Friday, May 27, 2005

Concluding Thoughts to the Lord's Supper Series

This series has set out to show some oft-neglected theological aspect of the Lord's Supper that held significance for the early church. Most of what we know about these things comes from the pen of Paul who defines the Lord’s Supper in a number of very specific ways. At the very outset, the Supper must enjoy the consensual unity of its participants, without which it ceases to be the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-22). Yet consensual unity is not enough. The Supper must also visibly express that unity through the singularity of the bread and cup (1 Cor 10:16-17). When this visible expression is present, we find that the singularity of the bread and cup actually causes bodily unity. This unity aspect prevails in the earliest manifestation of the church and finds support in a number of patristic sources as well.

Perhaps the most significant and theologically loaded aspect of the Lord’s Supper is the fact that the Supper was originally a full meal. Indeed, what Paul refers to when he coins the title “Lord’s Supper” is the meal, of which the bread and wine are prominent components, and apart from which the Lord’s Supper cannot properly be called a “supper.” The separation of the meal from the bread and wine occurred sometime after the apostolic age and, contrary to popular belief, was quite unintended by Paul. Whatever may have been the relationship between the bread and wine and the meal in a later age, they belonged together in the New Testament church. This meal, also known as the Agape, is alluded to by both Jude and Peter, and was widely practiced by the early post-apostolic church. The fact that this meal received no fewer than two specialized names (Lord's Supper; Agape) argues strongly for its apostolic endorsement. These two names, in addition to other phrases assigned to the Supper (such as “breaking bread”), show the universal acceptance of the meal in the early church, so that it will not do to postulate that the meal-aspect of the Supper was characteristic of Paul's churches only.

The Supper held a wide range of purposes. First, it served as an expression of concern for the poor in the believing community ("those who have nothing," 1 Cor 11:22). In all likelihood, the Supper was a potluck of sorts provided by the rich to demonstrate their love to those less fortunate. It is probably this practice that resulted in the adoption of the title Agape ("love feast"). A second dimension of the Supper is that it compelled the Christian community to live out the theology of equality of status in Christ (by which I certainly do not mean equality of roles), violating the Hellenistic societal norm to hold homogenous banquets where class distinctions were acutely recognized. Closely related to this, the Supper also erased ethnic divisions between Jew and Gentile, forcing the Jewish Christians to regard as “clean” what God himself has declared clean (Acts 10:1-13; cf. Gal 2:11-13).

Perhaps the most important, yet oft-missed aspect of the Supper is its eschatological focus. The Lord’s Supper prefigures the Messianic Banquet and acts as a means to petition Messiah to come again. The Supper is to be repeated on a regular basis in order to sound this petition and to give the participants the opportunity to proclaim with one voice, Maranatha! This is not far different from the practice of Israel during the hallel of the Passover Haggadah to petition God to send the Messiah the first time. This eschatological focus has direct implications for the form, frequency, and centrality of the Supper. If the Supper is to prefigure the Messianic Banquet, then the Supper itself must have the form of an actual meal. Moreover, if the focus of the Supper is to sound a plea for the parousia, then it is natural to suppose that the church practiced it whenever it met together. As it turns out, the regular gathering of the church in the NT is on a weekly basis, and on the first day of the week. We also find that the very purpose of the regular meeting of the church was to partake of the Supper, entailing that the Supper, too, was practiced on a weekly basis. This is not surprising given that both the "Lord’s Supper" and the "Lord’s Day" have very similar titles, perhaps even by design.

Finally, we found that the physical setting of the church played a significant role in the early practice of the Lord’s Supper. The house church was conducive to the kind of intimate table fellowship demanded by the Supper. Further, this setting helps to answer the question of just who is invited to partake of the Supper. Since the church meeting itself was centered on the Supper (likely occupying the entire length of the meeting), and since we know that in at least some cases unbelievers joined themselves to the early believers for this occasion (1 Cor 14:23-25), it follows that unbelievers also partook of the Supper with the church, and that the church allowed it.

Because this table setting is absent in most evangelical churches today, some of the intended theology of the Supper is lost as well. What is needed is not more adaptation of the Supper to accommodate our modern setting; what is needed is more of a willingness to conform our setting to accommodate the Lord’s Supper as revealed in the New Testament. Until we do, much of the theology of the Supper will remain lost to us—and with it, its benefits to the church.