Monday, May 09, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion That the Lord's Supper is a Funeral Procession? (Part 1)

Walk into any evangelical church when it is observing the Lord’s Supper, and what do you see? Sober mood, solemn faces; hands folded, heads bowed in silent contemplation; members engaged in self examination and somber introspection while focused on numbering and confessing their sins; wavering, hesitating, anxiety-laden hearts:

“Should I take the bread and cup or not? Have I confessed all my sins? Am I personally worthy enough to partake, or does last week’s sin disqualify me? I certainly don’t want to eat and drink judgment to myself!”

Now walk into a first-century church meeting of the Lord’s Supper, and what do you see?

“and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).

We will get to the mood of the supper momentarily; but first, a side note of sorts. The phrase “to break bread” became for the New Testament writers a specialized phrase to refer to the Lord’s Supper—that is, the entire meal of the supper, which included the bread and wine. Although most of the references to this phrase come from Luke’s writings, as we have already noted in a previous blog entry, Paul used it as well (1 Cor 10:16; 11:23-24) to refer to the entire meal of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20-35). Since Paul and Luke were traveling companions, it is reasonable to suppose that whatever Luke means by this phrase cannot be substantially different from what Paul means by the phrase. In fact, Luke uses the phrase five times in the book of Acts alone (2:42, 2:46, 20:7, 20:11, and 27:35). While the final instance of this phrase (27:35) is more likely a reference to a common meal, it is all but certain that in all other instances in which Luke uses this phrase, it is a virtual synonym for the Lord’s Supper meal. In Acts 2:46, the “breaking of bread” is placed in the context of eating together.” In Acts 20:7, we are told that the church “came together on the first day of the week to break bread.” The phrase is repeated in v. 11, where it is associated with “eating” a meal. Even in Acts 27:35 (in the context of Paul encouraging the unbelieving mariners aboard the ship to eat) while the phrase clearly does not have the Lord’s Supper in mind, it is most certainly used as a reference to the initiation of a full meal (v. 36). In any case, the phrase “break bread” here, as elsewhere in the NT, refers to a full meal, and not to a symbolic meal. There is no basis, therefore, for viewing any instance of this phrase as a reference to the elements apart from a full meal.

The other important point to note in Acts 2:46 is the mood of the church while “breaking bread.” It was not with solemn reflection that they “took their meals together,” but rather with “gladness.” The Greek word translated “gladness” (agalliasis), a word unattested in secular writings, in its various forms often denotes the exultation that accompanies messianic expectations. Luke 1:44 records the “joy” (agalliasis) of the fetal John the Baptist over his first close encounter with the fetal Christ. Jude 24 likewise speaks of the “great joy” (agalliasis) which will be ours when we are presented before Christ at his coming. In its verbal form (agalliaô) this word denotes the “gladness” of anticipating the eschatological prospect of rewards in heaven (Matt 5:12), the “rejoicing” of Abraham to see the day of Messiah (John 8:56), the “rejoicing” of Christians in anticipation of the parousia (1 Pet 1:6, 8; 4:13), and the “gladness” that accompanies the heavenly multitude at the inception of the messianic wedding (Rev 19:7).

It is the case, then, that when the NT writers want to express joy because of messianic expectations, agalliasis is very often used. While this meaning does not account for all the instances of this word (Luke 1:14, 10:21; John 5:35; Acts 2:26, 16:34; Heb 1:9; arguably even most of these passages have messianic expectations in view, albeit not as explicitly as those cited above) it certainly sheds light on the mood of the church when partaking of the Lord’s Supper in Acts 2:46. In any event, this is hardly the word one would expect Luke to use to describe Christians who were engaged in solemn introspection and reflection on past sins!

The mood of the first-century Lord’s Table seems to be at odds with that of modern evangelicalism. Yet two questions remain. First, what is the cause of the somber mood experienced at most evangelical observances of the Lord’s Table today? And second, what was the cause of the gladness experienced by the early church at the Lord’s Table? It is to these two questions we will turn in the next couple of blog entries.