For many years now I have harbored concerns about the way many churches practice the Lord’s Supper:

— We practice it too infrequently
— Our “supper” differs in appearance from that of the early church
— We make it a time of sadness and fear rather than joy and hope.

Too Infrequent

Biblically and historically, the Lord’s Supper has been a regular part of the Christian gathering. Only after the Reformation did the sermon replace the Supper as the most significant part of a service. Now, the Supper is rarely celebrated in many Protestant churches.

The early church seemed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a regular, if not weekly basis. In Acts 2:42 we read, “They [the Christian converts] were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (NET Bible) While this could be a reference to general communal eating, the context suggests otherwise. First, eating is not a Christian practice to which converts must devote themselves. Eating is a practice common to everyone regardless of their religious affiliation. Secondly, the surrounding activities are religious in nature: doctrinal teaching, fellowship, and prayer. It is best to understand this eating as the Eucharist meal.

In Acts 20:7 we read, “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul began to speak to the people…until midnight.” A few things should be noted. First, the purpose of the meeting was to break bread. It would seem strange that regular eating would be the purpose for which they assembled. It makes more sense to understand this meal as having religious significance, such as the Lord’s Supper.

Second, it is explicitly noted that this was the first day of the week (Sunday). This was the day when the body of Christ assembled for worship.

Third, another religious activity is spoken of in tandem with this eating: apostolic teaching. These last two points solidify the conclusion that this meal was religious in nature. We have here, then, what appears to be a normative statement regarding the purpose of gathering on the Lord’s Day: to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This implies that it was a regular, weekly practice of the church.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 11:20 we read, “Therefore when you come together at the same place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Again, this sarcastic remark shows that the purpose of gathering together involved the eating of the Lord’s Supper, and that it was a regular practice.

How do Protestant churches match up? How often do they fulfill the Lord’s command? In my experience, most churches only celebrate the Lord’s Supper once or twice a year. While it is true that Jesus did not specify how often it should be done (only saying “as often as you do this…”), looking at the example of the early church I would argue that we are not celebrating it enough. While it was of maximal importance to the gatherings of the early church, it is absent from most of our own.

Too Different

In 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 Paul wrote, “Therefore when you come together at the same place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this!”

In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was an actual meal. Eating the Lord’s Supper involved so much food that people were able to overeat, and it involved so much drink that they were getting drunk. I don’t know about you, but I think we would have a hard time getting full on our 1/16 of a saltine cracker or drunk on our tiny swig of grape juice! While I don’t think we have to have a full meal to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, clearly this is the way Jesus celebrated His last supper with the apostles, and it is the way the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper as well.

Too Moody

In most of the churches I have attended, a particular mood is almost always created for communion. Particular emotions are expected. Slow songs are played that engender emotions of sorrow and tears. Pastors admonish people to remember their sin and examine themselves to ensure that they are worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper. Tears of joy are entirely appropriate. So are tears of repentance if that is needed in the moment. Even tears of sorrow are desirable. It is appropriate to feel sorrow for what Jesus had to endure to atone for our sins. That said, this is not the only appropriate response to the cross. It is not the only legitimate emotion to feel when we remember what Jesus did for us. Christians ought to feel a sense of gladness and rejoicing as well. It’s hard to ever express that, however, in a church that is explicitly and consistently trying to create an environment that only allows for the expression of a single kind of emotion. Perhaps we could focus on one type of emotion in one service, but on a different kind of emotion in another. Or perhaps we could play songs that engender one type of emotion, followed by songs that engender another. We should actually “celebrate” the Lord’s Supper once in a while.

I mentioned pastors admonishing the saints to examine themselves before taking communion. Some even warn that if you participate in the Lord’s Supper with unconfessed sin, you may bring damnation and death upon yourself. Where do we get this from? It comes from 1 Corinthians 11:

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. (1 Cor 11:27-31, KJV)

Many have misunderstood what Paul meant when he speaks of eating and drinking “unworthily.” We think it refers to our own spiritual state: If we are unworthy of the Lord’s body and blood due to unrepentant sin in our lives, Jesus might kill us. This is hardly a festive thought! The grammar and context argues against such an interpretation.

Grammatically speaking, the Greek word translated “unworthily,” anaxios, is an adverb describing the manner in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It’s not an adjective describing the quality of our own spiritual state. Contextually speaking, the problem Paul was addressing was the manner in which the Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s Supper, not personal sin in the lives of the Corinthian believers (though they definitely had some sin problems in Corinth). Those who brought a lot of food were not sharing with those who had little or none; those who arrived earlier did not wait for those who had yet to show up. As a result, there were some who were turning this celebration into a gluttonous and selfish affair – precisely the opposite attitude intended by the celebration. Paul warned against celebrating the Lord’s Supper in this unworthy manner.

Not only is the “repent first, eat later” interpretation of this passage grammatically and contextually flawed, but it is theologically flawed as well. While it is sound advice to repent prior to taking the Lord’s Supper, it is only because repentance should be a regular part of our lives. But to think one must make themselves worthy before they partake of the Lord’s Supper by repenting, is another matter entirely. None of us can make ourselves worthy before the Lord. Jesus is is the only one who can make us worthy, and He did so by shedding His blood at Calvary. That is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper: to commemorate what He did to make us worthy before God when we could not do so ourselves. How ironic it is, then, that we would use the occasion of the Lord’s Supper to tell people they must make themselves worthy lest God bring judgment on them. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper precisely because we are unworthy, and yet Jesus made us worthy through His sacrifice.

In conclusion, I hope to see the modern church move more in the direction of the early church in their practice of the Lord’s Supper. Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often (at least once a month). Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more food and drink (at least once in a while). Finally, let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper with joy and thanksgiving rather than sorrow.