Friday, May 13, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion That the Lord's Supper is a Funeral Procession? (Part 5)

Maranatha and the Lord’s Supper
At the end of his first letter to the Corinthians (16:22), Paul makes the somewhat disjointed exclamation, maranatha! (NASB), “Come, O Lord!” (NIV), a statement that parallels one found in Rev 22:20 erchou, kurie Iesou (“Come Lord Jesus!”). Many scholars, including F.F. Bruce, believe on historical grounds that this phrase became prominent in the early church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The Didache, a church document thought to have been composed very early in the second century A.D.—perhaps even before the end of the first century A.D.—gives explicit instructions for the activities surrounding the Lord’s Supper (included here are chaps. 9, 10, 14). Remarkably though, in those places where the Supper is most mentioned it is never connected to the death of Christ. Yet, there are at least two places where the instructions for the Lord’s Supper in the Didache have eschatological dimensions. They are as follows:

As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom. (Did. 9:4).

Remember, Lord, thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in thy love, and gather it together in its holiness from the four winds . . . into the kingdom which thou hast prepared for it. . . . May grace come and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. . . . Maranatha. (Did. 10:5-6).

It is likely that the writer understood maranatha in the imperative sense (“O Lord, come!”) rather than in the perfect sense (“Our Lord has come!”) for several reasons. There is a conspicuous absence of anything resembling a historic outlook here—nor, by the way, is there support here for the Roman Catholic understanding, “our Lord is now present.” On the contrary, everything in these passages seems to point to a future hope. An appeal is made to God to “gather together” the church “into thy kingdom.” God is implored to “remember” (mnemoneuo) his church and to “deliver” it from “all evil”—a direct allusion to Matt 6:13, which we have already argued (see our discussion of the meaning of “daily bread” in a previous blog entry) is set in an eschatological context. It is noteworthy that the writer of the Didache connects this with the eschaton in the next and subsequent clauses.

Another appeal is made by the writer that grace would come and that the present world would pass away (an obvious petition for the consumation of all things). The exclamation “hosanna!” is historically tied to the hallel of the Passover (see our previous discussion on this) and means “O, save,” indicating a cry to God to bring to realization what the Supper depicts. The fact that maranatha falls so closely on the heels of all this makes the imperative meaning (“O Lord, come!”) likely. Indeed, the perfect (“Our Lord has come!”) follows awkwardly at best.

The Lord’s Supper, then, is eschatologically focused, not simply (nor even primarily) historically focused. It is intended to prefigure the feast that we will enjoy with the Lord himself at the Messianic Banquet. Until the Messianic Banquet comes at the inauguration of the kingdom we are to prefigure this banquet via the Lord’s Supper, as a petition and a reminder to Christ to return. We petition him by "proclaiming" (1 Cor 11:26) to him that the New Covenant, represented by this meal and based on and initiated by his death, stands unconsummated, and that we long for him to bring it to its fulfillment in the kingdom (maranatha!). Each time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated it "reminds" Christ (anamnesis, 1 Cor 11:24-25) that the Messianic banquet remains in its prefigure form (i.e., as the Lord’s Supper), that he is still “not eating” and “not drinking” with his church, and that the “fulfillment” of the Supper has not yet come. The sound of the maranatha! as a petition to Christ our God, coupled with the excitement and anticipation that that plea just might be answered this time, produced for the early church a messianic jubilation—a “gladness,” in the words of Luke (Acts 2:46), in the celebration of the Lord’s Table.

In the coming days we will look at some of the implications of this future-oriented focus of the Supper. But first, we need to address one other potential obstacle to eradicating the “funeral” atmosphere in the practice of the Lord’s Supper; namely, the command in 1 Corinthians 11 to “examine oneself” during the Supper lest we "eat and drink judgment" to ourselves. No other passage of Scripture, in my view, has suffered more often from eisesesis than this one. We’ll get to that next week.