A Meal for the Ages

Posted: September 22, 2011 in Theology
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Early Christians celebrating Communion at an A...

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Recently I’ve been spending considerable time reflecting upon the Agape Meal portion of how Brethren celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Let me be more specific, I haven’t been reflecting upon the menu of the Agape Meal, but the theological implications of sharing such a meal. In past blog entries I have argued that such practices are formative in nature, but a closer look at the theological implications may provide for further development of what ways it is formative.

Much like the Moravians the Brethren celebrate the Agape meal as part of the Lord’s Supper. I’ve often wondered why it is that the early Brethren didn’t move toward a meal that more closely reflects the Passover feast, which Jesus and his disciples were celebrating. While I’m sure there is a historical answer for this, I would like to propose a theological one. For the Jewish community the Passover meal is primarily a mimetic anamnesis. What this means, simply put, is that the meal is a re-enacted remembrance of the original. Moreover, this celebration is a highly pedagogical meal. As the family gathers for the meal there are specific acts that take place, from providing definition for the specific elements present on the table, to a retelling of the originating narrative which led to the celebration of this meal. In this context the meal is primarily about remembering.

This remembrance is essential for the formation of corporate identity. As Ricoeur has argued that identity is formed as the community is called to corporate remembrance, so the participants are shaped as they not only recall but physically re-enact the meal.[1] I believe it is the primacy of past that sets apart the paschal meal from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Now before anyone can object that the Lord’s Supper is all about remembrance, I want to interject that the practice of the Lord’s Supper is more about the present and future than it is about the past. Let me qualify that last statement; what I’m saying is that the past, while a significant aspect, isn’t the primary aspect.

Quite unique to Brethren is the emphasis upon 1 Corinthians 10 & 11. In chapter 10 Paul argues that the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine is the actual (present) participation in the event. Therefore as Brethren gather around the table they are presently participating in a sacred meal in which they share the necessities of life, as equals. In other words, as believers partake of this meal together, they aren’t merely remembering the first Lord’s Supper, but are participating in the actual event with Jesus present. In his little book, In Place of Sacraments, Vernard Eller posits that Christ’s presence becomes real as believers share in the necessity of life through the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup.[2]

However, this celebration is still a shadow of what it will one day be. In as much as Brethren gather and celebrate this meal, it is always with the hopeful perspective of gathering around the marriage table of the Lamb. Jürgen Moltmann argued that all Christian theology is necessarily primarily eschatological. It is the trajectory of the believers’ focus toward the future as they anticipate the final culmination of history in the fulfilled promises of God.[3] The Agape Meal is especially an eschatological celebration that not only reminds (in the past) the believer of God’s promise, but more importantly reconfigures the believer’s perspective toward the future hope. If Jesus is truly the crucified and risen Messiah, then his followers are necessarily people of hope as his whole life is about the fulfillment of the Father’s promises.

So getting back to my original wondering, the theological reason, I am supposing, that the Brethren didn’t re-enact the paschal meal was that they were more tied to the deliverance from sins (i.e. present experience of forgiveness and new standing with God) and the future hope of God’s fulfilled promises (eternal life). But then again that’s just my thought. I’m sure there’s a historical explanation for it.

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “Structure and Hermeneutics,” The Conflict of Interpretations, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 47ff

[2] In Place of Sacraments, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 89ff.

[3] In his introduction Moltmann lays out this argument as fundamental for his developing theology. Theology of Hope, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 15-36.

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