The Lord’s Supper…
An iconic scene for the Campbell Stone movement is that told of a young Alexander Campbell while he was a seminary student in Glasgow, Scotland. He was walking with his fellow students to chapel when he noticed a beggar in the street. Alexander was struck by the fact that this fellow human would not be welcomed at the Lord’s Table that morning because he had not and likely could not assent to the Westminster Confession, which at the time was required of all Presbyterians prior to receiving the elements at Communion. After their profession of faith by affirming the Confession, the communicants would receive a token in the form of a lead coin. This then would ‘buy’ their admission to the Eucharist as evidence that they had previously confessed. Campbell concluded that such a fence and gateway to the table was not what the Lord intended when he instituted this ordinance for his followers. Access to the experience of Grace found at the Table should not necessitate such a well-developed theological understanding, which indeed none of the original Apostles possessed when they gathered in the Upper Room with the Lord that night.
Over the years Disciples have varied in their view of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and of who has access to the table. A predominant view has been that it is a meal of Remembrance, but does not have any particular mystical or spiritual power beyond that. In other words, no special grace is conveyed, and no “real presence of Christ” is found in the receiving of the bread and cup. Even given with this understanding, there were congregations who practiced a closed communion – a practice normally only found among traditions who profess that the bread and wine in some way actually become the body and blood of Christ.
The descendants of the Campbell and Stone movement – the three streams of the Christian churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ – all seek to pursue faithfulness to Christ by striving for Christian Unity. This unity is sought on the basis of reliance on the Bible as our guide to the life of faith and the practices of the church. One early statement was “Where the Bible speaks, we speak, and where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Unfortunately it soon became clear that this motto was insufficient as a unifying theme. The statement itself leaves unclear what to do in those silences where the Bible does not speak. One result was a split over the practice of instrumental music in worship and cooperative mission among congregations. Neither of these practices are specifically mentioned in the New Testament. Those who became the Churches of Christ concluded that the absence of a specific directive meant the church should abstain. Those who became the Disciples of Christ concluded that the silence meant freedom within reason – the church used psalms, and psalms indicate instrumental notation, therefore, the church is permitted to use instruments in its worship, though the New Testament is silent on this particular point. A similar argument is made regarding cooperative missions.
When we come to the question of the Lord’s Supper, an interesting dilemma arises. Among all the heirs of the Campbell and Stone exists a desire to use common sense and reason – i.e. a reasonable and rational faith consistent with 19th and 20th century enlightenment and modern thought. In the gospels and 1 Corinthians we clearly hear Jesus say, “This is my body….This is my blood.” Yet we hesitate to take this at face value an in any way literally. We know that it is bread and grape juice/wine. We can see, smell, feel and taste it. The Roman Catholic answer to this dilemma is called Transubstantiation (a change in substance) – which simply means that while the elements continue to appear in all outward sensory ways as bread and juice, they are in actuality converted to the flesh and blood of Jesus in his sacrifice. Luther, discontent with this view, professed Consubstantiation (a parallel substance) – meaning that the elements remain bread and juice, while at the same time also becoming the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.
John 6 provides the starkest and most unsettling teaching on this question: “54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” In John we do not hear the language of simile – using like or as – or metaphor or parable. Jesus does not tell a story to illustrate in a concrete way a spiritual reality. Of course, in John’s Gospel we repeatedly get direct statements that can only be understood in a metaphorical way – “I am the Bread” (JN6:48), “I am the Gate” (JN10:7) “I am the Vine” (JN15:5). Why not then also take John 6 as metaphor? How do we discern the freedom to take any of these as metaphor rather than literally? How do we know when to apply this rule and when to withhold it?
In some circles there has been a desire to avoid all things Roman – meaning anything that seemed similar to, sympathetic to, or derived from the Roman Catholic church. This view has often been held by those who have not understood the theological arguments made by the Roman Catholic churches, nor by the Orthodox, Lutherans, or Anglicans. They have also thus not drawn clear distinctions among these various groups. “Anything that even sounds like it might be Roman Catholic is to be avoided.” The result of this has been an uncritical rejection of the idea of “real presence” without any sound argument.
Among Disciples persisted a resistance to the idea of sacrament, again because of its mystical connotations and association with Roman theology and non-biblical language. Preferring the category of Ordinance, given that it connotes something ordained (ordered / directed / commanded) by Christ, Disciples have largely affirmed two – namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This view has tended to reinforce the human nature of both the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as reenactments, remembrances and acts of obedience and worship, but not ones that in themselves confer any actual spiritual reality.
Since the 1950s and the increasing influence of the modern ecumenical movement as manifest in the National and World Council of Churches of Christ the Disciples have grown increasingly open to sacramental theology of other traditions. We have come to recognize infant baptism as “real baptism” and a means of God’s grace along with believers baptism, which is our normal practice. Disciples talk about the actual presence of Jesus with us in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, while refraining from attempts at explaining what happens metaphysically. We affirm that Jesus is really here, in a particular and special way because we break the bread and bless the cup; we do not need to explain how.
To whom is the table open? Again, there has been change over time. One approach has been that all who have received believer’s baptism by immersion are welcome, regardless of in which church or tradition. Others have said that all baptized and professing Christians (indicating that those baptized as infants have since made some public profession of faith and affirmation of their baptism).
Still others are disposed to say that Jesus put no restriction on the table based upon any particular doctrinal affirmation. The Apostles gathered in the upper room for the Last Supper still did not understand who Jesus was, what it meant that he was Son of God, Savior and Lord. Their notion of Jesus as Christ/Messiah was even wrong. Yet he gave himself to them in love. We know that Jesus was baptized by John, and we can deduce that Andrew, as a disciple of John, was probably likewise (JN1). We read that early in Jesus’ ministry the apostles baptized new believers (JN4), but beyond that we do not know that they themselves were all baptized, though we assume so. No where does scripture require any specific statement of faith or action prior to receiving Communion.
Paul does teach in 1 Corinthians 11 that we are to examine ourselves, avoid eating in an unworthy manner, and discern the body. He does not state specifically what he means by these things. The context might suggest something like the following. The Corinthians were failing to come together as one; the rich were taking advantage of their privilege and luxury to the point that the laborers came after work to find the food and wine consumed and their fellow disciples engorged and drunk. To discern the body, within Paul’s theology (RM12 & 1COR12), is to recognize that the whole church gathered together is the Body of Christ. When we fail to realize and respect this reality of the church, when we treat our sisters and brothers in Christ with disrespect or injustice, then we are treating Christ in this way (MT25:31-46) “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (v29). Does the sacred nature of this Communion derive from the mystical presence of Christ in the bread and wine, or in the gathering of the believers themselves, made one by Christ in spite of all that still distinguishes and divides them?
The Lord’s Supper was instituted at a Passover Meal. Such meals have always included the entire community of all ages, and even believing strangers and aliens (NUM9). The mark of being a male member of the people of God was circumcision, which was traditionally performed on the 8th day after birth. It was an act of God and community on behalf of the child. Girl, obviously, did not receive circumcision, but were nonetheless included in the celebration of the Passover as part of the covenant community. Paul indicates that baptism can be understood to replace circumcision (COL2:11-13). From this one could argue that like circumcision baptism is a communal act on behalf of the individual, more than an act of an individual in response to God. It is a way that an individual is included in the covenant community of God, by God, through the action of the community. This also reinforces Paul’s understanding that in Christ the distinctions of Jew and Gentile, Male and Female are made irrelevant as relates access to all experiences of God’s grace. In this line of thought one could argue that no barrier, other than the heart’s willful rejection of God, should hinder one from participating in the Lord’s Supper. And why would such a person ever desire to? The very inclination to participate would suggest a longing to believe and follow, even if incomplete and hesitant.
My own understanding, and the invitation I give as I officiate at the Lord’s Table is this:
“This table belongs to Christ, not to this congregation or denomination. It is Christ himself who extends the invitation. All who desire to be followers of Jesus Christ are invited by him to his table to receive the Bread and the Cup, the Body and Blood of Christ broken and shed that the world might be made whole. The gifts of God for the people of God; thanks be to God, Amen.”
For examples of what other churches teach about Communion, consider the following: Westminster Confession; Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; World Council of Churches; Roman Catholic Church – esp JPII (see IP 30);
11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Cor 13)