Jim Jordan has an excellent post over at the Biblical Horizon’s blog about Ritual and Christianity (You’ll need to understand that “Christianity” is being used in the Leithartian “Against Christianity” sense).
One of the things he calls us to consider is:
If you have one cup, you have to drink as the cup is passed. Similarly, the bread was passed hand to hand and the disciples ate as soon as they broke off a piece. How many churches respect this? Precious few. A new ritual has been added of having everyone wait and then the pastor says something he’s made up and everyone eats and drinks together. Instead of each us of drinking and offering to die for the person next to us, we all drink in abstraction.
Interesting, but let’s look at the details given in the gospels on the Last Supper.
- foot washing prior to the table (not part of the ritual per se, but there is every indication that it should be practiced: John 13:14 “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet”).
- it is in the evening (in the Hebrew culture the day is reckoned from evening to evening so that this would be practiced at the beginning of the “day”).
- it is practiced during a feast and therefore they are reclining around a table.
- Jesus, taking and blessing the bread, broke it and gave it, saying “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me”.
- Jesus, taking and giving thanks for the cup, gave it, saying “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”.
There are several things which we do not follow, but chief among these is that, generally, we do not have one cup. This is done for practical reasons, but it does seem fair to ask: what is more important sitting or one cup? Jordan says:
The elements are passed hand to hand, though the minister begins the ritual and speaks the words. How many churches do this? Denying the priesthood of all believers, the ideologists insist that each person be served individually by the minister.
We may value the hand to hand, but not the one cup. Those who visit a rail value the one cup, but not the hand to hand distribution. How do we decide? Is it purely a practical question?
Also, many churches break a loaf, but then hand out little raw croutons. Is the physical breaking of the bread we eat important?
But as for the question of waiting until the elements are handed out and eating together, the gospels are ambiguous on the timing, but the order is breaking, giving, then saying (here is a side to side comparison of the gospels). One thing I noticed is Mark 13:24-25: “And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.” At least in this case they drank and then he spoke, but perhaps he said “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” before the cup and then after their drinking added “shed for many“. In looking over this I can see there are all kinds of questions we need to pursue.
But his conclusion is powerful:
Let us be clear: Jesus did not say “Understand this” but “Do this.” It is the doing that is important. The Christianity churches, however, substitute ideology for obedience. Many refuse communion to people who do not have the right ideology about the Supper.
Amen to that.