This is the second in a series of six articles first published in Oikos. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.
Our life together as a church is an important part of the good news we announce to people. This good news is easier to practice in a house-church structure than an institutional church. In each issue of Oikos, I will be discussing one of six important practices we find in the New Testament which mark the church as God’s people, living in the kingdom now. Last issue, we started with baptism as the practice which brings different types of people into the same body. This article is on the Lord’s Supper – in which we remember Jesus by eating together. To follow are the giftedness of every believer, the open meeting, discipling and discerning.
The Messiah’s Banquet
When the Old Testament looks forward to the coming of the Messiah and the new age it will bring, it sometimes pictures it as a banquet (Isaiah 25:6-8; Ezekiel 39:17-20). When Jesus came, he fulfilled this in many ways.
- He ate in the homes of sinners and outcasts, showing his love and acceptance of these people. This was radically new
- He fed the five thousand and the four thousand – a ‘messianic banquet’.
- He began the Lord’s Supper – a shared meal to be eaten in memory of him and his new way of life.
We read in Luke 22:19:
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.’
What were the disciples meant to do in his memory? It can’t mean ‘Whenever you celebrate Holy Communion’; there was no such thing as ‘Holy Communion’.
Jesus’ first followers took him to mean ‘whenever you eat together, do it in remembrance of me.’ The meal Jesus wanted them to remember him with was their ordinary eating together.
Eating together in the first church – an economic act
In Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit came upon the early believers during Pentecost. The Pentecost story ends with more common meals. The disciples’ life together is summarised in four activities – they “remained faithful to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (2:42) and “they met in houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously” (2:46). When they did, the disciples were celebrating the Lord’s Supper as Jesus asked them to.
From sharing food together, the disciples went on to sharing money – “no-one claimed for his own use anything that he had” (4:32). This sharing was a natural extension of the common meal.
The sharing was real, and it was necessary because the disciples depended on each other like a family depends on each other. We must remember that many in the movement had left behind families or jobs, or had sold their houses and placed the money in a common fund. They were no longer financially independent; they were now dependent on each other. In eating together, the disciples looked after each other like a family looks after each other.
For the early church, the food shared in the Lord’s Supper did not just symbolise daily sustenance; it was daily sustenance. The primary meaning of the Lord’s Supper was not ceremonial – it was economic. House-church writer Wolfgang Simson says:
The Lord’s Supper was actually more a substantial supper with a symbolic meaning, than a symbolic supper with substantial meaning. God is restoring eating back into our meeting.
If we understand the Lord’s Supper as a set-apart religious ritual in a worship service, we miss how much it should change the way we live together.
When we realise that the Lord’s Supper is about sharing food and money with other believers, we see the economic newness of the Kingdom of God. The way we handle food and money in the Kingdom of God is different to the way the world handles these things. In fact, we are showing the world how they will ultimately live when Jesus returns.
The Lord’s Supper demands radical, uncomfortable sharing and support for the poor. We must wrestle seriously with the witness of those first Christians who sold their houses to share the money with the others in the church. Our society rewards merit and productivity. As Christians, we believe in unmerited sharing – grace – and we value the lowly, meek and poor who are not productive.
Not just food, but also status
The sharing of food and money in table fellowship leads to equality in Christ. The world judges us by our economic status – in the first century, there was master and slave; in our century, there are successful career-people and the unemployed or lowly skilled. But the sharing of bread and money begins a redistribution that recognises we are equal in Christ. It condemns the snobbery which says some people are better than others. It’s not that often that people eat together across social divisions. We learned last time of how baptism brings people from different backgrounds into one people. Sharing the Lord’s Supper reinforces this unity of a new people made of both cleaners and CEOs; lawyers and lunch-ladies. They all bring contribute to the Lord’s Supper; they eat and drink together and they wash up together afterwards.
Some practical steps
1. If you are not already, begin sharing a meal as part of your house church’s regular meeting. There are different ways to do this. You can ask everyone to bring something, according to what they can afford. If you have different hosts each week, you can get the host to provide food for everyone. When we spend some time cooking and preparing food to share with everyone, we come closer to some of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper for the first Christians.
You might want to include a ceremonial aspect to the shared meal to remind everyone of the spiritual meaning. In my last house church, we would sometimes begin the meal with an uncut loaf of bread and give thanks before breaking it, each of us tearing off a large chunk. We would then pass around two cups – one of wine, one of grape juice. It helped us to remember that the social and economic importance of the meal were spiritually important!
2. Begin a Share Register, where everyone details what things they own which others can borrow. It is good to specify on the register how long the expected lending period is and any conditions or special notes; this will prevent misunderstandings later on.
3. Invite people to dinner – both people from your church and others. Share food with them, and see hospitality as an important part of following Jesus and building community. In a Christian share-house I used to live in, we would have an open meal every Thursday night, with a standing invite for anyone to come and join us. Over a year and a half, I ate and shared with many different people. I miss it!