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No. 2: The Love Feast

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 2
June 1989
Copyright (c) 1989 by Biblical Horizons

One aspect of truth is unity. It was Truth Incarnate who prayed for the unity of His people in John 17, which certainly makes unity a priority for them as well. In one sense, we know by faith that the Church is always invisibly unified in Christ, but there is another sense in which that unity is to be made visible in the world. God’s glory is a visible thing, as we see in the appearance of the Glory Cloud in the Old Testament. This means that the invisible essence of the Kingdom of God is to be made visible on the earth, that God might be visibly glorified.

Because of this, we dare not rest in any theory of a "unified invisible Church," but we must labor to make that which is visible to the eye of God also visible on the earth. "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven" means that the unity of the Church, as perceived in heaven, is also to be manifested on the earth. Beyond this, we see from Genesis 11:6 that when people are unified visibly, "nothing will be withheld from them." God desires that for us, and we should also desire it.

I have discussed this problem at some length in The Sociology of the Church, and it is not my purpose to rehearse what is found there. Rather, I bring it up to make clear my purpose in writing this series of essays. As I stated in the last chapter of Through New Eyes, I believe we are coming to the end of the age of denominations, and that the God who makes all things new is even now remaking His Church. That belief also informs these essays.

It is easy for Christians to rest at present in the "parachurch" manifestations of Christian unity. We march shoulder to shoulder with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other Protestants in picket lines at abortion chambers, for instance. That is indeed a manifestation of Christian unity, but it is not what the Bible means by the unity of the Church. Beyond this, there are any number of parachurch organizations and para-ecclesiastical movements that create cross-pollenization among the people of God, and by themselves these things are good.

At the same time, however, when you scratch beneath the surface of parachurch organizations you very frequently encounter an attitude toward the institutional Church that borders on sheer hatred. I do not exaggerate. Contempt and hostility for the institutional Church abound in parachurch organizations, and have to be restrained by the wiser leaders of such groups.

My experience has been that an even greater hatred for the Church exists in parachurch ideological movements. Ideological gnostics within the Church often have nothing but hostility toward other Christians who do not share their agendas. And woe be the local Church that is put in a position of censuring anyone who follows the gnostic line! Those who hold the party line are to be exempt from discipline, no matter what crimes they may commit!

Well, anyone with experience in Church life has seen this kind of thing. I bring it up to make the point that parachurch movements can contribute to cross-pollenizing among the Churches, but they can also be very destructive to Church life.

Christ has created a heavenly host, and "host" means "army," to accomplish His purpose of transforming the world. That army does not consist only of "sharp young single men and women." Nor does it consist only of ostensibly "epistemologically self-conscious thoroughly Reformed theonomic postmillennialists." This army includes mentally retarded people, feeble old people, hurt people, suicidal people, weak people, sinful people, people with minds warped by error, and much, much more. To the human eye, this army is not much to look at. It doesn’t look very tough compared to the kind of militant activism the communist party can sometimes command. It may not measure up to Douglas Hyde’s Dedication and Leadership, and it may not conform to the latest standards of "discipleship." It is, however, the only army God has ever called into being. All the rest are only substitutes and counterfeits.

In short, the Church is God’s army. God wants the Church to be unified, and when she is, "nothing will be withheld from her." In terms of agenda, this means that we need to work for the unity of the institutional Church.

There are two basic ways to work for such unity. The first is that of liberal ecumenism, which is to set aside the Bible as absolutely authoritative and to negotiate common ground. This is not acceptable, and neither has it produced anything but confusion and despair.

The other way is that of Biblical ecumenism, which is to accept the Bible as absolutely authoritative and discuss issues in terms of the Bible and of the tradition of Biblical interpretation down through the ages within the Church. Notice that I do not say to accept the Bible and also tradition as equally authoritative. I certainly don’t hold any such a view. At the same time, though, the Holy Spirit has been sent to guide the Church into the understanding and application of the Truth, and that means we have to be open to the guidance of the Spirit as it is manifest in Church history.

Practically this means dialoguing with other Christians in a charitable manner, as the Bible requires. It means seeking to understand their concerns, giving them the benefit of the doubt, listening to them at length instead of condemning them out of hand. It means that if I think a given position is wrong, I should seek to find out what it is that those holding that position are concerned about, and seek to meet that concern in a better way.

That is the spirit in which I try to approach the concerns that this series of essays addresses. In a sense, matters of worship and sacrament are the most controversial of all issues. Christians get together to picket pornography shops, and they get together for home Bible studies, but they don’t worship together. To some extent, this simply has to do with such things as tradition, comfort, familiarity, and the like — which are not at all wrong. At the same time, if we don’t get into a conversation about such things, there will never be any change.

Thus, in these essays I am trying to do two things at the same time, both of which are equally important. First I am trying to use the Bible to critique existing practices in the Church. Since my primary audience is Protestant, I deal most with Protestant practices, but these essays will range well beyond that.

The first essay, "Do This!", was an exercise in this first area. If we just open the Bible and see what it says about doing the Lord’s Supper, we come up with patterns and practices that are at considerable variance from what almost all Churches do at present. This needs to be addressed.

At the same time, second, I am trying to suggest ways to overcome divergences in tradition in a pastorally-sensitive manner. It will not do simply to toss out all traditional ways of doing things and make an attempt to return to Biblical ways. In the first place, this is pastorally insensitive. In the second place, we may change our minds on what the Bible says a couple of years from now, and then where shall we be? It is best to proceed cautiously and carefully, avoiding abstraction and revolution.

This second concerns governs this second essay. I want to complement the "controversial" character of "Do This!" with a suggestion that I think could be implemented by a great many different Churches, and that could begin to reshape the Church gradually in a more unified direction.

Origin of the Love Feast

We use the term "Love Feast" or "Agape" (pronounced "ah-GHA-pay") to denote a common meal for the Church held in connection with the Lord’s Supper, a slightly ritualized version of today’s covered-dish supper. The only place where the expression "love-feast" occurs is Jude 12, and this may simply be a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the use of the term "Love Feast" for a Church dinner associated with the Lord’s Supper is a theological development.

We can look into the Old Testament to see a foundation for such a festival meal. The Feast of Tabernacles, as described in Deuteronomy 14:22-29, provides an example. We can note the following aspects:

1. It was a religious observance.

2. The poor and those without property were included.

3. It involved a full meal, including alcohol and flesh.

4. The food was to be "whatever your heart desires"; that is, the food was selected on the basis of personal choice.

5. The celebrants were to rejoice before the Lord in their feasting.

Paul’s concern that the Love Feast not shame the poor is seen in 1 Corinthians 11:21. Moreover, the New Testament clearly places orphans, widows, and the poor under the watchcare of the Church, just as did the Old Testament. Thus, the Love Feast is probably best understood as a New Testament continuation of an Old Testament practice, and not, as some scholars assume, a sudden product of the New Testament community.

The New Testament reinforced the concept of communal feasting in the joy of the Lord. Jesus Himself was no ascetic (Matt. 11:19), and on several occasions fed large crowds. He used feasts in several parables to illustrate His Kingdom (Matt. 22; Luke 12, 14). The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was instituted after a meal, and on the road to Emmaeus this sequence was repeated (Luke 24:30). Jesus ate fish and honey after His resurrection to demonstrate His abiding humanity (Luke 24:42).

The iconography of the early Church, found on the walls of catacombs and the like, shows a great interest in the lakeside meal of John 21. Jesus provided the meal and then entered into a discussion with Peter concerning love (agape). There were seven disciples present, and many illustrations in the catacombs show seven figures at Love Feasts, Jesus apparently not being drawn. This seems to indicate that the early church saw the lakeside meal as related to the Agape. Catacomb pictures also include baskets of loaves and fish, relating the Love Feast to the miraculous feedings.

From the writings of the Church Fathers it is clear that Agapes were frequently held in connection with the Lord’s Supper. Gradually, however, the two became separated, and then under the influence of asceticism the Love Feast died out. (For more information, see my paper "The Love Feast in the Early Church," available upon request from Biblical Horizons for a contribution.)

The Love Feast has had revivals in the Church from time to time. Sometimes it has been used as a substitute for the Lord’s Supper during worship services (since the Lord’s Supper is often not done on a weekly basis). Sometimes Love Feasts have been held before special worship services, and when those services include the Lord’s Supper, we see the basic New Testament pattern being fulfilled. Of course, most commonly Churches simply have dinners and covered-dish suppers as part of the general life of the Church, without any association with the Lord’s Supper or worship at all.

The Last Supper

There are two key passages that set out the relationship between a Love Feast meal and the Lord’s Supper. The first is in Luke 22:14-20, the Last Supper. Luke records that Jesus began the meal by giving thanks while holding a cup (v. 17). He instructed the disciples to share this cup, and I believe we need to see this by extension as sharing the entire meal. This was how the meal itself began.

We frequently run into commentators who want to use the Talmud to explain that there were four cups at this Passover meal, and that there was this and that kind of food present, and so forth. There are even presentations of "Christ in the Passover" that trade heavily on such information. In fact, however, this information does not come from the Bible and is not part of God’s revelation of the meaning of the Passover. The requirement to do these things was part of the Oral Law tradition of the Jews, which Jesus condemned (Mark 7). Jesus may have kept some of these customs simply as customs at the Last Supper, but there is no justification for importing into our understanding of the Last Supper all kinds of details derived from the Talmud.

On the larger question of whether or not this was actually a full Passover meal, see the discussions in Leon Morris’s commentary on The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1971) and Harold W. Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Zondervan, 1977). Most scholars today believe that some Jews celebrated Passover on Thursday, and others on Friday, so that Jesus ate Passover, but also died the next day while other Passover lambs were being slaughtered.

All of this, however, is rather beside the point. What is clear is that Jesus initiated the meal with a prayer of thanksgiving while holding a cup. Later He instituted the Lord’s Supper, first with the bread and then with the wine (Luke 22:19-20). As we saw in our last essay, He did not give out the wine until after they had eaten the bread.

When did this happen? There are three possibilities. One is that they finished the Passover meal, and then Jesus gave the bread and then the wine. Another possibility is suggested by the customs of the time, which is that Jesus gave out the bread at the beginning of the meal, and the wine at the end. Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25 make it clear that the wine was given out after they had eaten, but after they had eaten what? "After the eating" could refer to the bread, if they just ate it, or to the whole meal.

Many modern commentators think that Jesus gave thanks for the wine of the meal, and then gave thanks for the bread and called it His body. Then they ate the whole meal, and after the dinner Jesus gave another cup of wine and called it His blood.

Matthew 26:26 seems to settle the issue. There we read, "And while they were eating, Jesus took bread" (cf. Mark 14:22). When we put this with the testimony of Luke and Paul, it becomes clear that the bread was eaten not at the beginning or at the end but during the meal, while the cup was shared after the whole meal was over. Leon Morris says, "The cup was evidently not taken immediately, but some little time later, after supper" (Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke; Eerdmans, 1974, p. 306).

What emerges is the following Love Feast pattern. First the president of the feast (normally the pastor) takes hold of a glass of wine and, while the congregation stands for prayer, gives thanks for the entire meal. Sometime during the middle of the meal, the pastor interrupts to serve the bread as the body of Christ, and everyone stops eating and partakes of it. After the entire meal is over, including dessert, the pastor serves the wine as the blood of Christ. The meal ends with psalms and hymns (Mark 14:26).

The Lord’s Supper

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 provides reinforcement for this scenario. Paul begins and ends this section by discussing the common meal. He insists that they are to wait for each other when they have Love Feasts (vv. 21-22, 33-34). If they are famished, they should eat something at home before coming to the Love Feast. Waiting for one another means that the Church is to be gathered, and the meal must have some kind of official beginning. Clearly this implies the minister’s starting the meal with prayer.

Sandwiched in this discussion are Paul’s remarks about the Lord’s Supper proper. Paul states that by abusing the Agape, by not waiting for one another and by not obeying Jesus’ command in Luke 22:17 ("Take this and share it among yourselves"), they are calling down judgment on themselves when the eat the sacrament. The meal is the prelude and context of the sacrament, in other words, and abuses at the meal destroy the grace of the sacrament.

It is important to note that Paul does not say, "Because you abuse the Love Feast, don’t have it." Rather, he calls on them to shape it up.

This is not what the Church chose to do. Early on, the Lord’s Supper was separated from the Agape. Increasingly the Church emphasized fasting instead of feasting. Because the Lord’s Supper shows forth Christ’s death, the rituals connected with it tended to become more and more morbid and ascetic. The people became afraid of the cup, and withdrew from it. They wanted to eat kneeling instead of in a relaxed manner. It became a requirement to fast for hours before coming to communion. People began to come to communion very rarely, and the Church had to legislate that at least once a year you were required to take the Lord’s Supper. In Protestantism this turned into only serving the Supper once a year, or at most quarterly.

Some Thoughts on Implementation

In all of these things we see a tendency to withdraw from festivity and joy. This withdrawal began with the rejection of the Love Feast, the common feast, as the context of the Supper. It is certainly true that the Supper displays the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and is to be associated with the "bread of affliction" of Passover. Both Passover and the Supper, however, were deliberately placed by God in contexts of festivity and rejoicing. Somehow we need to get back to this Biblical and Hebraic pattern.

That is not easy to do. There is nothing worse than to be in a worship service where some monkey masquerading as a minister is trying to juice everybody up to feel good by his behavior, or by releasing balloons, or whatever. Such people do not seem to realize that there is such a thing as solemn rejoicing, solemn festivity. Festivity does not have to be frenzied or foolish.

Nevertheless, we are all heirs to a rather morbid view of the Supper. In "catholic-type" churches, such things as fasting and kneeling for reception have obscured the festive aspect. In "protestant-type" churches the Lord’s Supper is often preceded by threats of judgment, exhortations to soul-searching, and hymns about Golgotha. I am not saying that all of this is wrong; but I am saying that when this is all there is, we have missed a very real and important dimension of the Supper.

The Supper focuses on the death of Christ, but also on the gift of the Kingdom. We see the same duality in the Psalms, which combine tribulation with rejoicing. A recovery of this mindset is an important part of a recovery of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

Doing the Lord’s Supper in the context of a Love Feast is a way of restoring these things without directly attacking the traditions that are dear to people. You can continue to do the Lord’s Supper the old, familiar way during worship, but also have Love Feasts from time to time as a way of introducing people to a more Biblical pattern. This is a way to be pastorally sensitive and avoid offense.

Beyond that, I believe that doing the Lord’s Supper in the context of a Love Feast is one way to build toward unity in the Church. Every tradition differs when it comes to doing the Lord’s Supper during worship, but there is no prima facie reason why all the Churches could not from time to time do the Lord’s Supper as part of an Agape. Some traditions may have canon laws that prohibit this, but for those that don’t it could be a fruitful way of breaking out of old habits and introducing people to more Biblical patterns.

I’m not suggesting doing this every week (at least to start with), but the Church could easily turn covered-dish suppers into Agapes. It could be done quarterly, or do it on the fifth Sunday of those months that have five Sundays, and also do it at festivals.

As they come into the room, each person should pick up a glass of wine, find a place at the table, and put the glass at his place. Those who are don’t wish wine should be provided grape juice. Those who are allergic to grapes should have some other fruit wine or juice. People might sit, or remain standing behind their chairs.

Once everyone is in place, the pastor should commence the meal with prayer. Perhaps everyone will sing a psalm or the doxology first. Then the pastor should take his glass of wine and offer thanks. The ancient Jewish prayer is virtually a toast to God: "Blessed by Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who givest us this fruit of the vine." Everyone should say Amen to the prayer, take his glass and drink of it, and then be seated. Then, in an orderly way, row by row, people can serve themselves from the buffet.

At some point in the meal, after everyone has gotten his plate and is eating, a deacon should ring a bell to silence the room. Then the pastor should rise, say a few words about the bread as Christ’s body and as representative of the unity of the fellowship of believers, and then break it. He should then give thanks for it, and pass it out, saying something like, "This is Christ’s body, given for you." If there are a lot of people, elders at the head of each row of tables can break a loaf and pass it down that row. With people on both sides of the table, breaking the bread and passing it down both sides to the end is very simple. The ringing of another bell, or another prayer of thanksgiving, might signify that this event is over, and everyone will resume eating and talking.

(In a large room, or outdoors, have a brass choir play a fanfare. In European tradition, bells substitute for Biblical trumpets to call people to Church; Num. 10:10.)

As people finish eating, they can clear away their dishes from the table. They should pick up psalters or hymnals and return to their places. (Or if you sing from an overhead projector, this is unnecessary.) Then the ringing of the bell would once again draw everyone’s attention to the pastor. He should rise, say a few words about the wine as Christ’s blood and the sacrificial lifestyle of believers, and then share it. If one common cup is used, it will take a while for it to be passed all around the room. If several common cups are used, there could be two for each table passed down the sides. In my opinion, separate glasses or cups are perfectly fine, and trays could be passed down the rows.

(If you’re going to have more than one "common" cup, or if you are going to have to refill the cup from time to time, you might as well have separate cups. If children partake, and I believe they should, then separate cups are much more desirable both hygienically and aesthetically. As far as destroying your concentration is concerned, there is nothing like having to take a common cup right after someone else’s snotty-nosed kid!)

After the meal, the congregation can remain seated and sing a quiet psalm, and then stand and joyously sing a couple of fast ones. Following this can be the benediction and dismissal.

Well, those are just my thoughts on how it might be done. I’ve never been in a Church that did this, so I have no practical experience to offer.