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.

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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, winewater 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).

 

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About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on December 27, 2015, in Acts, American church, Biblical Interpretation, Lord's Supper/Eucharist, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this article. It never occurred to me that the “unleavened” of Passover also applied to the juice. (Duh!) It’s obvious that worship has become cluttered with too many man-made additions and preferences so I appreciate this series that brings us back to the real thing. Editorial note: In the seventh paragraph’s “side show” comment, “relegated” might be a better word choice than “delegated.”

    • Thanks Edna! I’m glad you’re enjoying this series. The Bible is not a very difficult book to understand when you read it through the lens of first-century culture, history and language. In fact, one of the reasons we have so “many man-made additions and preferences” is because we interpret Scripture through our cultural context. We use our 21C, western, American, white, Protestant, evangelical (and whatever else) lens. Nobody reads the Scriptures without bias.

      And neither do I. I would hope all who read my words will possess the spirit of the Bereans who “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).”

    • I also think you’re right about my wording: relegate is a better word than delegate. Thanks for the edit!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post! My wife and I spent our early years in ministry within a denominational context. That’s where we both began our journey. We were accustomed to celebrating communion quarterly, usually on a Sunday night. I knew so little (still do) but even then I sometimes wished we had the opportunity to do that more often as a body. It was taken seriously though, and that was good. I never felt “ready” but the cool part is that it fostered a genuine reverence in the remembrance.

    After some years, we discovered the restoration church community. Thankful to God for that for so many reasons, one of which being weekly communion. It was refreshing. Rather than feeling like a once in a while holiday, communion was more of a spiritual discipline, a part of walking with Christ as a body every week. Yet, it still makes my heart ache a bit when it gets rushed, and the chiclets and little cups are passed along faster than the offering baskets, people tossing it in their mouth, washing it down with a splash and just trying not to drop the tray! I don’t question where hearts are at, no way that I can call this “unspiritual.” It just feels rushed, but I get it. I always try to at least take the bread & juice, pass the tray, and pause to reflect before eating/drinking. If I’m still resting in that moment while everyone else has moved on, I’m ok with that. I understand there are other things going on in the room.

    I’m deeply thankful for the church we are at now. We celebrate communion every week, but we mix things up regularly. Sometimes prayer in groups, sometimes praying taking it all together at once as a congregation. Often there are tables with candle lit throughout the gathering space where we gather together with a small group of other believers and literally break the bread, serving one another, praying together. It’s amazing. It’s meaningful for committed Christ followers, but it’s done in such a way that those still seeking and observing the whole thing on are not left to feel ostracized. They can observe learn by example. Hopefully it is evangelistic in that sense. There’s always that tension in American church culture between serving the needs of believers and those who are not yet believers. The way we do stuff is not perfect, but I think we live in that tension well.

    Still, the most meaningful times around the table for me personally are those times we literally sit around a table, sharing a meal, in a home with a small group of committed Christ followers who we are journeying together with. Those are special moments and for me, even if we only do that once in a while, I’m good. Time in the Word, singing together. Breaking bread, pouring out the juice. It’s the best. Jesus’ presence is so tangible in that space. I don’t expect larger Sunday morning gatherings to even come close to that. How could it?

    • Thanks Andrew for this thoughtful post. I agree that “larger Sunday morning gatherings” (like we experience with dozens, hundreds and thousands of people) cannot compare. Isn’t that the ironic issue? This sacred meal within a meal is meant to be enjoyed within community. It’s about close friends sharing “koinonia” communion. A first century house church would’ve contained, at best, a couple dozen disciples.

      I have a small group of four people. We started a Bible study in a local Mexican restaurant that included the Lord’s Supper as part of our celebration (we’re now meeting in our home). Whether at home or in the restaurant, I pour out a healthy cup of grape juice into our now empty drink glasses and we share a moment dining on unleavened bread (matza, cracker) to remember the sacrifice of Christ. These are meaningful times for our small group. Our conversation is rich, our study is deep, and our communion is blessed. One of our members moved to Louisiana but still wants to participate (via Skype), until she can find a new small group and church. In a web culture, we can now share in this ancient meal with great distance between us.

      Truly, where two or three are gathered, there He is…the Body and the Blood…

  3. It’s good to see an Evangelical encourage reverent communion.

    I must point out however – Kosher or Seder wine is fermented. The natural airborn yeasts occurring on grape skins is not considered “chametz” . If you press grapes into juice it is literally just a couple of hours before fermentation is quite active. In first century, without refrigeration or knowledge of pasteurization, it would have been impossible to prevent fermentation.
    I believe it was Welches who started the juice thing, beginning with 19th century Methodists.

    • Thank you Benjamin for the added insight. I recognize Kosher or Seder wine is fermented, but that’s also (in my opinion) an evolution of the Passover drink since Jesus’ time. The gospel writers clearly differentiate. It was not “wine” they used in the Passover meal, but “fruit of the vine.” If you’re correct, and I have no arguments with you, on fermentation, the “fruit of the vine” drink was freshly squeezed grape juice.

      Wine was created, as you rightly pointed out, by grape juice being poured into animal skins. New wine was poured into new wineskins to allow the fermenting juice to expand. As Jesus pointed out, pouring new wine into old wineskins would cause the old skins to break (Matthew 9:17). Some of these wineskins were very large vats. Most wine was fermenting within days, as you mention, if not hours. And since this was a common table drink in first century Palestine, very little wine was fermented to great age without great cost. People consumed new wine long before it became “old” wine.

      That’s why Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine (John 2:1-12) was so significant (and interesting!). Jesus used water from six large vats that Jews used to wash themselves, ceremoniously, for the wedding. Basically Jesus drained the baptistery for this miracle! The water was dirty water, since the wedding was already in its third day. Jesus turned this gray water (dirty and undrinkable) into fine wine, the finest produced (most delicious and costly). In the first century, at special events like a wedding, the best wine was distributed first (a social courtesy). But Jesus’ miracle gave this wedding a bonus gift. His wine wasn’t “cheap” or newer (wine that had less fermentation). It was the best and well-aged.

      As for Welches grape juice, I’d have to research that one. But, thankfully, today we are able to keep grape juice longer periods of time thanks to refrigeration and pasteurization. With that said, I can tell you I’ve had a few communion experiences where the grape juice had been left too long and was clearly “new wine!”

  4. Greatly appreciate this series on “Traditions.” Thank you.

    For some time now I’ve wondered about the tradition of the “invitation song.” I would like your input on this practice. As I understand it, the invitation became popular in the 1800’s through ministries of preachers like Charles Finney. He was an attorney and accustomed to presenting his case in a court of law. As he closed his arguments in court, of course, he always requested a favorable decision. As I understand it, this practice carried over into his preaching in revivals & crusades.

    Basically my questions are these: What was the practice or tradition of the church prior to the use of the invitation song in the 1800’s?

    Blessings to you.

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