Tuesday, August 4, 2009

the lord's supper today - maybe it's not so bad

A common communion meditation will usually be pointed at how Christians need to examine their hearts before taking the sacrament to be right with God. This usually comes from bad exegesis of 1 Cor 11.28. Though, it should be pointed out that the introspective idea of self-examination and conscience is not absent from the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.18.3). This practice along with the fact that the early church celebrated the Lord's Supper (LS) as a communal meal and likely used only one cup as a symbol of unity (1 Cor 11; Didache 9–10), always gave me the sneaking suspicion that the church has been practicing communion wrong my whole Christian life.

While there are certainly differences between the practices of the apostolic fathers and today, there are many more similarities. It is worth enumerating some of the key similarities and differences to explain further. First the differences make it clear that we may have lost some of the reverence and purpose of the supper in pursuing practicality. For example, the Didache, with little explanation, describes the communal meal involving a cup and bread with prayers of thanksgiving. Not totally different except that this implies one cup. When I brought this practice up to a Sunday school class someone astutely observed, "How could we even do that at our church?" Practically, it would be impossible. Also, throughout the fathers, the LS is always a practice that is open only to baptized believers (Didache 9). Justin, similarly, has a closed communion (First Apology 66). Only Christians could partake of the supper and those who were at the gathering who had not been baptized were asked to leave. I mentioned this to some fellow staff members and they scoffed at the idea. One can imagine how off-putting such a practice would be for visitors. One minister was blown away, "Imagine how people would feel if we asked them to leave during communion!" The concerns with these practices are important, but do we lose reverence for convenience?

Despite these differences, there are also some striking similarities. After the LS is brought into the assembly, the gathering of the saints exhort one another, read scripture, hear verbal instruction, pray, partake of the LS and then care for the poor (First Apology 67). Say, what you will, but this "order of service" is very similar to what many churches do every Sunday. Furthermore, the theology of this sacrament has remained largely the same, though certainly Christians have fought over what exactly it means and what exactly happens when the LS is consumed. Sadly, it does not serve as the symbol of unity it once did (Didache 9.4; 1 Clement 40–41; Ignatius Eph 20.2; Mag. 6.2; 7.1; Tral. 8.1; Phil 4; etc.). Still, the consuming of Jesus’ body and blood as a proclamation of our participation in his death and resurrection is alive in the church today. There were different communion practices in the early church just as there are today. Perhaps the diversity is clue that this meal of proclaiming the Lordship of Christ is culturally embodied in different ways. Perhaps we haven't missed the point so badly.


Michael said...

One can hope!

A thought - It is interesting and true that there's no way to do "one cup" in many of our churches. I wonder if the LS should be celebrated in smaller settings - life groups, etc. This would probably be just as difficult (if not more so), but it might restore something elemental in communion.

A question - What did last step of their meetings actually look like (caring for the poor). Do we know how they went about this operationally?

Tyler Stewart said...

Good question. At the very least it involved a taking up of offering, then somehow the offering was distributed. I haven't come across much in the way of specifics. John Chrysostom talks about helping the poor all the time though. He addresses it in such a way that he expects people to care about the poor apart from any specific program or structure of the church. On the other hand, I may just be painfully unaware of what "helping the poor" looked like structurally for the fathers.