Our Common Table

Our church, a Southern Baptist one, is considering the move to weekly Communion. We used to do it weekly, but moved away from the practice for a variety of reasons. Now, we are thinking it through again, and it looks like that will be the direction we take.

I say all this to introduce a question: Does the eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper have a cumulative effect?

Last week our message was on the Family Meal, and the connection was made between the centrality of the family supper and the Supper we enjoy together as a church family. The family meal, as an institution, not the individual meals, become a tapestry of meaning and significance. Not that the individual meals aren’t significant in and of themselves, but the repeated and routine event becomes a sort of collective memory. (This presumes that the family meal isn’t something that is enjoyed monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or less frequently!)

The concern for making Communion a “common” thing is overcome, I think, by seeing it through the same lens. The individual events are significant in their own rite, but as a pattern of worship, a way of being continuously connected to each other and our Savior, we weave a common memory that becomes as meaningful (and more-so) than the family meal.

In fact, in the Lord’s Supper the common elements of bread and wine become something holy. I’m not advocating for transubstantiation or consubstantiation, but something spiritual happens in Communion that is beyond mere memorial; even if that something is simply the wedding of the Body and Blood to our consciousness through customary frequency. The common becomes sacred.

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11 responses to “Our Common Table

  1. Rob,

    I like the idea of weekly communion. The frequency of partaking should not detract from the holiness of the Lord’s Supper but should enhance it. The cumulative effect can be seen in that it is a means to increase our faith. I agree with what you are setting forth and believe it is important. However, the last paragraph raises some questions:
    -In what way do the elements become “holy” or “sacred”?
    -What is the “spiritual” that happens in Communion?
    I believe I know what you are emphasizing by saying it is “beyond mere memorial” but it seems to me a “memorial” view of communion (rightly understood and applied) would allow for everything you are setting forth here.

  2. Good questions, Jonny. Thanks for asking me to clarify. What I do not mean is that the elements change into something other than what they are. The bread remains bread and the wine (a Welch’s vintage in our case) remains wine. They are, however, common things that are set apart “for holy use.”

    At the Supper, we receive confirmation of our faith and are spiritually nourished and strengthened, and we are reminded of our bond to him and with each other. I don’t think this happens by ritual, but it happens actually as the reality of all that means is confirmed in us as we eat the meal together.

    It isn’t “merely” something we do to remind ourselves of a truth we know, but it is actual communion. Like the family meal to which I’m comparing it, it isn’t the eating and drinking “in and of itself” that is the purpose. It is connection to the source of our life and to those with whom we share it. That is what I mean when I refer to it as sacred and spiritual activity.

  3. “I don’t think this happens by ritual.”

    Hm. So in what sense is ritual involved in the spiritual effectiveness of the Meal? I take it that you are saying that this doesn’t happen by merely eating and drinking. Agreed. But baby and bathwater.

    I would argue that Communion of the church is effectual. It either binds you to Christ if the eating and drinking is wed to living faith, or else it brings condemnation on you. The rite, as a sacred rite of the church imbued with the promises of Christ, has this power. I think it’s comparable to hearing the Word. The sacred rite of hearing the Word either brings blessing or curse. Why? Because Christ said so — and says so.

    Thoughts?

    Hey Jonny, it’s great to see you’re still alive (and not buried under a pile of tomes in L’ville!).

  4. By now you may have the thought that I’m ducking the question because it may appear that I’m stuck between a memorial stone and an effectual rock, but I have been too busy to do much but tread water for the last couple of days. Seriously.

    At any rate…I’m going to attempt to communicate (no pun intended) my view, but with the caveat that I’m open to being taught. Some great big brains have been noodling on this for a long time and disagreement persists, so clearly it is a difficult topic.

    I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that the memorial aspect of the Supper is powerful. The calling to mind (individually and collectively) of the body and blood of Christ and all that entails is significant enough to be enough if that is all it is intended to be. I grant that the use of the phrase mere memorial can be misleading in that it could downplay the profound power of remembrance, particularly in this case. The memorial stones in Joshua 4 were for the purpose of teaching and recalling to mind the great works of the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and which made entry into the Promised Land a reality. Very evocative…and, it could be argued, effective.

    The eating of the Supper is much like that, isn’t it? Calling to mind the great work of the Lord on behalf of his people in leading us into the Kingdom of Heaven (qualify that phrase however you need to).

    But is there more to it? Does the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine convey something beyond a stirring of the mind to remember the cross? I don’t know. If by that we mean that in the Supper Christ is proclaimed (preached, declared), and in that sense is effectual, like the Word preached is effectual, I don’t see anything problematic with that. If, however, by effectual you mean that some special thing is conveyed, I can see where that could be difficult.

    I remember the first time I heard Communion referred to as a “means of grace.” I got twisted up over that because it didn’t fit my categories, and it sounded much like something in the Roman Catholic mass to me. “God’s grace is not something that is conveyed in a biscuit, it is something spiritual,” I reasoned. But then when I understood that it is a means of grace much like preaching and prayer and fellowship of the saints are means of grace, I got better with it. However, it seems that there is something more intended by the use of the term “effectual”.

    I do rather like Calvin’s Spiritual Presence view, but I’m not sure that is what is intended by “effective” and “effectual”. I’d like to know more of what is meant by the use of that term.

  5. OK, so now I’m the one who appears to be ducking the question. But coming up for air, here I go.

    Several things stand out. First, the idea of memorial and remembrance. Is the remembrance something that goes on in the gray matter between my ears and in the collective thinking of the group assembled? Is the remembrance essentially a cerebral affair? If so, then that justifies excluding people who don’t have their sacramental theology together, who can’t think it all out clearly enough (i.e., children, mentally handicapped, RC’s, etc.). And I would say that is in direct violation of 1 Cor 11, which calls us to recognize the body as we eat and drink.

    In other words, I think one key question is, what does it mean when our Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me?” Well, lots of ink has been spilled here, but I think it can be fairly observed that we (contemporary Americans) have unnecessarily individualized, interiorized, and subjectivized the idea of remembrance. I know I did as a memorialist Baptist (I say with the warmest affection!).

    I think the idea is, “Enact a remembrance of me.” “Do this very thing, and when you do it, you will be engaging in a public remembrance of me.” The remembrance happens when we — the baptized body — assemble, eat bread, drink wine, and hear the Word. Christ is proclaimed. Christ is fed upon. Christ draws us near and nourishes us. The remembrance of Christ is being enacted as the Supper is enacted. One effect of that enactment is the calling to mind of Christ and His cross/resurrection with increasing clarity and power, but I think that is different from saying that this mental activity is the remembrance. I think this is essentially a Greek idea and not a biblical idea. And I hope I don’t sound pejorative but rather charitable.

    You originally asked about the corporate, cumulative effect of the Supper. When the body enacts this remembrance, it impacts individual Christians and surely also the body. 1 Cor 11 and all that “discerning the body” business has to do with recognizing the whole body — i.e., the covenant people — of Christ. It squeezes out sin and draws people to Jesus to sit at the table with Him while ritualizing this ordained remembrance. I think it has become a giant sacramental dead-end to interpret 1 Cor 11 as teaching us to see Communion as an individual, subjective, theological-navel-gazing affair in which I sit and meditate on how Christ’s body is or is not present in the bread — and voila, there’s the remembrance. Likewise, if I get distracted and mentally drift, I missed it. Man, that’s thin.

    No, the remembrance is when God’s covenant people hear the Word and in love eat and drink together. It is a public, corporate, covenantal event (ritual) that has inescapable effects in the life of the body. And those effects are what you are asking about. The effects are for blessings when accompanied by faith and for cursing when accompanied by unbelief. That’s a covenant reality.

  6. Forgive me for making one more point. You ask about “some special thing [being] conveyed.” Let’s be careful here. If we conceive of grace in the medieval, Aristotelian manner and see it as a substance that can rest in a treasury and get smeared on someone, then we are on thin ice. (Well, the ice broke a long time ago I suppose.)

    Here is the question: Assuming that grace is conveyed (or communicated or whatever), what is this grace?

    Grace is relational. Grace is fellowship with Jesus. Grace is union with the risen Lord. Grace is being received into the intimate fellowship of the Trinity. Grace is being forgiven and welcomed into the loving arms of the father who is kneeling to kiss our filthy hands after we returned from squandering his goods in a far country. Grace is the king welcoming lame Mephibosheth to his table free of charge and without recrimination.

    Is that “conveyed” in Communion? I say yes. And I call that being nourished with the grace of Jesus. Call it a means of grace if you like. (I do sometimes.) But it has to be intensely personal. Anything else falls short in my opinion.

    Sound “effectual” to me! Now run with that…

  7. Apparently I am having trouble with the “i” and “s” keys on my keyboard. I just re-read the above posts and found two dropped “is’s.” So if a sentence or question doesn’t make sense, just stick an “is” in there and everything will be perfectly clear I’m sure. Either that or I am just a complete idiot. One of the two anyway.

  8. You may want to guide the fixin’. I’m likely to turn you into a transcontinentalsubstantiationalismist or worse if left to work it out on my own (quite by accident, of course).

    It all comes down to defining terms, doesn’t it?

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