There are several themes that come together in my understanding of Communion or the Lord’s Supper. I believe the Hebrew Bible and the “New Testament” are vitally connected in its teachings regarding this meal. Thus I believe that the “NT” teaching regarding the Supper is to be interpreted against the background of the shalom (i.e. peace/fellowship) offerings and the meals of Jesus in the Gospels.
This meal has a vertical dimension tying us to God our Redeemer. This meal has a horizontal aspect that connects us to God’s Family. This meal has a backward feature linking us to God’s act at
The Vertical Dimension
The Table is a moment of profound communion (i.e. fellowship) with God. This is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 10.16. The Table is holy because God is “there.” We share (have fellowship) the Table with God. This view makes no sense, though, if we do not accept the relation of the Supper with shalom meals of the Hebrew Bible. Yet these meals are the very basis of Paul’s reasoning (cf. 1 Cor. 10.18ff).
The great examples of these meals, as in Exodus 24.1-11, Leviticus 9 and 2 Chronicles 30 reveal what Paul has in mind. Because Sin, the barrier between man and God, has been removed through a Sacrifice (atonement) there can now be uninhibited fellowship. God’s Presence is real and not a simple trick of the mind or semantics. God’s Presence is as real as in Exodus 3 when God appeared to Moses. This is what we long for as redeemed people.
Having fellowship with God was a moment of great joy and celebration. Moses tells us, “when the people saw it [God’s glory appearing], they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9.24). We see Jesus continually acting out this principle in his life in the Gospels.
The Horizontal Aspect
God’s Table has never been solely about a private moment with the Lord. Even the “vertical” dimension of the Table was never experienced alone. God’s people can and do go for prayer walks, sit in trees, drive in cars and experience profound moments of communion with the God of grace. But these are not the Table. God has never intended the Table to be like this. Tables are meant for families.
As God set it up one could not offer a sacrifice without a group to fellowship with. The shalom sacrifice was eaten. Leviticus 7.16 tells us that 800 pounds of meat had to be eaten in two days! No human could do this alone. Thus friends and family gathered for a sacrifice and folks ate together.
The Passover is a good example of what I mean. This is truly a family meal. Jews did not, indeed could not, take the Passover alone. Jesus and his disciples were a family and celebrated this meal together. The meal bound a group of misfits together through an experience of God’s grace. They talked, ate, relaxed all in the context of the Table.
It is the failure of this horizontal aspect of the table that Paul reprimands the Corinthians for. In 1 Cor 11 the Corinthian church were importing pagan stratification into the society of the redeemed. Peter Lampe (in Interpretation) goes into these issues and sheds a flood of light onto this text and its context. The Corinthians did not realize that an experience of the Crucified Lord alters how we view and experience one another. As Lampe writes,
“The Corinthians, forgetting care for others, were interested solely in the vertical communion with the risen Lord. Paul, however says that one can only have a close relationship with the risen Lord . . . Christians are led to care for others, proclaiming Christ’s death in their existence”
The Corinthians thought the Table was only about their individual time with God. Paul says they are mistaken. One can only be at the Table with God if he or she came with a brother or a sister. It is precisely here where one’s understanding of 1 Cor 11. 29 comes in. I believe the entire context of chapter 11 makes it extremely unlikely that Paul is chastising these brethren and sisters for not being devotional enough. The problem was how they were treating their brothers and sisters. The phrase “of the Lord” (rather than simply “body”) was almost certainly not a part of the original. The phrase is missing from p46 (P stands for “papyri” and 46 stands for its number) which is the earliest witness we have to Greek text of 1 Corinthians (dates to about 200). The phrase is missing from the most important uncial manuscripts (Siniaticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus and a host of others). This evidence, which is weighty, makes it very unlikely that Paul wrote the phrase “of the Lord” in v. 29. The call to “recognize” the body refers to the Body of Christ that is assembled at the Table which makes perfect sense in light of the problem the Corinthians were having at the Table.
Thus at the Table we celebrate together the vertical dimension that has been established through the sacrifice of Jesus upon the altar. Communion is now available with our Father and our Brother in a way that has never been experienced before.
The Backward Feature
The Lord’s Table also looks back and recalls the great works of God culminating in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus tells us to remember him. I do not believe this means only recalling six hours one Friday. We remember Jesus. But when we remember Jesus we also remember God’s work in Jesus. It is God’s victory in and through Jesus.
When we gather at his Table we recall the gift that brought us here. This backward glance is not a moment of despondency. It is not a moment of self-deprecation. The cross was not a moment of defeat for Jesus rather it was a moment of glorification. We recall this as his crowning moment in life (as John’s Gospel thinks of it). When we remember not only the cross but all of Jesus ministry . . . then we remember the depth of God’s love for us (even me!). The cross is the revelation of love (John 3.16; 1 John 3.16). At the Table I remember that, like the woman caught in adultery and the thief, I am not condemned! When we look backward we see reason to celebrate the victory of God.
Once again we need to remember the connection with the Hebrew Bible. The word “memorial” does not imply somber, solitude, sad, dour or anything of the sort. The Passover was a “memorial” as well and it was never a sad occasion or a private moment of introspection. The Passover was a mighty celebration held in honor of the Lord. The word “memorial” is associated with “rejoicing” in Scripture. Moses helps us understand this term,
“Also at your times of rejoicing – your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals – you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the LORD your God” (Num 10.10).
The Forward Outlook
By sitting at God’s Table we also look forward to the future. We truly experience the presence of the risen Christ at the Table but we also proclaim that his resurrection leads to a time when he will return. In the Supper we have a foretaste, a shadow if you will, of the gloriousness of what heaven will be like. At the Table all the saints of old are gathered in communion with us in anticipation of when we will literally sit at the great banquet in the eschaton. John gives us a glimpse of this “wedding supper of the Lamb” in Revelation 19.9.
There are many other things that tie the Table to the future as well but they are not at issue so I will leave them for the moment.
I believe that God is always Present at his table. I believe the community of God is always present at the table. I believe that the Table is characterized by joy and gratitude. I do not believe the Table is an altar experience. I believe such a perspective is not rooted in Scripture but rather in doctrine that Christ is sacrificed again (medieval mass). The altar was and remains the cross. The cross allows us to sit at the Table with God ... a table rich and varied in what God intends it to be for his Family.Shalom,