The Lord's Supper

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

If you've been a Christian very long, you've doubtless heard these familiar words quoted whenever you've participated in the Lord's Supper.  But what exactly is the Lord's Supper?  Is it simply the eating of a small piece of cracker and taking a sip of grape juice?  Is this really what the Lord had in mind, and is this what the New Testament believers experienced?

Look with me for a few minutes, in greater detail at the entire context from which the familiar verses above are drawn.1  Let's see if we can determine if what most of the church has been doing for centuries is really what the scriptures speak of.

The church of Corinth had a number of problems which the apostle Paul addressed in his first letter to the Corinthian believers.  Among these problems was an abuse of the Lord's Supper.  Since these believers were gravely mistaken about the practice of the Lord's Supper, the apostle's instructions are understandably quite explicit.

Things were so bad in the church's meetings that Paul said he did not congratulate the believers for coming together, since the net result was negative rather than positive.  In the first chapter of this letter he rebukes them, seeing that the church had divided up on the basis of their favorite teachers.  Now he further reproves them for deepening those divisionsthrough their participation in the Lord's Supper.  

The apostle declares the awful truth concerning the chaotic conditions in the church: when they came together it was not to share in the Lord's supper; it was to greedily indulge in their own supper.3  Unfortunately, these Christians were selfishly eating their meal with such disregard for one another, that the resulting supper had no resemblance to, or identification with, the Lord Jesus.  

What was the difference between what Paul calls here The Lord's Supper, and any other normal meal that Christians might participate in?  In this chapter, as well as in the previous one, we find these earmarks of the Lord's Supper:

1) It has a man-ward component - fellowship

2) It has a God-ward component - worship

Firstly, there is fellowship around the table, partaking in an actual meal.4  The purpose of this meal is not simply to satisfy one's hunger, because, as the apostle points out, that should be done in one's own house.  No, the purpose of this meal is to fellowship: to share things in common.  Clearly, they shared a common meal, perhaps “pot luck” style.  The shared meal was an expression and demonstration of their oneness in Christ.5  As is found elsewhere in the New Testament, fellowship was essential in both the teachingand practiceof the early church.  

Secondly, this meal was for the purpose of worshiping the Savior.  There would be a lot of conversation taking place at the table, but both Christ and the apostle taught that this meal should be eaten in memory of Jesus.  We are taught that our thoughts should be directed toward two specific things that Jesus did for us, and that we share in common:

1) The substitutionary sacrifice Christ made for us; and

2) The covenant that he established between God and us. 

These two elements — fellowship and worship — distinguished the Lord's Supper from any other meal.  Let's look at these a little more closely in this text.  The people weren't waiting for each other to arrive, but were overindulging to the extent that some were getting drunk, and nothing was left for the latecomers (or those who weren't early).  Paul exhorts the church to wait until everyone arrives before they begin the meal, because the point of the meal is not satiating one's hunger, but fellowshipingwith God's family.  

You might be thinking: "Eating a meal doesn't seem very spiritual; why would it be a part of a church meeting?"  There is nothing more essential to life than eating.  There is nothing that brings people closer than sharing a meal together.  When people eat together they share not only the food, but also their very lives.  They share their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, their blessings and their needs.  If the distinguishing mark of Jesus' followers is their love for one another,9  what better way of deepening that love than to fellowship at a common table week after week?

We are told elsewhere in the scriptures to “set our minds”10 on certain things, or to “think on”11 other things.  Here we are taught to participate in a meal “in memory” of Christ.  What does this mean but to direct our minds and our conversation toward our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and specifically the sacrifice he made and the covenant he established?  Does this mean we cannot talk about the weather, our jobs, our families, or the joys and challenges we’ve faced the previous week?  Of course not.

What it does mean, though, is that this meal is different from a regular meal.  Or, as the apostle Paul distinguishes it: it’s the Lord’s supper, not your own supper.  Because Jesus said to eat it in memory of him, we need to each purpose to follow this instruction.  I don’t think this can be accomplished by taking time out of the meal to eat a small piece of bread and drink a small cup of juice.  Nor can it be accomplished by having one individual teach, preach, or direct the conversation/discussion of all those present.  

This must be a commitment of all of the participants of the meal.  They must each keep in mind that it is the Lord’s supper; that it is a meal wholly set apart to the Lord.  He is both the host and the guest of honor.  Each one should purpose to follow his lead and to honor his presence.  How do we do this?  By loving God and one another.  We need to reflect upon and remind one another of God’s amazing grace and abundant mercy.  He also wants us spend the time showing and expressing love for one another.  As we are instructed in Hebrews, we need to encourage each other, as well as stimulate one another to love and good works.  

But what about the bread and the cup?  Don’t we need to have some kind of special ceremony that includes these two elements?  Jesus instituted this practice at the Jewish feast of Passover with his apostles.  There were bread and drink present, so he used what was a part of that meal to show his followers how to keep from being distracted from what is most important in life: loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  

When Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me,” he gave new significance to two parts of the Passover meal: the bread and the wine.  But what if a people group does not have bread and/or wine as a part of their normal meals?  The Tsimani tribe in Bolivia has neither bread nor wine as a part of their cultural diet; should they import bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper?  Many people use fruit juice instead of wine; is that in keeping with what the Lord instructed?

Would it be unspiritual to have lasagna and sparkling apple juice instead of bread and wine?  What is eaten is not nearly as important as what is in the minds of the people who are eating.  Jesus said: “Do this in memory of me.”  This is a time when the members of the gathered church set their minds on the sacrifice that Jesus made and what are its implications for each one.  

Jesus took two of the menu items from a meal in which every part was symbolic, and added new meaning to them.  His purpose, however, was not to institute a new symbolic snack, but to turn the minds of those of us who are his followers toward two important new realities: 1) Christ’s sacrifice redeemed us from sin and established for us a new covenant with God; and 2) we who were previously unrelated to one another are now united in faith and love by our Savior.  

Whatever we eat and drink, we need to use the sharing of this meal to turn our thoughts toward these two truths.  And it’s not just the leaders’ responsibility to make sure this occurs at each meal.  Clearly the apostle Paul places the responsibility on each person to make sure that it is the Lord’s supper in which they are participating.12 

And what, again, distinguishes this meal as the Lord’s Supper?  Is it merely an incantation recited over two items on the menu?  It is a common meal shared by members of the church of Jesus Christ in which: 1) Christ is honored by all; 2) Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice and God’s eternal covenant are reflected upon and talked about by all; and 3) all the members of Christ body seek to edify and encourage each other.

After examining the words of Paul in this text, and the example of the Lord Jesus, the following is a suggestion of how it could be practiced in 21st Century America:

In Corinth, as well in all the other cities, the meetings of the churches took place in homes.13  Even today this kind of participation in the Lord’s Supper would obviously lend itself best to be practiced in private homes.  It is a small, intimate setting, where everyone can contribute, where everyone can take part in the fellowship.

Upon arrival the fellowship begins as tables and chairs are set up, plates, utensils, and the food is set out.  Those who can, bring a little extra so that if someone cannot bring food, or if a visitor comes, there is always enough food for all.  As much as possible, everyone waits until all have arrived before the meal is begun.14 

When it is time for the meal to begin, prayers of thanksgiving should be offered to the Lord.  Rather than someone breaking a loaf of bread and passing it around, the entire meal should be understood to be representing the body of Christ given for all who share in the repast.  In this way it is not just a piece of bread, but the whole meal that is a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for the participants.  In this way, it is indeed the Lord’s Supper.

The prayers begin the meal with a focus upon the Lord who gave himself for the church.  This is also an affirmation of the unity the participants have in Christ.15  It is a declaration of common allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Then, let the Lord direct the conversations as the meal ensues.

The Israelites were familiar with the Lord’s instructions to keep something as holy unto him.  This simply meant that a specific recipe for incense, for instance, was dedicated wholly unto God and was not used for private purposes.16  As I mentioned earlier, this involves a purposeful, intentional effort on the part of all of those at the meal.  This requires of each one the kind of intentional, premeditated commitment that the writer to the Hebrews enjoined when he said: “Consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.”17 

As the meal draws to a close, one of the elders can, seeking the direction of the Lord, take the initiative to pass the the cup among all the members.  This can be similar to what is done at many weddings nowadays.  Have a cup for everyone (bigger than a thimble!), and pass a bottle of juice so that everyone can pour some into his or her glass. When everyone has been served, then let the members share, as the Lord directs.  This is not a "toast" to the Lord, where people clink their glasses, but it gives each one an opportunity to express their love for/to him.

From this point on, the gathering proceeds from neighbor-to-neighbor conversations around the table, to words, songs, teachings, exhortations, prayers, scriptures, etc., that are shared with the entire assembly of people.  This could be done while still at the tables, or the tables could be cleared and moved so that the participants could retire to more comfortable seating that may be available.

The entire experience of sharing this meal should feel different than any other meal you might have at your own home. This is the Lord's meal.  Jude refers to it as the Love Feast.18  Does participating in a "bread ceremony" and a "drink ceremony" make it the Lord's Supper or a Love Feast?  What makes this the spiritual experience the apostle Paul is speaking of here, and that the Lord Jesus envisioned for his church?

We all know how to prepare and eat a meal, but apparently the Corinthian church did such a disastrous job with the Lord's Supper that the apostle told them they were worse off for doing it!  What makes it the Lord's Supper and a Love Feast is the love that is shared in the fellowshiping with one another and in the worshiping of our gracious and merciful Savior.  

The Thessalonian church was doing well at loving each other, but was exhorted by the apostle Paul to excel even more.19  The Corinthian church was doing so poorly at loving one another that the apostle inserted into his letter an entire section explaining what love is all about.  We call it the Love Chapter.20 

This needs to be very clear: simply changing the form of the church meeting will not make it the Lord’s Supper.  It truly becomes the Lord’s Supper when the Lord is both the subject and the director of the meal.  The reason for adding new significance to the bread and the cup is, as the scripture says, to bring to our forgetful minds the presence of the Savior and that which his love accomplished for us.  This is the worship aspect.

The fellowship aspect is accomplished as we graciously share the meal and ourselves with the body of Christ.  In the scriptures the “body of Christ” can refer to either: 1) the physical body of Christ that was sacrificed upon the Cross; or 2) the spiritual body of Christ that is composed of the followers of Jesus in a given locale, or in all of history.21  I believe that both are referred to in this text.  When quoting Jesus, the text says: “This is my body...” referring to the physical body of Christ.  However when the apostle is warning the church concerning rightly appraising the body, he is referring to the spiritual body of Christ.

Fellowship occurs when the members correctly understand and value the spiritual body of Christ.  Some of the Corinthian believers were eating the meal in an unworthy manner because they were not correctly understanding and valuing the spiritual body of Christ.  They were, as we have noted, selfishly indulging themselves, with little regard for the needs and desires of the rest of the body.  Paul warns them that this incorrect appraisal of the nature of the spiritual body of Christ could result in physical judgment by the Lord himself.22 

So, in order to avoid this judgment from the Lord of the church, the believers were here instructed to take stock of themselves before they came together to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  They should ask themselves: “Am I coming together to worship the Lord and fellowship with his body, or to pursue my own interests?”  They should assess their own attitude and motivation before meeting together and sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  

What should their attitude be?  In a word — humility!  Consider these scriptures:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who...humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Colossians 3:12-13)

And what about their motivation for coming together?  It should be to build up the other members of the body and exalt the Lord of the body.  We build up, the apostle tells us, by taking the things which the Lord has given us and sharing them with each other.  It might be something physical (money, possessions, food); or it might be something spiritual (teaching, exhortation, organization).  It could be a word, or an action, or even a look that says, “You are loved”.  You could extend a handshake, lend an ear, give a hug, say a prayer, or offer to help.  When you prepare yourself to meet by considering what you can share with the body, you are correctly judging the body and understanding your role in it.  

Do you see how the sharing of a meal is essential in accomplishing this kind of love within the body?  If we don’t sit down to share a meal at least weekly, how can we ever discover the needs of people in the body and make ourselves ready and available to be used of the Lord to minister to those needs?  On the other hand, since these kinds of meetings were occurring week after week, we can see why they were called “love feasts”.  How can your church meeting become a love feast?  What can you do to make it happen?

There are at least three aspects of love that you can display that will make your church meeting a love feast:

1) Let your attitudes, words, and action clearly communicate: “I accept you just the way you are; you don’t need to change in order to be loved by me.”

2) Be more concerned about harmony than about being right.  When conflict occurs, be the first to take the initiative to humble yourself, feel the hurt of the other person, say you were wrong, name the offense, and ask for forgiveness.

3) Willingly, selflessly, and graciously give of yourself and your resources to meet the needs of one another.

As referred to earlier, at the end of the meal, when the cup is shared, the meeting becomes focused upon the whole group.  During the meal the sharing has been neighbor with neighbor; now the meeting becomes sharing with the entire group.  Perhaps needs, insights, joys, etc., that were shared between neighbors are now shared with the whole church.  Others have been reserving something for this time so that they can share with everyone.  Many congregations will, at this time, look together into the scripture that they are studying from week to week.  

This is the time that the apostle Paul describes in chapter fourteen of 1 Corinthians, where he details how each one, in turn, can share something that will edify the entire group.  It is important to remember here that the Lord, not the clock, schedule, or structure, is the master of the meeting.  You may have something you brought to share, but each person is responsible to listen to the Spirit of God who orchestrates the meeting according to his wise will, and for the building up of the entire body.  You may have planned to share a song or a teaching or a testimony, but the Lord may want to bring a member’s pain to the attention of the body, so that he/she can receive focused ministry from the whole church.  Let the Lord lead the meeting.

Can you envision a weekly church gathering like that which has been described here?  This is, admittedly, significantly different from what is being experienced throughout most of the churches in the world today.  But this is the important question: “Is this what the scriptures teach?”  These are not the ramblings of someone who is off on an island by himself.  No, a growing minority of believers are gathering together in homes for these kinds of weekly meetings.

It is essential to note that these kinds of church meetings are really only possible in small groups.  The kind of intimacy described here is most likely to occur in private homes rather than in public buildings.  So, are you ready to take the leap from that which is familiar and comfortable to you, to that which is more likely to produce the very things Christ established his church to accomplish?

If you decide to follow the pattern recorded in this scripture and discussed in this document, please remember that it must be done with the proper attitude.  If you begin meeting with the church after this pattern, and discover that it is, in your opinion, superior to all that you have previously experienced, you are not better than anyone else.  Be very careful to not communicate by attitudes or words, that your church is better than anybody else’s church.  Remember, doing the right thing with the wrong attitude does not glorify the Lord.  Be humbly thankful for what the Lord has shown you.

1 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

2 On a positive note in the midst of a negative circumstance, he does point out, in verse nineteen, that divisions in the church are beneficial in one respect: the cream rises to the top.  This principle abides: when trouble comes, those who are tried and true are recognized.  The fire that destroys many refines some.

3 It would be reasonable to infer from this statement that a major reason for their meeting was to eat the Lord's Supper.  

4 If some people were getting drunk and others were going away hungry, it seems clear that the Lord’s Supper was more than a thimbleful of juice and a tiny piece of cracker; it was a meal!

5 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

6 For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality— at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality. (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

7 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. (Acts 2:44-45)

8 And one must not forget that biblical fellowship is not eating coffee and donuts, but "sharing things in common".  So if you don't wait for everyone to arrive before you begin, how can you share the meal?

9 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

10 Colossians 3:1-2

11 Philippians 4:8

12 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:28)

13 Every mention of the meeting places of the churches in the New Testament is always in private homes, except for the church in Jerusalem when it first began.  Even so, the believers there were meeting in houses and eating together from the very beginning.  And they were meeting daily: 

Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart. (Acts 2:46)

Notice in these scriptures where the churches were meeting: 

Greet the church that is in their house. Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia. (Romans 16:5)

The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. (1 Corinthians 16:19)

Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. (Colossians 4:15)

And to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: (Philemon 2)

14 This is one of the values of being a part of a small house church: everyone is accounted for.  If you are going to miss the fellowship meeting, you communicate to someone else in the church, so that everyone doesn’t wait for you before beginning.                                                        

15 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17)

16 Exodus 30:34-38  The recipe for incense given here was to be used only for incense burned before Lord on the table of incense in the tabernacle/temple.  This is the meaning of holy, or dedicated to the Lord.  Similarly, Paul instructs the believers in Christ to participate in the Lord’s Supper, not their own supper. (1 Corinthians 11:20-21)

17 Hebrews 10:24

18 Jude 12

19 Indeed you do practice [love] toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more. (1 Thessalonians 4:10)

20 1 Corinthians 13

21 The body of Christ in a specific time and place is generally called the “local church”; the body of Christ without restriction of time and place is generally called the “universal church”.  

22 The truth was, some of the members of this church were actually getting sick and some were dying because of the Lord’s judgment for their wanton disregard for other members of the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:30)

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