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?
Acts 2:42 states that the early believers devoted themselves to “the breaking of the bread”. Is that a referent to the Lord’s Supper? What is the Lord’s Supper really?
“Breaking bread” is a term repeated many times throughout the writings of Luke (the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles).
Here are the Scriptures:
Luke 9:16 And he took the five loaves (literally, bread) and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed them, and brake; and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude.
Luke 22:19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
Luke 24:30 And it came to pass, when he had sat down with them to meat, he took the bread and blessed; and breaking it he gave to them.
Luke 24:35 And they rehearsed the things that happened in the way, and how he was known of them in the breaking of the bread.
Acts 2:42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Acts 2:46 And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart,
Acts 20:7 And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and prolonged his speech until midnight.
Acts 20:11 And when he was gone up, and had broken the bread, and eaten, and had talked with them a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.
Acts 27:35 And when he had said this, and had taken bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all; and he brake it, and began to eat.
You see in these Scriptures a repetition of key phrases – a repetition that implies, at the very least, continuity of thought. For example, it is very hard not to see connection between Jesus’ Last Supper breaking of bread and the previous feeding of the 5,000. The bread broken for the physical nourishment of the multitudes is linked with the body of Jesus broken for the spiritual nourishment of those who come to Him in faith. See how this works?
While the bread of the multitude’s feeding is the prelude to the feeding of the twelve at the Last Supper, the bread broken by Jesus with the Emmaus disciples stands as a literary postlude. The fellowship at Emmaus hearkens back to the fellowship on the eve of the crucifixion. And it should be noted that all three instances of broken bread to this point occur as part of, or, at least, in conjunction with, a regular meal.
Have you ever considered the connection of the liturgical bread and cup with the feeding of the five thousand? with the revelation of Jesus at Emmaus?