Disciples of Christ Gathered at Table - A Theological Reflection

Having laid out a view of Disciples and Baptism, I turn to the second sacrament (ordinance), that of the Eucharist/Lord's Supper/Breaking of Bread/Holy Communion. With this contribution I will conclude my conversation about the Sacraments. While not all Disciples affirm the nomenclature of sacrament, I feel it is the most appropriate description, and one we share with the larger ecumenical community. 


The Lord's Supper

            If Baptism is understood to be the starting point for the Christian journey, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is that rite that nourishes the disciple along the journey of faith. While baptism initiates one into the covenant community, when the community gathers at the Table the covenant is renewed. The Table is a place where the family gathers, but it is also a place of hospitality where the nations are invited to share in table fellowship. Although this act of worship is called by a variety of names, each name helps define what happens at Table. Thus, we gather to remember the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus, but we also gather to share in fellowship with Christ whose presence is revealed to us in breaking of bread (Luke 24:28-34). As Alexander Campbell affirms in a posting in the Millennial Harbinger near the end of his life: “in the Lord’s supper especially does God commune with his sons and daughters, and they with him. This, to the living Christian, is a banquet of love” (Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, p. 186). Thus, this is not simply a somber meal of remembrance, but a joyous banquet.  

As for the names attached to the rite, we might begin with the “Lord's Supper,” which gives a nod to the rite’s origins in the Last Supper and Christ's initiation of this rite at that supper (I Cor. 11:23-26). The word Eucharist is often used to name the rite, though less often in Disciples circles. It is derived from the Greek word eucharistia, which means thanksgiving. Although the idea is definitely rooted in the New Testament, especially Jesus' acts of thanksgiving in the Last Supper, the earliest use of the term is found in the Didache and in Ignatius. The phrase Holy Communion reflects the act of fellowship, or the Greek idea of koinonia. It speaks both of the fellowship we have with one another at the table, and the fellowship or communion we have with God as we gather at the table. The first aspect, koinonia with each other, is rooted in the fact that the early Christians probably celebrated the Lord's Supper as part of a larger agape feast, or potluck dinner.This idea is found as well in the sense of breaking of bread, the concept found most often in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42, 46). The idea of communion with God as part of the supper is brought out in I Corinthians 10:16, where Paul speaks of our communion with the risen Lord in the sharing of the supper.

·         Passover Context

            The descriptor “ordinance,” when applied to the Lord’s Supper, stems from the assumption that it, like baptism, was ordained by Christ for continued use within the Christian community. Since the Last Supper has been understood to have been shared in the context of Passover on the night prior to his crucifixion [Matt. 26:17-29; Mk. 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23, John has a different time frame], Christians have made use of the meaning and symbols of Passover to understand this act of breaking bread. Interestingly, Markus Barth says that these implications have been largely ignored by the church.  Passover, however, provides six liturgical implications in the connection between Passover and the Lord's Supper.

1.    "The abandonment of all altar-like structures in favor of real tables."
2.  "The participation of children, because such participation is not only permissible but necessary."  {note:  the children ask the question:  What does this mean? and other questions that pertain to the Passover celebration.}
3.   The combination of the liturgical act with a real meal, called agape in the early church."
4. "A joyful and jubilant way of celebrating, including spontaneous oral, musical, or artistic contributions from as many inspired church members as possible."
5.     "The elimination of all elements of clerical dominion over the meal."
6. "The opening of the church and chapel doors for spontaneous and for regular intercommunion." [Marcus Barth, Rediscovering the Lord's Supper, p. 127].

·         Act of Remembrance

            In each of the four texts concerning the Lord's Supper Jesus commands his disciples to keep the Supper in remembrance of him. (Mt. 26:17ff; Mk. 14ff; Lk. 22:7ff; I Cor. 11:23ff). The Greek word here is anamnesis. It has the sense of calling to mind of something, a remembrance, but it is more than simple memory.  Traditional Reformed thought, following Ulrich Zwingli, has taken this to mean a simple memorial, without additional meaning. This view is extremely limiting however. Markus Barth notes that the Hebrew sense of the word of remembrance is far from a simple "intellectual or emotional recollection of an ancient event." Instead it serves as a celebration: “That is, a public, common, dramatic, and festival expression of joy and gratitude for what God has done. Soul and body, the ear, the mouth, the stomach, the sentiments and actions of the participants are involved.  Briefly, remembrance is an action of the faithful, an action destined to the praise and glory of a great deed by God.” [Barth, Rediscovering the Lord's Supper, 12].  The word also excludes the idea that God's actions are in need of a religious ceremony.  It is not a myth-ritual situation.

·         Act of Sacrifice

            While Disciples, like most Protestants, have eschewed sacrificial language when speaking of the Lord’s Supper, sacrificial language is an aspect of the Passover legacy. Thus, in light of Passover, Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God who has been sacrificed for us. Markus Barth points out the meaning of sacrifice in this connection. It refers to sacrifice as an "act, a gift, a revelation made by God toward us." It is an appeal through the shedding of blood to God to "interfere and to manifest God's righteousness towards us." In this sacrifice Jesus is the mediator of the atonement. He brings through his sacrifice forgiveness of sins to his people (see:  Jn. 1:29, 36; I Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:6, 9, 12, for references to Jesus as the Lamb of God).  Paul speaks of Jesus as the Passover lamb who has been sacrificed for us.  We are therefore to keep the feast.  (I Cor. 5:7). The Lord's Supper is a festival of Joy, hope and gratitude, even more than is Passover, not in spite of Christ's death, but because of it.  [Barth, Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper, pp. 20-22].

·         Sign of the New Covenant

            Distance is often placed between the Lord's Supper and Passover to note a discontinuity between the two covenants. Barth states clearly that it is wrong to interpret the concept of New Covenant anti-Judaisitically. In no way has God divorced Israel and taken a younger bride, the church. He notes that there is continuity here, in that the Gentiles are brought into the renewed covenant with Israel through Jesus. [For the New Covenant passages:  Hosea 1-2; Jeremiah 2-3; 31:31-34; 33:20-26; Ezekiel 16; 34; 36]. Barth writes:   
Therefore, according to the prophets mentioned, the new covenant is not another covenant with a different partner; it is the restitution and crowning of the original love and marriage relationship. . .   One other difference exists between the old and the renewed covenants (other than Christ fulfilling the priesthood and sacrifices of the Jews). ... According to Matthew and Mark, however, the blood of Jesus Christ is "poured out for many."  The word many refers (as early as Is. 53:11; cf. 52:15) not only to the sinners in Israel but also to the Gentile nations.  [Barth, Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper, 24-25].

·         Eschatological Sign 

            I Corinthians 11:26 invites believers gathered at Table to proclaim the death of Jesus "until he comes." In Luke 22:16 we read that Jesus would not eat again until the fulfillment in the kingdom of God. Revelation 19:9 speaks of the eschatological banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb.  There is a sense in which our experiences at the table, not only look back to the Last Supper before the cross, but also to the eschatological feast in our future.  As Ronald Osborn puts it: “We look forward to the final triumph of Christ as Lord of all creation and Victor over death.  We affirm our oneness with the whole company of the redeemed who at last will feast together in our Lord’s presence (Rev. 19:9).”  [Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, (Chalice Press, 1978), p. 62].

·         A Communal Feast

            Remembering that the Lord’s Supper has its origins in a Passover feast, as well as Jesus’ own table fellowship, it is appropriate to note the communal nature of this feat.  Indeed, it appears that the earliest forms of the Lord's Supper were all celebrated in the context of a meal, meaning that it was never meant to be simply a private mystical experience.  Instead, it was meant to connect one into a community.  (Acts 2:42-48). 

            Understanding the communal nature of the sacrament helps us to further understand the ethical dimensions of the feat.  Paul makes two important ethical points regarding the Lord’s Supper: (1) it is impossible to partake at the table of demons and the table of the Lord both.  I Cor. 10:18-22. (2)  Paul calls upon the Corinthians to discern the body.  One cannot conscientiously take part in the supper when one's neighbor is hungry.  How we treat others impacts our ability to commune with God (I Cor. 11:17-23). Therefore, as we come to the table, we must discern who is dining with us, taking their lives and needs into consideration.

·         Sign of Christian Unity

            It is unfortunate that the church has so often divided over the Eucharist. What was meant to be a sign of unity, a unity signified by the one cup and one loaf, has become a place of division and exclusion (I Cor. 10:16-17). That said, it is possible for us to take hope in the message of paragraph 19 of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document:
The eucharistic communion with Christ who nourishes the body of Christ which is the Church.  The sharing in one bread and the common cup in a given place demonstrates and effects the oneness of the sharers with Christ and with their fellow sharers in all times and places.  It is in the Eucharist that the community of God's people is fully manifested.  Eucharistic celebrations always have to do with the whole church, and the whole Church is involved in each local eucharistic celebration.  In so far as a church claims to be a manifestation of the whole church, it will take care to order its own life in ways which take seriously the interests and concerns of other churches.  
[Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (Faith and Order Commission, 1982) ----  http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-commissions/faith-and-order-commission/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry.html#c10499].

As we consider the nature and purpose of the church, what better way is there to reflect upon this question than to do so in the light of this call to the oneness of Christ’s body at the Table?

Disciples at the Table

            For Disciples the Table is sacred. It is unthinkable in most Disciples churches to consider holding a worship service without setting the Table. What sets Disciples apart from most Protestant churches is the Disciple practice of lay presiding at the Table. Even if a clergyperson is often at the Table, that has never been a requirement. As Belva Brown Jordan and Stephanie Paulsell write: “In most congregations, the minister presides at the table along with elders who pray over the elements. Because of Disciples’ commitment to the priesthood of all believers, insisted upon by Alexander Campbell and still embodied today in the meditations and prayers of our lay leaders, the Lord’s table is one of the places in our church where a range of voices can be heard. It is a place where we cultivate our theological voices and struggle to find the right words to express what we have found out through gathering at the table week after week” [“The Lord’s Supper,” in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, p. 156]. 

            The way Christians gather at Table has evolved over time [See my book The Eucharist: Encounters with Jesus at the Table (Energion Publications, 2014) for a brief exploration of this process of change in Christian practices and understandings from the New Testament to the present]. While Disciples today do not emphasize its Restorationist roots, there is a Restorationist element to Disciple sacramental practice. That is especially seen in its continuation of lay presence at the Table. At the same time, Disciples tend to emphasize the memorialistic side of the rite and miss other aspects, including the openness of Jesus’ own Table fellowship. This is but a start of a conversation about one of the most central elements of Disciples experience, but it is just that, an opportunity to start a conversation.     


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