When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body. [1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)]
Sometimes our Florida church celebrates Communion at the beach. The church provides fried chicken and everyone brings a dish to pass. After enjoying dinner and fellowship with our church family, we congregate around the gazebo, pray, hear a brief sermon, and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Some Sundays, there also may be a Baptism in the ocean. We stand on the beach as the sun sets in the west and welcome a new Christian into the body of Christ. These sunset meals are a celebration of God’s grace, Jesus’s love, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whenever we have our sunset celebrations, I think of what it must have been like for the early church. Because most of the early Christians were Jews, initially they gathered in the temple and synagogues for worship. Unable to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or baptize in a Jewish house of worship, this arrangement was unsatisfactory. Without a church building or a formal baptistery, people were brought to wherever there was water for Baptism and, on Sundays, the Christians gathered in homes for a 1st century potluck. The partaking of the bread and wine was usually celebrated as part of the meal, called an agape or love feast. To show their union in Jesus, people were to set aside their differences in status, wealth, ethnicity, and education and any quarrels were to be settled before partaking in the meal. Their worship was close and intimate. When we celebrate with our church at the beach, I feel that same sense of fellowship. We are an odd assortment of people, of diverse backgrounds and various ages, and from all walks of life but we are family—united by our belief in Jesus. Celebrating the sacraments in such a way is a profoundly meaningful experience.
Of course, the early church wasn’t perfect and problems arose. Paul took the Corinthians to task for dissension among their members and for not settling their differences. Worse, some of the Corinthians were selfish with the food or got drunk during the meal; not everyone cared or shared. Their gluttony and disregard for the needs of others didn’t demonstrate the unity and love that were to characterize the early church. With no alcohol at our church potlucks, no one ever gets drunk but some people in the front of the line have been known to take far more than their share, making it slim pickings for those at the end. I have a sneaky suspicion that not everyone comes together with all of their differences settled either. In actuality, we probably aren’t a whole lot different from our Corinthian forefathers.
By the beginning of the 2nd century, Christ’s followers had moved out of the synagogues, the Christian church found its own way to worship, and the Lord’s Supper was no longer celebrated as part of a meal. Although a few denominations and house churches still celebrate agape meals with communion, most of us celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a more formal setting than a potluck at someone’s house or a park. Nevertheless, we should always remember its beginnings. That first Lord’s Supper was an actual meal that fed both body and soul. Apart from Judas, the participants were a family of believers, a band of brothers, united in their love for one another and for Jesus. The Lord’s Supper began as a Passover feast celebrating God’s redemption of His people from slavery to Pharaoh and it continues as a celebration of the redemption of His children from slavery to sin. Moreover, we should never come to His table without settling our differences with one another.
But every Lord’s day . . . gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. [Didache 14 (c.90 AD)].