Sunday, October 07, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (14)

What is "fellowship"? (6)

In the last post in this series I started looking at two questions:
  1. What is it that "just happens" when believers gather together?
  2. How can we make fellowship "just happen", or what can we do to facilitate it?
I showed from Acts 2:42-47 that for the first Christians "breaking bread" meant meeting in each others homes for meals - ordinary, regular, daily meals - and that for them "fellowship" meant sharing their material possessions as well as sharing an allegiance to Jesus as their Lord. This sharing-fellowship was solidly grounded in the teachings of Jesus.

A little later in Acts we find further confirmation that what was really fundamental to the "fellowship" of the early church or ekklesia was that they shared their possessions:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This passage has been misquoted, or only partially quoted, by those who say that the basis of unity is having "one mind" on doctrinal matters. They quote the words "all the believers were one in heart and mind" and argue that to be one "in mind" means to believe the same doctrines. Yet the words which immediately follow tell us clearly what the early believers understood by being one in heart and mind: "they shared everything they had". Those who argue for a doctrinal basis for unity will point to the next words ("the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus") and say that that is a doctrinal statement. Yet again they ignore what follows: "and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them". In other words, the resurrection inspired and empowered a graciousness among the believers which caused them to reach out to those in need and provide for them. The "apostles' doctrine" was about behaviour rather than dogma.

We encounter "breaking bread" on only two other occasions in the Acts, and then in Paul's letters we will see that it gets mentioned only in 1 Corinthians. The other New Testament writers don't mention it at all, with the possible exception of Jude's mention of the "love feasts" of the early church. It might seem strange that if Communion is such an important "sacrament" or "ordinance" that it hardly rates a mention in the New Testament.

So let's look first at the other mentions of "breaking bread" in the Acts, and then on to 1 Corinthians.

The second time a breaking of bread occurs in the Acts is in 20:7 where we read that "on the first day of the week we came together to break bread". This was in Troas and was the occasion when a young man, Eutychus, fell asleep in a window during a long sermon by Paul, falling to his death from the third story window. After Paul revived the young man "he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate" (v. 11). There is nothing here to tell us whether "to break bread" meant to have an ordinary meal or whether there was anything sacramental or eucharistic about it. In the absence of any further information we cannot draw any conclusions, one way or the other, from this incident.

The third and final mention of breaking bread in the Acts is in chapter 27. Here we read that Paul "took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat" (v. 35). The wording here is certainly reminiscent of the last supper, and is similar to Paul's own description of that occasion in 1 Corinthians 11:23 ("The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it ...").

These words are almost identical to the way Luke records the last supper: "he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 22:19) and an incident when Jesus broke bread with some disciples after His resurrection: "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them" (24:30). In fact, Luke highlights that it was through this breaking of bread that these disciples recognised Jesus (v. 35) - no doubt because table-fellowship was such a central part of our Lord's ministry. Notice how each record has these words: (1) took bread (2) gave thanks (3) broke it and (4) gave it to them. The breaking of bread in Acts 27 followed the same form as the breaking of bread ritual recorded elsewhere.

What is really remarkable about the Acts 27 incident is that the same expression is used in Acts 2 and Acts 20 for gatherings and meals of the believers, yet in Acts 27 Luke is recording an incident when Paul "broke bread" with his unbelieving fellow-survivors of a ship wreck. We should carefully note that Paul "broke bread" with people who were strangers to him, "sinners" and non-Jews alike. The basis of their fellowship was that they had been through a common experience and been saved (from shipwreck). They were invited to the Lord's table in celebration. Perhaps we need to re-think what it is we celebrate by "breaking bread", and with whom.

From the Acts 27 incident we can be certain that "breaking bread" was not some mystical experience reserved as a "sacrament" for believers, not was it restricted to those "in fellowship" because they believed in "the apostles' doctrine".

The other thing we can be certain about is that in Acts 2 and Acts 27 "breaking bread" meant having a meal, not just a morsel of bread torn from a loaf. In Acts 27 for example we read that Paul said "for the last fourteen days, you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food" and they therefore should eat, and then after he "broke bread" they ate "as much as they wanted" (vv. 37-38). As far as I can see there is absolutely no Biblical basis for the later practice of celebrating "the breaking of bread" with a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine.

This brings us to the references in 1 Corinthians to breaking bread. In 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 Paul refers to the unleavened bread used at the Passover Festival: "For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth." There is a hint here that the early Christians may have kept the Passover as an annual festival, celebrating our deliverance by Christ*. There is nothing in the context of these verses which suggests Paul was thinking of a weekly "Festival". The Feasts, or Festivals, of Israel (including Passover) were annual events and there is no other mention of the weekly gatherings of believers as "Festivals". Some Christadelphians quote this passage as the reason why unleavened bread should be used for the Breaking of Bread meeting, but there is no evidence that Paul had weekly meetings of believers in mind or that he was thinking of anything other than the annual Passover Festival. However, what is interesting (to me) is that the Passover Festival which Paul referred to was a meal, not just a piece of bread.

The second mention of bread in 1 Corinthians is in 10:16-17 where Paul writes "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." This passage connects to the early reference to Passover, as "the cup of thanksgiving" was one of four cups of wine consumed during the Passover meal. Paul later says this was the cup "after supper" (11:25). The Passover meal began with a prayer recited over bread, and ended with a prayer said over wine. Between this "grace before meals" and the "grace after meals" was the meal. By taking the bread and wine only, and omitting the meal, is to miss the whole point that this was meant to be a meal and not just a small piece of bread and a sip of wine. In fact, Passover was no ordinary meal - it was a celebration, and the four cups of wine emphasised the celebratory nature of this meal.

This mention of bread and wine in chapter 10 almost certainly was referring back to the previous mention of the Passover and therefore was probably referring to the church's annual celebration of Passover. There is nothing here to suggest that it was a weekly gathering. In any case, there is nothing to suggest that the elements of bread and wine were separated from a meal.

The last mention of breaking bread in 1 Corinthians is in Paul's account of the last supper and forms part of his rebuke of the Corinthian practice of treating poorer brethren contemptibly. He begins by saying "I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good" (11:7) and refers specifically to a very divisive practice: "for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk." I dealt with this in an earlier post in a series on the Lord's table, but I'll repeat it here for convenience.

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 feelings 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).

This passage highlights once again that "the apostles' doctrine" was about sharing material possessions. The wealthy Corinthians are rebuked for their practice of ignoring the needs of the poor and not sharing their food with them, and are encouraged to follow the Lord's example. What is very clear from this is that the "breaking of bread" in Corinth was a meal, and not the kind of ritual that would be celebrated these days in a Christadelphian Breaking of Bread meeting or in the Communion services of most denominations. At some point in church history the elements of bread and wine were separated from this shared meal and "sacramentalised" and rules were put in place for the "administration" of the sacrament by priests.

Perhaps it's time for a re-think and a return to the earliest practices of the believers.

* There is some evidence that the early Christians continued to celebrate the Jewish Passover on the same date observed by the Jewish people. This changed when the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. adopted the name Easter as representing the events of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection and by observing Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The Palestinian historian Epiphanius (315 A.D. - 403 A.D.) says that the 15 Jewish Christian bishops who administered the Jerusalem Church until 135 A.D. observed Passover on Nisan 14. In The Apostolic Constitutions, an early Christian document, the following rule is laid out: "You shall not change the calculation of the time, but you shall celebrate it at the same time as your brethren who came out of the circumcision (the Jews). With them observe the Passover."

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