The Lord’s Table: A Place of Community

On Saturday our Elders will gather for a retreat and I'll be leading a conversation about the Eucharist or Lord's Table -- as a Christian communion, the Disciples are fairly unique in that lay elders offer the prayer(s) of consecration for the Supper. As I'm preparing for this, I'm putting together a few pieces or reflections.  Since the Table can easily become a very "private" affair between me and Jesus, it's important to remember the communal context.

There is, of course, a place for meditation and reflection at the Table, but the Table was instituted in a communal setting. Until the middle ages, when Transubstantiation fully took hold in the Western Church, the Lord’s Supper was always taken in the context of a community. If we are to truly understand the meaning and value of the Supper, we must remember this context.

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall provides good insight into this communal element:
The community enacts its unity with its head its members with one another. Partaking of the one cup and the one loaf, the members, “though man,” as Paul says, affirm and are confirmed in their oneness.”

This interpretation of the Eucharist calls in question all privatistic practices of the sacrament. The communion is a corporate act, and even when it must be administered apart from the worshiping community, the latter as in the case of baptism, ought certainly to be represented. This corporateness seems to me more important than whether one regards th Eucharist from the vantage point o of the tradition of transubstantiation, the mediating position of consubstantiation, or the Zwinglian symbolic or memorial conception. The critical question is not the substantialistic one (whether the bread becomes body, where the wine becomes blood); it is, rather, the relational question: How does the Sacramental function sustain the community? (Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context, Fortress Press, 1996, pp. 114-115).
Thus, the point of the Eucharist isn’t creating pieces of Jesus in the form of bread (forgive the crudity of my statement), but creating community, which reflects and embodies the person of Jesus in the world.

If the Table is a communal act, it requires the presence of community. Even when we take the Supper to the shut-in, we do so understanding that in taking the bread and cup in the home or the hospital, we gather as an extension of the larger body.

This concern for the community is reflected in Paul’s discussion of the celebration of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. It is in this chapter that Paul lays out the words of institution – for the first time.  Paul writes:

This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. . . . If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home so that getting together doesn’t lead to judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:27-34a Common English Bible).
Paul has been, traditionally, interpreted here as referring to the mystical body of Christ in the elements – thus giving rise to the doctrine of real presence and then transubstantiation. But, I think that the Common English Bible makes it as clear as possible, that the point is understanding the body of Christ as the congregation. By acting in a way that dishonors the community, leading to drunkenness and hunger, the community had dishonored the one who called them to the table. There is little of the mystical here, but much that is concerned about the behavior of those who gather at the table.


James said…
Good article! As a "recovering Catholic" ;) who is now a catholic United Church of Christ pastor(intentional small "c"), I miss the mystical aspects of the thoughts of transubstantiation yet love the communal aspects of which you wrote. Having come from a large family that always ate together, the community of sitting at the table is a warm, welcoming and comforting thing. When I read the passage from Corinthians that you referenced, I am reminded that the table is to be equally shared with all who are present, that I am not to come so famished that I take the nourishment from the mouths of those who come also to partake, an easy thing to do when I am too focused on my own personal salvation without regard to the rest of creation. When ever two or three are gathered in my name...
amywb said…
Appreciate seeing the Common English Bible cited here. The website has a passage lookup tool if any of your readers are interested in seeing how other sections of scripture read (NT only so far). Also a link to buy the NT for just $5.
Brian said…
I'm glad you included shut-ins and people in health care settings. They are still part of the larger community.

I'll take a moment to highlight a group that often gets ignored. There are people who have disorders that make going to church next to impossible. They may have anxiety about crowds. Or they may be uncomfortable in a group that goes around hugging people (many people have been raped).

When we talk about the importance of community, and the cliche that "there are no solo Christians", let us remember those in our community who must stay away. When they have the courage to reach out to us, let us not pressure them to conform to group expectations of church attendance. Let us be mindful that they already are actively engaged in the community to the best of their ability.

Don't expect them to tell us they are facing these issues. Instead of assuming people who don't want to participate are part of the (cliche alert) "hyper-individualized American culture". Let us assume the best of people.

We gather at the Table whether in the sanctuary, in a group home, in a nursing home, or in our own home with no physical human present. It is always communal. It cannot be otherwise. If Christ embraces all, then Christ embraces all. It is not conditional.

I'm glad you included the often ignored, those who are not present physically. They are just as much a part of our community as those who are present physically.
Amy, thanks for the link. I'm enjoying reading my copy and looking forward to the complete Bible.

James, I appreciate your comments!

Brian, I think you bring up several important points. I had this very conversation with Kimberly Knight, who leads a church in Second Life, an online faith community. I think that there are ways in which, even if we can't be in personal "flesh to flesh" contact we can be engaged in a personal relationship. I'll send a post to Kimberly to see if she'll respond!

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