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Can We Talk About The Lord’s Supper?
I ask us to reexamine our traditions concerning the Lord’s Supper.

The Attenuated View of the Lord’s Supper

The value and place of the Lord’s Supper are, in these days, largely a matter of received tradition, or settled theology rather than something arrived at through keen searching. Perhaps other than as a matter of occasional doctrinal discussion within theological confines, they are not, for the most part, an open question for most Christians.

Let us be honest with one another, many, perhaps very many, Christians have an attenuated view of the Lord’s Supper. Too many just make too little of it, in part due to the fact that it is a settled doctrinal matter for most.

Just what does this word attenuated mean? If something is attenuated it means that it is weakened, reduced, diluted, diminished, thinned out.

Protestants, and we must be frank about this, because they don’t believe that it is directly salvific, tend to give it a minor, though meaningful, place in practice. Many today view it almost as a relic that is cherished, but is only taken out and enjoyed once in a while. It is a ceremonial act of deep traditional and historical connotations, with uncertain spiritual meaning and no definite result. And because it is of little practical importance the general opinion is that it shouldn’t be observed too often lest it become trite through overuse. It is viewed as a rich and indispensable part of the worship repertoire but there is also a whiff of the sense that nobody is really sure what it really is. Many Christians cannot give a detailed explanation of it, or provide any definite reason to celebrate it more often than occasionally.

(Though this is addressed to Protestants, it is also true for many Catholics, who, despite believing it to be the chief means of grace for salvation (salvific), often skip Mass, only attending a few times a year or on special occasions. Ask any priest if it isn’t one of their great concerns to motivate their flock to attend Mass more often, and have a deeper appreciation of it. This neglect reflects an attenuated view of the Lord's Supper.)

I find confirmation of this widely spread attenuated view of the Lord’s Supper in the fact that it is usually called Communion, which gives the focus to one among many aspects. And in the fact that most Christians are comfortable with relatively infrequent celebration. Add to this that when asked to explain it usually something is said about it being a memorial, or a display of unity, or a means of grace. Beyond that something is also usually said about the presence or non-presence of Christ in the bread and wine, what exactly depending upon denominational affiliation. And beyond that it is common to say that one has to be right with God before partaking, or maybe there is discussion about who may partake. There usually isn’t much more explanation offered, thinking about it generally stops here.

Another confirmation of an attenuated view is the importance attached by Christians to extra-Biblical celebrations like Easter or Christmas, an importance comparable to that given to the Lord’s Supper. There is no dispute that these holidays are good, right, and proper, or about celebrating them. But the point is that they are commonly esteemed as highly, or maybe even more highly than, the Lord’s Supper even though they are days of celebration we have invented, and the Lord’s Supper is an act of celebration that God has invented. Shall we esteem our inventions as highly as the Lord’s inventions?

The place and value we give the Lord’s Supper is not today what it was for the first Christians. We can see that it had a central place in Christian worship in the days of Acts Chapter 2,

And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,(Acts 2:46)

The reference to the breaking of bread indicates a common meal. But embedded in that meal was the passing of the broken bread and the cup in remembrance of the Lord just as Jesus gave it to them to do at that last Passover Supper. We can see that this was indeed the case by what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. It was this Epistle that extracted the Lord’s Supper out of the shared meal, ensuring for it a distinct place of its own. Key verses are:

When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)

And, verse 34:

And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:34)

Though the Lord’s Supper gets relatively scant mention in the New Testament, what is said has great significance. And although nowhere is it explained in such a way that would settle unsettled theological questions mooted by centuries of dispute, one thing seems probable, which is that it was celebrated every Sunday when they gathered. That point can be argued, but it is likely that it was a weekly celebration.

The early development of the Catholic Mass gives an indirect testimony to the central place that the Lord’s Supper had amongst the first generations of Christians. We have several early historical sources from Christians who described what their practice was, but didn’t necessarily explain the theology of it. From them we learn that the Lord’s Supper was a central, important, and regular part of their gatherings. But their doctrines were not explicitly stated. It was left to later Church Fathers to explain and establish what was to become Catholic doctrine. So in this we see that the Catholic Mass is an artifact of early Christian practice. What we’ve established here is that the Lord’s Supper had a very central place in early worship (there is no intent to establish or defend Catholic doctrine however). What we see is that the Scriptures give the institution of the Lord’s Supper. And early history confirms that it had a central place in worship. That is the point made here, and this ought to be put in the balance scales when we weigh the value and place of the Lord’s Supper.

On the other hand, we don’t want to make too much of the Lord’s Supper. It has a reason and a season. Refreshing ourselves about the aspects of the Lord’s Supper brought to the fore in this study will lead us to conclude that the Lord’s Supper has a greater value and more central place than we have given it, but that value and that place have boundries as well. It will be seen that it is God’s invention, a part of what Peter, when speaking of Jesus Christ having been crucified in Acts Chapter 2, called God’s determinate counsel (Acts 2:23). God devised it, and it complements the preaching of the Gospel and Baptism. This study is not about creating a new liturgy. That is up to each congregation or denomination. But a higher valuation of the Lord’s Supper may well lead to making it a part of weekly worship, not just as an added element, but as something that directs our worship. It is God’s work and therefore we should prefer nothing to it. But the plain fact is that in practice most do prefer other things instead.

No, we don’t want to make too much of the Lord’s Supper, but as I’ve said, we tend to make too little of it. We should prefer nothing to it, but our reexamination should lead us to discover that it is not the Lord’s Supper we prefer, rather it is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself that we prefer. The Lord’s Supper is but a servant. God’s servant, but still a servant. Jesus is Lord.

©FH 2012

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