. Less than 2 months after Jesus died.. (Acts 2:29-38)
“My friends, it is right for me to speak to you about our ancestor David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is still here. But David was a prophet, and he knew that God had made a promise he would not break. He had told David that someone from his own family would someday be king. David knew this would happen, and so he told us that Christ would be raised to life. He said that God would not leave him in the grave or let his body decay. All of us can tell you that God has raised Jesus to life! Jesus was taken up to sit at the right side of God, and he was given the Holy Spirit, just as the Father had promised. Jesus is also the one who has given the Spirit to us, and that is what you are now seeing and hearing. David didn’t go up to heaven. So he wasn’t talking about himself when he said, “The Lord told my Lord to sit at his right side, until he made my Lord’s enemies into a footstool for him.” Everyone in Israel should then know for certain that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, even though you put him to death on a cross.”
B. The first known confession of faith used in the church, I Corinthians 15:3-7(and then 8), says:
I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time
C. The earliest sacraments of the church (communion and baptism) focused on the resurrection.
1. The communion (Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) does not focus on the good teachings of Jesus, or what a good person he was, or what a good example he was for us. Rather, it focuses on his death, and his return. It was the death and return of Jesus that the early church saw as most important. While we often do the Lord’s Supper in a rather solemn or sad way, the early church did the Lord’s Supper as a joyous event… almost a party.
2. Baptism also focused on Resurrection. In Romans 6:2-4
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.