Tag Archives: Lords Supper

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

Razing the Walls of Social Convention

2012 12 23 VH Family GatheringWhen you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 (NLT)

This week has been a veritable plethora of Christmas gatherings and feasts. On Sunday, we enjoyed a huge multi-generational family gathering here at VW Manor. Our cozy little brick house was packed with family of all ages, from two to 85.

It’s always interesting to see what happens socially at large gatherings whether its family or community. Some people hang tight with certain people seem to avoid others. Some people are social butterflies while others are wallflowers. I spent a good part of the afternoon Sunday with the younger generation at the dining room table while most of the adults kept to themselves in the living room. It was fun to hang out with and talk to younger family members I don’t see or often speak with, especially as many of them are making the transition from young people to adults. It was great conversation and I enjoyed my time with them.

In today’s chapter, Paul was addressing similar social situations that were negatively affecting the local church potluck in Corinth. The early gathering of believers had a tradition called “love feasts.” All believers would gather and share a meal together, then end with serving the “Lord’s Supper” a which ceremoniously imitates the eating of bread (metaphor for Jesus’ broken body) and drinking of wine (metaphor for Jesus’ shed blood) which Jesus instituted the night before he was crucified. In the early church there was a huge social disparity at these Love Feasts. There were rich and poor, slaves and free peoples, Greeks and Romans and Jews.

Because of the diversity of peoples in the church, social tensions arose as people gathered in their cliques. The  wealthier believers brought good food and hoarded it for themselves, eating quickly while less fortunate believers waited for what amounted to the leftovers. In many cases, by the time everyone had eaten and the church was ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, some had consumed too much wine and were visibly inebriated.

People are people. As much as some things change, human nature doesn’t change all that much over time. I see shadows of the same social struggles at a church potluck or a family gathering today as the situation we read about in Paul’s letter. Today, I’m thinking about the gatherings yet to come this holiday season and social gatherings in which I regularly participate. I don’t want to passively regress into comfortable social conventions, but let love motivate me to tear down walls between peoples, generations, and social groups.