Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Some Theological Ramifications to Our Lord's Supper Series (Part 1)

As we wind down this series, I think it might be beneficial to connect some of the dots between the apostolic practice of the Supper and the underlying theology of the Supper, and then to look at some of the ramifications for the church today.

Lord's Supper as Banquet
The Lord’s Supper, as we have seen, looks forward to the coming Messianic Banquet in the kingdom. In fact, it anticipates and prefigures that banquet and is therefore intended to foreshadow it. In that sense the Lord’s Supper epitomizes the biblical pattern of "promise and fulfilment"—the already and the not yet. The most obvious ramification of this principle is that the Lord’s Supper itself should take the form of a banquet. The biblical imagery associated with the eschatological banquet is one of celebration and abundance of food (Isa 25:6-8; Matt 22:4; Luke 15:22-32; Rev 19:9); and indeed, this is just what we find in the apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:46). As we have already shown in a previous entry, the word deipnon in every instance in the New Testament refers to nothing less than a full meal—and arguably always refers to a banquet or feast. Nor will it do to view the Lord’s Supper as a mere symbolic meal, for what Paul calls “the Lord’s Supper” in 1 Cor 11:20 is not the bread and cup per se, but the full-blown meal around which the bread and cup are central.

In spite of this emphasis in the New Testament, some reject the notion that the Lord’s Supper must take the form of a full meal on the basis that the while the Supper anticipates the messianic banquet at the end of the age, it is not itself that banquet. This is true, but the reason it anticipates the banquet is precisely because it prefigures it. A symbolic meal can prefigure the banquet only with difficulty. It would not be too far wrong to say that only a banquet can meaningfully prefigure a banquet. This may be compared to other biblical promise/fulfillment concepts. The sacrificial death of Christ was prefigured by a real death, not a symbolic one. The eternal rest into which we enter when we come to Christ was foreshadowed by a real sabbath rest (Heb 4:1-11). And the evangelical church at large has not done justice to the theological implications of the fact that, historically, the Lord’s Supper was in fact a real meal.

One may still question whether this association of a meal with the bread and cup is a valid one. Could it not be argued, for instance, that a meal was the proper expression of community for the social setting of the first-century world, but that other expressions of community may be more appropriate for social settings of different times and places? It must be conceded up front that this is indeed possible. On the other hand, these kinds of questions are usually asked not by those who are strongly committed to the authority of Scripture, but by those who see cultural relativity as an overarching hermeneutical guide when approaching the Scriptures about any issue. There are many difficulties with viewing it this way. If this view is adopted, one must ask larger questions about biblical imagery in general. Is there really going to be a Messianic Banquet at the end of the age, or is the idea of a banquet merely an illustrative device designed to convey festive joy in the kingdom? (If indeed “kingdom” itself is not merely the first-century expression of God’s reign—perhaps a more appropriate term might be used in non-monarchical societies). Is the culture of the church at this point based on the surrounding culture, or is it based on eschatological reality? If in fact there is going to be a Messianic Banquet at the end of the age, and if that banquet (as we have seen) is rooted in eschatological reality, then we must see the biblical imagery of a banquet as independent of Hellenistic society. But if this is the case, then it is difficult to imagine how one can argue that the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper is culturally relative. On the contrary, it seems rather that the meal-aspect of the Lord’s Supper, insofar as it prefigures the Messianic Banquet, is as timeless as the Banquet itself.

The Primary Focus of the Lord’s Supper
The eschatological focus of the Lord’s Supper in the early Christian community can be seen in Acts 2:46 which speaks of the “gladness” (“messianic joy”) with which the early Christians partook of their meals together. This eschatological element of the Lord’s Supper has been wholly excluded from the practice of the supper in modern evangelical churches, who instead have nearly institutionalized solemnity as the proper mood for the Supper. This current focus has acted to minimize the church’s anticipation of the messianic banquet at the second coming of the Lord. This is detrimental to both the church and the theology of the Lord’s Supper. It is axiomatic that once the church abandons the outward expression of a New Testament practice the underlying theology of that practice is also abandoned. This is certainly the case with the Supper. Since anything resembling the eschatological banquet is rarely found in the context of the Supper within the modern church, so too the accompanying eschatological joy is rarely found. Instead, the mood resembles much more that of a funeral. Rather than the early-church practice of sounding a plea for the parousia in an attempt to “speed his coming” (2 Pet 3:12), most churches today focus on the historical reality of Christ’s death and the recalling of personal sin in the lives of the recipients. The eschatological element, it seems, is missing entirely; and the mood that is so prevalent in the evangelical practice of the Supper is badly in need of reform.

Part 2 continued in tomorrow's blog.