The Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, as I’ve experienced it in my Evangelical context often happens in a solemn atmosphere. In this funeral-like setting, someone from the clergy officiates the liturgical meal—consisting of a styrofoam cracker and a thimble’s worth of grape juice—and warns the entire congregation to check their hearts and repent so that no one partakes in the meal in an “unworthy manner” (1Cor. 11:27-33). In this kind of context, members are invited to remember the events of Good Friday in solemn reflection as they taste and see the death of Christ in the liturgical elements.
For the early church, however, the Lord’s Supper took on an entirely different mood. For them, it was essentially a communal feast of celebration that brought people together of varying stripes who were united simply by their faith in Jesus Christ.
Those often found in attendance were a hodgepodge of people from the upper and lower class. Because of this visible gap—between those who were well-off and those less fortunate—we find Paul addressing an instance in the Corinthian church where this reality was becoming a source of division. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul is speaking to certain members in the church—perhaps those of the upper class—who were taking more of their fair share and getting drunk off the wine. Taking on a somewhat snarky tone, Paul writes,
There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper ahead of others. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on the church of God and embarrass those who have nothing? (vv.19-22a).
The meal itself was meant to embody commonality in Christ despite class structure, but instead it was turning into a buffet that privileged the well-off at the expense of others. For Paul, this way of partaking in the Lord’s Supper was in an “unworthy manner.”
This is perhaps why Paul reiterates Jesus’ words to share in the communal meal “in remembrance of me,” not to engage in somber theological reflection and mourning for sin (as it’s been understood), but to in some way reproduce the perichoresis—the loving interpenetration of the members of the Trinity—as it was revealed in Jesus, in the church.
Consider this notion of emergent property theory as a way of illustrating this. In philosophy and other branches of thought, emergence is basically the idea that when individual things come together and form a unity a new property emerges that would not normally be there individually. We see this sort of thing happening all over Creation, such as in ant colonies for example. Individually, ants can do very little (about six behaviors actually), but when they come together they form a tiny civilization that functions with complex efficiency. There’s no head ant delegating things, but rather a corporate intelligence emerges such that they function as one big ant.
Likewise, when the people of God come together in a corporate setting a dimension of God’s presence takes residency that would not normally be there on our own—namely God manifesting Himself in the midst of our mundane. As everyday as sharing a meal might be, it is the way we eat together, and do life together in general, that embodies real communion that brings the presence of God. When we do this in remembrance of Him—that is, by exemplifying the inclusive love of Christ—God is in our midst, not as One seated among many at the table, but as the ambiance that colors the liturgical space.
In a way, the Lord’s Supper deconstructs the social mores and class structures that give us a false sense of entitlement, revealing them as contingent, impotent and arbitrary, and creates a new collective wherein, as Paul writes, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). For Paul, the shedding of these identities which were ubiquitous in his day—namely the religious (Jew/Greek), the political (slave/free), and the biological (male/female)—are based in the kind of death Christ experienced. Death by crucifixion wasn’t just a torturous death, it also symbolized that the one being executed stood outside the cultural, religious and political systems of the day. As such, those who identified with Christ were identifying with the One who gave up all identity for love.
Although one’s religious, cultural and/or political identity continue to exist in the world, our participation in the life of Christ disillusions us from the perceived power they once held for us. This self-emptying of our identities is codified in the theological concept of kenosis. In the same way how Christ emptied Himself of entitlement in the Incarnation, occupying the place of the disenfranchised, the Church takes part in this kenotic act, opening themselves up in mutuality to the social Other.
Is it possible, then, in our modern day to create ways of coming together where there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, republican or democrat, straight or gay, or any other contrast you can think of, and simply commune with each other in remembrance of Him? I’d like to think so. It’s just a matter of food and drink.