Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Reclaiming Communion

The Lord’s supper. The love feast. Communion. The Eucharist. The breaking of bread.

Call it what you are comfortable with. Like baptism, this ordinance-of-many-names has been co‑opted by the institutional church. The Lord’s table has been quietly moved from the home into the precincts of the “sanctuary”, where the permission of church leadership must be obtained in order to participate.

It’s high time ordinary Christians moved it back.

A Quiet Murmur of Concern

When locked-down families began to break bread in their homes on Sunday mornings last year, I was surprised to encounter the occasional hiss of negative feedback. To be fair, the critics were not speaking out in large numbers or using the word “heresy”; it was more of a quiet murmur of concern. But even where no direct objections were voiced, news that “independent” gatherings of believers were breaking bread together without the sanction of elders and away from church buildings was greeted in some quarters with reserve. Christians were asking, “Is it really okay to do this?”

In all the years I have been meeting with Christians it has never occurred to me that the church might have anything at all to say about groups of believers who desire to remember the Lord at times and under circumstances where ‘sanctioned’ church meetings are not in session. But since this seems to be an issue for at least a small number of concerned brothers and sisters — and since whatever does not proceed from faith is sin — let’s make good and certain we’re not sinning.

Fair enough? To the scriptures then ...

The Original Lord’s Supper

The original Lord’s Supper, often called the Last Supper, took place in the upper room of a home, not in a temple, tabernacle, synagogue or designated religious facility of any sort. It appears to have had no more than twelve participants. (There is ongoing debate about whether Judas had or had not made his exit by the time Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples to eat.) It was not necessary for all the Lord’s disciples to be present, though he had at least 70 other disciples in whom he had sufficient confidence to send across the country in his name.

When Jesus asked his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me”, there was no church in existence and no elders of whom to ask permission; in fact, no leadership beyond his own. The church did not exist until Pentecost, and the first mention of church elders is in Acts 11. The Lord’s instruction to “Do this” contained no limitations or qualifications. The words “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup” signified that the practice was to be ongoing, and that was how the disciples interpreted it. The Lord’s supper was not instituted as a church ceremony but as an act of fellowship shared in by those who followed Christ.

The Practice of the Early Church

The Lord’s supper continued to be celebrated throughout the early chapters of Acts, often (or even usually) accompanied by a meal. If the practice of the apostles is significant, the Lord’s supper appears to have been celebrated wherever Christians gathered (which in the first century was usually in homes), in numbers small or large, with or without the presence of recognized church leaders. There was no requirement that the “whole church” in any particular location be gathered in order to proceed. That would have been as impossible then as it is today. There was no restriction placed on the frequency with which the Lord might be remembered by his people. The early church in Jerusalem broke bread “day by day”, and even in Gentile cities the Christians appear to have met to break bread at least weekly.

Though warnings are given in scripture to any who might eat and drink carelessly, frivolously, unbelievingly or “without discerning the body”, no directions are given to church leadership to protect the table of the Lord from such individuals (or, really, to protect them from it). It is “Let a person examine himself, then” and “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” The onus is on the individual to maintain himself in the appropriate spiritual condition, not on churches to enforce their standards. Reminding those whose conduct suggests they may be at risk of the potential danger that comes with participation in the body and blood of the Lord is a courtesy and a kindness. It is not a license to exclude others who claim to know and love the Lord and wish to remember him with their fellow believers. The Lord’s supper is for those who love Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or maturity in the faith.

Common Cups and COVID Paranoia

The common cup has fallen on hard times these days, even before the current spate of COVID paranoia. The potential for passing diseases around did not appear to concern the disciples, who may have been unaware of it, but neither did it trouble the Lord, who surely knew when he instituted the Lord’s supper precisely what health risks might attend it, both then and now. Local leadership is responsible before the Lord as to how they choose to carry out this aspect of historic Christian fellowship, but what should be evident is that Christians in multiple locations celebrating the Lord’s supper concurrently on Zoom with a variety of liquid and solid substances pulled from their fridges and pantries are not participating in common anything. The intentions may be noble but the symbolism is totally shot.

Now, some feel the perceived health risks and the risk of public embarrassment trump mere symbolism. But many do not. I have never refused to participate in a celebration of the Lord’s supper even when it was conducted in a way that was not to my personal taste, but I must confess I crave gatherings small enough for believers to pass a single cup from hand to hand, and to take pieces from the same broken loaf, just as the early disciples did. Enjoying that experience in a home is even better, and more intimate.

You can certainly argue that is not what is conventionally done today, that such practices court embarrassing or dangerous outbreaks of disease, and even that some people might be offended by communion experienced in that way.

What you can’t reasonably argue is that it is unscriptural.

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