I want you to imagine our world in the year 2111, 100 years from now. Imagine it’s a few days before Thanksgiving. The fastest-selling grocery item is “Thanksgiving on the Go,” a package containing a little cube of pressed turkey meat, a congealed cube of stuffing, and a tube of cranberry sauce.
People in the 2100s are busy folks. Traveling to see loved ones for the holiday has become too hectic; many have deemed it psychologically stressful. Most people opt to work on the fourth Thursday in November, carrying with them the handy “Thanksgiving on the Go.” At lunchtime, workers take out their package, break it open, and celebrate the bounty that is Thanksgiving—and promptly get back to work.
If this really were to occur, and if we had a chance to communicate with our descendants 100 years hence, I suspect many of us would convey our sadness over the changes that had occurred. We might tell them they are missing the bigger point of Thanksgiving—the togetherness, the time of gathering with family and friends, playing games, and, yes, dealing with the foibles that come with family holiday gatherings. We might tell them that Thanksgiving is so much bigger than the components of the meal.
Truly a Meal
The Lord’s Supper is also rooted in a holiday meal. It was conceived within the matrix of Passover, the Jewish celebration of the mighty acts of Yahweh during the exodus. To this day, the Passover celebration takes place within the context of a full meal. Like the Lord’s Supper, there are symbolic elements conveyed by what is eaten. The meals are eaten in homes where families and friends gather for the celebration.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the earliest Christians most likely ate the Lord’s Supper within the context of a meal, as 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 suggests. The Lord’s Supper was, after all, instituted within a meal, the very meal that centered on the celebration of Passover (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-24). It is interesting to note how often meals are thematic (consider the miraculous feeding of the crowds in Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-39; Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17) or serve as a backdrop in the Gospels (see Matthew 9:10-13; 26:17-20; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 14:1-24; 22:8; 24:30, 43; John 13:1, 2; 21:12).
Over time, Christian assemblies referred to such gatherings as an agape or love feast (see Jude 12). Early church leaders like Ignatius and Hippolytus used love feast and Communion/Lord’s Supper interchangeably.1 It is clear these were true sit-down meals that carried with them a concern for feeding the poor. Yet, interestingly, the early church soon departed from this communal meal practice, abbreviating the Lord’s Supper to an abstraction from that communal meal context, and making it similar to the way most of us have always taken the Lord’s Supper.
The move away from a full meal might have stemmed from abuses, the kind noted in the two texts cited earlier (1 Corinthians 11:20-34 and Jude 12). The meals may have looked too much like Greco-Roman club banquets where excess was the norm. In any case, the church maintained the separation between a more ritualized Lord’s Supper and a common fellowship meal, and this distinction remains the norm in many Christian circles.
What Have We Lost?
While we have gained, I suppose, a measure of convenience with our more abstract method of Communion, it seems important to consider what we might have lost.
I wonder, for example, if there is any theological significance in cooking together, washing dishes together, planning together, and putting up with each other’s various tastes and expectations over a meal. I wonder if the early Christians’ commitment to having Communion meals in order to feed the hungry can inform the way we think about the Lord’s Supper today, as we strive to bear witness to the work of God in the world. I wonder if sharing a larger meal together would help us recover the deep connection Christian Communion has with the Passover meal.
It is interesting to ponder what those earliest Christians would say about the way most of us take Communion each Sunday. Perhaps our ancient brothers and sisters would lament the more abstract method of eating this “supper” using only small bits of bread and tiny cups of juice. Perhaps the earliest Christians would think of us the way we might feel about someone eating a prepackaged Thanksgiving meal during a half-hour lunch break.
In any case, we Christians who do take the Lord’s Supper in this more abbreviated manner must remember the need for fellowship within our churches, and outside its walls, beyond this brief encounter on Sunday mornings. The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to seek ways to replace the elements of that true communal meal that are perhaps lost in the more abstracted version. I am hopeful we can have more conversations about it in our churches and reflect on ways we can recapture more of the spirit of those early Communion assemblies.
1Everett Ferguson, “Agape Meal,” Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 1, David Noel Freedman, ed., (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 91.
Jason Bembry is professor of Old Testament at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.