Reflections on Come to the Table — No. 1

I have often been asked, and was recently asked by a friend, to reflect on my book “Come to the Table”–what would have I said differently, what would I emphasize now, and what is my vision for the Supper in the contemporary church. So, I will take this month to offer some occasional reflections.

“If I had it MY way…”

My wish-list for restoring table in our churches. If I had control (which I don’t, and which I don’t want since the table should be communal rather than dictatorial), I would seek out #1, but if I can’t do #1, then #2, and if not #2, then at least #3, and if not #3, then I can at least get away with #4, and no doubt #5. 🙂 But even if there is no change–nothing of what I would like to see–my heart can still rejoice in the living Christ at his table, even in the most traditional of services.

But here is “my way” (forgive me, Sinatra).

1. Restore the Meal! Nothing will invest the table of the Lord with tableness more than a meal–a meal in honor, in memory (remembering) and in thanskgiving for Jesus. The meal would restore the interaction and horizontal communion of the table. It can no longer be silent, solemn, but joyous and engaging. It is not a funerary memorial, but thanksgiving meal celebrating our salvation through the gospel (the death and resurrection of Jesus). But a meal is difficult with our architecture, and problematic for implementation for logistical reasons. Thus, I like the model of Acts 2 as perhaps one way of have the best of both worlds: general assembly in the temple for teaching/prayer/praise and then in the home for breaking bread/praise. I am not, however, advocating the loss of the Lord’s Supper in the general assembly in the contemporary church. It can be in both assembly and small groups. This might actually enrich our experience of the Supper.

2. Restore the Table! Get around a table, even if we only have bread and wine. The literal table will produce the atmosphere of table–interaction and communion. Gather around standing, or gather at the table sitting. It doesn’t matter; at least we will not be looking at the back of each other’s heads.

3. Restore the Communal Dimension! If we cannot gather around a table where the communal dimension will occur naturally, we can at least restore the communal dimension through corporate prayers, corporate reading of Scripture, congregational singing, encouraging people to prayer with each other, encouraging each other by verbal interaction, etc. as they eat. This can be partly accomplished by getting people out of their seats to commune. Invite people to come to the elements instead of bringing the elements to them. As people go to the elements, they will interact with each other—hugging, greeting, encouraging each other.

4. Restore the Mood! If nothing else, restore the joy of tableness to the Lord’s Supper as a thanksgiving in the presence of the living Christ. This a heart-change and a paradigmn shift in the minds of people. This is where we must begin, of course. We need to teach a new vision of the table as one of joy rather than a funerary atmosphere that is wholly located in some kind of mere memorialism.

5. Restore the Vision! None of the above is possible without this–a renewed theological vision of the table as communal fellowship with the risen Christ. I recommend teaching…teaching…teaching…and experimentation….and different experiences in different settings….teaching, teaching, and did I say teaching, etc. The vision must change in order to fully implement 1-4, but even if 1-4 are never implemented, a renewed vision and theological understanding will enable people to experience the supper in significant ways, even if it is only hidden in their own heart. Even in the most traditional service, I can smile as my heart thinks about the living Christ in my presence and Joshua at my side.

How do we begin to implement some of these points?

In general, I would suggest….

….begin slowly–pray, teach, discuss

….begin small–little things, in small groups, in different settings than the pews

….stay inclusive–understand that there are multiple dimensions to the supper and multiple perspectives, utilize all perspectives and give voice to all persuasions.

….stay united–don’t divide with what should unite, be sensitive to years of tradition and practice, understand how many find their piety in this moment and how central it is to them

….. progress toward the goal of experiencing God and each other at the table; this is the main thing—a communal experience of Jesus’ grace and love as we share that love and grace with each other.

8 Responses to “Reflections on Come to the Table — No. 1”

  1.   Keith Jones Says:

    One Sunday morning in 1996 I was listening to a preacher in a small church in southern middle Tennessee. I have no idea the points he was trying to make that day because he began his sermon by reading a passage that started at Acts 20:7. I don’t know how far he read or what he said afterwards because I couldn’t get past the first couple of phrases of the selected passage. It was a verse that I heard used many times to “prove” that we were supposed to “take” the communion every Sunday. Regardless of the validity of that argument I never once heard anybody talk about the fact that the verse not only showed when the Supper happened but that the Supper was their purpose for being together.

    The verse said that the disciples had come together for the purpose of breaking bread. We had just completed our bread breaking experience and it just did not seem like it was our purpose for being there. We sang songs to prepare our minds for the Lord’s Supper, but it seemed the Supper’s purpose was to prepare our minds for the sermon. I decided that day that I would try to understand more fully this ritual that had been a part of my life for so many years.

    I stared by looking at the gospel accounts of the Last Supper. One of the first things that struck me was that this was the Passover. I knew nothing about the Passover except what I had read in the Hebrew Bible so I wondered if there was anything about that celebration that would help me to better appreciate my communion experience. As I studied I was amazed at what I was discovering. The layers of meaning and the significance of Jesus’ timing and selection of symbols left me dumbfounded. The most significant realization for me was that Jesus plea for remembrance came during a celebration of God’s power to redeem.

    Wondering if this should have some bearing on the attitude with which I approached my communion, I started looking at how the early church used there time around the table. I came to see the attitude of the early Christians during the Lord’s Supper was not really any different than the Jews who had previously celebrated the Passover. The bread and the wine for both were symbols of God’s power and they celebrated that power and gave thanks. I realized that what those early Christians were doing was entirely different than what I had been doing. Not only was the attitude and purpose different, so was the practice itself. That was a tough idea to come to grips with since I was coming from a tradition of thinking our fellowship had already correctly figured everything out.

    I remember when your book came out. At first, I refused to read it. I had spent several years, at that point, trying to better understand the Lord’s Supper and was confident that I was on to something. I didn’t want to read something that was going to tell me my journey had been in vain, that their conclusions were superior to mine (I know I had issues). When I finally swallowed my pride and took a look at your book, and even talked to you about it at one point (though I know you wouldn’t possibly remember it), I was elated. You talked about things I had discovered and gave voice to ideas that I was still trying to find the words to express. You caused me to think about and imagine fresh way of coming to the table.

    I apologize for the lengthy comment, but I write it all to say thanks. Thank you for making this a topic of discussion. Thank you for not letting the discussion die and thank you for all your effort and scholarship. Until I got a hold of your book and learned of your work, I was beginning to think that I was the only one who cared (some sort of Elijah complex I guess). Thanks again.

    By the way, one of my suggestions has been to get rid of the pews and put in a bunch of those round banquet tables. Get rid of the “order of worship” and let worship be the result of the communion with God.

  2.   Milton Stanley Says:

    Reading your post here, John Mark, was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that you’re urging the church to return to the Lord’s Supper with an attitude more closely approximating that of the apostolic church. On the other hand, it was a reminder of how thoroughly the church has worked to eviscerate the supper–to do the least amount possible while retaining the invididualistic tone of the whole thing–and that saddens me deeply.

    In any case, I linked to your post at my blog this morning. Peace.

  3.   daniel Says:

    Regarding points 1 through 4

    1. Yes!
    2. Yes!
    3. Yes!
    4. Yes!

    I’m hopeful that I’ll eventually be able to lead a study of your book here in Abu Dhabi…or at least gather together some people who are willing to experiment with the table in the setting of a home group. We’ll see.

  4.   Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Again, some really great thoughts and guidance. This one impressed me so much I gave it a link from my blog. Many blessings.

  5.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Me too!

  6.   bradfordlstevens Says:

    I recently attended a funeral mass for the deceased wife of one of my law partners. I was fascinated by the “smells and bells” of the Catholic liturgy and how mechanical it all seemed for the priest to dispense the sacraments. I know that for those who partook in faith that they no doubt communed with the Lord. I could not help but think about how we, in our own traditions within the churches of Christ, have made our passing of the grape juice and the bread that tastes like crackers a mere ritual in much the same way. No doubt, it allows the faithful to commune; but, does it capture the essence of the table? I think not. Last year we sponsored a Zoe conference and on Saturday night we set up tables around the auditorium where the Elders served the elements of communion for whomever wished to partake. It was very troubling for some of our members because we had “never done it that way before!” I agree that we need more teaching and emphasis on the purpose and the power of the communion. At the same time, we need to explore the freedom that we have in Christ to make the communion a relational experience rather than a ritual sacrament. If we do not, we miss out on the joy of community. It is not about grabbing crumbs on the plate and little nead, individual sanitary cups for each individual believer. It is more about Romans 16:16 i.e., greeting one another with a Holy Kiss.

    Bradford L. Stevens, Elder
    McKnight Road Church of Christ
    St. Louis, MO

  7.   Joel Maners Says:

    One thing tat I have always appreciated about our church is that we have a communion leader who shares a few thoughts or scriptiures before serving the bread and wine. After reading your book a few months ago, I had the opportunity to lead the Lord’s Supper once again. I tried to bring some of the lessons you had taught me to the service. Here’s the gist of what I shared. At the end I showed the actual clip from the movie Antone Fisher.

    “What do you think about when you eat at God’s Table? When I was young I sort of looked at the Communion at church as a kind of club handshake. If you were in the club, you got to do the handshake. But if you were out? Well…you were left out. I guess I saw the table as a barrier. It was as if there was a wall between me and God. And it seemed like everyone else was on the other side.

    Years later after I came to know God I began to see it less and less as a barrier and more and more as an invitation. When I read the Old Testament, I see God instituting feast after feast. Even the worship of God is a sort of feast involving the cooking of meat on an altar. In the New Testament, Jesus again and again compares the Kingdom of God to a banquet, a feast, a celebration.

    I think the point God wanted to make with all of this is that he wants to fellowship with us. He wants to eat with you and me. He wants to be our friend. The communion table is not a barrier, it’s an invitation to fellowship and sharing. It’s a place to belong. This table is where you can know that God set a place just for you.

    In the movie Antwone Fisher, Antwone is a troubled young man serving in the Navy. He gets into a series of altercations and is eventually sent to visit with a Navy psychiatrist. After a number of meetings the psychiatrist discovers that the problems Antwone is experiencing are rooted in his painful past.

    Antwone had grown up in an abusive foster home. His birth-mother, Eva, had given birth to him shortly before entering prison. She was convicted in the shooting death of her boyfriend, Eddie Elkins, Antwone’s father. Antwone was sent to foster care while his mother was serving time. His mother was supposed to have come for him after serving out her sentence, but she never came, and never called. Antwone grew up having never met his mother or anyone from his father’s family.

    While on leave from the Navy, Antwone travels back to his hometown and begins searching for his lost family. After weeks and weeks of searching for his mother without any results, he accidently stumbles across his aunt, his late father’s sister. She introduces Antwone to two of his uncles from the Elkins family. He questions them on the whereabouts of Eva, his mother. One of them knows where she lives and reluctantly agrees to take Antwone to meet her. She is living alone in a run down housing project.

    Antwone’s uncle introduces him to his mother Eva. It’s the first time she has seen him since he was born. He tries to reach out to her but she will have nothing to do with him. She has nothing to say. Antwone leaves her cramped, dirty apartment rejected and feeling more alone in the world than ever. He and his uncle get back into their car and head back home.

    When they arrive back at his uncle’s home, the entire Elkins family, his late father’s family, is there to greet him and celebrate his homecoming. Even though they didn’t know that they were even related to him, they accept him as one of their own.

    That’s the scene I picture in my mind now when I drink the cup and eat the bread. It’s not about being judged by others or just going through some dead ritual. It’s about the acceptance and love of God.

    I think this song by Christopher Davis sums it up well.

    Lay your burden down

    Every care you carry

    And come to the table of grace

    For there is mercy

    Come just as you are

    We are all unworthy

    To enter the presence of our God

    For He is holy

    Lift up your heart, lift up your hands

    Fall on your knees and pray

    For the King of Kings and the love He brings

    Is here in this place

    We raise our voices, raise our song

    We offer Him our praise

    For the King of Kings and the joy He brings”

  8.   rich constant Says:

    …well my friend… if the old is a foretaste,shadow,a longing fore…
    reconciliation to the true coming together in the Temple, through the Fulfilling…
    Of all that was expressed by Moses and the prophets,through the faithfulness of our Lord, and we are invited to become partakers and enter into that feast of victory?
    with the heavenly host?
    abiding in The Faith, Hope, and Love,and that THE SPIRIT reviled the MYSTERY…
    that in the ages to come God might show his wisdom…

    I think also, we ought to be a little bit …or a lot bit …happier in our communal experience That we share with the risen king.that was is and will always be the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
    Also that He WAS worthy.
    he is not going to be worthy…
    do we not think we have been secured by the Spirit’s actions of witness…
    if i am not mistaken didn’t Paul spend a little time at Corinth 18, 24 months.
    jee whiz who else was there?.”boy oh boy”
    did they get so screwed up that all Paul said was, come on you guys,settle down.
    I think Not
    he just told them to set down and have a nice time eating together as the lord would have us do.

    if we were back then “I WONDER HOW SCREWED UP PAUL WOULD SAY WE WERE ”

    i have a good idea

    it to me is one thing to have a big dinner and enjoy company
    it is
    quite another idea indeed
    to go to the dinner and go through the motions ….

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