Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion that the Lord's Supper Would Become "Too Common" if Celebrated More Often than Once a Month? (Part 2)

In our last blog we looked at Acts 20:7 and saw that the purpose of the church gathering together in the New Testament was to partake of the Lord's Supper. There we saw the first instance of the purpose clause "we came together to eat." But Acts 20:7 is not the only passage in the New Testament that tells us this.

In 1 Cor 11:17, Paul introduces his discussion about the Lord’s Supper. He begins by chiding the Corinthians because their “meetings” do more harm than good. That Paul has in mind the normal, regular meetings of the church is clear from v. 18 where he speaks of the divisions that prevail when they “come together as a church.” In v. 20 Paul picks up on that same idea, but this time connects it with the Lord’s Supper: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” Paul’s chiding of the Corinthians here implies that when they came together it should have been to eat the Lord’s Supper. In their case, it was not the Lord’s Supper they ate because they were proceeding with it without waiting for the poor to arrive. What is most significant here is that the telic infinitive is again used. The church was to come together kuriakon deipnon phagein—“in order to eat the Lord’s Supper.”

This purpose clause occurs once more at the end of this chapter, again showing that the purpose of the church meeting is to partake of the Lord’s Supper: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat (phagein), wait for each other” (11:33). This last instance of the infinitive to eat is perhaps even stronger than the other two, for here the telic infinitive is bolstered by the inclusion of the word eis, removing any ambiguity as to the purpose of the meeting: synerchomenoi eis to phagein, which is best translated “when you come together for the purpose of eating.”

Interestingly, these three passages (Luke 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20, 33) are the only places in the entire New Testament that use a purpose clause in relation to the meeting of the church. Whatever other purpose the church may have had for coming together (worship, mutual edification, etc.), no purpose clause is ever used for any activity except the Lord’s Supper. This point is significant because it inextricably links the Lord’s Supper with the meeting of the church. One cannot speak about the frequency of observing of the Lord’s Supper without also speaking of the frequency of the church meeting itself. Put another way, once we have discovered that the purpose of the church meeting in the New Testament is to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then in order to determine the frequency of the Supper we need only determine the frequency of the church meeting. As I. Howard Marshall notes: “In line with what appears to have been the practice of the early church in the New Testament the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently in the church, and there is good reason for doing so on each Lord’s Day” (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 155).

Indeed, that reason may very well be bound up in the similarity of titles for both the Supper and the Day. As we have already seen in a previous entry to this series, the church adopted the first day of the week as the regular day of meeting for the church, even assigning it a specialized title—the “Lord’s Day,” likely due to its association with the resurrection of Christ and his subsequent appearances to the disciples, as well as to the belief of the early church that the eschaton and the general resurrection would likewise occur on that day. Whatever the reason for the title, it remains clear that the word kuriakon (in kuriakon hemera, “the Lord’s Day,” Rev 1:10) is found in only one other place (1 Cor 11:20) where it is used in the title “the Lord’s Supper” (kuriakon deipnon). It may very well be the case that the reason the same word is used for both the Supper and the Day—and never in any other context in the New Testament—is precisely because the Supper and the Day are inextricably linked to each other. This seems to be the assumption of the Didache, a very early Christian instruction book: “And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks” (14:1).

The Lord’s Day is so called because it is the day that the Lord’s Supper—the precursor to the Messianic Banquet—is enjoyed. Conversely, the Lord’s Supper is so called because it is celebrated on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day commemorates the resurrection of Christ, whose resurrection guarantees the promise of the eschatological resurrection. The Lord’s Supper likewise anticipates the second coming and offers a plea toward that end. The Lord’s Day is the day the church comes together to petition Christ to return; the Lord’s Supper is the means to that petition. As Wainwright notes: “[The] link between the day and the meal is already made in the New Testament and is of importance for the eschatological content and bearing of the [Supper]” (Eucharist and Eschatology, 75). In light of this emphasis on the connection between the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper—in the practice of both the New Testament church and the post-apostolic church—evangelical churches must begin to rethink the true purpose for meeting together as a church, and the frequency with which they partake of the Supper.