The Christian Thanksgiving Meal

I’m sure very few Protestants know what “Eucharist” means. Ironically, if I’m right, not many Catholics know what Eucharist means, either.

The word comes from the Greek ευχαρστια, meaning the giving of thanks: thanksgiving. It was chosen because of Jesus’ statements of thanksgiving when he took the cup and broke the bread.

I love American Thanksgiving. I know I’ve been guilty of terrible gluttony as a Christian on the fourth Thursday of November most years because I love stuffing and gravy. (Everything else is just okay.) Nonetheless, my favorite memories are of time with family, joy, kindness, and love.

I will never join those who say those kind of celebrations are bad, or that no one but Christians know how to love. My warm memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family are treasures to me, and I am convinced they ought to be.

Thanks to Richard Gorzyca for pointing out today that our feasts should include the needy and those who cannot pay us back. My family was never afraid to do that. I had a great family and great parents.

On this particular Thanksgiving day, unfortunately, I can’t host anybody. I’m hanging out in a hospital room, waiting for my Thanksgiving lunch to come on a plastic platter, consisting mostly of juice because turkey is not on my menu due to the tumor in my intestine.

But this post is not about America’s annual Thanksgiving celebration. It is about the church’s weekly (at least) Thanksgiving celebration, the Eucharist.

That Thanksgiving is the first and most important one. It belongs to the family that ought to be more important than our biological family, even if our biological family is as close and as warm as mine.

I don’t mind that meal being called Eucharist or communion, but I prefer the American translation of the words: Thanksgiving and fellowship. (Paul called the meal the fellowship of Jesus’ body and blood—1 Cor. 10:16.)

The Lord’s Supper

I do mourn that for most of us, the Lord’s Supper is no Thanksgiving meal at all, but a mere taste, with little to no fellowship going on at all. What should be better and richer than the American Thanksgiving meal is actually deficient to it.

Deep down, we all recognize the problem. We have moved our fellowship meal from our gathering (service, meeting, mass) to Saturday or Sunday afternoons. There we have a real meal, one that we are excited about and look forward to. We call it the fellowship meal because fellowship actually happens, rather than private prayer.

Let me pause here to give a caveat/apology. There are wonderful, deeply spiritual people who long and look forward to the modern version of the Eucharist or communion, a token wafer or cracker. Their fellowship is with God, it is real, and their adoration and memory of Jesus has to be commended with absolutely no ill spoken of it.

But with that caveat, I assert that the tradition of a supper is more ancient and is borne better testimony by both Scripture and the early fathers than our modern practice. I think our modern practice puts the body that Jesus is most concerned about on the backburner, out of our thoughts, rather than at the forefront of our thoughts as it was in the apostles’ practice.

Here’s my argument.

The Lord’s Supper in the Scriptures

I have always thought that the Scriptures said that Jesus took the bread and cup after the meal. It doesn’t.

Only Paul says anything was after the meal, and he says it was only the cup. He apparently equates the meal with the eating of the bread:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “Take and eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24).

In the next verse, he tells us that Jesus took the cup after “he had dined.”

Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus took “some bread” while they were eating. Neither mention the cup being after the meal. In fact, the wording makes it sound like it was during the meal.

Luke mentions two cups! One came before the bread, and that cup Jesus said he would not drink with them again until they drank it in the kingdom of God. Then he takes not the bread, but just bread, and says it’s his body and we should eat it in memory of him. And finally, he takes a cup after the bread and says it is the blood of the New Covenant, to be drunk in memory of him.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that only Luke and Paul, who were not at the meal, mention that Jesus said to have the meal as a memorial for him. Matthew and Mark don’t mention it.

Does any of this sound remotely like a tiny cracker or wafer and a thimble of “fruit of the vine”?

Paul is even more clear: At the beginning of his exhortation about the Lord’s Supper, in 1 Corinthians 11:20, he says:

When you come together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first. One is hungry, and another is drunk?

Clearly the Corinthians were getting together for a meal. It is just as clear that they were eating the meal unworthily by having no regard for the Lord’s body: their brothers and sisters around them. They were not having the Lord’s Supper, they were having their own supper of selfishness.

Paul later warns them that such lack of discerning of the Lord’s body leads to eating and drinking condemnation to yourself.

In context, it is impossible to miss that the “unworthy manner” is eating a meal without regard to your brother or sister and his/her family. Leaving them hungry, while you feast at a table next to them. This is horrifying to Paul, and it makes God so angry that he delivers such punishments as sickness and death.

None of this teaching/exhortation from Paul is even possible if the Lord’s Supper is a memorial with a tiny cracker and a thimble of grape juice or wine. It’s not possible even if the wine is served in a cup that is shared by the whole assembly.

Paul’s exhortation is only possible if the Corinthians thought they were getting together for a pot luck. And Paul does not call them to task for having a pot luck, but for not sharing.

There is nothing in the Scriptures that would give us any idea that the Lord’s Thanksgiving meal is a quiet memorial where we examine our own private faults, quietly ignoring everyone around is. It is not only more like the church pot luck, it is exactly like a modern church pot luck.

The Lord’s Supper in the Early Christian Writings

My Catholic and Orthodox friends like to refer to the description of the Lord’s Supper in the Didache as a liturgy. I understand that. It not only gives prescribed prayers for the bread, the wine, and after the meal, it suggests responsive prayers.

But let’s get past the liturgy discussion, and let’s talk about the Lord’s Supper. There is one big, poignant elephant in the middle of that liturgy:

When all have partaken sufficiently, give thanks in these words … (Ch. 10 in the version I have)

When all have partaken sufficiently? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the writer did not mean, “Once everyone has had a thin wafer of bread dropped on their tongue and one sip of wine.”

Justin Martyr describes a Sunday morning “church service” towards the end of his First Apology. It’s pretty simple (and sounds nothing like a liturgy). They read Scripture, the “presiding one” explained the Scripture, then he prayed at length over the bread and wine, and both were distributed to the congregation (which in Justin’s case was probably quite small, like a modern house church).

What I want you to note is that he also goes on to say that the deacons take some of the bread and wine and distribute it to the sick and infirm, any who could not make it to the gathering of the disciples.

Why?

Well, maybe it is because the Thanksgiving was so important that everyone needed “the bread of immortality and the antidote to keep us from dying,”* but I’d like to suggest that is more likely that for some, especially for the infirm, widows, or orphans, it was the only meal they would get that morning. The deacons were not delivering a religious relic; they were delivering a meal, sent directly from God; manna from heaven.

*Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 20

Tertullian, in Apology 39, also mentions the deacons bringing bread and wine to those who had missed the meal. He calls the meal a feast or banquet, though he says it is carried out with gravity, dignity, and self-control. He says it is more similar to a school of virtue than to a Roman banquet.

That said, it was nonetheless a banquet where the saints ate their fill. They prayed for each other there, shared psalms and exhortations, took vows to obey the Lord, and they were led by a “presiding one,” Tertullian using the same word as Justin, just 50 years later.

Again, I would like to suggest that the reason bread and wine were brought to the infirm that could not attend is because they needed a meal, not to fulfill a religious requirement.

Conclusion

I am not arguing here that the Lord’s Supper is not a religious ritual. Clearly, even to Paul in the Corinthian letter, it is. We eat the supper together, discerning that we are the Lord’s body and taking care of each other because we are body parts belonging to the same body.

Nonetheless, it is a meal, where the fellowship of the Lord is carried out. It is a fellowship of the Lord’s body and the Lord’s blood. The Lord’s body, my friends, is here on earth. As far as King Jesus is concerned, despite the fact that he rose bodily to heaven, the body he lives in is us, and we are each body parts of his body, meant to do his will. His body was broken so that we could be one body, controlled by one head in the heavens.

Everything said in the first couple centuries of the church indicates that the Lord’s Supper was a supper, even its name.

Because we’ve missed this, we end up looking to heaven during our little ritual, rather than looking around at the foundation of the kingdom of God around us in a glorious time of fellowship, exhortation, learning, and renewal together in Jesus.

We may be enjoying American Thanksgiving today and every year, but we keep missing the heavenly Thanksgiving supper every week.

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10 Responses to The Christian Thanksgiving Meal

  1. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the other early church writings regarding the Eucharist. Presumably you have read the Didache, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus refer to the Eucharist as a sacrifice and a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 1:10-11. Was the Old Testament sacrificial worship replaced with a potluck?

    It would nice if you explained their descriptions too.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Very next project. I’m not real sure it’s true to say that the Didache and Justin Martyr used sacrifice as a description, but I do agree with others. Of course, I’ll remember whether I’m right here in the next couple days because that’s the next booklet I’m working on. It will be a fun booklet because it’s not a foregone conclusion. I still have things to learn. I’m doing an edit on a booklet on grace that I’ve finished, and I knew what my conclusion was going to be there because I’ve been studying it for years. This one I’ve been sitting on for several years, not only reading, but also letting the church test out what we are learning. I now have a friend that I trust that can help me with this, so I’m writing and researching at the same time (on the Lord’s Supper).

      If I had time to finish my author web site I’m working on, I’d make it so that the booklet is being worked on online so folks like you could give your feedback before it’s published, but one thing at a time. It’s possible I’ll get it up before I finish the booklet.

  2. paulfpavao says:

    Thank you! So far, so good. Little alarm last night at the fact that my lungs were rattling as I breathed, while the chemo is still stewing and killing my immune system. A couple breathing treatments and exercise sessions really helped, though, thanks be to God. I do appreciate the prayers.

  3. Evan says:

    The Apostle Paul would probably be rolling over in his grave if he saw how “communion” is delivered to the saints today. As others have pointed out the Lord’s Supper is now the Lord’s Snack and hardly a snack at that. Our churches Communion Sundays kinda reflect our drive-thru fast food establishments except with no option to “super-size” it. The agape feast which was supposed to be a joyous time of corporate unity amongst the brethren has evolved into a somber and gloomy mood of individual introspection in preparation to receiving the elements. Kinda like attending a funeral. The closest thing to the Lord’s Supper in today’s churches is the church pot-luck. Have you ever attended a gloomy church pot-luck? Have you ever attended a joyous communion service? I haven’t on both counts. It is said that the separation of the communion elements from the agape meal occurred at the end of the 4th century when the Council of Carthage formally prohibited the feasts from being served in church buildings due to abuses. Leave it to the traditions of men to screw up the things of the Spirit.

  4. paulfpavao says:

    I have only an idea. Especially in the major cities, there were congregations that were quite large by the last half of the third century. I suspect that a pot luck with hundreds of people was not possible if you wanted it to be organized, so that those presiding could make sure teaching was happening. The fact is, processing a lot of people and a lot of converts is easiest, if improperly, done with a system. It is clear that the emphasis on the power and authority of the bishop was growing with time, and the emphasis on consecration by a “priest” was becoming part of that growing authority. When there is emphasis on the “priest” performing rituals, the real point of the ritual is easily lost. If what is needed, more than the fellowship and the meal, is a prayer by a priest, then what does it matter if it’s a cracker rather than a meal? What does it matter whether or not the laity even tastes the wine? The priest can drink it on behalf of all the people, then afterward, rather than send the leftovers to the infirm that couldn’t make it, the priest occasionally drinks it up. (I was an altar boy. It happens.)

    That’s what I think happened.

  5. Tara says:

    This is funny timing because my dad and I were just talking about this a few days ago. I don’t understand how we switched from a meal to a crumb and a sip. Do you have any idea when or why this change happened?

  6. Ruth says:

    oh how I love this. I like to think of it in terms of his own flesh and blood. we are gathering for our family dinner. He is of course the head and we are the members. We are the Fathers children by adoption through our relationship to Jesus. we are one body and one blood. literally. Jesus became flesh and blood. our own flesh and blood so that he could infuse us with the Holy Spirit and make us sons of God. this is a fantastic post.

    • paulfpavao says:

      Thank you, Ruth. That’s encouraging, as I’m really out on a limb here, though the evidence is consistent and easy to interpret.

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