Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Lord's Supper and the Poor

Interesting article on the Lord's Supper I found here:

In a tragic twist of irony, the venue in the Christian faith that was intended to unify believers of diverse stripes and beliefs has actually divided and split the church in untold ways.

I’m referring to Communion. The Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist. The Table.

It goes by many names, and has been practiced many ways. It began with Jesus and his disciples, the night before the Christ would be betrayed, assembled around the Passover table with a meal with some bread to eat and wine to drink. You could make a strong case that it really began centuries earlier with the original Passover celebration, ordered by God to prepare the Israelites for their impending exile from Egypt.

This is part of the account of the Last Supper from Luke’s gospel:

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

Fast-forward roughly 2,000 years. Today, 38,000 unique denominations exist in Christianity, many of them set apart by how they have observed the Lord’s Supper. Some use unleavened bread, some do not. Some drink wine (from one cup or many), some prefer grape juice. Some serve the wine and the bread separately, some practice intinction. Some observe it annually, others quarterly, and still others weekly. Some believe the bread and wine to be symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, and others believe in the mysterious transubstantiation of the emblems into flesh and blood.

Disputes over the practice of the Lord’s Supper have created more divisions than perhaps any other tradition in Christianity. So much so that we refer to many of these diverse denominations as “communions.”

But what if we – the church – missed the point? What if Jesus’ Last Supper was, well, just a meal? A Passover meal, yes, but never intended to be institutionalized as a religious sacrament. What if he was simply observing the Passover like a good Jew would, but telling his disciples (then and now) through his words and actions that he was now the fulfillment of the Jewish law and would now be the centerpiece of table fellowship when his followers came together?

What if Jesus was reminding his disciples and us that some of the most radical moments of his ministry occurred around the dinner table?

I do not challenge 2,000 years of Christian history lightly. I come from a tradition that takes the Lord’s Supper seriously. Very seriously. Churches of Christ take communion weekly, even on youth trips and campouts, and some among us even insist on drinking the grape juice (never wine) from a single cup. On our better days, we were a family that puts Christ and his meal at the center of our fellowship, and on our worst days, we are bitterly sectarian and exclude certain groups for not seeing things our way. I grew up with an appreciation for the centrality of the Table to Christian assembly (all Christian assembly; not just Sunday), but with a nagging suspicion that other groups weren’t Hell-bound for doing things differently.

And to be honest, I’m glad the tradition of the Supper has stuck around. It’s a good thing to remember that Christ is in our midst when we gather around the table, a table that welcomes every kind of person to it.

Lately, however, I’ve wondered whether the ritual was legit. I’ve wondered if Christ’s primary intent was to ordain a new church tradition or just demonstrate a way of being in the world. I’ve wondered if Jesus is saddened by how far some would take their insistence on a certain way of observing the tradition they had turned from an ordinary Passover meal into a holy sacrament, excluding others on that basis.

Jesus ate so many meals. Of the numerous meal stories that are recorded in the gospels, ten are in Luke; one scholar quipped that Jesus is eating his way through the book. I think that as Jesus’ disciples looked back on their last meal with their Lord before his crucifixion, they would have remembered the meals Jesus enjoyed during the previous three years. His first healing of Simon’s mother, who recovered from her fever and began serving Jesus and Simon food. (Lk 4:38-44) A sinful woman anointing Jesus’ feet while he was at dinner with a Pharisee. (7:36-50) The feeding of the 5,000 from five loaves and two fish. (9:10-17) His meal with Mary and Martha. (10:38-42) Not washing before eating with Pharisees and experts in the law. (11:37-53) Healing on the Sabbath in front of the Pharisees and a teaching on whom we are to invite to luncheons and dinners. (14:1-13) Jesus parable of the Great Banquet. (14:15-23) Eating with tax collectors and sinners. (15:1-7; 19:1-10)

My point is this: More important than “getting right” the practice of the Eucharist on Sunday is our willingness to dine with sinful and marginalized people on Monday. I heard someone say recently that our celebration of the Lord’s Table on Sunday is practice for the openness of our own tables on Monday. In those radical acts of hospitality, our plain, store-bought dinner tables mysteriously transubstantiate into a Jesus Table, and our meal into the Lord’s Supper.

I need to be honest right here: I write this as one more inclined to plan a banquet and invite those friends who possess the means to turn around and invite me to their banquet, instead of inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

I’d do well to meditate on the Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:40, as would we all:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

My response:
Interesting article and discussion.

Although I agree that The Sheep and the Goats is specifically speaking about disciples, Jesus spoke generally about feasting with the poor in other contexts, not least in Luke 14. And Paul's message in I Cor 11 is about a eucharistic meal which is a feast in which some did not get to eat because of the greed of the first in line. We must be aware of the body of Christ, and allow the lowest in the body to gain as much as the greatest.

In Anawim, we have two sacramental meals: a. A meal that is for everyone, especially the poor and hungry, without excluding anyone because of religious preferences. We have these meals every time we worship, four times a week. b. Twice a year-- New Year's and Resurrection Day-- we hold a Lord's Supper with the bread and wine. These are special times of commitment to Jesus as Lord, remembering His sacrifice for our sins.

People come to Anawim with different theological ideas of what the Eucharist means, but we all share in the unity of it, as long as we recognize Jesus as our Lord and we are committed to Him.

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