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The Lord’s Supper in the first Christian communities

30 November, 1999

Pierre Simson goes back to the scriptural accounts of the eucharist to see what exactly Christ meant by enjoining us to come together to celebrate his supper in memory of Him.

If we wanted to express in a few words what Jesus, the table-companion, wanted to reveal about God, we could simply quote the conclusion of the parable of the banquet in Luke’s Gospel: “Go to the open roads and the hedgerows and press people to come in, to make sure my house is full; because I tell you, not one of those who were invited shall have a taste of my banquet” (Luke 14:23-24).

If it is left to Jesus, and to the God whom he came to reveal, then, the hall will always be filled to capacity, not by spectators, but by people “coming from east and west and sitting down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 8:11).

Christ welcomes sinners
Of course, people can always refuse to accept the permanent invitation offered them by God; they can use their freedom to ‘excommunicate’ themselves. But they will never be able to invoke their poverty, their misery, their sinfulness to stay away; for Jesus’ God always “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 14:2).

Does that mean that there are no limits to taking part in the banquet of the Kingdom? Matthew’s gospel, through the parable of the Wedding Garment (Mt 22:14), seems to say that such limits do exist. But what is the “wedding garment” of the parable, concretely? Perhaps we can find light on this in Paul’s first Letter to the Christians of Corinth.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke refers several times to the practice of ‘the Breaking of Bread’ in the Christian community in Jerusalem: “These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers… They went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously…” (Acts 2:42, 46).

Celebration of the Lord’s supper
We do not know for certain whether the ‘breaking of bread’ in this text refers to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or simply to a fraternal meal shared by the members of the Jerusalem Christian community in memory of Jesus’ table-companionship. What seems to be certain is that the expression came to imply the eucharistic ceremony (see 1 Cor 10:16; 11:24 and the footnotes in the Jerusalem Bible). Or, as Paul calls it in 1 Cor II, “the Lord’s Supper”. Paul, here, is a most important witness: he wrote his first Letter to the Christians of Corinth around the year 57 AD, that is, about twenty or thirty years before Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. In other words, through Paul, we come into contact with the very first Christian communities, about twenty five years after Pentecost. In I Cor., Paul speaks at some length about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (I Cor 11:17-32).

It was not a celebration which Paul himself had introduced in the Christian communities he had founded, independently from the tradition of other Christian communities. On the contrary, Paul insists that his stand is that of Christian tradition: “For this is what I received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to you. . .” (I Cor. 11:23).

Fraternal meal
How did the Corinthians celebrate the Lord’s Supper? As far as we can make out, from Paul’s text, the custom seems to have been to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in private homes; and the celebration included a fraternal meal which led up to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. A beautiful custom which kept alive the memory of Jesus who sat at table with people to offer them an experience of communion and forgiveness.

So as not to overburden the host-family, it was agreed that each one would bring some food which would then be shared by all the guests. A truly fraternal meal, a shared meal, which was a splendid, concrete preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

But abuses had crept into the Corinthian community: the way the Lord’s Supper was celebrated was marked by an unacceptable paradox: on the one hand, the Corinthians were supposed to share a meal, and therefore enter fully into the spirit of a shared meal, the way Jesus did when he shared meals with people. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth was meant to be a family, a community celebration: “When you come together as a community…” (I Cor. 18).

More harm than good
But on the other hand, it was obvious that the community meeting in Corinth did more harm than good; there were separate factions, “one person went hungry while another was getting drunk”, the result being that “people were embarrassed”. In other words, in Corinth, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was exactly the opposite of what it was meant to be; as Paul puts it, “It is not the Lord’s Supper” (I Cor. 20).

The abuse in Corinth was not a matter of ritual; it was the spirit in which the celebration was conducted that was unacceptable. Paul tried to change it. He first invited the Corinthians to go back to the founding experience which the Lord’s Supper was, to go back to Jesus: “On the night he was betrayed…” (23-25).

Thus in the course of the last meal which he shared with his disciples before his Passion, Jesus already offered himself body and soul for them; and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper was “to do this in memory of him” (24-25). Consequently, therefore, one should ponder and reflect before entering into the movement of Jesus’ Passover: “Everyone is to recollect himself before eating this bread and drinking this cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation” (28-29).

Recognising the body
Paul’s words must be understood properly: Paul has in mind someone who is taking part in the Lord’s Supper, and who therefore “eats this bread and drinks this cup”. That person, Paul says, must ponder, recollect himself/herself, before eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ. That is, that person must first recognise the Body: we must note that Paul does not write that one should ‘recognise the Body and the Blood’; he uses the word ‘body’, all by itself; which means that Paul does not have in mind only the eucharistic body of Christ. What he has in mind, first and foremost, is the body that the Christian community is (12:27).

In other words, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper demands, on the part of Christians, that they be inspired by Jesus’ spirit: the Spirit of the Jesus “who welcomed sinners and ate with them”; the Spirit of Jesus sharing a last meal with his disciples, before he entered into his Passion; the Spirit of the Risen Lord who met his disciples after his resurrection. The Spirit of welcome, communion, forgiveness, of love and mercy. To be community conscious, to refuse any form of discrimination are not just possibilities for anyone participating in the Lord’s Supper; they are essential. And therefore, there are people whom Paul would exclude (or better, people who would exclude themselves!) from the Lord’s Supper; people who, in some way or other, refuse to “join the community”, people who do not want the community. Those are people who do not have the wedding garment, and do not want any.

The Eucharist in our communities today
In the light of all this, we understand that in order to know exactly what “doing this in memory of Jesus” means in terms of daily living, we must go back to the very source of the Church’s eucharistic tradition, to Jesus himself.

Jesus’ mission, his supreme priority was to reveal God as a God of mercy and compassion, as Abba: “the whole world must be brought to know that I love the Father, and that I do exactly what he commands me” (John 14:31). And the Father’s will was, and is, that all his children may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10); that they may all be one (John 17:11). Not just life eternal, up there; but life here and now; life growing towards fulness. And not just the unity of the just but the unity of all the Father’s children. To participate in the Eucharist is to let Jesus’ mission and priority sink ever deeper roots into our own hearts.

Jesus fulfilled his mission through his teaching, through his healing ministry, and especially through the meals he shared with people. Meals were for Jesus moments, experiences of welcome, of forgiveness, of communion. They were Abba’s loving kindness made real for people who sat at table with Jesus.

Not just for some people, for people who observed the Law, for people who belonged to the in-group of Jewish religious society. On the contrary, Jesus’ meals, while open to all, were offered by priority to sinners, marginal people whose lives, and hearts were touched by the sickness of sin, of ignorance; people who needed healing: “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). There was no room for discrimination in Jesus’ table-companionship; there should not be any either in our celebration of the Eucharist.

Wary of discrimination
But are there sinners, marginals, in our Christian communities today? People we discriminate against in our families, in our communities, in society at large? People we discriminate against in the celebration of the Eucharist? We must not too easily say that we have good, holy reasons to discriminate against certain people. There has been much ambiguity on this point in the Church’s history; an ambiguity which Jesus’ disciples experienced even while he was still with them: “We saw a man casting out devils in your name, and because he is not with us, we tried to stop him. But Jesus said to him John, You must not stop him; anyone who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).

Discrimination was one of the major problems that even the early Church had to face, as Luke tells us in the Acts 6:1. Discrimination extended even to all people of Gentile origin: (Acts15:1, 5).

And one of the major problems, in the early Christian communities, was community meals. The problem was so acute that in a Council convened by the apostles in Jerusalem in 49 AD, one of the major issues was that of table companionship. This Council led to a directive which was meant to guide Christians in their communities; basically, this directive is mainly about table-companionship: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” (Acts 15:28-29).

Grave incident
But according to Paul, the Jerusalem Council did not bring an end to difficulties. In his letter to the Christians of Galatia, Paul speaks of a grave incident which took place in Antioch, and in which he and Peter confronted each other: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face since he was manifestly in the wrong. His custom had been to eat with the pagans, but after certain friends of James arrived he stopped doing this and kept away from them altogether for fear of the group that insisted on circumcision” (Gal 2:1-12).

I have quoted these instances of discrimination in the early Christian communities because I am convinced that in some way, discrimination is deeply ingrained in us, in our communities, today, just as much as yesterday. So deeply ingrained that we easily come to think that it is the expression of God’s will, that God is on our side. And yet, is it not true that, at times, we practise discrimination for purely selfish reasons, because we feel threatened by ‘otherness’, by ‘difference’, and we want to protect ourselves, to erect boundaries around us which will make us feel good.

The celebration of the Eucharist in memory of Jesus challenges us: it asks us to make of our lives a memorial of him, to be Jesus in the world today, the Jesus who “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. As we celebrate the Eucharist, we are called to renew our commitment to be truly Jesus’ disciples; to take part fully in Jesus’ mission, and to be, like him, with him, ‘boundary-breakers’, ‘communion-makers’, seeking, like Jesus, to offer welcome, forgiveness, healing to all. Whatever the cost “My Body is for you, my Blood for you”.

Tremendous achievement
Writing about the tremendous achievement of Jesus’ mission in bringing together Jews and pagans, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians draws our attention to the price Jesus accepted to pay to bring about communion and unity: “Now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us (the Jews) have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ… He is the peace between us. He has made the two into one… by destroying in his own person the hostility…” (Eph 2:13-14).

“In his own person he destroyed the hostility”: the Eucharist is the sacrament of Jesus’ mission of unity; and therefore, the celebration of the Eucharist, the various forms of Eucharistic devotion, must be understood as our response the Risen Lord’s constant invitation to commit ourselves anew to doing this in memory of him.

The journey of discipleship is a difficult and long journey, because it means following Jesus. But the Jesus who calls us, “Come, follow me… do this in memory of me”, is the risen Lord, our constant companion. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is, in our communities, the celebration of his constant presence at our side; the presence, not of the judge, but of the companion who welcomes us, forgives us, strengthens us, so that we may walk on ‘in memory of him’. Until he comes to take us with him into the Father’s home.

This article first appeared in Spirituality (May-June 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

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