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Reprinted from Disciples.org

 

At the table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ" -- From the Preamble of the Design for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Sharing in the Lord's Supper is at the heart of what members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) do when they gather for worship. Generally each week there will be the singing of hymns, prayers, the reading of scripture, and a sermon. But without the Lord's Supper (or communion, as it is often called), worship would be incomplete. A marked characteristic of Disciples is an emphasis upon the importance of the Lord's Supper as a basic part of weekly worship.

While the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox church bodies had preserved such an emphasis, most other groups regularly observed the Lord's Supper only monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or annually. The Disciples movement, however, stemming as it did from impatience with sectarian church divisions on the American frontier in the early 1800s, from its beginning sought to stress the fundamental place of the Lord's Supper in worship and to observe it each Lord's Day.

The early leaders of the Disciples movement sought to cut through the many layers of tradition which separated various church bodies from one another by recovering the essential faith and practices of the early church as seen in the New Testament.

In regard to the Lord's Supper, two scripture passages caught their attention. In Acts 2:42, following the account of the birth of the church at Pentecost, the writer says that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." The "apostles' teaching" was regarded as being the equivalent of a sermon from scripture and "the breaking of bread" as an expression for sharing in the Lord's Supper.

In Acts 20:7 the writer was regarded as referring to the custom of gathering each Sunday for the Lord's Supper when commenting, "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them...."

Modern-day Disciples, though less interested in arguing from proof-texts, still call attention to the earliest recorded traditions of the church which clearly indicate that the sermon and the Lord's Supper were integral to Sunday worship. Today, through a renewed interest in the history of worship in the early church, there is general agreement among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants that preaching from holy scripture and sharing in the Lord's Supper have been a regular part of Sunday worship from earliest times.

The observance of the Lord's Supper reaches back to the upper room where Jesus met with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. At that moment, before he was taken prisoner, tried, and nailed to a cross, Jesus sought through vivid imagery and dramatic action to express the meaning of his life and the events in which he was involved. What he said and did is recorded in the first three Gospels as well as in the Apostle Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26)

From these accounts we see that Jesus sought to focus the meaning of his life for his followers in these words and actions which could be repeated again and again as they continued to gather in his name. Even before the New Testament scriptures were written down and collected in a book, Christians were gathering regularly to remember Christ by repeating his words and actions given in the upper room. Those words now recorded in the New Testament call each generation to continue what Jesus instituted for his followers. Because Jesus commanded his followers to continue this practice, Disciples call the Lord's Supper one of Jesus' ordinances.

At first Christians partook of the bread and cup as a part of a common meal known as a love feast. Soon, however, the meal was discontinued and the bread and cup became the focal point of their regular worship service.

Today, among Disciples congregations, a communion table will be found in the sanctuary located in a prominent place, indicating the importance of the Lord's Supper in their worship.

Often across the front edge of the table are the words "Do This in Remembrance of Me," calling attention to the unique purpose of this particular table.

Remembrance is at the heart of the Lord's Supper. However, it is a special kind of remembrance. A review of the words of institution given us by the Apostle Paul reminds us of the meaning of Christian remembrance about the Lord's Table.

The remembrance is one of action. "Do this in remembrance of me," Jesus commands. Communion is not simply a guided meditation of the mind. The congregation acts out the high drama of Christ's meaning for Christians. Jesus, in giving his disciples this special meal, took four actions which are still repeated by his followers today. He took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread, and shared it with the disciples. He repeated these actions in like manner with the cup. A part of present-day remembering includes participation in these actions which, as the Apostle Paul says, "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Remembrance involves the eye, ear, nose, tongue, hands---the whole person. In the act of remembering we become personally involved in reenacting something of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The action of the Lord's Supper is one of thankful remembrance. Before Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup, he gave thanks. This was much like a common table grace given before the partaking of a meal. In Jewish tradition that thanksgiving took the form of recalling with gratitude the great saving deeds of God. The remembrance has the aura of the victory---God has won over every human foe. In this sense it is a joyous celebration of the redeeming power of God.

By the use of broken bread and poured out wine Jesus clearly intended to remind his followers of his sacrificial death upon a cross on behalf of all the world. In the prayers of thanksgiving at the Lord's Table grateful reference is made to the gift of bread which reminds us of Christ's body broken for us. We refer to the gift of wine which, like Christ's blood, was poured out for many. We rejoice that we share in Christ's effective sacrifice for our salvation. We celebrate the love of God experienced in Christ Jesus and know that nothing in all the world can ever separate us from that love.

It is apparent, then, that the remembrance of God's love known in Christ goes far beyond thoughts of Christ's crucifixion alone. His whole life of loving care for others comes to mind---his incisive teachings his merciful healings, his acceptance into fellowship of the unloved and unlovely, his championing of the powerless and oppressed, his unbreakable love for friends, and his forgiveness even of those who killed him. Beyond the agony of the cross we recall the good news of Easter---that life, for Christ and for us, does not end with the grave but finds fulfillment in eternal fellowship. Bright hope touches the dim recesses of the heart with new confidence that every evil shall be vanquished and God's purpose for creation shall be fulfilled.

Ultimately, then, we celebrate with thanksgiving every loving act of God. With Christ as the clue to the way God works redemptively in all of life toward creation we gratefully recall those personal events in our own lives which reveal the touch of the Master's hand.

Because the whole theme of celebrating the Lord's Supper is one of thanksgiving, many church bodies refer to this celebration as the Eucharist, taking its name from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

Traditionally the Disciples of Christ have been hesitant to speak of the Lord's Supper as a sacrament. They believed that some who regarded the Lord's Supper as a sacrament attributed supernatural powers to the elements of bread and wine. It may be true that Jesus said that "he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (John 6:54)," but Jesus often spoke in lively metaphor. The meaning for us is expanded when we understand that Jesus spoke in these symbolic terms.

Although impatient with theological conjectures explaining how communion elements become Christ's body, there has been little doubt among Disciples as to the reality of the living Christ's presence among those who share in the Lord's Supper. The Lord makes himself known to persons in a variety of circumstances. Characteristically he is known in the sharing together of the Lord's Supper. If a sacrament is, as some say, "an outward and visible sign of the Lord's invisible grace," Disciples have no particular problem with speaking of the Lord's Supper as a sacrament.

Somehow the act of remembering in the Lord's Supper is more than pious thoughts about the Jesus of long ago. Through these actions the Lord makes himself known as a present living reality to his people. It happens today much as it happened to those disciples of long ago, who, despondently walking along toward Emmaus in the days following Christ's crucifixion, invited a stranger to have supper with them. "When he was at the table with them," Luke writes, "he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight" (Luke 24:30-31). In the breaking of bread Christ still gives himself to his people.

Ultimately worshipers discover that the Lord's Supper is not so much something they do as it is something that God does for them. Through these actions God's love is expressed; here God speaks and acts afresh in human lives. Each time believers share in the Lord's Supper they open up a fresh opportunity for the Lord to be made known to them.

To those who gather at this table the Lord speaks meaningfully about their sins. At one point in our lives we are baptized, consciously accepting Jesus as the Christ, our Lord and Savior and vowing to follow him. We meant it then and we still mean it. But we are ever conscious of failing to live up to our vows. Our self-centeredness, our pride, our natural bent to sinning have continued and we know ourselves to be guilty of harming others and betraying our Lord. We are penitent but often continue to carry the weight of a guilty conscience.

The time of communion within the Lord's Supper is a weekly occasion to let Christ lift the burden of guilt from our shoulders and to free us by his grace for a more loving existence. Matthew's gospel says that when Jesus took a cup at the last supper he told his disciples, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:27-28). When we share in the Lord's Supper we hear afresh Christ's promise of forgiveness that was sealed by his death on a cross for each of us. The very lifting of the communion cup to our lips can be a sign for us that our lives are freed from guilt. We are forgiven. We are freed to love even as Christ loves us.

Persons outside the Disciples tradition sometimes question the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper on the basis that it may become little more than a thoughtless ritual. To partake less frequently with more deliberate and searching preparation would seem to make it more meaningful. Those leading worship among the Disciples seek to lift up its meaning afresh each week through a brief meditation. In reality the weekly observance keeps its freshness largely because a worshiper comes to the table each time in a different frame of mind with new experiences, aspirations, and needs to share with the living Christ. There would seem to be no more reason to question the weekly meeting with one's Lord about his table than it would be to question daily prayer with him.

Within the Disciples of Christ it is customary to say that Christ is the host at the communion table. It is the Lord's Supper, and we come at his invitation. Therefore no other person has the right to offer that invitation or to bar anyone from sharing in it. Leaders of the service often recite the words of Paul ( 1 Cor. 11:27-30) where the apostle urges that worshipers examine themselves and become aware of the body of Christ so they can eat and drink the bread and wine. The general practice among Disciples, as in other churches, is for persons not to partake until they have confessed faith in Christ and been baptized.

Christians of any persuasion are free to share in the Lord's Supper. This is in keeping with the Disciples' concern for the unity of the church. They believe the Lord's Supper should be seen as a means of reconciling Christians to one another so as to bring about the unity of Christ's church. It seems scandalous to many that Christians who give a common loyalty to Christ cannot as yet all come about a common table to share in Christ's sacred meal. It is not surprising that it was a Disciples minister who initiated the annual observance of World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday in October, as an occasion each year when all Christians could sense their bonds of kinship about their separate tables.

One of the issues which divides Christians concerning the Lord's Supper is the question of who has the authority to preside at the table. Generally among the churches of the world only ordained ministers are authorized to offer the prayer of thanksgiving. Even then there are such disagreements in regard to the proper ordaining of ministers that some church bodies do not recognize the ordination of others. Some Christians are instructed not to partake of the Lord's Supper from non-recognized ministers. Ministers may not be permitted to share the communion elements with members of some other branches of the church. Such is the present disarray of Christ's followers in regard to the central act of Christian worship.

Early in their history, the Disciples of Christ developed a new pattern for religious leadership in their congregations. Lay elders, members of the congregation chosen by the people themselves, were given the responsibility of presiding at the table and offering the communion prayers. Thoughtfully chosen, they are set apart for ministerial functions such as praying at the Lord's Table and pastoral care of members. Their authority to lead in the observance of the Lord's Supper remains a puzzling question to some church bodies.

To the Disciples the simple and thoughtful expressions of grateful remembrance offered by the elders each Sunday seem appropriate and satisfying. The elders are their representatives, people like themselves, who gather from a week of work to lift thankful hearts to God in remembrance of the saving work of Christ. Ties of common experience closely bind member to member, and Christ is known afresh as each week this ordinance is observed in the Christian Churches throughout the world.
 

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Last modified: 10/29/12