Monthly Archives: November 2013

Interpreting “Lord’s Supper” Texts: More There Than Meets the Eye

Alan Streett kicks off his work Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century with the following questions:

What actually took place when a first-century church gathered to eat the Lord’s Supper?  Did its members, like their twenty-first century counterparts, take a bite of bread and a sip of wine, in memory of their Lord?  In recent times, scholars have taken a fresh look at how and why the early church met around the Lord’s Table.

I have been on a personal quest to understand the central biblical ideas behind the Lord’s Supper and to analyze the manner in which the vast majority of churches in my own time and place have participated in the Supper.

It seems like everywhere I turn, I come upon texts which stop me cold in my tracks, calling me to question my hidden assumptions and my open presuppositions.

The “breaking bread” texts in Acts 20 and Acts 27 are the latest to do so. Continue reading Interpreting “Lord’s Supper” Texts: More There Than Meets the Eye

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Lord’s Supper: Ancient and Modern Practice

When we come to the Acts of the Apostles (thought to be written by Luke), we read in 2:42 that the new church devoted herself to “the breaking of the bread.”  The definite article before “breaking” most likely indicates that this was a practice well-known to the early church.  Yet something interesting happens: four verses later, in verse 46, we see a somewhat parallel text:

verse 42

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching

verse 46

And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple,

verse 42:

and fellowship, in the breaking of bread

verse 46:

and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart,

verse 42:

and the prayers.

verse 47:

praising God

Some commentators have drawn a distinction between “the breaking of the bread” in verse 42 and “breaking bread” in verse 46.  Arguing that the verse 42 reference is probably liturgical Communion, they distinguish it from the verse 46 reference to common meals in the home.  But this distinction cannot stand.  It is unlikely that discussion of breaking bread would have wholly different referents within a span of only four verses.  The most natural interpretation is that verses 46 and 47 explain verse 42.  Again, verse 42 is not liturgical; it is a snapshot of life for the church.

What can be concluded from our treatment of the passage?

1.  The fellowship of “the breaking of the bread” at the Last Supper was the pattern of the gathering of the church as she collectively remembered her Lord and enjoyed his abiding presence among them.

2. The well-known “breaking of bread” in the early church occurred in homes as they made remembrance of Jesus part of their common meals together.  There is no indication at this point that the “Lord’s Supper” was understood to be a cultic act performed in what we now call “corporate worship”.

How great a distance is there between the modern practice of the Lord’s Supper and its ancient beginnings?

The Formation of Community through Broken Bread

Maybe it’s the primitivist side of me, but I have had this drive in me for many years to understand the practice of the New Testament-era church.  I grew up in a church that aimed to do church “the way the early church did it.”  An ironic exercise is to see how various groups of this sort start from the same place (the idea of “restoration”) and then end up in a variety of practices.  Maybe the variety speaks to how much we don’t know about the early church.  Maybe we’re looking for perspicacity about the wrong issues.

Case in point: The Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist.

The church in which I grew up was a split-off from the Church of England.  The main modifications they made to the Eucharist was: (1) to separate it from the preaching of the Word by dedicating a meeting uniquely to it, and (2) to strip the meeting of its clergy-dominated components (there was no longer any clergy to officiate the meeting).  However, when it was all said and done, I would still ask, “Is this truly the way the Lord’s Supper was observed in those ancient church days?”  I got to the point where I wasn’t so sure.

What do we really know about the early church practice of the Lord’s Supper? Continue reading The Formation of Community through Broken Bread

Teaching and Fellowship: “Wings” That Give “Lift” to a Church’s Vitality

Teaching and fellowship are the two “wings” that give lift to a church’s vitality.  In a “teaching” church with a weak sense of fellowship, an unspiritual intellect can abound.  In a church strong in fellowship but lacking in teaching, there is little fuel for the drive toward maturity and spiritual depth.  Both “wings” are needed for forward progress.

This is where the church finds herself in Acts 2:42.  “They were devoting themselves to the apostles‘ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (New English Translation).  I argued in the last post that the devotion of the church is in the sphere of teaching and fellowship, with “breaking of bread” and “prayer” examples of fellowship.

My personal translation of the verse reads: “And they were persisting in the teaching of the apostles and in the fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.”

What is the essence of the fellowship to which the author refers?

  1. This “fellowship” was probably well-known to the early church.  It wasn’t just any fellowship; it was “the” fellowship (not “a” fellowship, or a generic fellowship that would be suggested by the lack of the definite article).  It was a known commodity.  Thus, the breaking of bread and prayer were the most distinctive examples of fellowship; they epitomize fellowship for the Jerusalem church.  This distinctiveness is also supported by this verse being the only occurrence of “fellowship” (Greek koinonia) in the Acts.
  2. “Fellowship” is something active.  It is not a feeling or a sense, i.e. the mere ambiance of a community.  It’s what the church does.  The author (probably Luke) emphasizes its practical nature by declaring that the church “persists” in this activity.
  3. “Fellowship” emphasizes sharing or participation.  The Greek lexicon Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich puts forward four definitions of “fellowship” (koinonia): (1) close association involving mutual interests and sharing; (2) attitude of good will that manifests an interest in a close relationship; (3) abstract term for concrete idea (“sign of fellowship”, “proof of brotherly unity,” even “gift,” “contribution”; (4) participation, sharing.   I take definition 4 to be the most applicable here. It is the definition that comes closest to the active sense of the verb (“persists” or “devotes”). So, whatever “the breaking of the bread” and “the prayers” refer to, there should be understood that sense of sharing or participating in something in common.

Does the figure of “teaching” and “fellowship” as two wings needed for flight resonate with you?  Is your church more of a “teaching” church, or a “fellowship” church?

We’ll next take a look at figuring out what Luke means by “the breaking of the bread”.

A Lifestyle More Than a Liturgy

Is it proper to speak of a corporate group having a “lifestyle”?  I suppose it is only odd if there is not a common “life” that members of the group possess.  But the church does share a common life given by God through Christ and the Spirit.  So let me propose “lifestyle” as an appropriate term for the church’s life together.

Following on the heels of Pentecost, in Acts 2:42, we see the church in action: “They were devoting themselves to the apostles‘ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (New English Translation).

I grew up in a tradition that labeled this verse a “charter of the church”, the fundamental components of the congregational gathering.  Yet, it is more a lifestyle than a liturgy that we see illustrated.  (It is what John Mark Hicks has called “practicing the kingdom of God”.)  In the time frame of this verse, the church is not yet a distinct social institution.  She is self-consciously a group of followers of Jesus still operative within first-century Jewish religious life.  They meet in homes for fellowship, but they also meet for worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  A definitive format for a worship service is not the immediate point of the passage.

So what are the essential attributes of this way of life for the church?  A closer look at the verse can help us:

And they were persisting in the teaching of the apostles and in the fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers [personal translation].

This verse contains two sets of two prepositional phrases with noun clauses, each set joined by “and”.  I don’t think it’s a list of four activities that can be independently isolated.  What is more likely is that the last two items (“the breaking of the bread” and “the prayers”) are the most prominent examples of “the fellowship”.  Thus, at the most general level, the believers were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship.

Let’s examine the first activity: the apostles’ teaching. Continue reading A Lifestyle More Than a Liturgy

Could the Church Have It All Wrong about the Lord’s Supper?

Could the church have been all wrong about the Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist?  Brethren writer Vernard Eller asked this question years ago and made it the title of a book.  Admittedly, phrased this way, the question is a shocker.  It’s a shocker to those who put a lot of stock in church history as a support for doctrine and practice.  But the question is not off-base.  Especially when you consider that there’s not a whole lot of Scripture devoted to instruction on how to observe the Lord’s Supper.  I have read at least one writer make  the (I think) legitimate observation that there is clearer explanation in Scripture on how to perform feetwashing than the Lord’s Supper.

There are some who scoff at those who show concern for identifying the “right” way to do some church ceremony or ritual.  Well, as far as I’m concerned, scoff away!  The reason I care about the right way to do ritual is not because I’m obsessive-compulsive about Bible interpretation.  No – I care about this because I want to understand the Lord’s Supper’s intended meaning, and I want to personally gain from the Lord’s Supper the benefit that God intends for me.  Continue reading Could the Church Have It All Wrong about the Lord’s Supper?

Don’t Neglect the Communion Service! Spiritual Benefit Awaits You

In the church in which I grew up (which observed Communion weekly), one of the elders would give his own special paraphrase to Paul on Communion: “The Scripture says that as often, not as seldom, as you do this, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes!”  All kidding aside, I’d like to challenge you with this post to take every opportunity you are given to participate in the Communion service with your church.  Why?

Two reasons: (1) It’s how Jesus wants to be thanked for his work of redemption on your behalf, and (2) it will bring you great spiritual benefit that you cannot get elsewhere in the same way.

(1) Thanksgiving is the central response on the part of the participant as Jesus is remembered: As we, through symbol, call to remembrance our great deliverance through Christ, we are driven to give thanks.  Throughout the key texts concerning the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians), the giving of thanks by Jesus during the Last Supper is repeatedly depicted.  He calls for remembrance and thanksgiving to be conjoined during the observance.  Indeed, Psalm 6:5 associates thanksgiving with remembrance: “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: In Sheol who shall give thee thanks?”  Joyful thanksgiving should permeate the worship that occurs during Communion.  Moreover, the designation of the observance as “the Eucharist” by much of the Church is thoroughly fitting in describing our action in the meal.

(2) What is the central benefit for the believer as he remembers and thanks the Lord in the Lord’s Supper?  The central benefit is communion with Jesus the Christ who has been crucified.  In the participatory experience of the Lord’s Supper, the believer enjoys a fullness of connection with the crucified Christ of which the apostles often write.  The Scriptures in 1 Cor 10:16-17 state that the cup is communion with the blood of Christ and the bread, communion with the body of Christ.  There is no hint of material change of the elements during the Lord’s Supper, for the Supper is a proclamation of the Lord’s death (1 Cor 11:26), a past event in history that is unrepeatable.  However, the bread and cup are more than mere “signs” of fellowship, for Paul bases his admonition against participation in pagan sacrificial rites on the reality of the fellowship enjoyed in the Lord’s Supper.  In other words, since we affirm and enjoy actual fellowship with Christ the Lord in the Supper, we are dividing our loyalty between Christ and idols when simultaneously participating in idolatrous feasts.  In the Supper, we celebrate the benefits of his sacrifice that we enjoy, we also re-affirm our baptismal appeal for a clear conscience (1 Pet 3:21), the commitment to share in His sufferings, and our desire for the power of His resurrection life to be at work within us (Phil 3:10).

While there is the deepest fellowship available in the Supper, participation in the Supper does not bring about a relationship of communion with Christ that is automatic.  It is the spiritual enjoyment by faith through material “signs” of a fellowship that is pre-existing for the believer.  In coming to the Table, we come as those who have already been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).  We have already put on Christ through baptism (Gal 3:27).  Overall, the designation of this meal as “Holy Communion” by the Church is supported through strong Scriptural attestation.

I would love to know of any testimonies from readers of their experience of communion with God in partaking in this service.  What spiritual benefits do you enjoy in your participation?

The Communion Service: The “What” and the “Why”

Two questions that should guide anything we do in expressing our Christian faith are: what must be done?  Why must it be done?  If we don’t understand the “why”, then the activity in question can very easily become routine and devoid of significance.  Continuing our “re-thinking” of the Communion service in our churches, we can now apply these same two questions (what? why?) in this case:

(1) What are the essential actions that should constitute any Communion service?

(2) What is the central purpose of the Communion service? Continue reading The Communion Service: The “What” and the “Why”

Re-Thinking the Communion Service: What are the Biblical Roots?

I was raised in and came to faith in a tradition that one would call “primitivist” – in that it had sprung up as a separatist movement whose major thrust was to identify and imitate how the early Christians “did church.”  I think that this is a valid endeavor, as long as one is appreciative of two cautions:

(1) very often, little in the New Testament is communicated concerning the “how” of church practice,

(2) care must be taken to differentiate between the prescriptive and the merely descriptive in interpreting the New Testament (i.e. is God telling us to follow a certain example or is it merely part of the unique historical account that has limited transferability to the present?).

A central foundational aspect to the so-called “Plymouth Brethren” tradition from which I come is the weekly observance of the Breaking of Bread, or the Lord’s Supper.  How does your church observe Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper? Continue reading Re-Thinking the Communion Service: What are the Biblical Roots?