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.
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
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:
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.”
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.
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 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?