Reimagining Adventism: The Lord’s Supper and Absurdity, Part 1

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Reimagining Adventism: The Lord’s Supper and Absurdity, Part 1

The Lord’s Supper is no longer a supper; it has become the Savior’s Snacklet or the Nazarene’s Nibble. – Jeremy Myers

 

In 2014, the Barna Study group conducted a survey study focused on identifying the kind of worship spaces that Millennial generations found most attractive or meaningful.[1] The study was focused mostly on aesthetics but also touched on the deeper elements of culture and patterns. The objective was simple—to discover a converging milieu that captured the kind of experience Millennials are searching for when they come to church.

 

The results were surprising. Surprising because the caricature of young people craving modern, theatre-like spaces with loud, flashy worship and a disdain for all things traditional was exposed for what it was—a cartoon version of a truly remarkable, complex, and profound generation. Of all the respondents (ages 18 to 29), 77% said they preferred a “sanctuary” worship space over a modern “auditorium”, 67% said they preferred a “classic” church to a “trendy” one, and 67% said they preferred a “quiet” over “loud” worship experience. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that young generations are lining up to attend most of our conservative churches. The respondents still identified a desire for a church culture of community over privacy, casualness over formality, and modern over traditional expressions. But the conclusion is surprising nonetheless. Younger generations crave relevant churches that make sense within the categories of their own modernity, yes, but they still crave the ancient.

What this means is that the age of “I hate tradition” is over. In fact, I would contend it never really existed. Young people don’t hate traditions or rituals. What they hate is when formality, automatism, and banality take over what was once meaningful and morph it into a hollow formula one repeats with no existential or transcendent utility. Therefore, rather than creating churches free of tradition our objective in the contemporary age ought to be nurturing communities that manifest living traditions and dynamic rituals. This means celebrating the ancient but doing so in a way that allows new generations to add their own layers of flavor and color to them.

 

With this background in place, I want to turn our attention over to Adventism’s central ritual—the Lord’s Supper. This ritual is so central to who we are that it occupies a space in our list of official fundamental beliefs. However, the ritual itself has been restrained within formality and automatism for so long, it has lost much of its intended virtue. If we are to revive this ritual and make it meaningful for emerging generations and indeed—secular mission—then we must revisit it to discover its inherent dynamism and mining from this, adaptations and emphases that need to be centralized for the ritual to have its intended effect in the post-modern age.

 

In order to do this, we will touch on the theme of the last supper from three simple angles. First, we will analyze its anatomy in scripture, then we will expand on this anatomy through an exploration of Hebraic materiality, and finally, we will aim to transplant this ritual to the contemporary age we presently inhabit with one single question in mind—how can we reframe this ancient celebration to speak life to the minds of post-modernity to meta-modernity? In this present article, we will deal with the first two and then move to the third in the next.

 

The Anatomy of Communion

The anatomy of the communion service in scripture is extremely simple. However, nested within its simplicity lies its challenge. A challenge that, if taken seriously, would fundamentally deconstruct and redesign contemporary Adventism. Now, of course, this is a very bold statement. But if we commit to following the narrative wherever it takes, we might just find the challenge unavoidable.

 

In his article, “The Lord’s Supper is a Full Meal”, author Jeremy Myers states that “For over a thousand years, Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper has usually entailed little more than a bit of bread and a tiny taste of wine or grape juice.”[2]

 

When this practice is held up to scripture, however, a glaring problem emerges. The most obvious being that this tiny wafer and “shot glass” are nowhere present in the Biblical narrative. On the contrary, over and over again, the communion service is depicted as a full meal. From its context as a Passover celebration to its introduction in Matthew 26 and continuation in Acts and Corinthians, the Lord’s Supper is always and, in every act, depicted as a full meal. In Matthew 26, they are eating and it is in the midst of their already present supper that Jesus identifies his body and blood with the already present bread and wine. No special bread or wine is introduced. No miniature versions are brought in. Rather, the bread and wine are simply a part of an already active meal. The same scenario repeats in Mark 14. The disciples and Jesus have already been enjoying a meal at the time Jesus takes already present bread and wine, blesses them, and distributes them as symbols of his body and blood. Likewise, in Luke 22 the gathering is referred to as a supper—that is a full meal with the already present bread and the wine being endowed with an extra layer of redemptive significance.

 

Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 11, and Paul has to correct the church at Corinth for the way it is conducting the communion meal. Among his rebukes are people eating too much and not leaving enough for those who arrive late, and people drinking too much to the point of drunkenness. Neither of these rebukes fits the modern wafer and shot glass model we see in our churches. The rebukes only make sense in the context of a full meal which is essentially what early communion was and is intended to be. In light of this, Meyers concludes that “The Lord’s Supper is no longer a supper; it has become the Savior’s Snacklet or the Nazarene’s Nibble.”[3]

 

But why does this matter? There are several reasons why. The first is that the original ritual was intended to be a communal act and not a private one. Communion today might be done in the company of others, but it is nevertheless glazed with individualism. You take the bread, bow your head, and pray in silence. The same with the cup. But in the early church, communion was communal, not individual. It invited intimacy, connection, and withness. It was an act of becoming one with God and each other. Today, as society searches high and low for community and a place to belong, the local church ought to be that community. We ought to be that alternative space that offers what the world can never offer. Instead, we have embraced a model that merely perpetuates individualistic faith expressions as opposed to its intended communal ones.

 

The second reason why this matters is that rituals of this nature have a high degree of dynamism to them. They can be molded, adapted, and reframed without losing their meaning. This is because the ancient communion ritual is a very human ritual. It celebrates togetherness, life, intimacy, connection, forgiveness, and more. Such a celebration can be passed from one generation to the next and expressed in different ways. In the church today, young people are known to enjoy what is termed the “Agape Feast” (a more biblical expression of communion). These Agape Feasts are simply meals with a trans-personal focus on Christ and his redemptive realities. But because they are simply meals, young people are free to hold them anywhere, adorn the room and organize the entire evening in a way that is meaningful to them. They are not restrained by stifling liturgies, robotic steps, or the need for a “clergy-man” to “officiate”. There are no deaconesses with white gloves covering and uncovering. Elders in suits and ties controlling the entire scenario with suffocating formality. All of this is gone and replaced with what Jesus always intended for the communion celebration—a meal that celebrates life, redemption, and community.

 

However, there is yet another reason why it matters. This reason is perhaps the most confronting and uncomfortable. This is the element I refer to as Hebraic Materiality.

 

Hebraic Materiality

Christianity today is heavily influenced by the categories inherent in ancient Greek Dualist and Gnostic philosophy. These concepts, popularized by legendary philosophers like Plato, essentially split reality into two realms. The first is the realm of the spirit. This realm is the true realm. The good realm. The second is the realm of the flesh or the physical. This realm is a lesser realm.

 

According to Greek philosophy then, the physical or material world is not good. The goal of the spiritual life then is for one’s spirit to escape the material prison-house (the body) and return to the realm of the spirit. In this view then, the ultimate good is the spirit realm and the material realm is either morally neutral or inherently morally debased.

 

With ideas like this creeping into Christianity, it was just a matter of time before the narrative of scripture morphed into a counter-narrative that redefined its most basic tenets. Among the many shifts that occurred, communion itself moved from a full, physical, and very human meal to a ritualistic, spiritualized, and highly ceremonial procedure. In this sense, the bread and wine lost their material significance because they became mere place-holders for higher realities. The priest then, after pronouncing the right words in the right language that no one understood, would convert the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s literal flesh and blood. The worshiper would then consume this literal flesh and blood as a sacramental act. Part of the reasoning here is that lesser material objects like bread and wine cannot embody higher spiritual truths contained in Christ’s literal flesh and blood. Therefore, unless the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the later, they have no significance whatsoever—the literal bread and wine, once again, being mere place-holders for the higher realities the priest will convert them into.[4]

 

In this model, the bread and the wine are inconsequential. They play no significant role in the actual communion celebration. At the risk of repeating myself ad-nauseam, they are place-holders and nothing more. Author Leslie Leyland Fields said it best in her article, “Why Are Our Communion Meals So Paltry?” when she wrote,

 

If Christ’s presence is made real through the elements, then a sliver, a swallow is surely enough! And if the ceremony is mostly memorial, a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, then tidbits and jiggers suffice![5]

 

However, the Hebraic conception of reality is different from the Platonic. Biblically speaking, there are not two realities—a spiritual and a physical. While God is certainly distinct and separate from his creation, the reality he has created is holistic and interconnected. This is why Adventists believe that physical health impacts spiritual and emotional health and vice versa. Reality is one, therefore all of its elements are intertwined. This means that Hebraically speaking the physical reality matters. Materiality is consequential.

 

Consequently (pun intended), when Jesus shares a final supper with his disciples the material act of eating and drinking is itself already embodied with meaning and significance that captures what Jesus wants to convey. The bread is his body not in a substantial sense because this is unnecessary but in a symbolic sense. However, at the same time, the bread is much more than a symbol for the bread already embodies within itself the reality that Jesus is pointing us to.

 

Perhaps an illustration will help with this point. Imagine for a moment I draw a logo of a plant growing out of some soil. When the logo is done, I tell you that the logo symbolizes or represents life. However, if you attempted to eat the drawing I just made, the logo would not then provide you with life. It’s just a symbol of life. It does not contain, within itself, the life it points to. It merely symbolizes it.

 

The bread of communion is not like this. This is why I say it is more than a symbol. For while the bread points to the eternal redemption of Christ’s physical sacrifice, it also embodies, within itself, the very life Christ is redeeming. If you eat that bread it will give you life. If you don’t eat the bread you will starve and die. And because a person cannot live without bread, the act of sharing bread with another person is an act of sharing life itself. Therefore, the meal is consequential because in the meal we share life, sustainment, and nourishment, and in doing so, Christ points us to his promise that in him this already present life will not end. The bread, therefore, does not have to become a higher substance. But neither is it a mere metaphor of another substance. On the contrary, it embodies in itself the very truth Jesus wants to amplify. As a result, the material act of eating a meal is deeply consequential in the celebration of the Last Supper. The material then is in itself the sustenance, intimacy, and nourishment that Jesus created and is now to redeem. This is why the new world is not a de-physicalized reality as Plato envisioned, but a redeemed physicalism.

 

With this in mind, the Lord’s Supper can only be authentically experienced within its original parametric design—as a full meal that celebrates the fullness of Christ’s redemption accomplished through his physical, corporeal sacrifice on the cross. It is not a wafer that gets transformed or a metaphorical icon that simply points to a higher, ultimate reality. Rather, the meal itself embodies what it points to. Thus, the bread sustains and nourishes because this is what Jesus’ somatic offering accomplishes—not in relation to a higher reality, but in redemption of the already present reality.

 

In light of this, I would argue that the traditional model of communion celebrated in Adventism is more Catholic than Biblical, more Platonic than Hebraic. If the Lord’s supper was intentionally material, and if the material is consequential, then the Lord’s supper must move away from the cultic, hyper-spiritualized, and “place-holder” theology back toward the human, physical, and tangible act of eating, reclining, and nourishing our bodies in celebration of what Christ accomplished in his body, for all bodies, for all eternity.

 

And here is the bottom line. Such a celebration cannot be experienced with a hyper-symbolized ritual that revolves around nothing more than metaphors and dry formalities. Such a celebration must be experienced within the very human act of eating and drinking together as we recount that in Jesus, this material life-sustaining experience is both redeemed and without end. The meal is physical. His body is physical. Eternity is physical. And this beauty is to be celebrated within the parameters of materiality. And what a thing it is we celebrate! For as Paul so eloquently put it, “Once you were alienated from God and were hostile in your minds because of your evil deeds. But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body…” (Colossians 1:22, emphasis mine)

 

However, this invitation back to a biblical vision of the Lord’s supper is not without its immense challenge. One may respond to all this by saying, “Is the present model not more practical?” In other words, putting together a meal for 200 plus people at my local church isn’t exactly realistic. A wafer and shot glass of grape juice are certainly more manageable than a full meal. And if we follow the early church’s model of celebrating communion on a nearly weekly basis, the situation becomes even more quixotic. Therefore, it appears that the modern model must be retained even if on a purely pragmatic basis.

 

And yet, this is not entirely true. However, what this ancient ritual, if we are to retain its biblical essence, now calls us to is perhaps too much for many modern Christians. Nevertheless, we will explore this and the call to reframing this ritual for the contemporary age in the next article.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/designing-worship-spaces-with-millennials-in-mind

[2] https://redeeminggod.com/lords-supper-is-a-meal

[3] Another important point to note here is that only the priest could officiate communion because only the priest had the “power” to perform the transubstantiation rite. However, scripture never demands that clergy alone can conduct communion. Any believer in Jesus can.

[4] ibid.

[5] https://www.leslieleylandfields.com/blog/slieleylandfields.com/2012/11/why-are-our-communion-meals-so-paltry.html

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.