This past Lunar New Year was special and will remain in my heart for a long, long time. Everyone was back — family from Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. Over great food we swapped stories, teased each other, and shared our struggles — we were family. One meal was particularly special because my mum, the head of the family, was with us.
I can’t help but think the early church meals were like that, proper meals where followers of Christ shared life as they shared food, aware of the presence of the head of the family. As Robert Banks reminds us in commenting on the word “supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:20,
The word deipnon (1Cor 11:20) meaning “dinner,” tells us that it was not a token meal (as it has become since) or part of a meal (as is sometimes envisaged), but an entire, ordinary meal. The term indicates that this is the main (normally evening) meal, the one to which guests were invited. It’s character as an ordinary meal is retained even though it has been given new significance. (Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994], 81.)
Banks would go on to write:
Thus the meal that they shared together reminded the members of their relationship with Christ and one another and deepened those relationships in the same way that participation in an ordinary meal cements and symbolizes the bond between a family or group. (83)
There was no separate event for the Lord’s Supper. The ordinary meal was the Lord’s Supper, though the words that Christ gave at the Last Supper would deepen the meaning of the meal. A Jewish meal often began with the breaking of bread and ended with a toast. At those parts of the meal, the words of the Last Supper about Jesus’ body broken for us, and His blood shed for us, were uttered and prayers offered to the Lord who would be present in His Spirit.
Of course church history did not remain static. In the years since, the Church has developed different understandings of the Lord’s Supper, especially the significance of the elements and who is allowed to preside over the Lord’s Table and distribute the elements. The arguments for the various positions are readily available and readers are encouraged to read and make up their own minds. (I recall a foolish young Baptist student who had in-depth and involved discussions on these matters with the late Michael Green when he was at Regent.)
How we celebrate the Lord’s supper is now a hot topic again because of the restricted conditions most of us find ourselves in during this period when we are threatened by the COVID-19 virus. Since we can no longer gather in our church buildings, how do we do the Lord’s Supper? Different churches and different traditions have responded differently. Some have stopped any celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Some say that this is a time of lament and it is right not to be celebrating. Others creatively have everyone take the communion elements together while led by a church leader online. Some have allowed small-group leaders and family leaders to lead the Lord’s Supper in their homes. We are all navigating uncharted waters and trying our best to apply our convictions to new situations. In humility, let’s listen to each other and learn from each other.
My only concern in this is that we do not become so fixated on questions of “what” (what are the elements?), and questions on “who” (who is allowed to lead the Lord’s Supper?), that we forget the “why” — the Lord’s supper is meant to be a meal that both symbolises and strengthens our relationship with God and with our church family. And I would still argue this is best done in the context of an ordinary meal where there is meaningful interaction between the people at the table.
Bernice and I were in a church overseas earlier in the year. They were celebrating the Lord’s Supper and ushers had handed out the elements. But before we were allowed to consume the elements, we were instructed to get to know the names of the people around us and a bit about who they were. The pastor said: “You don’t take the Lord’s Supper with strangers.” We were not sure this was the best way to achieve what he wanted, but we heartily agreed on his point — we don’t take the Lord’s supper with strangers. (Although we would hope that more people would become followers of Jesus and join us at the table.)
I was thinking of whether we could think of new ways to remember Christ at our ordinary meals, especially in the times we find ourselves. Even if we have to await the COVID-19 restrictions to be over before we can gather to do the Lord’s Supper in ways that are more consistent with our convictions, could we encourage our members to remember Christ at their regular meals? In some sense every meal is sacramental. Every meal can be a means of blessing by, and a remembrance of, a God who sacrificially feeds us with what we need for life. While this will not be a replacement for our regular Lord’s Supper for some of us, can we teach our people how to encounter Christ and deepen community in our regular meals?
At the moment we can’t even meet in small groups. So we continue to grapple with creative ways of how we can remember Christ at a meal with family. No single way is fully satisfactory. I hope the time will come soon when we can at least meet in small groups. Let us meet over a meal, remember Christ, and share our lives. And let us continue to do this even when we can gather in large groups.