One formerly unchurched person recently told me about his first experience with the Lord’s supper. He had grown up in the inner city where a gang was his family. Befriended by “good Samaritans” in a time of need, he attended “church” for the first time and sat on the second row with his new friend.
As you might imagine, he was perplexed by the “Lord’s supper.” He supposed that it was a snack of some kind. So he grabbed a whole piece of bread and casually ate it as he passed the plate. When the juice came, he drank several cups while holding the tray (much to the shock and consternation of the server) all the while thinking how minimal the refreshment was. When the contribution basket came to him, he refused to pay for such megar food and drink.
Humorous, yes—but sad as well. As an one unquainted with “church,” the supper—both in terms of its form and meaning—was totally alien to him. While we might be amazed at his total unfamiliarity with Christian rituals, the fault may lie more with the Christian tradition than him. Christianity has so ritualized the Lord’s Table that it has no functional or meaningful connection with tables in life. While we may still call it a “table,” its “tableness” has been lost. The Lord’s Supper has become the Lord’s snack. It is little wonder that the unchurch can see no significance in the practice other than some meaningless and isolated ritual.
The response of the “Church Growth” movement, epitomzed by Willow Creek’s removal of the supper from Sunday services in the 1990s, was to reduce the role of the Supper in worshipping assemblies. The unchurched simply cannot connect with the Lord’s Supper—and not only the unchurched, but many churched as well. The problem is not the supper or the unchurched, the problem is the supper’s present form and discontinuity with the table of Jesus in Scripture.
The Table in the Ministry of Jesus
The table ministry of Jesus is often ignored in framing our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. For some it seems too removed from the Last Supper and for others the Lord’s Supper is a highly formalized ritual unlike the tables of Jesus’ ministry. However, in the Gospel of Luke the Last Supper is linked with the other tables in the narrative by language and content. The Last Supper is one meal among many (Luke 22), but it is also the paradigmatic meal for understanding the rest of the meals. It is a climactic meal in a series of meals during the ministry of Jesus which is continued in post-resurrection meals with the disciples. Instead of the Last Supper standing aloof from these other meals, it gives fuller meaning to them. The Last Supper interprets and gives substance to the other meals as they are understood in the theological light of that Last Supper.
Luke is a narrator. He tells stories rather than writing didactic prose. Through the stories he inculcates the values which he wants his community to embrace. Each meal story reveals something about Jesus and his mission. In Luke 5:27-32 Jesus sits at table with sinners as a physican among the sick. In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus receives a sinful woman at the table of a Pharisee and declares her sins forgiven. In Luke 9:10-17 Jesus shows hospitality to 5000 people as he first calls his disciples to mission (“give them something to eat”) and then models before them his messianic mission. The disciples are called to service. The table has a missional dimension; it reflects the mission of God to commune with his people at table. In Luke 10:38-42 Jesus accepts women as his disciples. In Luke 11:37-54 Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they sit at table only in form, not in spirit. In Luke 14:1-24 Jesus notes that their table does not look like the kingdom of God, but it looks like themselves. In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus invites himself to table with the tax collector Zacchaeus and declares that salvation had come to his house. Luke 24 welcomes a stranger to the table in Emmaus (Luke 24:30-35) and commissions the disciples to bear witness to gospel among all nations (Luke 24:45-49). Just as the disciples offered hospitality to a stranger on the way, so the table is a place where the church welcomes strangers (aliens or “others”). The table has a missionary quality, especially in light of the fact that the disciples receive their call to missions at a table.
The table is a place where Jesus receives sinners and confronts the righteous. The table is the place where Jesus extends grace to seekers, but condemns the self-righteous. Jesus is willing to eat with “others” in order to invite them into the kingdom, but he points out the discontinuity between our tables of social, ethnic, gender, economic, religious status and the table in the kingdom of God. The last (sinners, poor, and humbled–the “others”) will be first in the kingdom of God, but the first (self-righetous, rich and proud–the “churched”) will be last and excluded from the kingdom of God (Luke 13:26-30).
The meal stories have theological meaning for Luke’s community, and they are stories that shaped meals in the early church. The table during Jesus’ ministry should shape the table in the church because the table of Jesus is the table of the kingdom. The table of Jesus’ ministry continues in the church when his disciples gather at table. Jesus’ table etiquette is kingdom etiquette, and Lord’s supper is the Lord’s kingdom table.
The table announces the presence of the kingdom. It announces that “today” salvation has come to the world as God communes with his people at table. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and also to eat (commune, to be) with them. The Jubilee motif, articulated in Luke 4:16-19, not only invests the table with great joy, but it also calls the disciples of Jesus to embrace all those who are invited to his table. The table is inclusive and intentionally includes the poor, blind and oppressed; it intentionally reaches out to the “others”. The table reaches across all socio-economic, racial and gender barriers as it unites lost humanity at one table. Jesus modeled the invitation of all to the table as he welcomed Pharisee and tax collector, rich and poor, male and female. This inclusiveness testifies to the socio-ethical character of the table as a uniting moment in the kingdom of God.
The Table in the Church
The table in the contemporary church looks more like the “in-crowd” than it does the redeemed community of Revelation 7 or the ministry of Jesus. It is a gathering of the righteous, rather than a missional invitation to “others”. It is where the community gathers to take pride in its place at the kingdom table rather than a table which serves the poor, the weak, and the sinful. The table in the church looks more like a ritualized, formal Pharisaic table than it does the table of the messianic banquet. It is little wonder that the table in the church is not only misunderstood, but even despised by the unchurched and outsiders because the church’s table has become an “insider” phenomenon. The church’s table is intimidating, meaningless or irrelevant rather than inviting and comforting to the outsider.
That an unchurched person who visits some assemblies would have no idea of what is going on during the communion—in terms of both form and meaning—is an indictment that our language (“table”) does not fit our practice (when there is no table). That an unchurched person could misinterpret the communion bread and juice for a snack says more about the divorce of the supper from the preached Word and the divorce of the meal from our table language than it does about the naiveté of the unchurched. We call it a table, but it has no visible/communal table function, form or meaning.
The supper is a concrete proclamation of the Word, but it is exactly its concrete character (bread and wine—and as a meal!) which must be explained and applied. The supper needs to be joined with a preached Word from God so that not only the “alien” (the welcomed stranger among us) will appreciate its significance, but that the church will remember the work of God in Jesus Christ for them. The gospel should be proclaimed when the supper is served and the supper must proclaim the gospel as it embodies its meaning.
Jesus invited all to the table and sat with all. If the table embodies the gospel and bears witness to the gospel, then it should reflect the universal intent of the gospel. Just as our preaching invites all to faith, so the table should invite all to eat. The table, just as the ministry of the Word, offers grace and testifies that Jesus died for all. The table is a place where “others” can not only hear but experience the gracious message of the gospel through eating with the community of faith. All are invited to eat with Jesus. The community of faith receives ”strangers” at its table. The table of the Lord should epitomize gospel hospitality.
In the same way, the church as a community invites all who would seek God to the table. It invites the sinner, the unchurched and the weak family member to the table to hear the gospel of grace. It invites all (except the rebellious, cf. 1 Corinthians 5) to learn the gospel through eating and drinking.
When the Lord’s Supper is conceived as a meal at a table, then the exclusion of seekers is incongruous with the genius of the meal. If the Lord’s Supper is a meal, then it would be a counter-testimony to exclude “others.” It would deny food to the hungry, both spiritually and physically.
As the embodiment of the gospel and reflective of the essential nature of the church, the table is missional. It is a shared meal that bears witness to the universal grace of the gospel. Just as the gospel invites all to come to Jesus, so all are invited to the table to hear about Jesus and experience the community of grace.
[Modified version of a piece originally published in New Wineskins (Sep/Oct 2002).]