Saturday, September 15, 2007

Making a Meal of It-- Rethinking the Theology of the Lord's Supper

by Ben Witherington @

The second book in my trilogy of small books on the 'sacraments' is on the Lord's Supper. You will find the picture of the cover on the right. When I say small book, I do mean it-- about 140 pages. What I have tried to do in this book, as I did in the baptism book, is to point out the problems with the various ways we currently practice the Lord's Supper, and all too often trivialize it. I review in this book the key NT passages that have a bearing on the theology of this sacrament, and then I take the discussion a few centuries further into church history to show where and how things went wrong in our praxis and theology of this important part of our religious life as Christians.

What can be said about the Lord's Supper is that there is actually a good deal more material discussing this ceremony in the NT itself, than there is guidance about baptism in the NT. It is ironic then that a 'one time only rite' like baptism would cause much more heat (and less light) in the course of theological debates over the centuries, than this crucial repeatable ceremony of the Lord's Supper.

In this study I argue that the Lord's Supper was originally part of a large meal, not a separate ritual or ceremony, and as such brought into play all the ancient understandings about hospitality, the welcoming of people to the table, and the like. I am also arguing that the early church did not see the Lord's Supper as merely a symbolic memorial ceremony. They actually saw some sort of spiritual transaction happening in the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and believed that partaking in an unworthy manner was spiritually dangerous, as Paul suggests in 1 Cor. 11. But what sort of spiritual transaction is going on in the Lord's Supper? This is discussed in some detail in the book, and I won't spoil it for you by dealing with that here.

The intent of this book and indeed all three in the series (the one on the Living Word of God comes out much later this year) is to tease your minds into active thought, and challenge some of the basic assumptions that lead to the practice of these things in ways that don't actually comport with what the NT says or suggests. In other words, they encourage a going back 'ad fontes' to the sources in the Bible and rethinking our basic assumptions about these things. Why is this important now?

There are a plethora of good reasons, but two can be mentioned here. In an age of increasing Biblical illiteracy there is a great danger of trivializing the sacred, of making the practice of these rituals and ceremony a sort of 'trivial pursuit' someone tacked on to worship, or being done in a tacky manner in worship. This does not honor the Lord to whom the elements in the Lord's Supper point us.

When we approach the sacraments we need to have the approach that Moses had with the burning bush-- it is God in Christ we are encountering here, and a high and holy moment is involved. Take off your shoes, and repent of your sins. Secondly, we have entered what is called post-modernism, and in a post-modern age mystery and ritual are already playing a much bigger role in various venues than in the past. There are many young people specifically choosing to go to churches where there is liturgy, drama, mystery, and the very regular practice of the sacraments. When worship, practically speaking, serves as the major calling card and tool of evangelism in our culture, it behooves us to figure out what moves us and leads us into the very presence of the Lord, and seek to better facilitate that.

Think on these things.

No comments: