Purposeful Discipleship in the Lord’s SupperBy Marty Duren
November 4, 2020
I can hardly remember a time that the Lord’s Supper has not been part of my life as observer or participant, having attended churches that observed it quarterly, annually, weekly, or semi-regularly since I was a child. With the exception of one church, nearly every observance was the common tradition in the United States and elsewhere: a quick partaking of a small bite of unleavened bread and a mini-shot of grape juice at the end of a worship service. In the tradition that formed my spiritual life, we were typically challenged to “examine” ourselves before participating, a practice I continue both as pastor and congregant.
While the Lord’s Supper retains prominent observation in most churches, I believe its prominence for discipleship is sometimes overlooked. For it to regain purposeful discipleship focus, consider these emphases that help us observe things Jesus commanded us.
The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of unity.
Unity in the body is both an Old and New Testament imperative. The psalmist declares, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1 ). In the church of my teen years through adulthood, our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were infrequent because of our pastor’s insistence that the body be unified.
Paul gets at this when criticizing the Corinthians for their gluttonous abuse of the Lord’s Table: these immature believers could not rightly remember Christ’s death as long as they were were out of fellowship with each other. By emphasizing unity as a context for the Lord’s Supper, we disciple people into a significant truth: “I pray Father that they might be one even as we are one” (John 17:21).
The Lord’s Supper as a counter-kingdom meal.
In the early-church era, Roman customs dominated the empire, including in occupied Judea. One method Rome used to keep its citizens committed the empire was the symposium. These meals emphasized and maintained class distinctions embedded across the empire while venerating Caesar.1 Distinctions determined who would be invited, where the guests would sit, and who hosted the meal (often a wealthy benefactor or patron). The 3-part format of the meal is seen even in the order of the Last Supper Passover of Jesus and his disciples.
However, the early church subverted Rome’s classism with its practice that males, females, slaves, free, Jews, and Gentiles were all welcome and were all equal. The Lord’s Supper was a living indictment of—and alternative to—Rome’s (ie, the world’s) exclusivist practices. Christians used the pattern of meals to teach the principles of God’s kingdom: the people of God are one redeemed people. The Lord’s Supper is a reminder that none of us is above another.
The Lord’s Supper brings awareness of God’s immanence.
I’m repeatedly using “the Lord’s Supper” rather than Communion or other terms, because of the context in which the practice was birthed. Roman banquets were “Caesar’s supper” so to speak. To signify the supper as “the Lord’s” was to designate the host, thereby supplanting Caesar as provider for Rome. It was God, not Caesar, who came near.
In Psalm 23, we see a truth connected to the Middle Eastern culture in which it was written. David writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Often, the Western mind envisions a great spread that we can enjoy when threatened, without seeing that God, who provides the meal, is also the host. It is not merely provision we enjoy from his hand; we enjoy his presence whilst our enemies look on.
Among his people, it’s the Lord’s Supper—he’s the host, it’s his table, and when we gather to eat we gather in his presence by his grace.
The Lord’s Supper bears witness to God’s provision.
Perhaps nowhere has so much of the modern-day church lost purposeful discipleship in the Lord’s Supper than in separating it from a fellowship meal or “love feast.” When Acts records the early Christians gathering daily to discuss the Apostles’ teaching and to break bread (Acts 2:42, 46), they did not gather for a 45-minute sermon followed by a cracker and grape juice, then the benediction. They gathered to eat within each others’ homes—as Middle Eastern hospitality would dictate—with both biblical discussions and the Lord’s Supper fully integrated.
While some of the early Jewish Christians might have continued observing Passover annually, the Lord’s Supper became the meal-based remembrance for both Jew and Gentile Christians. “Jesus replaces the Passover meal with another meal that liberates from enslaving forces.”2 Deliverance from Egypt (the Passover motif) gave way to deliverance from sin (the Lord’s Supper motif) which was held more frequently (daily and house-to-house). The Lord’s Supper is a regular reminder that God provides our daily bread and provided Jesus, the Bread of Life, given for our sins.
The Lord’s Supper foreshadows an eschatological feast.
Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s recounting of Jesus’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is included in our Lord’s Supper language and inscribed on tables used to serve. This remembrance causes us to look back at the physical sacrifice of Jesus. But, it should also cause us to look forward in anticipation to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. This is the future focus, the eschatological pivot: we remember his death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). As Isaiah prophesied, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (25:6).
The Lord’s Supper can disciple us into unity in the body, gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice, and anticipation of his return. “[C]reation, redemption, mission—is ‘for’ this: that we might eat together in the presence of God. God created the world so we might eat with him.”3
1-Street, Al. Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century, p 8.
2-Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, p 92.
3-Chester, Tim. A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community & Mission around the Table, p 138.