Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 3): The Lord’s Snack
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
Whatever happened to the Lord’s Supper?
I’ll be honest, communion is my favorite church ritual. Growing up, my church family took the communion or the “Lord’s Supper” seriously…and weekly. Prior to each experience, we’d sing a “Communion Hymn” (usually something related to crosses, blood or bread), then an elder taught about what the “supper” represented, why we took it and how to participate. A prayer of blessing followed. Nothing was taken for granted, especially with visitors in the house.
After all, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t for everyone. You had to be baptized to participate…which meant no children…since adolescence was the time for such weighty decisions. In fact, I remember toweling off after my baptism only to be greeted by an elder holding a small tray with a glass cup and homemade unleavened bread, cut into tiny half inch squares. It was my “first” Communion.
Every Christmas Eve my church held a candlelight service featuring “family” Communion. We’d share several carols, hear a brief message on the meaning of Christmas, light our candles and sing “Silent Night.” Then individual families approached the communion table. On this night fathers served their families (at least the baptized ones) or, in rare cases, a mother might lead. It was clear to my child’s mind the reason we gathered was to commune in this ancient Christian ritual.
But that was four decades ago. Today’s communion service means anything goes…and usually does.
This past Christmas Eve I attended one of the largest churches in America. I chose a church that, traditionally, practices weekly and Christmas Eve communion. The service targeted the casual, the indifferent or the seeker and so I had no problem with the communion service happening afterwards in another room. As hundreds hustled for the doors to start their Christmas celebrations, I followed another line into an adjacent room where tables were set with trays of juice and bread. Outside of a Bible verse (non-related to communion) projected on the wall, the atmosphere possessed all the spirituality of Whoville. The cups were plastic thimbles filled with grape juice. The wafer was small bits of hard bread. Nobody prayed. Nobody guided the experience. No hymn was sung and no instructions given. People just filed and filtered through to briefly dine on the Lord’s Snack. Given the night, maybe milk and cookies would’ve been a better choice (would anyone know the difference?). Santa Claus does better than Jesus these days.
The devaluation and deconstruction of the “Lord’s Supper,” Communion or Eucharist (as some churches call it) has been happening for a half century. For the most part, this ancient ritual is largely an after thought in evangelical and non-denominational churches today, including those who practice the ritual weekly…or should I say weakly? Furthermore, in most evangelical churches, communion is served monthly or quarterly or, in a select few, once a year.
The question is why? And how did we get here?
The genesis of this recent deconstruction is 500 years old. That’s when the Protestant Reformation reimagined the flow and purpose of the worship gathering. In the Catholic and Orthodox strains of Christianity, the Eucharist was (and still is) the centerpiece of the service or “mass.” Every ritual, every prayer, every Scripture, the brief homily and hymnody point to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is delivered as a Body of believers to each believer. It’s a commUNION within sacred community.
But the Protestant Reformation reinvented the worship gathering to focus on the Scripture lecture or biblical sermon (sola Scriptura). Communion was valued but relegated to side show attraction. In the evangelical movement of a post-WW2 America, the Lord’s Supper lost weekly billing, then monthly billing. It was more important for evangelicals to sing, give, announce, and dine on a sermon. The megachurch movement recast the Lord’s Supper, particularly in those churches that participated weekly, into a “drive thru” experience. One megachurch pastor boasted how they could execute the Lord’s Supper in five minutes to thousands of congregants. Basically, pass the cuplet and chicklet. Fast (spiritual) food. In some churches prayers are no longer given or teaching provided before the Lord’s Supper is distributed. Just grab and go.
Frankly, of all the liturgical abuses in modern churchianity, messing with the Lord’s Supper might be the most dangerous. If practiced improperly or in vain, this tradition holds a punishment of “sinning against the body and blood” of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:27). You don’t see such penalties against other rituals or traditions (i.e., giving, worship, baptism). The point is clear: we need to get this one right. The Didache (chapter 9), an ancient, late-1st century document on church practices, states forcefully: But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”
The first problem is this “supper” is hardly the “snack” that most Christians encounter today. Originally, the Lord’s Supper was just that…a supper. A full meal deal. Communion happened in a fellowship meal moment to remember the sacrifice of Jesus through drinking “the fruit of the vine” and dining upon unleavened bread. A meal within a meal. This “communion” experience was instituted by Jesus within the Jewish Passover meal, a feast which featured four cups and several courses of food. Today’s Jewish seder remains a model, although even it’s evolved in two millennia. Of course, this full meal was open to abuses. The Corinthians were soundly rebuked by Paul for using the experience for gluttony and drunkenness (I Corinthians 11:17-22). The “Supper” within a supper is also found in Acts where the “breaking of bread” (or literally “breaking of the bread”) is used to denote the Lord’s Supper as part of their “fellowship” gathering, which included meals in homes (Acts 2:41-46). Paul states this “supper” is more than a “snack” but a participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 10:16) and something to enjoy as “often” or “whenever” possible (I Corinthians 11:26).
Historically, unleavened bread and grape juice was used. The Passover feast in Jesus’ time forbade bread with leaven and, consequently, any fermented drink. In fact, the biblical record shows the Israelites drank no “fermented drink” or ate any leavened bread during their 40-year Exodus (Deuteronomy 29:4-6), in which they would’ve celebrated 40 Passover meals. Consequently, it’s safe to imply “wine” was not part of the historic Passover meal. Even today’s Passover seder uses grape juice or “kosher wine.” Furthermore, three gospels describe this ancient meal and specifically state the cup is “fruit of the vine” or grape juice (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). This unique designation is connected only to the Passover and Eucharist meal, as these same writers use “wine” (fermenting/fermented grape juice) elsewhere (Matthew 9:17; Mark 15:23; Luke 1:15). Consequently, grape juice and matzah bread are good contemporary examples. Any alteration, small or great, to this sacred meal using soda, wine, water or any leavened bread (which is common today) violates the original practice.
Finally, the Lord’s Supper was a weekly event. Very shortly after Pentecost, the gathering (ekklesia or “church”) of believers happened in homes. In Jerusalem, Christians initially met daily, but in time selected the first day or Sunday (The Lord’s Day, Revelation 1:10) to hold their celebrations, which no doubt included Eucharist meals (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). In chapter 14 of the Didache, the following instruction is given: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned.” Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes in one of Christianity’s earliest apologetics: But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
It’s clear from Paul’s instruction that we operate in perilous waters if we allow the uninitiated, the unbaptized and the uninformed to participate in this sacred rite. Failure to practice as Jesus instituted this meal produces consequences. Like baptism represents a “death, burial and resurrection,” our weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper is a sacred opportunity to reconnect, restore, relive and renew our baptism, week after week.
Is it any wonder the two most sacred rites of Christianity–baptism and Eucharist–are also the most perverted? We need to recapture the Original DNA of the Church. We need to fully restore the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal for the baptized alone. Anything less is sacrilege.
I conclude with Paul’s warning to the Corinthians: 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 judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).