Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Diversity in Early Christianity - the Eucharist

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     Modern church practices are generally thought to have been established or authorized by Jesus himself, and hence we tend to think early Jesus followers believed and practiced their faith like our own modern church does. The evidence, however, does not support that conclusion—even with regard to the most sacred ritual of the faith, the Eucharist.

     Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples enjoyed dinner parties, particularly in the company of the wrong kind of people like “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 9:11; Luke 15:2, 19:5, 7; Mark 2:15-16), but also with the right kind of people (Luke 7:36-39, 11:37-38, 14:1; John 2:1-10). Likely as a result of his convivial practice, Jesus gained the reputation of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Q tradition: Luke 7:34=Matt 11:19). Interestingly, rebellious sons, who were “gluttons and drunkards,” were condemned to stoning (Deut 21:20-21), and it was generally thought that “gluttons and drunkards” came to no good (Prov 23:20-21). But deserved or not, Jesus’ bon vivant reputation is one of the oddities of the Christian tradition. So it is a little surprising to find a meal celebrated in his memory as one of the church’s most sacred rites. Of course, what the church celebrates today is not an actual meal, but only a relic of what was once a full meal. Early followers of Jesus celebrated a complete meal in his memory. Paul even chided the Corinthian community for observing a full meal, rather than the ritual (1 Cor 11:20-33).

     The liturgical ritual/meal is known by various names in Christian tradition: the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20), the Eucharist (derived from the Greek word for “giving thanks”: Luke 22:15-20), and the Agape (a love feast). This latter title Ignatius (end of the first century) pairs with baptism as the two liturgical rituals of the church (To the Smyrnaeans, 8:1-2). The Agape seems to be a full meal celebration that also included a ritualistic element (Smyrnaeans 8:1-2; Jude 12). The origins of the “Lord’s Supper” likely evolved out of Jesus’ celebration of a Jewish Passover meal with his disciples, as reflected in the synoptic gospels. The Eucharist, and particularly the Agape, however, may originally have evolved out of Jesus’ table practices, as reflected in the gospels, and the disciples do seem to have continued such a practice after his death (Acts 2:42, 46).

     In the synoptic gospels (ca. 70-85) the elements of the meal (bread and wine) are associated with the body and blood of Jesus (Mark 14:22-23), and the meal is celebrated as a memorial of the death of Jesus (i.e., “do this in memory of me”). It seems to have been understood as the inauguration of a “new covenant” (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; only Matt adds “for the forgiveness of sins”). It was oriented to a future celebration in the Kingdom of God (Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:16-18). Paul (ca. 50), the earliest witness to the Lord’s Supper, shifts the celebration from a full meal to a ritual and reorients the focus of the ritual from a memorial of death to a continuing proclamation of Christ’s death till his return (1 Cor 11:26). Paul seems to regard the ritual as having sacramental rather than mere symbolical significance (i.e., the cup and bread are a “participation” in the blood and body of Christ: 1 Cor 10:16-17).

     Oddly, there is no ritual meal of the synoptic/Pauline type in the Gospel of John (ca. 90). John does have a last meal tradition (John 13:1-20) but it is not a Passover meal with the traditional words of institution (“my body, my blood”). Rather the meal includes a foot washing scene in which Jesus tells his disciples to wash one another’s feet (John 13:12-16). In John there is nothing significant about the meal itself; what is significant is Jesus’ example of service to others. The “body and blood” language of the synoptic gospels is found in John 6:48-58, where the “eating” is interpreted symbolically as belief (cf. 6:53 to 6:33-37). It seems clear that a Jewish Passover celebration is bypassed in John for a ceremony depicting service to others. John’s community did not celebrate a ritual meal of the synoptic/Pauline type, like most modern churches celebrate.

     In the Didache (ca. 110-120) the Eucharist was celebrated as a thanksgiving for Jesus and the unity of the church rather than as a memorial of his death (Didache 9). The cup (i.e., the wine) was taken with gratitude for the holy vine of David made known through God’s child Jesus. The broken bread was eaten with thanks for the life and knowledge made known through God’s child Jesus. The ritual concluded with the hope that as the broken bread was scattered upon the mountains but brought together and made one, so the church will be gathered together into God’s kingdom. This celebration contrasts remarkably with Ignatius, who thought of the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote that we should not die” (To the Ephesians 20:2).

     The significance of the ritual differs in modern churches: for Baptists, the bread and wine are merely symbols for the body and blood of Jesus; for Roman Catholics, these elements become the actual body and blood of Jesus (see Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 7:1); for Lutherans, Jesus is spiritually present in the bread and wine. It is surprising to see such dissonance on such a sensitive issue in modern churches; but why not? Christians have never agreed—even on such basic matters as the Eucharist.

     What celebrants think of this early ritual will likely continue to be determined by what their church teaches them. Nevertheless, if one seriously considered the diversity of beliefs among the early followers of Jesus, there would be less dogmatism, and more tolerance for the views of others. To judge by the evidence, “one true faith” never existed. “True faith” is only what convinces the believer; for religious truth, like beauty, lies in the mind of the beholder.

This essay was developed out of a communion meditation I presented at the Community Christian Church in Springfield Missouri, November 16, 2008.

Charles W. Hedrick
Emeritus Distinguished Professor
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:59am