Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Lord's table (12) - the Last Supper was no ordinary meal

The last supper was obviously no ordinary meal. So what was so special about it, why was it different, and how, and what are we meant to learn from it?

It's clear that the last supper was the Passover meal - certainly no ordinary meal - which was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from Egypt. Our Lord re-interpreted it as a celebration of our deliverance from evil. Even aside from the fact that this was a special meal in Israel's calendar of feasts and commemorations, the Lord knew that this was to be no ordinary meal: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15). John explains further: "It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love (John 13:1).

In hindsight we know that this was to be a special meal for the Lord because it was to be his last meal before his death. He asked that it be commemorated "in remembrance of me", although He did not specify how, or how often. Some denominations commemorate the Last Supper once a year, at Passover (and 1 Cor 5:6-8 may suggest that early Christians celebrated the Passover annually as a Christian Festival). Some celebrate it daily; others weekly or quarterly. Some Christians celebrate it whenever they get together.

In the absence of any clear instructions in the Bible about this, the church has had to rely on tradition and the scant evidence in the Bible and early Christian writings about the practices of the early church. Luke tells us that the practice of the early Jerusalem church was to meet for "the breaking of bread" and "they broke bread in their homes", apparently daily (Acts 2:42-47). In Troas they met "on the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7). In Corinth a collection was made on the first day of the week and it's reasonable to suppose that a church meeting took place on the same day and that this is when they had the meal which Paul describes in 1 Cor 11:17-34. The only detailed account we have received is this record in 1 Corinthians, which was part of Paul's correction of certain abuses in the church. If the Corinthians hadn't been celebrating the Lord's Supper in "an unworthy manner" we would have had no information at all about the tradition of the early church.

Meals in first century Judaism.

For the Jews in general every meal was 'religious' in the sense that it was accompanied by the giving of thanks to God. Jewish daily meals began with a prayer of thanksgiving associated with the breaking of bread, and concluded with a further prayer of thanksgiving ("grace before meals" and "grace after meals" are still elements of the daily meals of the orthodox). Wine was included in weekly sabbath meals and on special occasions, and there is some evidence that a prayer was said over each cup of wine.

At the last supper the eating of the bread and the drinking of wine was separated by the meal (see for example the words "after the supper he took the cup" in Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor 11:25), and a prayer for said for each, corresponding with grace before and after meals.

The Lords Supper in Corinth

In the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) world it was common among the wealthy for meals with invited guests to be in two stages: the main meal was eaten first, followed by a "symposium" which consisted of desserts and drinks, accompanied by speeches and discussion. Some guests would be invited for the first stage, and further guests would be invited to the symposium. (There is also some evidence that on some ocasions the symposium was 'open' for anyone who was not invited but who wished to listen to the speeches and discussion to stand around the outside, although not joining in the desserts and drinks).

The main problem in Corinth arose out of tensions between the rich and poor. For the first few centuries of Christianity meetings were held in homes and not in church buildings. The size of meetings was dictated by the size of the largest home. Obviously meetings would therefore usually be in the homes of the wealthiest members. This seems to have been the case in Corinth. While we don't know exactly what was going wrong in Corinth, we do know that a distinction was being made between rich and poor. There are two main possibilities:
  1. The rich were arriving early (perhaps while the poor were still working) and enjoying a large meal together with fine food. The poor would arrive later with their own scanty food (possibly for the 'symposium'). The bread and wine of the Lord's Supper were brought together and taken at the end of the meal (rather than the bread at the beginning and the wine at the end, with the meal in between, as it happened at the last supper).
  2. The rich and poor were eating at the same time, but bringing their own food - the rich eating and drinking well, with meat and delicacies, and the poor with scanty food, perhaps only bread. Although the rich opened their houses to the poor they did so in a way which emphasised the social divisions. There was over-indulgence on the part of the rich, and feelkings of envy on the part of the poor.
The Corinthian practice meant that the meal had lost its character as the Lord's supper (11:20). Paul's response was to instruct the church to welcome one another graciously ("wait for each other" v. 33), and to share their food so that nobody felt disadvantaged. There was no suggestion that they should stop eating together at all. In fact, the meal was so central to the Lord's Supper that Jude refers to the meetings of the church as "love feasts" (v. 12).

In the earlier messages I've written in this series I think it's been clear that there is a pattern in the way the Gospel-writers record the meals where our Lord was present. Either by example or through His words the Lord taught that meals should reflect the abundant generosity and graciousness of God. We should invite to our tables the poor, the sick, the disabled, the 'sinners', the 'unclean' and the disenfranchised. They should be places where we celebrate and share the forgiveness of God, and look forward as a kind of foretaste to the messianic banquet in the age to come. The Corinthian practice created a division in the church between the rich and poor, which was contrary to this message of Jesus. It was therefore not "the Lord's supper" because it went so violently against the spirit of His message.

The Lord's table was inclusive; the Corinthian table was exclusive. The Lord's table brought together people from opposite ends of the social spectrum; the Corinthian table created a division in the Body of Christ. The Lord's table celebrated forgiveness. The Corinthian table created envy. The Lord's table proclaimed His self-giving, demonstrated in His death; the Corinthian table was self-centred. At the Lord's table people examined themselves; at the Corinthian table they judged each other.

In determining how the Lord intended us to "do this", and in deciding how the church today should celebrate the Lord's Supper, we should keep in mind these important factors:

  1. Our Lord's pattern of table-fellowship was to be welcoming, inviting, inclusive, forgiving and generous in spirit.
  2. The last supper was a meal which began and ended with prayers of thanksgiving, focussing on the self-giving of our Lord.
  3. The early church met together in homes to share a meal and to celebrate 'the Lord's supper' on a regular basis.
  4. The celebration of the Lord's supper in the early church probably followed the pattern of "grace before meals" (over the bread), the meal, and then "grace after meals" (over the cup). The Corinthians appear to have departed from this practice and were strongly rebuked by Paul.
  5. The last supper was a festive meal. The early church may have celebrated 'the Lord's supper' as both an annual festive event, and as a regular (usually weekly) coming together for a meal.
  6. By remembering Jesus in eating bread and drinking wine, and giving thanks, any 'ordinary meal' is sanctified. If it arises out of the same spirit which characterised our Lord's table fellowship then an 'ordinary meal' becomes 'the Lord's Supper'.

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