The dinner table is set. The food is hot and plentiful. Family and friends have gathered to enjoy not only the food but also the warmth of fellowship, whereby affirming love and admiration for one another around the backdrop of a common meal. The setting is glorious and poised with possibility, and yet unforeseen to the naked eye, lurks the enemy to both food and fellowship: division.
Nothing can make a morsel taste more bland and cause fellowship to fall flatter than animosity and general disdain for one another. Unresolved issues, bitterness, neglect, and the like will often steal the joy from a gathering and leave the attendees with a gaping void even though food was consumed. The situation was similar when the Apostle Paul stuck his theological and pastoral nose into the church of Corinth. What he found was a group of people that were “coming together” but not truly “being together.” That condition still largely exists within the church of today. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:20, “When the church come[s] together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else.” The words of Ben Witherington capture the scenario perfectly: “the meal had become a mess.”
When there is a mess in the church, the tendency is to eradicate the potential of future unsightliness, whereby avoiding subsequent messes altogether. This has been the case in many sectors of the church in regards to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the same possibility exists in regards to the Lord’s Supper. From a denominational standpoint, the sacrament is open for such a wide variety of interpretation, and unfortunately it would seem simpler (less messy) for the Lord’s Supper to be done away with as a whole. But that was not the intention of Paul in his writings found in 1 Corinthians – he wanted to inspire reform and renewal to communion and foster greater and deeper community within the church of Jesus Christ. He was contending that the mess become a meal again. This can be accomplished by exploring the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the ancient Love Feast. Over time, even the best of traditions, habits, or rituals can get stale and lifeless, desperately in need of an infusion of new passion and purpose. Often the best source of renewal can be discovered in that which gave the tradition life and vitality in the first place. In the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, it is the conviction that vitality can be found in the Love Feast.
History Of The Happy Meal
At the center of the debate regarding the Lord’s Supper is the relationship it may have had to the Passover. There is absolutely no consensus on this matter. Much of the confusion involves differences in the synoptic gospel accounts to that of the Fourth Gospel. The Johannine account placed the Last Supper “before the feast of the Passover” (John 13:1, 2, 21-30) whereas the synoptic gospel writers claim it grew out of the Passover Meal.
However, the appropriate focus should be upon the meal itself and not discrepancies regarding the timing of the meal. As an example, a family will tend to eat supper around the “dinner hour” –which could be from 5 pm to 7 pm, or perhaps later depending upon circumstances. Yet, it is still supper. The Passover, regardless of when it was commemorated, was a meal of remembrance and celebration for the handiwork of the Lord in taking the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Whether or not the template for the Passover meal was carried over into what would be known as The Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist) is unclear. What is apparent is that the words and actions of Jesus at that final meal with his disciples (regardless of what day it happened on) seems to follow the liturgy of the Passover to some degree. Bread was broken, drink was shared, and a commemoration ensued, notably for that of the Passover lamb that was slain so that mankind might live eternally. This remembrance and celebration revolved around a common meal – a happy meal that clearly marked the early church.
Breaking Of Bread
The two men that walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus certainly got an eye full. Luke 24:30 writes that “[Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This post-resurrection encounter undoubtedly reminded them of their final meal with the Messiah. This relational model of eating and sharing together carried over to the first church in the Book of Acts. The burgeoning church was committed to learning from the apostles, to fellowship, to praying, and to the breaking of bread. As the church moved beyond Jerusalem, and the Jewish influence was less of a dominant role in its development, it is possible that a combination of sorts took place with the annual Passover celebration and the regular “breaking of bread.” Corporate worship would happen not only in the temple but also in homes, therefore an extension of ordinary early Jewish worship context would be the Jewish meal, also known as the Love Feast (Jude 12). Within this framework, the gathered congregation would often commemorate the communal Lord’s Supper. A congregation, incidentally, that was increasingly growing in number with those that were being saved. New Christians, then and now, will often bring with them many of their former habits, dysfunctions, and immoral behaviors. Thus was the case at the Love Feasts in Corinth.
Cleaning Up After Dinner
Throughout the first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt aggressively with abuses, excess, and divisions. He was on a corrective warpath in an effort to bring the church back to the truth of the Gospel, and away from their Greco-Roman leanings. In no uncertain terms, he forbid them from partaking in their drinking parties at the pagan temples. He argued, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). The Corinthian Christians were definitely a work in progress, and understanding this reality helps one grasp the nature of the abuses at their Love Feasts that were “do[ing] more harm than good.”
The term “Lord’s Supper” only occurs once in Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:20. Notably, the reference is sandwiched within a strong rebuke from Paul. Thankfully, had there not been a mess to clean up in Corinth, there would be considerably less to draw from for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It is possible that had there been no “disorder,” then there might have never been a need for Paul’s rebuke and teaching. The primary abuse at the Corinthian Love Feast involved neglect of the poor, the slaves, the less fortunate, and those on the fringe of the community. Simply put, the “haves” had forgotten the “have-nots.” It is in this context that one of the most widely recognized passages of Scripture is introduced. 1 Corinthians 11:23 begins with “For I received from the Lord what I also passed onto you….” Many within Christianity would have some point of recognition with this passage. The Corinthian church had been eating and drinking “without recognizing the body of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:29). The “body” in this verse is the church. Paul’s strong challenge to Corinth was to honor the Body – Jesus’ church. The Lord’s Supper was originally intended to be a meal that would de-stratify the hierarchy and invite equality among its participants. Remarkably, the Last Supper had a man named Judas seated at the table with Jesus (not to mention Peter who denied the Master and all the other disciples that ran after his arrest!). The Love Feast was intentioned as a gathering point for all that would … “go out into the highways and hedges…come in so that my house may be filled” such as referenced in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:23. Over time, the Lord’s Supper had gotten to be a mess that was characterized by exclusion and a pecking order. Could this be what Paul was imploring the Corinthians to “examine” before eating and drinking? Had they stopped “recognizing the body of the Lord” and thereby grown weak and sick within their fellowship?
Paul wanted to bring correction to their mealtime, not eradication. He implored them to wait for others and share with others. The entire context of the familiar 1 Corinthians 11 passage is clearly about others. Communion and Community.
Paul finished the rebuke in chapter 11 the same way he began it, by asking the church to wait for one another and share the meal together. The Love Feast and the corresponding Lord’s Supper were to be a point of rejoicing for all and by all. Yes, it was messy. But rather than do away with the meal entirely because of the mess, Paul restored order, direction, passion, and purpose. The same cannot be said across the landscape of organized religion in the years to follow.
This Is My Body Packaged For You
In the years that followed Paul’s admonishing words to Corinth, a progressive shift went into motion. The meal became something exclusive in which only the baptized could be allowed to partake. Rules that simply do not exist within Scripture would soon regulate the meal. Soon the meal would not function in its original form whatsoever. The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), dated at the end of the 1st Century, declared that the Lord’s Supper was for baptized Christians, particularly those who repented of their sins. This document also regulated when the Lord’s Supper should take place and by whom, specifically that it should be governed by and prayed over by the cleric. By A.D. 110 Ignatius wrote, “It is not permitted either to baptize or to hold a Love Feast without the bishop, but whatever he approves is acceptable to God, so that everything you do should be secure and valid.” As the years elapsed, so did the value and validity of the Love Feast. By the 4th Century, at the Council of Laodicea, the Love Feast was banned by the church. This was reaffirmed at the Council of Trullian in A.D. 692. In conjunction with the abolition of the Love Feast, there was a move towards reductionism in regards to the Lord’s Supper. The elements (bread and drink) would become more regulated, disposable, and self-contained to the point that Bishop Will Willimon humorously (yet perhaps appropriately) asserts: “this is my body packaged for you.” Certainly it is not difficult to hear the tone of sarcasm in these comments, and yet in Protestant circles there is a propensity for the Lord’s Supper to become stale, lifeless, and void of community – no longer a meal – now a mess of another kind. Perhaps the Apostle Paul’s words to Corinth carry weight for the church yet today. Can the meal be recovered? Can communion and community be reconnected again?
What’s For Supper?
There was a time when Christianity was new, and the relatively few Christians on the planet could fit into a few homes and share everything in common. Those days are gone. The tiny upstart rag-tag band in the Book of Acts is now a full-fledged movement with 60-minute services on multi-site campuses. How do we reclaim the Love Feast in the McChurch era? How does community become a central part of communion again?
For some churches, that adjustment may be minor. Perhaps they could give more focus to the Lord’s Supper within the service instead of it being an afterthought or addendum. Perhaps small groups could become the epicenter of community life in which there is “breaking of bread” in homes, and true fellowship is shared within the context of communion. For other congregations, the shift may need to be more radical. If the worship has been consistently lifeless and cold, and community life is non-existent, then true reform may be appropriate.
Could reform be paramount in today’s church? Have we made a mess out of what was supposed to be a meal? There are so many practical implications to consider. Does the church move back into homes? Should a full meal be offered during every worship service? Should smaller sanctuaries be built to make room for larger fellowship halls? The answers are not immediate, but what remains is a desire for koinonia – that the church may truly celebrate “until He comes.” And when He does come again, all meals will be superseded by the great messianic banquet! Yet another Meal awaits us!
John Fehlen serves as the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. He digs his wife Denise and their four kids. John can be found sipping an Iced Grande Triple Espresso with two pumps sugar-free vanilla. Check out his blog at www.johnfehlen.com.
This article was printing in the March/April issue of Rethink Monthly magazine (issue #6).