Monday, July 04, 2005

Communion: A New Perspective

One thing I like about the emergent church is their willingness to be radical and innovative in their praxis concerning worship, ministry and preaching (although I don’t necessarily agree with the entire theological package, but I often like the contemporary forms in which their theology is expressed). One area that I think really needs to be re-thought and even re-theologicized is how evangelicals (emergent or otherwise) do communion. To be honest, I think the way that the Lord’s table operates in most traditional evangelical churches is still indebted to a pre-Reformation and sacramental understanding of communion. People seem to think that a crumb of bread and a drip of juice, followed by a short devotional is how it has always been. Robert Jewett writes: “The purely symbolic meal of modern Christianity, restricted to a bit of bread and a sip of wine or juice, is tacitly presupposed for the early church, an assumption so preposterous that it is never articulated or acknowledged.” (Robert Jewett, “Tenement Churches and Pauline Love Feasts,” Quarterly Review 14 [1994]: 44)

The way I understand table-fellowship in Jesus’ ministry and the early Palestinian church is that, for a start, it took place around a whole meal. Furthermore, Communion is not meant to be an intermission between singing and preaching, it was a symbol of the radical inclusiveness of all those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus and it foreshadowed who was going to be vindicated in the future age. When the early church sat down at their table-fellowship meals they were eating the hors d’oeuvres of the Messianic banquet!

About a year ago I visited a small missional (= maybe emergent) church in north Sydney called “Small Boat, Big Sea” hosted chiefly by Michael Frost (Deputy Principal of Moorling Theological College). The church met in a manse (though once a month they do a worship service in the church next door). I met a group of about 15 people aged between 18 and 45, and was warmly received. I even got offered a glass of red wine upon entry which I accepted with glee (something I don’t experience that often Baptist churches). We soon sat down in a room surrounded with lounge chairs and pillows, and the group talked about a recent outreach event where they offered a meal and marriage seminar to unchurched couples, next was a video clip from a movie about a guy stuck in a phone booth, that led to a discussion on repentance, it was followed by a young girl recounting a book she had recently read about being a Christian woman. This was followed with a meal (including more red wine and curry!!!). I like this church, though I know it is not for everybody, and there are things I would sure do differently. I also know that I’m theologically poles apart from Frosty on a lot of issues – but what I did like was the intimacy of sharing a meal with fellow believers who share only one thing in common – not jobs, education, socio-economic status, address, gender, ethnicity, background – but profess that Jesus is Lord. For me, this is what Acts 2.42 is all about – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Personally, I think the breaking of bread is more than a potluck dinner and needs some kind of liturgy (but contemporary for the Gen-Xers) in order to enhance our reflection and remembrance of Jesus – but it is a model worth considering.

1 comment:

simon said...

Good stuff. I too wonder about the way we evangelicals do communion. I'd love to be greeted by someone with a glass of red wine and a curry but also being a baptist it's not a common experience!

it strikes me that we need to nudge our celebration of communion back to being the centre of act of worship that at the moment it's tagged on to. We also to make it more participatory - maybe sitting round tables rather than in rows.

At college once we shared communion by each taking half a loaf around and breaking pieces off to give to our friends. There was no limit to the number of people you could serve in this way, no limit to the number of times you were so served. It meant that we each got lots of bread and juice.

As we shared the elements we talked to each other, prayed for one another, shared bible texts and words of encouragement.

It was very moving. I'd like to try it again in my church - though I wonder if I've got the bottle!