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John Fehlen 2
The dinner table is set. The food is hot and plentiful. Family and friends have gathered to enjoy not only the food but also the warmth of fellowship,whereby affirming love and admiration for one another around the backdrop of a common meal. The setting is glorious and poised with possibility and yet, unforeseen to the naked eye lurks the enemy to both food and fellowship: division. Nothing can make a morsel taste blander and cause fellowship to fall flatter then animosity and general distain for one another. Unresolved issues, bitterness, neglect and the like will often steal the joy from a gathering and leave the attendees with a gaping void even though food was consumed. The situation was similar when the Apostle Paul stuck his theological and pastoral nose into the church of Corinth. What he found was a group of people that were ‘coming together’ but not truly ‘being together.’ That condition still largely exists within the church of today. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:20, when the church ‘come[s] together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else.” The words of Ben Witherington III capture the scenario perfectly: “the meal had become a mess.”1 When there is a mess in the church the tendency is to eradicate the potential of future unsightliness whereby avoiding subsequent messes altogether. This has been the case in many sectors of the church in regards to the gifts of the Holy Spirit (most particularly ‘speaking in tongues), and the same possibility exists in regards to the Lord’s Supper. From a denominational standpoint, the sacrament is open for such a wide variety of interpretation, and unfortunately it would seem simpler (less messy) for the Lord’s Supper to be done away with as a whole. But that was not the intention of Paul in his writings found in 1 Corinthians – he wanted to inspire reform and renewal to communion and foster greater and deeper community within the church of
John Fehlen 3 Jesus Christ. He was contending that the mess become a meal again. This essay will contend for the same thing by exploring the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the ancient Love Feast. Over time even the best of traditions, habits or rituals can get stale and lifeless, desperately in need of an infusion of new passion and purpose. Often the best source of renewal can be discovered in that which gave the tradition life and vitality in the first place. In the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper it is the conviction that vitality can be found in the Love Feast. History Of The Happy Meal At the center of the debate regarding the Lord’s Supper is the relationship it may have had to the Passover. There is absolutely no consensus on this matter. Much of the confusion involves differences in the synoptic gospel accounts to that of the Fourth Gospel. The Johannine account placed the Last Supper ‘before the feast of the Passover (John 13:1, 2, 21-30) whereas the synoptic gospel writers claim it grew out of the Passover Meal. There are a number of potential rectifying explanations of which this essay will not enumerate however. The appropriate focus is upon the meal itself not discrepancies regarding the timing of the meal. As an example, a family will tend to eat supper around the ‘dinner hour’ – that could be at 5 pm, 7 pm or perhaps later depending upon circumstances. Yet it is still supper. William Barclay asserts that ‘the Passover meal not only consisted of ceremonial steps (bitter herbs, small pieces of bread shared) but also of a proper meal – one of hungry men, in that no food was to be eaten after the sacrifice of the lamb in the temple until the Passover meal itself.”2 It was a meal of remembrance and celebration for the handiwork of the Lord in taking the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Even church reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) would often equate the Passover with the Eucharist.3
John Fehlen 4 Whether or not the template for the Passover meal was carried over into what would be known as The Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or Eucharist) is unclear. What is apparent is that the words and actions of Jesus at that final meal with his disciples (regardless of what day it happened on) seems to follow the liturgy of the Passover to some degree. Bread was broken, drink was shared and a commemoration ensued, notably for that of the Passover lamb that was slain that mankind might live eternally. This remembrance and celebration revolved around a common meal – a happy meal that clearly marked the early church. Breaking Of Bread The two men that walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus certainly got an eye full. Luke 24:30 writes that “[Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” This postresurrection encounter undoubtedly reminded them of their final meal with the Messiah. This relational model of eating and sharing together carried over to the first church in the Book of Acts. The burgeoning church was committed to learning from the apostles, to fellowship, prayer and to the breaking of bread. Witherington reasons “a good case can be made that ‘breaking of bread’ was Luke’s shorthand for the special Christian meal that came to be called the Lord’s Supper by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. The earliest Christian meetings then were characterized not just by acts we would today associate with worship, but also by sharing meals in common and indeed other kinds of property as well.”4 As the church moved beyond Jerusalem and the Jewish influence was less of a dominant role in its development, it is possible that a combination of sorts took place with the annual Passover celebration and the regular ‘breaking of bread.’ Corporate worship would happen not only in the temple but also in homes, therefore an extension of ordinary early Jewish worship context would be the Jewish meal, also known as the
John Fehlen 5 Love Feast (Jude 12). Within this framework, the gathered congregation would often commemorate the communal Lord’s Supper. A congregation, incidentally, that was increasingly growing in number with those that were being saved. New Christians, then and now, will often bring with them many of their former habits, dysfunctions and immoral behaviors. Thus was the case at the Love Feasts in Corinth. Cleaning Up After Dinner Throughout the first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt aggressively with abuses, excess, and divisions. He was on a corrective warpath in an effort to bring the church back to the truth of the Gospel and away from their Greco-Roman leanings. In no uncertain terms, he forbid them from partaking in their drinking parties at the pagan temples. He argued, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). The Corinthian Christians were definitely a work in progress, and understanding this reality helps one grasp the nature of the abuses at their Love Feasts that were ‘do[ing] more harm than good.’ The term ‘Lord’s Supper’ only occurs once in Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:20. Notably, the reference is sandwiched within a strong rebuke from Paul. Thankfully, had there not been a mess to clean up in Corinth there would be considerably less to draw from for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It is possible that had there been no ‘disorder’ then there might have never been a need for Paul’s rebuke and teaching. The primary abuse at the Corinthian Love Feast involved neglect of the poor, the slaves, the less fortunate, and those on the fringe of the community. Simply put, the ‘haves’ had forgotten the ‘have-nots’. It is in this context that one of the most widely recognized passages of Scripture is introduced. 1 Corinthians 11:23 begins with “For I received from the Lord what I also passed onto you….” Many within Christianity would
John Fehlen 6 have some point of recognition with this passage. Gordon Fee observes: In fact the greatest difficulty in reconstructing the problem is to overcome our own familiarity with part of the text (at least vs. 23-26, often vv. 23-32), which usually has been informed within a given liturgical setting. This is true even of – perhaps one should say, especially of – nonliturgical Protestant churches, where vv. 27-32 usually serves as a warning against improper participation – meaning ‘if one has sin in one’s life’ – and encourages personal introspection.5 Fee is a strong proponent of the Lord’s Supper being an extension of the ‘fellowship meal’ known as the Love Feast – a meal that was intended to be open and available to all, not just the rich and spiritual. The Corinthian church had been eating and drinking ‘without recognizing the body of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 11:29). The ‘body’ in this verse is the church. Paul’s strong challenge to Corinthians was to honor the Body – Jesus’ church. Fee goes on to emphasize: The very Table that is God’s reminder, and therefore his repeated gift, of grace…has been allowed to become a table of condemnation for the very people who most truly need the assurance of acceptance that this table affords - the sinful, the weak, the weary. One does not have to ‘get rid of sin in one’s life’ in order to partake. Here by faith one may once again receive the assurance that ‘Christ receiveth sinners.’ One wonders whether our making the text deal with self-examination has not served to deflect the greater concern of the text, that we give more attention at the Lord’s Supper to our relationships with one another in the body of Christ. It is the Lord’s Supper, after all, not ours. Our task - and joy - is to receive anew the benefits of his grace in the context of truly welcoming others, who are recipients of that same grace.6 The Lord’s Supper was originally intended to be a meal that would destratify the hierarchy and
John Fehlen 7 invite equality among its participants. Remarkably, the Last Supper had a man named Judas seated at the table with Jesus (not to mention Peter who denied the Master and all the other disciples that ran after his arrest!). The Love Feast was intentioned as a gathering point for all that would come…”from the highways and hedges…come in so that my house may be filled” such as referenced in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:23. Over time the Lord’s Supper had gotten to be a mess that was characterized by exclusion and a pecking order. Could this be what Paul was imploring the Corinthians to ‘examine’ before eating and drinking? Had they stopped ‘recognizing the body of the Lord’ and thereby grown weak and sick within their fellowship? Paul wanted to bring correction to their mealtime not eradication. He implored them to wait for others and share with others. The entire context of the familiar 1 Corinthians 11 passage is clearly about others. Communion and Community. Veli-Matti Karkkainen addresses the context regarding ‘discerning the body’: “As far as I can tell from the literature, it has been understood exclusively along the canons of older exegesis in terms of moral lapses and failures…contemporary exegesis argues that what Paul had in mind was discerning the unity of the body of Christ, meaning the church…not the unworthiness of the celebrants because of their failure in their private Christian walks, but breaches in the fellowship.”7 Karkkainen continues: Because Christians have a personal fellowship with Christ, they can also have personal fellowship with one another. As such, the Lord’s Supper expresses the fundamental equality of all God’s people. Also, believers at the Table are not side-by-side as unrelated individuals, because the Supper is a fellowship (koinonia) meal at which the believers are present as the people of God. The self-examination, as a necessary prerequisite for entering communion, concerns not so much the members’ direct relation to God as their relation to one another.8
John Fehlen 8 This fundamental understanding is supported by Witherington as well when he says, “No one is worthy of partaking of the Lord’s Supper; it’s not a matter of personal worth. Paul is rather concerned with the abuse in the actions of the participants, or at least some of them. Paul says that those who partake in an unworthy manner, abusing the privilege, are liable or guilty in some sense of the body and blood of Jesus.”9 Paul finished the rebuke in chapter 11 the same way he began it, by asking the church to wait for one another and share the meal together. The Love Feast and the corresponding Lord’s Supper were to be a point of rejoicing for all and by all. Yes, it was messy. But rather than do away with the meal entirely because of the mess, Paul restored order, direction, passion and purpose. The same cannot be said across the landscape of organized religion in the years to follow. This Is My Body Packaged For You In the years that followed Paul’s admonishing words, a progressive shift went into motion. The meal became something exclusive in which only the baptized could be allowed to partake. Rules that simply do not exist within Scripture would soon regulate the meal. Soon the meal would not function in its original form whatsoever. Barclay notes: “Whether the movement was in the right direction or not is something which we cannot at the moment lay down, but movement there was from the house to the Church, from real meal to symbolic meal, from simplicity to elaboration, from devotion to theology, from the concrete to the abstract, from the layman to the priest.”10 The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), dated at the end of the 1st Century declared that the Lord’s Supper was for baptized Christians, particularly those who repented of their sins.11 This document also regulated when the Lord’s Supper should take place and by whom, specifically that it should be governed by and prayed over by the cleric. By A.D. 110 Ignatius wrote: “It is not permitted either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the
John Fehlen 9 bishop. But whatever he approves is acceptable to God, so that everything you do should be secure and valid.”12 As the years elapsed so did the value and validity of the Love Feast. By the 4th Century, at the Council of Laodicea, the Love Feast was banned in the universal (Catholic) church. This was reaffirmed at the Council of Trullian in A.D. 692. In conjunction with the abolition of the Love Feast there was a move towards reductionism in regards to the Lord’s Supper. The elements (bread and drink) would become more regulated, disposable, and selfcontained to the point that Bishop Will Willimon humorously (yet perhaps appropriately) asserts: “this is my body packaged for you.” Willimon elaborates: Over the years both the glasses and the wafers got smaller until the church seemed to have a make-believe meal without food…I finally said ‘enough is enough’ a couple of years ago when I read of man in the West, who, believing that the Lord’s Supper is timeconsuming and cumbersome because of the individual cups involved, has begun marketing a product for those in a hurry. He produces airtight packets, which contain a cracker like pellet in one compartment and two grams of grape juice in another compartment – a disposable, self-contained, eat-on-the-run Lord’s Supper – sort of “This is my body packaged for you.” There you have it. The last hindrance to totally selfcontained, self-centered religion is removed…Now thanks to this unit packaging, we need never come into contact with or be touched by another human being again. Just when you thought modern life had depersonalized the gospel to the uttermost, we have another breakthrough – Communion without communion.13 Certainly it is not difficult to hear the tone of sarcasm in Willimon's comments and yet in Protestant circles (and even within Pentecostalism) there is a propensity for the Lord’s Supper to become stale, lifeless and void of community – no longer a meal – now a mess of another kind.
John Fehlen 10 Perhaps the Apostle Paul’s words to Corinth carry weight for the church yet today. Can the meal be recovered? Can the Lord’s Supper and the Love Feast be reconnected in these days? What’s For Supper? There was a time when Christianity was new, and the relatively few Christians on the planet could fit into a few homes and share everything in common. Those days are gone. The tiny upstart rag-tag band in the Book of Acts is now a full-fledged movement with 60-minute services on multi-site campuses. How do we reclaim the Love Feast in the McChurch era? How does community become a central part of communion again? For some churches that adjustment may be minor. Perhaps it could give more focus to the Lord’s Supper within the service instead of it being an afterthought or addendum. Perhaps small groups could become the epicenter of community life in which there is ‘breaking of bread’ in homes and true fellowship is shared within the context of communion. For other congregations the shift may need to be more radical. If the worship has been consistently lifeless and cold and community life is non-existent then true reform may be appropriate. Huldrych Zwingli was in many regards a spiritual reformer. His undeniable boldness in matters of Scriptural adherence in the face of organizational taboos is to be commended. Shortly before Easter, Zwingli and his closest associates requested to cancel the mass and to introduce a new public order of worship. On April 13, 1525, Zwingli celebrated communion under his new liturgy. Wooden cups and plates were used to avoid any outward displays of formality. The congregation sat at set tables to emphasize the meal aspect of the sacrament. Zwingli then proposed to limit the celebration of communion to four times a year14 – which most certainly felt like an earthquake in the church system of the day.
John Fehlen 11 Could reform of that nature be paramount in today’s church? Have we made a mess out of what was supposed to be a meal? There are so many practical implications to consider. Does the church move back into homes? Is a full meal offered during every worship service? Should smaller sanctuaries be built to make room for larger fellowship halls? The answers are not immediate, but what remains is a desire for koinonia – that the church may truly celebrate “until He comes,” and when He does all meals will be superseded by the messianic banquet. Yet another Meal awaits us!
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Notes Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper (Waco, TX: Baylor Press. 2007) William Barclay, The Lord’s Supper (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001), 20.
3 2 1
W.P. Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), Witherington, Making a Meal of It. 30.
Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1987), 531.
Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 566.
Veli-Matt Karkkainen, The Lord’s Supper: The Pentecostal View, ed. Gordon T. Smith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 134.
Ibid. 131. Witherington, Making a Meal of It. 58. Barclay, The Lord’s Supper. 117. Witherington, Making a Meal of It. 95. Ibid. 100. Ibid. 128. Ulrich Gäbler, Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
10 11 12
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Bibliography Barclay, William. The Lord’s Supper. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Campbell, Ted A. Christian Confessions: a historical introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Ciampa, Frank G. The Spirit of the Reformation: A Guidebook for Restoring and Reforming the Lord’s Supper in Worship. Xulon Press, 2007. Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. Gäbler, Ulrich. Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Just, Arthur A. The Ongoing Feast: Table Fellowship and Eschatology at Emmaus. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993. Karkkainen, Veli-Matt. The Lord’s Supper: The Pentecostal View, ed. Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. McLaren, Brian. Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008. Packer, J.I., Merrill C. Tenney and William White, Jr. The World of the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Segler, Franklin M. and C. Randall Bradley. Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice. B*H Publishing Group, 2006. Stephens, W.P. The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Uhlhorn, Gerhard. Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Witherington III, Ben. Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper. Waco, TX: Baylor Press, 2007.