Why the eucharist is useless (unless we put it into practice)

bread and wine

Every Sunday, in churches the world over, millions of Christians take part in the Lord’s Supper. This hands-on sacrament is rich with imagery and symbolism. Christ’s body, shared by his body (the church), sustaining our physical bodies. Emblems of death and of resurrection life. The message in a meal. Tangible and tactile. Earthy and everyday. Ordinary yet sacred. Succulent icons dripping with metaphor.

But have we missed the point of communion?

Jesus wasn’t calling us to a religious ritual or a theology lesson, but to an everyday, lived-out practice of eating with one another. He gave his command to remember him in the context of a real meal – and it wasn’t some fast-food, takeaway dinner. The Passover meal is the ultimate family storytelling session, discipleship done around the dinner table, story in edible form, where each piece of food and table decoration tells the history of God’s deliverance. Where elders share their knowledge, children are allowed to question, and families reflect on faith. “Whenever you do this“, Jesus said, “remember me.”

The early church took Jesus’ command to eat together seriously. They committed themselves to breaking bread, to eating in one another’s homes, to feeding the poor, and to celebrating the Lord’s Table as a shared meal. In “A Fellowship of Differents“, Scot McKnight points out that this scandalous act of eating with one another as equals, with no regard for race, gender, status or wealth, was a glorious glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.

Somewhere along the way, the eucharist has become a ceremony within a ceremony, reduced to a ritual, trivialised into a cracker and a shot glass of juice. God’s people no longer gather around a table as equals, sharing their lives and stories and pieces of themselves as they journey through faith together. When communion was reduced to an object lesson, we lost something huge, a central component of our faith expression, a core practice that changed us from isolated individuals into a connected family.

The good news is, God’s people are rediscovering the centrality of the table in worship.

  • St Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York cook together, eat together and explore God’s story together at the table.
  • Sarah Harmeyer of Neighbor’s Table has started a love mission by inviting over 1500 of her neighbours to her own backyard table over the past few years, and encouraging others to follow her example.
  • IF:Gatherings empower women to go deep with one another at the table over real stories and Christ centred conversations.
  • More than 3000 congregations worldwide host some form of Messy Church, which invites adults and children to fellowship through fun and food, ending in a shared meal.
  • Based on the models taught by 3DM, Missional communities gather in one another’s homes over a meal to become a spiritual family on mission.
  • In Australia, where refugees have been marginalised, the Welcome Dinner Project and First Home Project give newcomers a heartfelt welcome as they eat together.
  • Fresh Start Community, the inspiration for this blog, is now meeting in four locations in my city. All of them begin or end their gathering over a meal.

These groups are putting dinner back on the Lord’s Table and gathering to share meals, share God’s story and share their lives. True community always happens around food and drink. We make memories in the slowing down, preparation, serving, eating, stories, laughter, mess and packing away together. Eating is a rhythm of life, a necessity which turns into an excuse for a party. It connects people and creates community. In “From Tablet to Table“, Leonard Sweet talks about life’s three tables; the table in the home, the table in the church, and the table in the world. He encourages us to take our table time seriously, whether it is the dinner table, the banquet table, the coffee table, the backyard barbecue or the picnic rug.

The eucharist is more than a symbol, it is a lifestyle. If communion remains just a crumb of cracker and thimbleful of juice, it is a dry and tasteless ritual, an unsatisfying obligation. If it calls us beyond ourselves and into a life of true communion and community, gathered around tables and storying with one another, it truly becomes the Lord’s Table, an invitation to fellowship with God, love his people and live alongside one another.

 

The hard, slow work of rooted Christianity (insights from Chapter 4 of “Subterranean” by Dan White Jr.)

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Every one of us longs for impact. Nobody wants to be a nobody. We want to leave a legacy, start a movement, and make a meaningful difference. As followers of Jesus, we are inspired to change the world (and change it now). It sounds so innocent and worthwhile – we rarely see the danger in our mindset. We are driven by a sense of urgency, a pressure to prove our worth, a commitment to having impact at any cost.

We are rarely inspired to be ordinary, go slow, think small, live local, and wait on God’s timing.

Dan White Jr. is a prophetic voice to the modern church, calling us to return to rootedness, to work on the structures below the ground, rather than the visible ones above it. In Chapter 4 of his new book, Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, Dan reveals that we have made an idol out of impact. He addresses the pressure to grow churches bigger and better, the drive to “expedite production” and bypass God’s slow and steady ways. Dan highlights the danger of our impatience by reminding us of Judas Iscariot, an ambitious man longing for impact, who ultimately took matters into his own hands in order to force God’s hand. He points out the risk of seeking impact without restraint, of superseding our limits, of having a microwave mentality of trying to speed things up, of bulldozing God’s work with the tyranny of demand. He ends the chapter by reminding us that God is not in a rush, that his ways may seem slow to us, but they help us build the patience we need to dwell in true community alongside others.

I’m a huge fan of Dan’s work. I love his writing style – he has a deft touch with words and a poetic cadence in his prose – but it’s the substance of his message that really resonates with me. Dan is calling for a subversive, upside-down approach to kingdom life. He is prophetically crying out to the institutional church that we have lost our way. He freely admits to his own personal struggle to commit to community, live locally and be ordinary rather than extraordinary. I highly recommend you get a copy of his book (you’ll get 40% off if you use the code ROOTED before 23rd October) and wrestle with what it means to choose slow over fast, small over big, local over global, and consistent over impressive.

 

I was honoured to be asked by Dan White Jr. to participate in the blog tour of his new book. Make sure you check out these recent posts, and look for those to follow, as 11 bloggers draw insights from the 11 chapters of this book.

Zach Hoag has written a review of Chapter 1: Hotels or Trees

Tim Suttle discusses Chapter 2: Excessive Personality

Ben Sternke reflects on Chapter 3: Extracted Perception

I have written about Chapter 4: Expedited Production

I’m looking forward to the next seven blog posts covering the remaining chapters! Thank you, Dan, for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

 

Embracing the glorious mess of church.

Childhood Girls floor painting

In churches, we tend to avoid mess. We run our Sunday morning worship services to a predictable schedule, we rehearse the music and performances in advance, we neatly package the gospel into a three-point sermon, and we send the children out to another area so the adults can listen in peace.

But does it have to be this way? Do adults actually learn best by listening quietly to a monologue lecture? Could all ages benefit from exploring their faith together in hands-on, tangible ways? In our attempt to keep church tidy and clutter-free, are we missing out on something vital and life-giving?

The all-age worship approach of “Messy Church” began just over 10 years ago in the UK, when Lucy Moore and her team wanted to create a space for families who didn’t normally come to church. They had a vision that church could be a place to be creative, to ask questions, to explore faith and to fellowship around the table together. Today, there are nearly 3000 congregations across 18 countries putting the Messy Church principles into place in their communities.

Lucy has written an easy-to-read, accessible book to help you start your Messy Church service. There are three main elements of each meeting;

FUN – everyone joins in an inclusive, participatory experience. It could be craft, or games, or gardening, or any creative activity that gets everyone involved.

FAITH – the group explore faith through a short worship service, or storytelling, or discussion, or facilitated learning experience.

FOOD – the gathering ends with fellowship and friendship through sharing a meal around tables, creating a space to connect and be human together.

I love the values of inclusion, participation and empowerment in this model. I especially love the name itself – Messy Church. We are all messy people. We live messy lives, have messy families and messy relationships with God. Church should be a place where we are welcomed and accepted as we are, without having to clean up or hide the messiness.

In his blog post, Martyn Payne describes Messy Church as “putting the communion back into the Eucharist; the conversation back into our worship; the community back into our conversion; the serving back into our services; and putting the shared experience of our friendship with Jesus and each other into true discipleship.” Let’s stop trying to make spirituality and community neat and tidy, orderly and contained, and embrace the glorious messiness of being the church together.

One body, one head, many parts.

Woman with Arms in the Air

To be functioning at its peak, a body needs every part to be working effectively. Our role as the body of Christ is to equip and build one another up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). To this end, those of us who are stronger, more mature or given gifts, ought to use what we have to empower and equip others in their journey.

This doesn’t make us more important – quite the opposite, it requires an attitude of servanthood. Instead of the “hierarchy” of the world, where people jostle for power, prestige and privilege, we have a “low-rarchy” in the church – in God’s kingdom, the way up is down, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We follow a king who rode a donkey, who washed his followers’ feet, whose coronation was a crucifixion, who laid aside his right to equality with God and took on the form of a servant. Unlike the power-hungry ways of the world, “leadership” in the church is always framed in terms of servanthood or building others up. We are never to “lord it over” or “excercise authority over” one another as the “rulers of the Gentiles” do (Matt 20:25) – the way of love ushers in an entirely new paradigm of inverted hierarchy, where those of us with high status need to step down the ladder to lift up those on the bottom rungs. We go down, not to debase ourselves, but to lift others up. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:27-28).”

Here is what that looks like in the church –

the mature mentor the immature.

The elders instruct the younger.

The rich share with the poor.

Those who have gifts equip others for acts of service.

The powerful defend the powerless.

The strong bear with the failings of the weak.

And nobody ever positions themselves in Christ’s rightful place, as head of the church.

Our current structures for church are holding us back from empowering and building one another up, by positioning us either as performers or audience members, as broadcasters or passive listeners. Pulpits and pews separate us into two camps, and prevent the mutual ministry and one-anothering described over and over again in Scripture. We need to rethink our meeting spaces, our seating arrangements, our use of music and our information delivery methods to find creative ways which release all of God’s people to be active participants in their journey towards unity and spiritual maturity. We need to be willing to step off the stage and into the circle, to talk less and listen more, to use our status to lift others high, and to get out of the way and let God work in his people.

This is an excerpt from the chapter I contributed to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“. Order a copy now to learn about simple church practices from some great writers.

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

2013-JAN-Table-Firefly-Dinner-Table

My all-time favourite TV show would have to be Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Set in the future, it follows the lives and relationships of an odd assortment of characters as they travel the universe in an ageing spaceship.

At the heart of the ship, named “Serenity”, is a common eating area. As they eat together, the passengers and crew share more than food – they share laughter, and stories, and conflict, and special moments. At the table, Mal is no longer captain, Simon and River are no longer fugitives – they are all equals, comrades with a common unity. Bonds are formed and strengthened which enable them to keep each other’s backs as they go out into dangerous worlds. They cease to be individuals, and become family.

The act of sharing a meal is one of the most simple and effective ways to build up any community of people. Jesus spent a great part of his ministry eating with people. Many of his stories were about feasts and banquets. The early church celebrated communion by eating together. The modern simple church movement and missional communities often structure their gatherings around a meal. One inspirational movement that excites me is called “Neighbor’s Table” – a love movement begun by Sarah Harmeyer in 2012, which is spreading across communities and neighbourhoods.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we end our meeting by eating lunch together – nothing flash, just sandwiches and salad. We call it the Love Feast – communion as a shared meal. I think it would be beautiful for God’s people to rediscover the relationship-building, one-anothering power of sharing food with one another.