Whatever happened to communion? (1 Cor 10.16-17; 11.23-26)

The July 2019 issue of Christianity Today featured an article by Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief, entitled ‘Whatever happened to Communion and Baptism? Or why aren’t we doing what Jesus told us to?’

Galli wrote:

I’ve lost track of the number of startup evangelical churches… whose practice of Communion is frankly a sacrilege. One has to give them credit for, yes, seeking out the lost and taking down unnecessary cultural/religious barriers. And one has to also praise them for at least offering Communion. But in many churches, it is something that is presented during the offering, at a small table holding crackers and juice on the side aisles for those who feel so led to partake. Sometimes this is accompanied by the words of institution, but sometimes not.

Galli highlighted the failure of many evangelicals to view communion – as indeed baptism – as a ‘means of grace’. By ’means of grace’ Galli was not proposing any specific theology – but simply the fact that through the practices of communion and baptism our faith is “deepened and strengthened”. But this does not happen – for there is no expectation that God might bless!

Ben Witherington III, an American New Testament scholar, made a similar point in one of his books when he tells of how a visiting ‘seeker’ went up to the senior minister after the service and said: “You know what I really liked about the service?” “No”, the minister answered. “I liked it that, in the middle, we stopped and had snacks”. Reflecting on this encounter, the minister said later: “An unacceptable image arose in my mind during this conversation: ‘This is my snack, given for you’”. The Lord’s Supper had been trivialised. Indeed, commented Witherington: “Some would say that sacrilege happened that day in that church.” [1]

Galli and Witherington were addressing American evangelicals. But sadly this ‘dumbing down of communion’ is to be found all over the English-speaking world. In many places we now have the phenomenon of “fast food worship, welcome to MacEucharist”. [2] In many churches there is no longer a formal corporate prayer of thanksgiving for God’s salvation symbolised in bread and wine. In some churches instead of one central communion table, there are a host of small tables to which people are invited to go and help themselves to bread and wine. Indeed, in one Baptist church in NZ where I worshipped there was no table whatsoever, instead the bread and wine were put on the floor!

Of course, we are not the first generation to abuse the Lord’s Supper. Even within the pages of the New Testament we discover that Christians were failing to celebrate communion in an appropriate fashion.

At Corinth, for instance, far from cementing fellowship, the Lord’s Supper became socially divisive – with wealthier members of the congregation tucking in and forgetting about the poorer members, whose work schedules meant that they had to turn up late.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11.20-22b)

To understand what was happening you have to understand the arrangement of rooms in as typical Roman villa. There was the triclinium (what we could call the ‘dining room’) which covered an area of about 24 x 18 feet (7.5. x 5.5 metres). This room would be furnished with couches at which normally some nine or ten guests would recline. Beyond the triclinium was the atrium (a courtyard), normally 20 x 16 feet in size (in other words slightly smaller in size) which without couches could accommodate a further thirty less favoured guests – many of these would have been servants or younger relatives of the esteemed guests, and they would have had either to sit or stand in what amounted to an over-flow’ room. [3]

But the abuse was not just related to the seating arrangements. The food for less favoured guests was probably very different from the food served to the VIPs. The Roman writer, Pliny the Younger, for instance, described his experience as guest of a man who boasted of the ‘elegant economy’ of his hospitality:

“The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories, not with the idea of giving his guests the opportunity of choosing, bot to make it impossible for them to refuse what they were given. One loit was intended for himself and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” [4]

In the church or churches to which the Letter of Jude things were little better. There what the NRSV calls ‘love feasts’ (GNB “fellowship meals”) had degenerated into “shameless carousing” (GNB Jude 12). According to the NRSV, they were feasting ‘without fear’ – or as we might say, ‘without reverence or awe’. In the words of one recent commentary: “They had no sense of the activity of the love feast as an act of worship, fellowship and remembrance, but treated the event as a mere banquet”. [5]

Not surprisingly because of these abuses the meal element disappeared – with result that today all that we are left with is bread and wine

  1. THE LORD’S SUPPER HAS ITS ROOTS IN A MEAL

The very term ‘Lord’s Supper’ used by Paul in 1 Cor 11.20, denotes a proper meal. For us today ‘supper’ is a light meal – it can be just cheese and biscuits. However, the Greek word translated supper (deipnon) denotes the main meal of the day: like the English word ‘dinner’ it usually refers to an evening meal – but the emphasis is not so much on the timing as on the importance of the meal. In that sense it is like the way in which we talk about a ‘Christmas dinner’ or a Sunday ‘dinner’ which are normally held at lunch-time.

As we know from the Gospels, the roots of the Lord’s Supper are in the Jewish Passover. This was no mere ‘supper’: it was a full ‘dinner’ involving a starter consisting of green herbs, bitter herbs and a sauce made of fruit puree, followed by the main course: roast lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Ex 12.8).

Let’s look more closely at the way in which the Passover was celebrated and see how it relates to the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Part One began with the ‘Kiddush’ cup (the cup of ‘consecration’) over which a blessing was said and thanks given to God for the feast. Luke was probably referring to this cup when he wrote: “Then Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God and said: ‘Take this & share it among yourselves. I tell you that from now on I will not drink this wine until the Kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22.16).  This was then followed by the first course. The roast lamb was then served but not eaten; and the second cup was brought in, but not drunk.
  2. Part Two called the Passover ‘haggadah’ (‘proclamation’) began with the youngest person present asking: “Why is this night different from other nights? For on all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only unleavened bread. On all other nights we eat any kind of herbs, but on this night only bitter herbs. On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night only roasted.” This formed the cue for the head of the family to say: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26.5),and beginning with Abraham he would tell the story down to the deliverance of the Passover. This was then followed by the singing of two psalms of praise: Psalms 113 & 114. Only at this point was the second cup drunk: the ‘Haggadah’ cup (the cup of ‘proclamation’).
  3. Then came Part Three: the main meal. This was the moment that grace was said over the unleavened bread: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, who bringest forth fruit from the earth.  Blessed art Thou who has sanctified us with Thy commandment and enjoined us to eat unleavened cakes.” The bread was broken and distributed. Or in the words of Mark 14.22: “While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples”. Thereupon the family began to eat the roast lamb. When all the lamb had been eaten up, there was another grace, this time spoken over the cup: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast created the fruit of the vine” Then cup number three was drunk, the cup of ‘Blessing’. Paul refers to this in 1 Cor 10.16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ”. Or as he says in 1 Cor 11.25: “In the same way he (Jesus) took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood”.
  4. But this was not yet the end. There was still the final stage, Part 4: Four more psalms of praise were sung: Psalms 115-118. The mal ended with a fourth cup, the Hallel (praise) cup – the cup for which praise was given

From this account you will have seen four things. First, at a Passover meal there were four ‘cups of obligation’: i.e. there were four separate occasions when a cup of wine was passed round in silence and a solemn sip was taken. By contrast at the Lord’s Supper only one has been retained – the cup of blessing

Secondly, the Passover meal was not eaten until after there had been a solemn recitation of the events leading up to the first Passover and of how God had freed his people from slavery (the Passover ‘haggadah’). Similarly, when the first Christians gathered to break bread and to drink wine they would have recited the story of how God in Christ had set his people free.  This is what is behind the words of Paul: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26). It is not the eating and drinking which proclaim, but the actual telling of the story of our salvation. If we are to continue to “proclaim the Lord’s death” in this context, then this means that the Lord’s Supper must always presuppose the preaching of the word. This doesn’t necessarily mean a 30-minute sermon. It could just mean a five-minute exposition. But exposition there must be. Word and sacrament always go together.

Thirdly, there were two separate ‘graces’ spoken by Jesus – first over the bread and then over the ‘cup of blessing’. When I was young we used to have two prayers of thanksgiving at communion. Today, however, in most churches there is only one prayer of thanksgiving. My own feeling is that now that the ‘meal’ element of the Lord’s Supper has fallen away, there is much to be said for just one prayer.

Fourthly, there was a good deal of singing at a Passover meal. Immediately after the ‘sermon’, the ‘haggadah’, two psalms were sung – then after the meal a further four psalms were sung. Relating this to the Lord’s Supper, we can say that there is indeed a place for quiet meditation – but there is also a place for joyful celebration as we remember the victory that God has gained for us in Christ.

  1. AT THE LORD’S SUPPER WE GIVE THANKS TO GOD FOR JESUS

Paul writes of how “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it”(1 Cor 11.23,24). Jesus gave thanks, we too give thanks.

Let me give you a short Greek lesson: the Greek word used for thanking God in 1 Cor 11 as also in the Gospel accounts is the word ‘eucharisteo’ – from which our English word ‘Eucharist’ is derived. The Eucharist – that is the word that many Anglicans today like to use for the Lord’s Supper – means ‘thanksgiving’. When we eat bread and wine we thank God.

Interestingly in 1 Cor 10 Paul uses a different word for thanking God. There when he speaks of “the cup of blessing that we bless”, he uses the Greek word “eulogeo”, from which we get our word “eulogy”. A eulogy literally means an occasion for speaking good words – for speaking well of a person – for praising a person’s achievements. That’s the word we find in 1 Cor 10. When we eat bread and drink wine, we ‘eulogise’ God. At the Lord’s Table we don’t ask God to bless the bread and wine – rather we bless God for the bread and wine.

Unfortunately, in the Roman Catholic Church and often in the Church of England the prayer of thanksgiving has become a prayer of consecration. To quote from an Anglican prayer: “As we proclaim his death and celebrate his rising in glory, send your Holy Spirit that this bread and this wine may be to us the body and blood of your dear Son”. [6] This is why only a priest may say the great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

  1. AT THE LORD’S SUPPER WE REMEMBER THE BROKEN BODY AND THE POURED-OUT LIFE

Jesus as he broke the bread said; “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11.24). Jesus, as he took the cup, said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11.25)

What does it mean to remember Jesus’ broken body and his out-poured life? It means that we don’t just recall that Jesus died for us – rather we experience afresh his death for us. The past becomes present.

Here there is a very real parallel with the way in which Jews celebrate the Passover as a ‘memorial meal’ (Ex 12.14). To quote from a recent commentary, “Each Jewish father (including those who lived generations and centuries after the fact) was to explain to his son that he celebrated the Passover Seder in the way he did ‘because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (m. Pesahim 10.5)”. [7] In the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’ Yes, we were there. As we ‘remember’ that Jesus died for us, we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross and see him there suffering for us.

For Jews to remember a past event is to enter into the past: I shall never forget visiting a Jewish synagogue in England, where the young rabbi showing us around began to talk about the Holocaust. To my amazement he spoke as if he had been there, yet he was too young to have been there. But he was doing something very Jewish: he was entering into the past and experiencing the past as though he was there.

Similarly as we Christians remember the death of Jesus, the past becomes present and we encounter Jesus. It is not that Jesus comes nearer to us at the Table, but that we come nearer to him. As we gather around his Table we become more conscious of his presence with us. In the words of a former Baptist NT scholar who became a friend and mentor to me when I was a student. “’In remembrance of me’ is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified and living Christ in such a way that He is present in all the fulness and reality of his saving power”. [8] Or in the words of one of the old communion hymns we used to sing: “Here O my Lord, I see you face to face; here faith can touch and handle things unseen; here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace, and all my helplessness upon you lean”.[9]

  1. AT THE LORD’S SUPPER WE CELEBRATE THE RISEN AND ASCENDED LORD

Only here in 1 Corinthians 11 do we have the expression, ‘The Lord’s Supper’ (1 Cor 11.20). Earlier on I looked at the significance of the term ‘supper’: but now I want to reflect on the significance of the words ‘the Lord’s’. To my mind this term ‘the Lord’s’ is more important than the term ‘supper’. Indeed, JB Phillips in his translation of the New Testament puts the words ‘the Lord’s’ into italics. Although in English this is what grammarians call a  possessive adjective, in the Greek it is actually an adjective (kuriakos).’

  • This adjective which derives from the English word ‘Emperor’, and a reminder that Caesar, the Roman Emperor, was acknowledged – and in many places worshipped – as Kurios, Lord.
  • In a Jewish context Kurios is the Greek term for the divine name, for God himself.
  • In the New Testament it is the word used for the risen and ascended Lord: so in the Christ-hymn of Phil 2.6-11 Kurios is “the name above every name” which God gave top Jesus when he “highly exalted him”.

This Greek adjective is found in one other place in the New Testament: viz. Rev 1.10. There it qualifies the noun ‘day’ –  John was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day”. Again, the emphasis is on the adjective – for it was on the first day of the week that God raised Jesus from the dead. As my father wrote in his commentary, “The Lord’s day is the day set apart in celebration of the accession of Jesus the Lord to the throne of God”.

In other words, unlike the memorial meals common in Greece and Rome, at which the death of a past loved one was remembered, the Lord’s Supper focuses not just on the Christ of Calvary, but also on the Risen Lord of Easter Day. The question is, do we in our communion services celebrate that the crucified Savour is also the Risen Lord? In my experience Anglican churches in the UK tend to be much better at this than are Baptists. So at a particular point in the Anglican communion liturgy the worshippers declare: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. Or there is the alternative acclamation, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life: Lord Jesus, come in glory”.

To celebrate the Supper of the Lord involves a a multiple focus on Jesus.  The Lord’s Supper is a meal eaten:

  • at the invitation of the Lord: – he is both ‘the host’ and the ‘sustenance’. He it is who invites all those who love him and desire to follow him to ‘come, eat, and drink’.
  • under the authority of the Lord: here at the Table we reaffirm our baptismal vows to die to self and to live for Jesus
  • in memory of the Lord: we remember the Lord’s death and the love that took him to Calvary
  • in the presence of the Lord: as we remember we found ourselves encountering the risen Lord
  • in celebration of the risen and returning Lord: we look forward to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
  1. THE LORD’S SUPPER NEEDS TO BE CENTRAL TO CHRISTIAN WORSHIP TODAY

My understanding of Scripture is that the Lord’s Supper was central to early Christian worship. It was certainly central at Corinth. Look at 1 Cor 11.18: “When you come together as a church” the Lord’s Supper is celebrated – admittedly badly, but nonetheless it was central to their worship. It appears that at Corinth the Lord’s Supper was celebrated on a weekly basis.

What was true at Corinth would appear to have been true at Troas: “On the first day of the week”, records Luke, “we came together to break bread” (Acts 20.7). Similarly the Lord’s Supper was in the church in Jerusalem, for Luke writes that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42)

I believe that the Lord’s Supper needs to become central to Christian worship today. Indeed, I believe that Baptists and other evangelicals need to re-think the position of the frequency of communion. John Calvin regarded infrequent communion as “an invention of the devil”. The French Reformed scholar, J.J. von Allmen, was of the decided opinion that “the absence of the Eucharist shows contempt for grace.”[10]

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the Lord’s Supper is becoming less and less central in many non-liturgical churches. Baptists, for instance, for all their desire to honour the Scriptures and follow its teaching, for the most part celebrate communion once a month in the morning, and for those increasingly rare Baptist churches who have an evening service, once a month in the evening. Why is this so? The suggestion has been made  that Baptist resistance to more frequent celebrations of the Supper “may partly be because the quietism of the service is at odds with the upbeat mood of much Sunday worship. Like many evangelicals, they are determinedly activist and the reflective and unvaried nature of the Supper may only be sustainable on a monthly basis.” [11]  To my mind that is not a good enough reason to side-line the Lord’s Supper.

[1] We Have Seen His Glory: a vision of Kingdom worship (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2016)147, 148.

[2]  Andrew Walker & Robin Parry, Deep Church Rising: Recovering the roots of Christian orthodoxy (SPCK, London 2014) 146

[3] See Tony Thistleton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2006) 187.

[4] Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.6

[5] Robert Harvey & Philip Downey, 2 Peter & Jude (IVP Nottingham 2009) 208.

[6] Prayer H in Common Worship

[7] Roy E. Ciampa & Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Apollos, Nottingham 2010) 551.

[8] See R.P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, London, 2nd edition 1974) 126. See also R.P. Martin, The Worship of God: Some theological, pastoral and practical reflections (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1982) 145 – 170

[9] Horatius Bonar (1808-1809), Baptist Praise and Worship 436.

[10] J.J. von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Power (Lutterworth, London 1965) 15.

[11] Christopher Ellis, Gathering: A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in Free Church Tradition (SCM, London 2004) 191, 192

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