Observing The Lord's SupperBy Brian Anderson
As I officiated over the Lord's Supper on that predictable Sunday morning in November of 1995, I had a nagging feeling that something was not right. This particular communion Sunday proved to be little different from others we had celebrated in the past five years of my ministry as a teaching elder at Milpitas Bible Fellowship (MBF). I had read testimonies of saints in centuries past who found deep and intimate fellowship with Christ through this holy ordinance. I had believed and taught that the observance of the Lord's Supper was a very special and significant occasion in the life of every local church. Why then, wasn't it more powerful in my own life? The stark reality was that my own observance of the Lord's Supper was neither very special nor significant. It's not that we had grown lax in our observance of the Lord's Supper. On the contrary, we observed it like clockwork on the first Sunday of every month. Rather, I believe it was that we had unthinkingly embraced a manner of observing it that was foreign to the Scriptures. It's amazing how much the church does because of man-made traditions, that when closely scrutinized, simply can't be justified from God's Word. On the first Sunday of every month, miniature plastic cups of grape juice, and broken crackers were made available at the front of the sanctuary. While the worship team led the congregation in praises focused on Christ's sacrificial death, the participants would file to the front of the sanctuary to receive the elements. Once everyone had been served and returned to their seats, I would read a passage of Scripture (usually 1 Corinthians 11), offer a prayer of blessing, and then invite everyone to eat and drink together. The entire event could not have lasted more than ten minutes. Although it is always good to spend any length of time remembering the precious sacrifice of Christ, the experience usually left me feeling a bit empty and dissatisfied. I couldn't help but wonder why the observance of the Lord's Supper was not more meaningful in my own life. I found myself wondering if perhaps the problem lay in our own faulty understanding of the sacrament, and secretly hoped that God had more for us in this special event than we had ever dreamed. That hope has not been disappointed.
Changes in the life of a church are never easy. In fact, even if the changes are more Scriptural than its current practices, they are still very threatening. Thus, the status quo, no matter how barren it leaves us, is usually preferred over change. However, we at MBF had long ago adopted the motto, "we are committed to understanding and obeying God's Word." We had determined that if we became convinced that our practices as a church were unscriptural, we would change them - plain and simple. With that as our philosophy of church life and a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with our observance of the Lord's Supper, the elders decided that we needed to examine the issue afresh to determine what God's Word actually taught. As I began to dig into God’s word I had no idea how much our practice of observing the Supper would change as a result of those teachings!
The first thing I noticed in Scripture was the tremendous importance which the early church attached to the Lord's Supper. Suprisingly enough, it appeared to be the main focus of their gatherings.
And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. Acts 20:7 (NASB)
That which I found so intriguing was that the Bible did not state what I thought it would. It did not declare that the church met to listen to Paul preach. I would have thought that whenever the apostle Paul was at a church meeting, the purpose of the gathering would be to drink in the apostle's instruction. After all, it wasn't very often that the church had the privilege of an apostle ministering in its midst. Nor does the Scripture state that the church met to worship, to receive an offering, or to evangelize.. According to holy Scripture, the stated purpose for which the early church met was to break bread. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 11:20 & 33, the purpose of the gathering of the church is again said to be the eating of the Lord’s Supper. Additionally, Acts 2:42 records that the disciples were continually devoted to the breaking of bread; indeed their commitment to it was as great as their commitment to apostolic teaching, fellowship, and prayer! This simple truth was like a new revelation to me. I had always thought that the purpose the church gathered was to worship, hear the preaching of the Word, and evangelize the lost. It had never even crossed my mind that the primary purpose for at least some of the gatherings of the saints was to partake of the Lord's Supper. Nevertheless, there it was in Scripture in black and white. I sensed that God was calling the people of MBF to give much greater significance to the Lord’s Supper than ever before.
The next discovery was just as radical as the first. I found, much to my surprise, that the Lord's Supper was intended to be just that - a supper. Though this ought to have been obvious to me, in reality, it was a completely new concept. I had never partaken of the cup and the bread as part of a full meal. Yet, Scripture refers to the event as the Lord's Supper (1Cor.11:20). A more apt description of the way we had observed it would have been to call it the Lord's Appetizer! Wouldn't you be a bit dismayed if a friend invited you over to supper, but offered you only a morsel of cracker, and a shot glass of juice?! Furthermore, the apostle Jude writes about certain ungodly men who are
hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves. Jude 12 (NASB)
Most Bible commentators, I learned, identified these love feasts with the early church’s practice of observing the Lord's Supper as part of a full meal. In addition, Paul's words to the church at Corinth began to make sense,
Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 (NASB)
I had read those verses countless times in the past, without it ever making much sense. I was unintentionally seeking to make that statement fit into my traditionally accepted understanding. However, how could eating a tiny piece of cracker satisfy a man's hunger, or drinking an ounce of wine make a man drunk? Clearly, the early church was partaking of a common meal on those special occasions. That really shouldn't have surprised me, for hadn't Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper at a full meal with His disciples? Additionally, hadn't He said that He would never again eat of the Lord’s Supper until it was fulfilled in the kingdom of God (Luke 22:16)? I began to understand that our observance of the Lord's Supper not only looked back to Christ's atoning death, but also forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb that we will enjoy with Him in glory (Rev.19:7). Only a full meal can adequately symbolize that heavenly feast. I was quickly realizing that our observance of the Lord’s Supper was going to need more than a minor tune-up; it would need a complete overhaul!
The third discovery I made was that the Lord's Supper was celebrated in small and intimate settings. For example, Acts 2:46 describes the new converts breaking bread from house to house, taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart. Obviously, if these believers were observing the Lord's Supper from house to house, they were doing so in small, intimate settings. Moreover, Acts 20:7-12 describes the breaking of bread as taking place in the intimacy of an upper room of a private home. Furthermore, Paul instructs,
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. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NASB)
Notice carefully that the apostle speaks of "the cup" and "the one loaf." The single cup and loaf, according to Paul, were used in order to portray the precious truth that the church of Christ, though made up of many members, is one. Clearly, Paul had in mind a group small enough to partake of a single loaf and cup. This was all very foreign to me, for I was accustomed to partaking of the Lord's Supper in large, impersonal and somber settings. In fact, I was quite suprised to find that the only passage in the Bible which described the mood of the Lord’s Supper portrayed it as a glad, joyful, and intimate event (Acts 2:46).
The final discovery God gave us had to do with the close connection between fellowship amongst the saints and the Lord’s Supper. At MBF, we had emphasized our vertical relationship with Christ, to the exclusion of fellowship with other believers. In fact, the whole observance was carried out without anyone uttering a single word to anyone else. However, now 1Cor.10:16 took on new meaning for me. When the Scripture says,
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? 1 Corinthians 10:16 (NASB)
I had assumed that the sharing was between an individual believer and God. I learned, though, that the Greek word for "sharing" is koinonia, which is usually translated "fellowship" and could just as easily speak of the saints’ fellowship with one another. I began to understand that the purpose of the Lord's Supper was not only to commune with Christ, but also to fellowship with my brothers and sisters around the body and blood of Christ. This also appeared to be born out in Acts 2:42 which uses the word "and" to divide up the disciples' spiritual activities. "And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." In this grammatical construction, fellowship and the breaking of bread seem to be coupled together as a related activity, with "the breaking of bread" an expanded description of their "fellowship." If this was the intention of Luke in writing the Acts, the early church was committed to three things: apostolic teaching, fellowshipping together around the Lord’s Table, and prayer.
When we began to discover these new insights we believed God had given to us, at first we were not sure what to do with them. None of us had ever observed the Lord's Supper where it was the primary reason for the meeting, part of a full meal, and celebrated in an intimate, personal, and joyful manner. Furthermore, we didn’t know of any other church which observed the Lord’s Supper in this way. However, as we experimented with several different methods of observing the Lord’s Supper, God gave us wisdom in weeding out those which did not promote the Biblical discoveries we had made, and clinging to those that did.
In order for you to get a feel for the celebration of the Lord's Supper at MBF, allow me to describe a typical Agape Feast for you. Folks begin arriving about 5:30 on a Sunday evening for the monthly event. As the menfolk push all the chairs against the wall and assemble folding tables into a large rectangle, the women bustle about in the kitchen making last minute preparations. About 6:00 one of the ladies gives the signal that all is ready. The MBF family gathers in a large circle of somewhere between 40 and 60 people, holds hands, and asks God to bless the evening. Large bowls of tossed garden salad, buttered french bread, and steaming pots of spaghetti are placed on the tables, so that the meal can be eaten family style. While the meal is being enjoyed, lively discussion, banter and laughter resonate throughout the room. Clearly, the folks at MBF have looked forward to this gathering, and are enjoying being with one another. After dessert has been served and the dishes and food have been cleared away, two or three brothers and sisters break out their guitars. There is even an occasional banjo or piano. Songbooks are distributed, and for the next twenty to forty minutes the church sings, praises and prays with an occasional interspersing of Scripture reading augmenting the worship. Next there is an opportunity for anyone to share a spiritual contribution in the spirit of 1Cor.14:26 that they have brought for the edification of others. One woman sings a song the Lord has given her recently which focuses on the greatness and majesty of God. A young man exhorts the rest to faithfulness to Christ in the midst of trials and tribulations. Another woman reads a poem on the importance of abiding in Christ. Two or three brothers follow with a brief word of instruction. One brother focuses on the fact that Christ's death was intended to produce a holy people, zealous for good works. Another teaches that Christ's death was effectual, actually purchasing the salvation of all God's people. Finally, one of the elders stands and offers a brief teaching focused on the heavenly communion with Christ that we will enjoy one day which our Supper has been portraying. In the midst of the sharing, people feel free to ask a question or share an insight of their own. The scene is much more akin to a family gathering around the dinner table with many excited to speak, than a group of acquaintances engaging in a formal worship service. Finally, at the climax of the evening, one of the elders breaks a loaf of bread in two and passes each around the tables. In like manner, he pours grape juice from a large container into another jug and passes both to the eager participants. Each one takes the container of juice, pours a portion into his cup, and passes it to his neighbor. After everyone is served, one of the elders offers a joyful and sincere prayer of thanksgiving for the person and work of Christ, after which all eat and drink in remembrance of Him. The meeting is spontaneous, enthusiastic, and joyful. The meeting usually lasts somewhere between three and four hours, with folks lingering sometimes for an hour or more to fellowship with one another.
Our attempts to apply God's Word to our observance of the Lord's Supper have not been without problems and difficulties. We have had children hungry for attention sing a cute little song in order to draw the expected applause of the group. At other times, the sharing has seemed more like a performance than spiritual ministry. On still other occasions, I fear, we have been guilty of not treating the Lord’s Supper with the seriousness it deserves - a byproduct, perhaps, of the informality of the dinner. However, we have sought to address each of these problems. We have instructed the young children to talk with their parents or one of the elders before sharing at an Agape Feast to make sure that it is appropriate and that their motives are right. The elders have spoken frankly with the church, discouraging applause after someone has shared a song, and exhorting all to seek a ministry mindset and approach the Supper with the importance and seriousness it warrants.
In spite of the problems that we have had to face, the changes we have made in observing the Lord's Supper have been among the most spiritually profitable we have ever made. I can truly say that the Lord's Supper for me now is one of the most exciting, invigorating, and spiritually significant events in my life.