Previous | Next

Fall 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 2 · pp. 85–89 

Ministry Compass

Celebrating the Lord's Table

Chuck Goertz

Why do people who define themselves as “biblical” only sporadically experience fellowship around the Table of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:26)? Why is extensive public reading of the Word a rare occurrence (1 Tim. 4:13)? I believe the church should celebrate the Lord’s Table weekly to complement its focus upon scripture. Indeed, it is quite possible that we have not truly worshiped as the church without celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

The center of our worship is the remembrance and reenactment of a story, the gospel story of how God in Jesus frees us from slavery and incorporates us into a new kingdom. The center of worship for the ancient Jews was their focus on the Exodus event, how God brought his people out of slavery and made a new nation of them.

The structure and media of worship teach and form us at least as much as the content of worship.

The connection between these two is the Passover feast, during which Jesus was sacrificed for our sin to reconcile us to God. He thereby also fulfilled not only Passover, but also the Old Testament feasts of Unleavened Bread and First Fruits. As in the Old Testament, God through Jesus commands us to commemorate the great salvation event with a celebration. Indeed, all the great spiritual events are associated with feasting. This has prompted someone to comment:

The Bible is a food-driven book! Food got us into trouble in the garden. Our relationship with God is completely restored at the marriage feast of the Lamb in heaven. And in {86} between we reestablish our relationship with God at the Lord’s Table.

There is also a strong correlation between the risen Lord and food. At the end of Luke’s gospel, the Emmaus disciples did not recognize the risen Lord by his teaching but in his act of “breaking bread” (24:30). These same disciples ran back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ incredulous followers, who would not believe until he ate with them (24:41-43). The same correlation is seen in John 21:9-13 and Acts 1:4. This act of eating was a recognition signal of the presence of the Lord for his followers.

The church has historically insisted that the celebration of communion take center stage in worship, along with the reading of God’s Word (Acts 2:42). Robert Webber makes the case that both events are associated with the birth of a covenant, ratified by sacrifice, thus forming a new nation. He reasons that an embryonic model for worship, both Jewish and Christian, can be discerned in the worship which took place immediately after the giving of the Old Covenant in the sacred assembly called by God (Exod. 24:1-11). This may be compared with Christ’s words instituting the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) and Peter’s later reference to followers of Jesus as the people of God (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The pattern of Word and Table, according to Webber, is thus firmly established for the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments.

From both the book of Acts and other early Christian literature we know that the Word and the Table were indeed the two central acts that were a part of all early Christian worship. I want to weave a number of strands of evidence together to make my case that these should continue to be our main focus in worship. The first strand is from scripture itself. While we have no statements in the New Testament that are normative as to the frequency of the observance, it is quite clear that our Lord intended for us to repeat the practice with the words of institution, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

Apostolic church practice recorded in Acts provides a model that should at the very least provide a strong indication of the intent of the Lord and his apostles. If we allow that “breaking bread” is a designation for the Lord’s Supper, Acts 2:42 and 46 may well be an indication of a regular Eucharist. We choose to take the phrase “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” as an indication of the regular, weekly handling of the Word in worship. Should we not include “and the breaking of bread” in the same weekly pattern of worship?

The regular weekly practice of communion was already firmly established in Troas before the death of Paul (Acts 20:7). I think we may assume that what was the regular practice in Troas was taught by the {87} apostle and therefore was considered normative by the church. When Paul corrects the practice in Corinth using the phrase “as often as,” we may also assume that more than sporadic participation is being enjoined. The idiom here was used to indicate regular repetition.

1 Peter 2:9 clearly tells us what the content for the worshiping church should be: “proclaiming the mighty acts of Him who called you.” At minimum this would include a rehearsal of the salvation event. We may argue about what the bread and wine are, but there is general agreement among all Christians that the Lord’s Supper is at least representational of the fact and meaning of Christ’s death. Paul said that it is “proclamation,” a dramatization or graphic display of the Gospel (1 Cor. 11:26). It is reasonable to assume that this is also what Peter had in mind.

The second strand of evidence comes from those writers commonly referred to as the Apostolic Fathers. In many cases they were pupils of the apostles. In other cases, the simple fact that the language and culture of the Bible was their language and culture gives them a better vantage point from which to interpret the intent of scripture.

From them we can trace a continuing pattern of focusing on the Word and the Table in public worship. Three references will have to suffice to establish the weekly observation of the Lord’s Supper. The Didache, an early church manual, includes the injunction, “On every Lord’s Day come together to break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure” (14:1). Similar references in the Letter of Barnabas (15:9) and the First Apology of Justin (67:3) confirm the regular practice of Word and Table “on the day called Sunday.”

This emphasis was also appreciated by the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. In the document titled “Congregational Order” which accompanied the Schleitheim Confession (1527), item seven reads, “The Lord’s Supper shall be observed as often as the brothers are together.”

While this brief survey establishes the pattern and, I think, the intent of scripture for a regular weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, there is a third strand of evidence that adds strength to the argument. This one comes from sociology. Some thirty years ago Marshall McLuhan coined the now famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” More recently Neil Postman has given his interpretation in Amusing Ourselves to Death. In short, the premise is that the medium of communication sends a more powerful message than the content that is carried by the medium. Television is the outstanding example.

This concept is not, however, original with them. Postman quotes {88} John Dewey, who years before wrote,

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count.

In other words, the most important lesson learned is always how one learns.

Similarly, Marva Dawn argues in Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down for the formative nature of worship. “How we worship both reveals and forms our identity as persons and communities,” she writes. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that God was seeking worshipers who would worship in “spirit and in truth.” Worship has the power to form us as the people of God.

The point here is that the structure and media of worship teach and form us at least as much as the content of worship. What might this say to us when we regularly leave out one of the twin foci of biblical worship “once delivered to the saints?” How does leaving out the Table form us? I believe the reenactment in the ritual, both of Israel and of the church, is not optional but carries in itself the power to transform.

The final strand of evidence I want to put forward may be somewhat more controversial for it comes from the realm of psychology. I offer it as a condiment to the meal not the entree. I am told that Freud is not the only one to arrive at the following conclusions and that more contemporary sources are available. Freud’s theory is, however, what I am familiar with.

Sigmund Freud recognized that human personality has at least three levels of awareness. He distinguished between the conscious, that of which we are aware at any given time, the unconscious, where those experiences and ideas reside which we cannot willfully summon, and the preconscious, where those experiences and ideas reside which, while we are not currently aware of them, can be willfully summoned to remembrance.

Most of our religious beliefs reside in this final category. The reenactment of the Lord’s Supper serves to bring preconscious beliefs into consciousness. I think that is the intent of the rituals of the church, to jar our consciousness. They bring the covenant before us in a regular, graphic way and become the enacted Word of God.

I realize that this has raised questions which I do not have the space to answer, nor is every strand of evidence fully developed here. I do, {89} however, want to raise a challenge to one persistent objection I receive. If we again observe the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis, does it not have the potential to become rote and meaningless repetition?

I reply that all repeated acts of any kind have that potential. Have we not done so with the Word? By setting preaching as the high point of our worship services without the balancing effect of the Table, we seem to have sunk into an apathetic bibliolotry. A common proverb may help us here: We learn what we do. Could it be that encouraging an active and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper may reform us in ways we could not otherwise expect?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Dawn, Marva. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
  • Dewey, John. Experience and Education. The Kappa Delta Pi Lectures. London: Collier, 1963.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.
  • Richardson, Cyril C., trans. and ed. Early Christian Fathers. New York: Collier, 1970.
  • Webber, Robert. Worship Old and New. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Chuck Goertz is senior pastor of the Garden Park Mennonite Brethren Church, Denver, Colorado. Garden Park uses the lectionary in its services and currently celebrates communion once per month.

Previous | Next