Now we come to the final post in my series on the Lord’s Supper. Having learned about the theological background and spiritual meaning of the Lord’s Supper, we must ask the practical question of how we should observe it in the context of corporate worship.
Should We Observe It As A Meal?
In the early church, people partook in communion in the context of a full meal. They gathered in a home of one of their wealthier members, since their house was bigger and could accommodate more people, and believers brought foods, funds, and prayers to share with each other at the Lord’s Supper. Of course, they had the bread and wine, but they also consumed other foods in conjunction with them. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 tells us that, in this situation, instead of sharing their sumptuous fare with the rest of the church, the wealthier members were sometimes “go[ing] ahead with [their] own meal[s],” the food that they brought, which were presumably better in both quantity and quality.
This abuse was so bad that the result was, “One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” The poorer members of the church have so little to eat at the Lord’s Supper that they go hungry, while the wealthier members of the church have so much to eat and drink that they get drunk! Paul’s concern here is not so much with drinking too much alcohol, although that’s a problem too, but his concern is with their selfish surfeit! Drunkenness is a picture of over-consumption.
You can hear Paul’s indignation in 1 Corinthians 11:22, “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” If you’re going to eat your fill of gourmet foods and fine wine, do it in your own house! This is not your own, private meal! This is the Lord’s Supper! Why must you profane the Lord’s Supper by “humiliat[ing] those who have nothing?”
Here, Paul acknowledges that we each “have houses to eat and drink in.” The ultimate purpose of the Lord’s Supper is not to fill our bellies, but to fill our souls, so it is not necessary to have the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal. When our church used to meet in my home for worship, we did observe the Lord’s Supper in the context of a full meal. However, this became less feasible as we grew in size, and we had to move our services into a larger location outside the home. In our urban context, I believe it is a faithful application of Scripture’s teaching to observe the Lord’s Supper in a smaller scale, rather than in the context of a full meal.
How Frequently Should We Observe it?
In spite of the fact that Passover was the background of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus chose the bread rather than the lamb as the sign that would facilitate people’s remembrance of Him in the ages to come. And because Christ chose the bread, which was part of the people’s regular diet, rather than the lamb, which was a special meal eaten at the annual Passover, the church observed the Lord’s Supper not only on an annual basis, but whenever they gathered together for worship and broke bread together. That’s why Acts 2:42 describes the early church as regularly gathering for “the breaking of bread,” and that’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The expression “as often” implies a frequent practice. This is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper whenever we gather for worship on Sundays.
Should We Use Leavened or Unleavened Bread?
The fact that the early church observed the Lord’s Supper frequently in the context of corporate worship, and not merely in the context of the Passover, also explains why the early church did not feel compelled to use unleavened bread, as in the Passover. Notably, accounts of the Last Supper use the generic word for “bread” (artos) rather than the technical word for “unleavened bread” (azuma) (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). Although the bread they broke at the Last Supper was most likely unleavened bread, the Lord did not specifically prescribe unleavened bread in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Furthermore, the Catholic custom of using unleavened wafers is of medieval origin, and Orthodox churches have preserved the earlier custom of using leavened bread (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of Development of Doctrine, vol. 2; pp. 177-178). This is why our church uses leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper.
What about 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, which says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”? The word “leaven” used here does not refer to “yeast,” which was rare in the ancient world. “Leaven” is a fermented dough from an old batch that is set aside and combined with a new batch in order to produce fermentation in the new bread. Since yeast was not readily available, this was the way in which people baked bread without yeast. All you need is a first batch of bread that is fermented, then you can save a little bit of it to use for your next batch, and a little bit from that for your next batch, and so on.
The danger of this baking method, of course, is that with each subsequent bread, the chance for dangerous bacteria to grow increases. And this health concern of using old leaven for a prolonged period of time may have been one of the reasons why God commanded Israelites in Exodus 12:14-20 to purge their homes of all leaven during the annual Feast of Unleavened Bread. Paul is using this as an illustration to argue that the Corinthian church should purge the leaven (i.e. unrepentant sinners) from among them, lest the whole batch be contaminated. He is not arguing that Christians use unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, since the bread we use is leavened with yeast, and not with leaven, it does not violate this imagery of the purity of the church either.
Should We Use Wine or Grape Juice?
In the absence of refrigeration and hermetic sealing, drinking alcohol was inescapable. Grape juice in the ancient world quickly fermented and became wine. This was a natural process, rather than an artificial process like nowadays where people use distillation to increase the alcohol content. In fact, people in this culture did the opposite, rather than distilling it to remove water and increase the proportional alcoholic content, they watered the wine down with two to three parts water to one part wine.
Moreover, ethanol and the acidity of wine often served to inhibit bacterial growth, so wine was considered a safer beverage than even water. This is why Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
We, however, live in an era of refrigeration and pasteurization, so that wine is not the only fruit of the vine available to us. When Thomas Bramwell Welch first invented grape juice, some people called it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” While drinking wine is not sinful in and of itself, 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 teaches us not to let indifferent matters of food and drink be an occasion to lead our Christian brothers and sisters into sin. Given that many people in our culture struggle with alcoholism, our church has chosen to use grape juice, instead of wine, in order to accommodate them. We believe that our use of grape juice is a faithful contextualization of the wine used in the Lord’s Supper.
I have written at length about very practical, but small, details regarding the Lord’s Supper. Let me close with Calvin’s general exhortation:
“In regard to the external form of the ordinance, whether or not believers are to take into their hands and divide among themselves, or each is to eat what is given to him: whether they are to return the cup to the deacon or hand it to their neighbour; whether the bread is to be leavened or unleavened, and the wine to be red or white, is of no consequence. These things are indifferent, and left free to the Church.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.43.)