Re-envisioning the Supper

Lord's Supper

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

We have many generations of traditions surrounding the Lord’s Table. Most of these traditions are noble, and thankfully we are diligent in remembering Christ at the table. It’s refreshing to know that we hold a high view of communion. Personally, I like to envision sitting with the first Christians who sat around the table, eating, drinking, and sharing what Christ meant to them.

The letter written by the Bithynian governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan around 110 A.D. gives us an early glimpse of what a worship day looked like for early Christians. Pliny was writing Trajan about the “problem” they faced with Christians who permeated the Roman Empire. Trajan’s practice was to give them three chances to “repent,” denouncing Christ, or else they would be executed. He described the “offense” of the Christians this way:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to do some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food.

Christian History Institute

We know that the early Christians, even while being persecuted, were devoted to gathering to worship then gathering again for the Lord’s supper. Though we have removed the meal, there are ways that we can reconnect with the communal aspect of the Lord’s supper. We should always strive to rethink and reimagine the table. It was not an isolated, individualistic event. The Christians were united both at and through the table with Jesus as the meal. It was a time to celebrate salvation and to participate in the heavenly table, where all Christians of all cultures and all time gather together!

It is refreshing when we become giving in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine. We commune with and give to our fellow brothers and sisters. There are many ways to re-envision the Supper. It’s wonderful to think about the depth and meaning of this meal that has been celebrated for thousands of years!

New Creation

Lord's Supper

As we’ve been studying communion, we cannot get away from the future aspect of the table. Jesus, at the Last Supper, said, “For I tell you I will not eat until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16 ESV). Nor will he drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes (22:18). Jesus also told his disciples that “I assign to you, as my father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:29).

In John Mark Hicks’ book, Enter the Water, Come to the Table, he describes what “eschatology” (the study of last things or the last days) is. He says, “Eschatology, however, is not so much about what happens last–and the order in which it happens–as much as it is about the future that is already at work.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection began the new creation. Hicks continues, “The contrast between our present Adamic existence within this old creation and our future Christic existence in the new creation is the contrast between mortal and immortal, between dishonor and glory, between weakness and power, and between ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’ (1 Cor. 15:42-44).”

Hicks continues even still, “The Son is new creation, the second Adam, the new human. Because of the Messiah’s work, the sacraments are a place where the new creation breaks into the old one.” The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the new creation. Sure we remember Jesus, but the living Jesus is also the meal. Jesus serves as sacrifice, host, and living food! It is a celebration and participation of the kingdom to come.

Eating and Drinking Communion in an Unworthy Manner

Lord's Supper

We’ve all heard it at some point: “Make sure you clear your thoughts and think about Jesus and the cross so you’re not taking communion in an unworthy manner.” The passage referred to is 1 Corinthians 11:27-28, which reads, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

A stern warning, indeed, but is Paul talking about self-reflection here? We often miss both the context in Corinth and the overall context of the communion meal. First, we must realize that the Lord’s Supper that Christians celebrated was an actual meal. They sat down and dined together in the evening. But in Corinth, the church turned the Lord’s Supper into a typical Greco-Roman meal. Second, the meals commemorating Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross were linked to the meals of Acts 2:42 and 2:46. Third, they are linked by sharing “all things in common” through the bond of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

In John Mark Hicks’ book Enter the Water Come to the Table, he says concerning division in the Lord’s Supper, “This scenario emerged at Corinth’s meal (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The rich divided themselves from the poor so that they ate and drank without them. The poor, perhaps slaves or lower class workers, arrived later when the food and drink were gone. The poor, then, went hungry while the rich were well-fed and some of them drunk.”

This is important for us to understand. God’s acts unite man through saving grace. Imagine if the Israelites were shoving each other and leaving others behind when they crossed the Red Sea. God wouldn’t have tolerated it for a second. In Acts 2, imagine if the poor were uninvited from the breaking of the bread. That kind of behavior is “eating in an unworthy manner.” The Lord’s Supper unites believers at the foot of the cross, with Jesus as the host. It’s a time of selfless giving, sharing, and partaking. It’s a time to invite the poor and downtrodden in; to feed them, share in fellowship with them, and enjoy the celebration of grace with them.

We need to work with each other so that we are not eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. We must celebrate together and remain unified at the foot of the cross!

The Three Tables in Luke

Lord's Supper

We tend to think of the Lord’s Supper as only being linked to the Last Supper, where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, Jesus broke bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took the cup and said, “This is the new covenant in my blood.”

But only linking the Lord’s Supper to the Last Supper misses the deep connections throughout Luke’s gospel. Israel already had a deep connection with the Passover to the whole of Israel’s story–from Creation, to the Flood, the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land, and beyond. God was with His people from the very beginning of time, acting as a forgiving Father who loves, redeems, and renews his people.

In John Mark Hicks’ book Enter the Water Come to the Table, he rightly says, “At table, Jesus receives sinners and confronts the righteous. At table, Jesus extends grace to seekers but condemns the self-righteous. Jesus eats with ‘others’ to introduce them to the kingdom. . . The table is missional, communal, and hospitable” (pg. 48).

Luke records three times where Jesus messiah is host at the table–the feeding of the 5,000 in Luke 9, the Last Supper in Luke 22, and the post resurrection meal in Luke 24. In all three Luke undeniably links them with the language: Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it. Hicks says the feeding of the 5,000 is significant for these reasons: “First, it is the only meal in Luke prior to the Last Supper where Jesus is the host. Second, it contains language that is explicitly tied to the Last Supper. Third, the Messiah, as a new Moses, feeds his people in the wilderness” (pg. 48).

We cannot miss the significance of these intentional links. All three were in the evening. The suppers were hosted by the messiah himself. They looked forward to the kingdom anew. At the third table, the resurrected Jesus hosted the meal on the first day of the week, demonstrating the continued hope and renewal we will find at the final banquet!

So the Lord’s Supper is not only about remembering Jesus. At the table, Jesus and God’s Spirit are communing with us. We look back through Israel’s history, we remember Christ and him crucified, and, through the resurrection, we anticipate the future when we will recline at the table with Jesus and all his saints for eternity. But, equally as important, we invite people to the table with us.

The table was not exclusive. As Hicks says, it was missional, communal, and hospitable. We need to revision the table where we invite people to participate in the redeeming story of Christ. The Lord’s Supper unites people at the very table where Jesus is host. He invites people to repent, be baptized, enjoy the seal of the Spirit, and celebrate at the table.

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Communion as Sacrament

Communion

John Mark Hicks was a professor of mine at grad school and has written some very good books on communion. His book Enter the Water Come To the Table is an excellent book on communion. I’ve always heard communion referred to as one of the “acts of worship.” Unlike most denominations, we celebrate communion every Sunday. I think viewing it as an “act of worship” is OK, but it’s not completely sufficient. Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, is a proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes. Jesus took the Passover, which was meant to memorialize the saving event of God passing over the Israelite homes and sparing the firstborn sons, and gave it new meaning. Passover continues the story of God’s salvation and applies it to Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of mankind.

Hicks argues that communion is not merely an ordinance, because “ordinances are often regarded as mere acts of human obedience” (pg. 12). While, in one sense, communion is an ordinance, Hicks argues that it’s also a sacrament. He says that the central idea of sacrament is that “God acts through appointed means to impart grace, assurance, and hope” (pg. 12). In other words, when we, the body of Christ, participate in communion God is acting through this means to impart grace, assurance, and hope. It’s more than remembering; it’s about participating with and communing at God’s banquet.

Very significantly, Hicks also rightly points out that “Jesus himself, as the Incarnate God, participated in Israel’s sacramental journey. He was baptized with Israel, assembled with Israel in its festive celebrations (Sabbaths, Passovers, Feast of Tabernacles, etc.), and ate at those tables” (pg. 15).

For Hicks, there are three important themes to God’s story where we all participate in communion with God. Those are baptism, the Lord’s supper, and assembly. He says that these three are “dramatic rehearsals of the story through which God renews communion, empowers transformation, and realizes the future” (pg. 16). This cycle of death (burial) new birth (emergence/passing through) and resurrection (future) can be seen over and over, beginning with creation. Our participation in baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the assembly bind us in communion with God and we retell the story of salvation.

Peter binds Christian baptism to Christ and the Flood narrative. He says that in the ark, only 8 people were saved as they passed through the water (death below the water, emergence/passing through with God on the ark, look to the future). “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). We commune with God and Christ in our baptism, just as Noah “passed through” the water to find new life as the old died and also just as the Israelites “passed through” the Red Sea to a new life as the Egyptians were swallowed up by the water.

So also, the Lord’s supper is where we participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and we experience His grace as he communes with us at the table. Paul says that, at the table, we proclaim Jesus Christ’s death until he comes. This is both an ordinance (what we do) and a sacrament (how God shows up and imparts his grace, assurance, and hope.

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