It may have come as a bit of a shock, through these articles, to realise that our modern Lord’s supper practices are so out of step with those of Jesus and the apostles. How has this happened?
In trying to answer this, let’s start by imagining a typical scene from a Reformed Presbyterian church (my background). It’s communion Sunday. It’s a big deal, everyone has been preparing themselves – everyone, that is, who is planning to take part.
At a certain point in the church service that day, the minister calls the faithful to come and gather round the table of the Lord out the front. He explains who is invited to eat – members of protestant churches in good standing – and issues a warning about the dangers of anyone else taking part.
Those who are permitted move to the front, and gather at the table. Around the church building are dotted individuals and pockets of people who are not welcome to partake. They remain as witnesses to the celebration which is denied them. This, it is thought, may stir them up to consider their own stated before God. After all, why are they barred?
I don’t know how you feel about that scene. I experienced it many times. I am adducing it now as a kind of very clear expression of protestant Lord’s Supper practices. Other churches soften the blow, minimise the feeling of exclusion, etc. But the underlying theology, I think, the same, and is enacted in that Reformed Pressy church very accurately.
What can we say about this communion service? How can we understand what is going on here.
1. Firstly, it’s worth noticing that one of the motivations at work is the concern to protect the integrity and purity of the table. The practice of exclusion is not a goal in itself, but partly a by-product of this overriding concern.
2. It’s also important to add that this church believes it would be bad for outsiders of uncertain status to take part in the meal. It would, in some way, be bad for their souls. From that point of view excluding them is an act of kindness.
3. We do however need to compare this meal, and the motivations that shape it, with those described in the NT. On the surface of it, it appears that the ‘faithful’ believers in this Reformed church are playing out the role of the Pharisees and priests, carefully guarding against the sort of loose table fellowship that Jesus practiced habitually. I.e. they have slid back to the traditional, conservative, ‘safe’ approach, and lost the radical imperatives that were driving Jesus’ ministry.
4. It might be helpful then to imagine this Reformed Lord’s Supper transplanted back into first century Palestine, in the time of Jesus. Let us imagine that Jesus was physically present. Based on his behaviour as recorded in the Gospel accounts, which part of the room would Jesus be in during that table celebration? Would he be up the front at the table with the approved – or in the pews with the excluded? To me the answer is bleedin’ obvious. I reckon, based on his outrageous record, he might well have brought a packet of crackers and started handing them around in the pews during the communion!
5. We need to understand how our churches came to take this stance, which appears to be so different to Jesus’ own. Much of the drift has probably only been possible because the Lord’s Supper at some stage ceased to be a meal, was abstracted from the household setting, divorced from the realm of hospitality, and ceremonialised into a public ritual.
In a public ritual, anything goes, the priests can make their own rules. But in hospitality, this is not the case. In every culture there are strict rules about how to treat guests, which demand obedience.
Had the communion remained a meal, such a gross offence against hospitality as I have described above could hardly have occurred. Who would ever serve a meal in their home and deliberately exclude certain of the guests, making them look on while the others ate? Who would ever imagine that this could be a blessing or anything but a grave stumbling block, to the excluded?
As it is, our Lord’s Supper is not really celebrated as a meal at all – it is something more abstract and ‘religious’. This allows for all sorts of distortions to creep in: the priests have gained control. As a result, the theological heart of the thing has been obscured or lost – namely, the idea that we are sharing a sacrificial passover meal together around Christ, like his disciples at the Last Supper.
The last observation above suggests a way back. A Presbyterian church I know accidentally started on this path. They decided to incorporate the Lord’s Supper celebration into a church lunch held after the morning service. It just so happened that on that day some Muslim friends came to church. Once they had come, everything else followed necessarily. They were naturally included in the general invitation to lunch. They said they would stay. The elders then began to panic, realising what they had got themselves into.
They held a brief crisis meeting. What to do? Should they do their warning and exclusion thing? It had always seemed like a good practice in the church service, but now that the setting was a lunch, it seemed impossibly rude. It would certainly offend their lunch guests.
They decided that the offence would be too great, and the visitors should be allowed and invited to share in the celebration. This is what then occurred. The Muslim friends share in the table of Jesus.
In moving the communion back into a meal setting, these elders immediately found they had to break with hundreds of years of church tradition. Their own views of what was right for the Lord’s Supper were stretched way outside the comfort zone. It all got very messy very quickly.
I’m guessing they might not try the meal thing again any time soon! 🙂
A reformation of communion practice is hardly possible until we restore the heart of the celebration – it’s status as a shared meal. Any right theology about the Lord’s Supper is going to flow out of that starting point. Any other starting point will leave us once again bogged down in distortions, asking the wrong questions, and subjected to the pious intentions of the priests.