When is the Lord’s Supper Not?

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Our surprise came while visiting a sizable church in another city. We had gone there to witness the baptism of a young man close to us. Because it was Easter, we expected the large crowd. But we did not anticipate being handed tiny containers shaped like—but slightly smaller than—coffee creamers.

When she received hers, my wife thought it was some kind of Easter treat. I quickly pulled out my cell phone and shot a picture of my whatever-it-was (see photo at right). Since then, while showing the photo to several other long-time church people, I have asked them to tell what it is. Most guessed a pudding container. No one got it right.

Your Turn

What do you think it is? If you said the elements for Communion, you win. Amazon sells them as “Fellowship Cups” or “Pre-Filled Communion Cups.” You can get them for less than 19 cents apiece. How do they work? The pastor offered some very brief instructions. Peel back a top layer of clear plastic to get to a hyper-thin wafer roughly the diameter of a nickel. Strip off the plastic of the bottom layer to uncover a half-ounce or so of grape juice.

Those in the Easter audience heard little or no explanation of the significance of the wafer and grape juice. For my part, having taken part in thousands of Communion celebrations, I knew what those elements meant. But I couldn’t focus on the meaning that morning. Instead, I was fumbling to pry off the plastic covers. Concentrating on retrieving the wafer without breaking it. Opening the juice without spilling it in my lap.

Since our experience as visitors in that Easter gathering, I have come to see the plastic “Fellowship Cup” as a symbol of how far we have come from New Testament practice. As a result, a question hangs in my mind: When is the Lord’s Supper not the Lord’s Supper?

What Paul Called “Not the Lord’s Supper”

The Corinthian Christians wrongly thought they were eating the Lord’s Supper. But Paul said no—they were actually doing something else entirely. “When you come together,” he said, “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (I Cor. 11:20). If Paul were dictating this to a scribe, I suspect he might have stressed a certain word: “When you come together, it is not the LORD’s Supper you eat.” Even though they were going through the motions, the Lord would not own what they were doing with the bread and cup.

Why did Paul declare their meal unworthy to be called the Lord’s Supper? Was it because they were not connecting it with Jesus’ dying body and shed blood? Did Paul fault them for not remembering Jesus’ death? No. Their failure had to do not with that past event but with their present practice. They were eating the bread and drinking the cup “without recognizing the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 11:3). Christ was right there in the members of his body—but their self-centered actions made it clear: they were oblivious to his body in that present, gathered-church form. Paul refused to call what they were doing “the Lord’s Supper” because of their failure to practice one-anothering—at the heart of Jesus’ New Command. They were in a hurry to get it over with: “each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else” (I Cor. 11:21). They were acting as individualists, not as interdependent members of the Lord’s body.

Morphing and Historical Drift

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Paul didn’t use the word, but had he lived in our time, he might have said the original Lord’s Supper had “morphed” into something else. Today, with the right software, we can do photo-morphing, easily changing a person’s portrait into someone completely different. With such a program, you can turn George W. Bush into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What changed the original picture of the Lord’s Supper into what it has become 2000 years later? Such morphing is called historical drift. Little by little, our practice of the Lord’s Supper has inched further and further from its prototype. Like winds and currents carrying a piece of driftwood from the shore out to sea, various forces throughout the history of the church have moved us from a people in fellowship around a real meal to a theater full of largely isolated strangers with “Fellowship Cups.”

At least four contemporary values contribute powerfully to the “winds and currents” of this historical drift:

  • Size

We’re impressed with bigness, even in our churches. This blog headline tells it all: “6 Keys to Breaking the 200, 400 and 800 Attendance Barriers.” The author assumes, of course, that pushing past all those numerical roadblocks to get to bigger and bigger church gatherings is a good thing. But one-anothering becomes more and more difficult as the “audience” grows larger. As Dale Partridge, co-author of Unlearn Church, points out, it is extremely difficult to carry out the New Testament summons to “every-member-functioning . . . inside a church building with hundreds of people.” No wonder the large church we visited on Easter had resorted to “Fellowship Cups.”

  • Speed

I did not clock how long the Communion part of that Easter meeting took. But seemed as if it came and went within about two minutes. Yet the Lord’s Supper traces its roots to the lengthy Passover meal. Read the Gospel accounts of all that happened on the night Jesus gave the bread and cup their New Covenant meanings. That meal and the conversation that went with it must have taken hours. I understand that even today Jewish Seders take from 30 minutes to all night.

But we have compressed into minutes the Supper that once took hours. Maybe Amazon should advertise the product as “Hurry-Up Cups.” Does real one-anothering take too long these days? Have we traded fellowship for efficiency? Commenting on a Communion blog, one writer said: “Henry Ford, bless his heart, was a genius, but way too many things in American culture resemble the assembly line.”

We want to “check the box” and say we have observed Communion. But we don’t want to give it the time it once had. So we keep devising more and more ways to accelerate it. We still have a form of Communion, but we deny the shared-church power experienced by those New Testament believers.

  • Spectacle

Americans love a good show. Since the year 2000, the number of commercial TV stations in the U.S. has increased by 1000—now totaling more than 1760. We’ve become a nation of spectators. On Sundays, we expect a rock concert followed by an uplifting and entertaining monologue. In some churches, the audience sits in semi-darkness while musicians on the stage perform under colored lights in swirling fog created by haze machines. But in such a setting, can the Lord’s Supper remain the Lord’s Supper with the one-anothering of the original?

  • Selfism

Selfism works directly against one-anothering. A few years ago, I attended a Communion service that took individualism to the max. One by one, the congregation stopped before two attendants: one held a plate of bread cubes; the other a large cup of grape juice. Each of those in the line took a piece of bread and dipped it into the juice. Then, together if married or singly if alone, the participants headed for the nearest wall, turned their backs on everyone else, and ate the moist bread in seclusion.

As I struggled to open my “Fellowship Cup” on Easter, I did so all on my own. For different reasons, there was no more one-anothering taking place than in the non-Lord’s Supper of that first-century Corinthian gathering.

At what point does the Lord’s Supper become not the Lord’s Supper?

Putting Supper back into The Supper

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How can a church make its Sunday meetings more participatory? I’ve been asking that question for decades. Why? Because according to the teaching I’ve received—and believe wholeheartedly—the Bible is to be our “only rule” not only for faith but also for practice. But over the years it seems the practices for Christian gatherings today have drifted far from those in the New Testament.

How far? The gap can’t be measured in miles or years. Maybe the best way to visualize it is to picture the difference between what takes place in a roomful of friends and in a theater. Or between the exchanges that take place in a family reunion versus those in a sports stadium. Positive things can and do happen in theaters and stadiums. But they are far from the same things that take place in a roomful of friends or a family reunion.

Our Church Plant

An opportunity to move a bit nearer to that family-reunion setting came several years ago when our pastor asked me to lead the team that would plant a church in the neighboring city. We met first on Easter in a hall rented just on Sundays. Right from the start, we observed Communion once a month, as many churches do. Tiny cubes of bread and micro-cups with, perhaps, a half-ounce of grape juice.

After our first communion celebration, a man I had met just a few weeks before came and fervently thanked me for providing empty cups in the serving trays. Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: “I’m an alcoholic. But I was able to participate by taking an unfilled cup.” Marveling at his openness, I clarified: “We use grape juice, not wine, in the cups. The reason for the empties is that, as a brand-new church, we have more cups than people.”

As the church grew and we occupied our own building, we filled more cups and even purchased additional trays. But the more I studied the practices of the early church, the less satisfied I became with our practice of Communion. We were, of course, observing it in the traditional way. Yes, we were remembering Christ’s death. In Paul’s classic passage on this (I Cor. 11:17-34), he calls it the Lord’s “Supper,” meaning the main meal of the day, usually in the evening. But no one would call what we were doing a “supper.” I couldn’t imagine inviting guests into our home for supper and serving them a crumb of bread and a sip of juice. As one writer put it, our traditions have taken supper out of the Supper.

Remembering Plus

Further, real meals include more than just food. They naturally stimulate discussions. But I saw that tradition had turned the Supper into a no-conversation ritual. It permitted none of the lively dialogue seen in the original Lord’s Supper, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples. For example, while visiting another church I saw such silence taken to an extreme: couples or singles soaked their break in grape juice, then headed off to stand against a wall, isolated from all others. There, they ate the moist bread in solitude—their backs to everyone else!

Why did Paul scold the Corinthians for the way they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Because they were flouting the Lord’s new command to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35). Each came to the meal thinking only of themselves. So Paul had to tell them to wait for “each other,” which translates the “one another” word Jesus used three times in his new command. Paul’s rebuke makes it clear that the Lord’s Supper is not only about remembering the Lord’s death until he comes. It is also about one-anothering in the here-and-now. But in our practice of Communion, that wasn’t happening.

Combining Communion and Meal

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We had constructed our building with a multipurpose room as our main meeting space. So we introduced a new way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. On the first Sunday of each month, we filled the room with rectangular folding tables. Between each string of tables and the next we placed two lines of chairs. During the first part of the meeting, which included singing and sermon, all the chairs faced forward. After that, half the chairs were spun around 180 degrees, so that people faced each other across tables during the meal (see diagram.) This made conversation both easy and natural. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to spur mutual encouragement and spurring on.

By then the church had several cell groups, and each one took its turn at preparing the meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple. Soup. Bread. Often a salad. The families making up the cell group provided the meal and did the serving. This included the children and young people—which allowed adults and youths to relate to one another across the generations.

Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its significance. Then, during the meal, we paused to reflect on the meaning as we shared the bread and later the cup. By means of a brief meditation, someone qualified to do so helped us connect those symbols to the body and blood of Jesus. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness, yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were doing. We found that dining together created a sense of family and fostered one-anothering.

The Changeover

The transition included a learning curve. Since we were crossing over into what was for us uncharted territory, we had to learn from our successes and failures. Did everyone immediately buy into this non-traditional way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper? No. For example, one older couple, long-time church people, initially chose to skip those first-Sunday-of-the-month meetings. They had never experienced Communion this way before. But after a few months, hearing positive reports from others, they returned and eventually became staunch advocates of the “new” way of doing things.

Why did this couple hear positive reports? Because we had put communion and community back together. The two words, after all, share the same Latin root—which means participating in something common to all. How often have you experienced close community in a theater? Yet community happens easily across the table over food. Jesus called for one-anothering in his new command. He asked in prayer that his followers would come to complete unity.

Celebrating Communion as a real meal helped move us toward both of those outcomes.