Border protection and the Lord’s Supper

Posted: February 10, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Discipleship, Pastoral issues, Theology

In our Protestant tradition, we say the Lord’s Supper is only for those who can make a clear and credible profession of faith in Christ. Some churches even go so far as to threaten damnation for those who take the meal without faith. Other traditions encourage everyone to participate. But not us.

We thought we might take another look at that tradition. Are we Proddies on the right track?

Fortunately there’s a stack of material about this in the NT, especially in the Gospels.

The first thing we should notice from the Scriptures is that eating meals was a big deal for first century Jews. Table-fellowship was an essential element of temple-worship – it was Israel’s way of having fellowship with God. Faithful Jews would sit and share in Yahweh’s table. In fact – and this is the biggy that we need to get our heads around – all meals in Israel, whether at the temple or not, had a sacrificial dimension. All meat slaughtered had a ceremonial significance. All the blood belonged to Yahweh and was offered to him. The table at which God’s people ate was always, by extension, holy. It remained the table of Yahweh. This one fact has the potential in it to turn our view of the Lord’s supper upside-down. So let it sink in. Eating was a sacred act.

And therefore the table of Israel was to be kept pure and unpolluted. And there was the rub. On this point turned much of the social life and cross-cultural relations of the Jewish people.

For if you were not a faithful Israelite, you were barred from the table. And there were many ways to land in that category.

Israel, like all societies, was stratified. At the bottom of the pile were the untouchables, the unclean ones, often called ‘sinners’. Whether through disease or through a shameful occupation, or some disgrace, these ones were put outside the community of God’s people. Others would not eat with them. But this table-fellowship was an essential element of temple-worship – it was Israel’s way of having fellowship with God. Barred from the temple and it’s table fellowship, sinners were cut off from their birthright of participation in the covenant. And it was in this covenant that all Israel’s hopes of salvation lay. So ‘sinners’ exclusion from the table was not merely social: they were effectively excluded from salvation.

Foreigners were automatically excluded. A good Jew would not eat with a Gentile, for Gentiles were unclean. So eat with them would be to admit them to the table of Israel, Yahweh’s table. And they would pollute it: it would be blasphemy.

Insular, insecure, anxious, protective, exclusive: these are words that describe the mentality of first century Jews towards meals. Eating was a highly charged business. It was the place where Israel’s border protection happened.

Our Protestant approach to the Lord’s table mirrors this tradition closely.

Tomorrow: Jesus the national traitor

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