The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 6: The Lord’s Table
If baptism was difficult to talk about because of the many different ways different churches actually implement the Lord’s commands the Lord’s Table is worse! Again I will try to be even handed but my prejudices are sure to show! It is here, round the table, more than anywhere else, the Lord’s people are supposed to be together in unity. Paul got very upset when Peter started to divide the church at Antioch so that they did not all meet together at the same table. He was equally upset at Corinth when divisions became apparent as the church folk met to eat as part of the ceremony of the Lord’s Table. These days we cannot even all call it the same thing. Paul calls it the ‘table of the Lord’ and the ‘Lord’s supper’ in 1 Corinthians, so the Lord’s Table seems to be a reasonably neutral term, particularly as we may well not be eating at it at suppertime.
It is also called Holy Communion (meaning the fellowship meal), the Eucharist (meaning the grace gift), the Mass (meaning uncertain) or the Divine Liturgy (meaning God’s worship), the Breaking of Bread service, and various other names. But the name doesn’t matter. What does matter is the wide variation in content and in mode of celebration which lead to it being the most divisive of actions in the Christian church when it was meant by our Lord to be the great rallying point around which all his church would meet.
Instead of it being a great meeting point many churches restrict participation at the Table to their own members and members of a few other favoured churches. Paul would be very upset by that if he were around now!
Some have added to the simple ceremony that it was at the beginning, some have not, and that difference has led to all this division. The two extremes are represented by the places where these everyday items are thought to take on a special nature, rather baffling to those not fully versed in the mysteries they are thought to contain, and those where it is a simple eating of small amounts of bread and wine as our Lord said according to Paul.
Of the former I am not really very entitled to speak knowing little about the details. It seems to me that the whole business of claiming that the sacrifice of Jesus, once and for all on the Cross, is in some sense repeated at the celebration of the Mass or Eucharist is misguided. Is this done because it enables the churches that practice this mode to call their full-time ministers ‘priests’ and thus to give them a status they would not otherwise have and which is different and higher than that of the ordinary member of the church?
Maybe – but if so this is not in line with the whole tendency of the New Testament. The idea that this ceremony is a repetition of the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross comes from the interpretation of the words used by Jesus when instituting this rite “this is my body … this is my blood”. To enable the special bread and wine to be the body and the blood these churches teach that the reality of these things changes but the appearance does not, so that the body and the blood are really present and the bread and the wine are not. OK – but I am a simple soul who finds it difficult to get his mind round such curiosities! Sorry.
At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities is the simple service in which ordinary, not special, bread and wine or fruit juice are used. With this I am much more familiar. But this too is not without its difficulties. Some, too many, of those leading the service will say that it ‘is only a memorial’ when it is far more than that, and very often it is tagged on to the end of a service as almost an after thought which not everyone will stay to attend. According to Luke, but not Matthew and Mark, Jesus instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” and Paul picks up the comment and repeats it.
So it is a memorial but surely that is not all the story. There has to be more to it than that. My own personal thought (not to be found in any commentary I have ever seen) is this: when we read something particularly inspiring, are deeply immersed in prayer, see a particularly glorious sunset, draw specially close to someone we deeply love, etc. we experience a lifting of the spirit, a surge of excitement through our whole being, that is hard to describe but wonderful to experience. That is what should happen when we are at the Lord’s Table.
It is the special surge of the Holy Spirit through our whole beings. It wont happen automatically – perhaps Jesus selected how we are to remember him like this so that it does not come to us easily – we have to work for it, fight for it, with all the spiritual intensity we can muster. I have a sneaking suspicion that it may happen more easily in the much more ornate and detailed experience of those involved in the Mass or Eucharist or similar service than it does in the far simpler services I am used to.
Whichever way we take the bread and the wine we must always remember one thing: this, more than anything else does or could do, is to remind us that the focus of all our thinking and doing is to be the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot comply with what Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” unless the giver of the flesh and the blood dies. We cannot live in the power of what he says, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” unless he who was dead is alive again with vital, living, vibrant effect in our lives. Nothing else will focus our thinking so powerfully on our Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection as this does.
Be sure that you participate regularly in this, the central, commanded, worship act of the Christian church. Don’t bother about who is leading the service. If no one is designated to do it – do it yourself. If you have no special elements use ordinary bread: leavened or unleavened, and the common drink off the table: be that tea or fruit juice or whatever. If you are female and your culture says the leader should be male and there is no man present it doesn’t matter – go ahead. If you don’t feel like it because things have gone wrong in your life don’t fail to participate, this is the very time that you need the strength of the Holy Spirit and he is specially around when we take part in this so simple ceremony.
The only requirement is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves”. But don’t make that so strong a barrier that you do not participate. Ultimately none of us is worthy. Taking part regularly in this act is the Lord’s command. Obey.