Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Book Review: Making a Meal of It


Making a Meal of It is the second of three books penned by Ben Witherington III looking at the most basic elements of the Christian life and faith: Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Bible. Dr. Witherington is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, as well as a prolific author and blogger. His expertise in NT and early church history give him a solid background with which to explore this topic of the Lord's Supper.

He begins by working the connection between the original meal in the upper room and the Jewish Passover feast, pointing out that the Passover festival was both a remembrance of what had gone before, and an act of renewal of the community that continually celebrated it. "Thus anamnesis is more than remembering; it is a placing of the current Jews into the ancient story such that it is and becomes once again their own story, their own trial and triumph, which took place in the Exodus-Sinai events" (10).

This, then, becomes the context of the original Lord's Supper, as shared in the synoptic gospels. In that place Jesus gathered his disciples, shared this meal with them, even with the one who would betray him (a scandal in itself), but he broke up the usual liturgy by reinterpreting elements of that meal, using them to point to his own impending atoning death. "What we have here then in the Last Supper is an enacted parable, much like ancient, prophetic enacting parables or sign acts. . .There is nothing here about the transformation of the elements into something they were not before. . .But what is most telling about all this is that Jesus is in a sense symbolically distributing the benefits of his Passion before it happens! How confident he must have been that God would use his death for good to have at this juncture changed or added to the Passover liturgy and referred to himself and his coming death this way" (27).

The earliest church carried on with this tradition of bread-breaking and wine-drinking in remembrance of Christ. While it is true that the book of Acts doesn't explicitly speak of the Lord's Supper, ". . .a good case can be made that the 'breaking of the bread' was Luke's shorthand for the special Christian meal that came to be called the Lord's Supper by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians" (30). However, one important aspect of this meal that must be remembered is its communal nature. This was a meal that took place in a home (or homes), not in the temple, perhaps daily as believers gathered together to share in this new-found faith in Christ. It was also closely tied to the sacrificial nature of this community, in which all sold their possessions so that none would go hungry or homeless. Speaking of Acts 2:24, Witherington writes, ". . . Luke sees the Lord's Supper as a fellowship meal, a meal that has a horizontal dimension binding the disciples to one another and so should be partaken of with great regularity to reinforce that bond" (31).

In the longest chapter in the book, Dr. Witherington digs into the passage dealing with this meal in Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth - one of the only texts in the NT which explicitly deals with the Lord's Supper. Much of his work here is to set this meal in context, comparing it to similar meals in Corinthian culture of the same time - meals that would have influenced the early Corinthian believers. In quick summary, much of this community's social life revolved around dinner parties and symposiums held in local homes by the well-to-do. Generally, the elite would invite those they wanted to impress (and their families) for a meal. Following the meal, the men would 'retire' for a drinking party. "The drinking parties were generally all-male affairs. . .But entertainment might include dancing and flute-playing girls and companions (hetairai) - as well as prostitutes at less-refined meals. . ." (35) Included in this after-meal affair were conversations "of all sorts of subjects, including politics, philosophy, religion, economics, and of course gossip and personal matters" (36).

Thus, this is what you had: The families of the rich and elite would gather for a meal. As they sat around the table, the most important people sat closest to the host. Following the meal, the women and children would leave, while the real party was just beginning. The few women who did remain were assumed to be immoral and shameful. In some of these locations, there was a garden next to the dining room "where slaves and perhaps lesser-status guests could also participate in the family meal or at least wait for the leftovers and take them away" (37).

It seems, from a close reading of 1 Corinthians, that the church in Corinth was allowing these traditions to influence their taking of the Lord's Supper. And Paul would have none of it. "Paul does not want his converts to hold their fellowship meals . . . according to the rules of Greco-Roman dining, perhaps especially because the Lord's Supper was a part of this larger fellowship meal and occasion. Not surprisingly these strictures came as something of a surprise, a painful one, to more high-status Christians in Corinth who had only partially understood what the practical implications were of being a Christian" (38).

This meal, according to Paul, is so much more than another feast with partying and debate. "What believers are sharing in is not just one another, but some third thing to which the word koinonia refers. . .Apparently Paul thinks more than mere symbols are involved. There seems to be some real, spiritual communion with Christ and others at issue here. . .Paul then is talking about that which binds Christians together into one body of believers. It is not merely the physical sharing in the bread but also the more profound spiritual sharing and uniting that it signifies and facilitates" (44-5).

What our author is working toward here is the premise that many of our discussion regardin the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians have approached the text incorrectly. Reading phrases like "discern the body" and "examine themselves" have been read through a strongly sacramental lens, in which it is assumed the elements somehow contain the body and blood of Christ, and thus individual believers must examine themselves to make sure they are worthy of partaking. But that isn't what Paul had in mind here. "The examination referred to in verse 28 means that one must reflect on how one is partaking of the meal; it is not about introspection to determine if one is worthy. . .While ['the body'] might be a reference to remembering Christ's death when one eats, it seems more likely in the larger context to refer to the body of believers. One is to be cognizant that this is a group meal, a group-building ceremony. . .The Corinthians are eating in a selfish and self-centered manner without taking cognizance of their brothers and sisters present. They should be partaking with them as one body of Christ, rather than following pagan protocol that gives the elite better treatment and first dibs at the meal" (59).

Witherington then turns to the great feast in the gospel of John. This text has long given scholars trouble, in that it doesn't seem to fit in with the accounts of the last supper in the other gospel. For one, the timeline is wrong - the synoptics place the last supper at the Passover feast, whereas John seems to place it the day before the Passover feast. Much work has gone into synchronizing these accounts, with some saying John just got it wrong, and others saying John changed the story to fit his theological agenda. The author here builds the case that both of those assumptions get it wrong. Instead, he writes, "Firstly, the Fourth Evangelist is portraying the disciples' sharing a farewell dinner, which was actually a series of dinners, with Jesus. Secondly, the dinner is not portrayed as a Passover meal." In other words, John is condensing a series of talks Jesus gave in the week leading up to the Passion, but doesn't directly give us an account of the Passover supper itself.

Another important point to be noted from the Gospel of John is that, through this final discourse, Jesus is working toward the same aims as Paul in Corinth. "Here we note that Jesus, by the footwashing episode at the meal, coupled with his prayer for unity in John 17, is depicted as undertaking the same kind of social rearrangement of perceptions and practices" [that Paul worked on in Corinth] (65).

It is here that Dr. Witherington does some detective work and comes forth with a startling claim. I'll let you pick up the book and work through the details, but, based on a careful reading of the text, and its interplay with the other accounts as well as the intricate details of the last days of Jesus, the author builds the case that the Gospel of John was written by Lazarus - the close friend of Jesus, the one Jesus had raised from death, the brother of Mary and Martha. And, if this is true, then it is probable that the meals earlier in the week, the meals on which this gospel focuses, the meals before the Last Supper, were all held in the home of Lazarus - which is why more attention is given to these than to the Last Supper itself.

Now, lest this review become longer than the book itself. . .it is pointed out that there really isn't any more work dealing with the Lord's Supper to be found in the pages of the NT; we also have very little documentation among the writings of the early church explaining the practice or belief surrounding this meal. Dr. Witherington works briefly with pertinent passages from the Didiche, which all seem to point toward a celebration that was part of a regular meal as both a remembrance of Christ's death, and as a unifying moment within the body of believers. "There certainly is nothing here that suggest some sort of magical view of the elements, and we have no commentary at all about the words of institution that Jesus himself spoke" (94). The few conclusions we can make based on this material are that the Lord's Supper remained an in-home ceremony taken along with a fellowship meal, that there is no mention of an official priesthood overseeing the meal, that it was partaken at least weekly, and that it was partaken of by those who had repented of their sins.

The final chapters of the book are given to working through the historical development of this meal, a development which, on the whole, hasn't been helpful. By the second century Ignatius of Antioch was speaking of the necessity of the the presence of a bishop to hold a love feast. By the fourth century many churches were banning love feasts as they embraced the ascetic movement (this was also one of the moments in which women began to be excluded from many church activities). Greek philosophical concepts of substance slowly overran the Hebrew concepts of enacted ritual, and, "Here then is a cautionary reminder - the less Jewish the approach one takes to the Lord's Supper, the more likely one is to be wrong about one's assessment of what is the case about the elements" (110).

By the Middle Ages, of course, the concept of transubstantiation had taken hold - that the bread and wine magically and mystically became the true body and blood of Christ. "The idea of transubstantiation is that the substantia changed when consecrated, whereas the material accidentia remain the same. In A.D. 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council proclaimed, 'His body and blood are really contained in the Sacrament of the altar. . .'" Witherington goes on to explain, "It was left to the Council of Trent to boldly claim what was absolutely untrue - 'it has therefore always been held in the Church of God' that what Christ offered under the appearance of bread and wine was truly his body" (119).

The theological maelstrom that was the Reformation added to the debate and confusion surrounding the Lord's Supper. "Luther discarded the notion that of the sacrifice of the Mass, but he wanted to hold on to the real, even physical presence of Christ connected somehow with the sacrament. This led to the idea of consubstantiation, the presence of Christ somehow being attached to or under and with the sacramental elements" (122). "By 1525 [Zwingli] was prepared to deny the real physical presence of Christ and speak of the spiritual presence of Christ with the Eucharist" (123). Zwingli began to grasp an important concept, perhaps coming close to seeing this for what it was supposed to be: ". . .he did not see the Lord's Supper as a merely symbolic ceremony, either. For those who received the elements in faith, there was the real spiritual presence of Christ, and. . .fellowship within the community of faith" (123). This would have a strong impact upon the anabaptist movement, which felt "the Lord's Supper signified and celebrated the unique communion between the Lord and his people, and among believers as well. It did not just have a vertical dimension such that it was all about the individual believers' communion with the heavenly Christ" (123-4).

So, what to make of all this? A couple of conclusions:

- "remembering and cherishing and keeping in mind. . .is the character of this meal according to Paul."

- "The focus of the original Lord's Supper is not on the elements in the present or the present in general, but on Christ and what he did and what he will do."

- While suggesting that moving the Lord's Supper back into the context of a larger meal might be a good idea, though not necessary, Witherington points out that there are modern adaptations of this meal that have harmed our understanding of it. "There is absolutely no reason why real bread could not be used, and more importantly whole loaf not yet broken, for the bread is in fact a double symbol, not only of Christ's own body, but of the church as the body of Christ - a united whole" (131).

- And what are we to make of the debates regarding the presence of Christ? Let me quote one of the best paragraphs from the book:

"The Lord's Supper should be seen as a chance for a close encounter with Jesus, a chance for a moment of clarity and recognition in one's life that Christ comes to meet us, bless us, forgive us, over and over again, and that we can and must actively participate in this joyful event. It's not about magical rituals or medicinal elements; it's about the living presence of Christ, which can either be honored or dishonored by how we partake of the Meal. Yes, indeed a spiritual transaction happens at the meal, and it can be positive, and it can be negative. The real spiritual presence of Christ meets us at and in the Meal if we receive him by faith" (134).

Thus, in the end, what is the Lord's Supper? It is a community meal to which we are invited by Christ as living host, a meal wherein he comes and meets his people, offering grace and redemption. It is also a meal of cohesion, drawing together all God's children to this table, tearing down dividing walls and creating one new body. And it is an equalizing meal - there is no hierarchy here, no rich or poor, no important or irrelevant, but all who stand as brothers and sisters before Jesus. "It is a community ritual meant for the community to take together signifying their unity with Christ and with one another in and as the body of Christ" (135).

In conclusion, I believe Dr. Witherington has offered a strong, well-balanced theological approach to the Lord's Supper. Avoiding the issues that seem to mark most of the discussion, he finds a refreshing new way of digging back into the original meaning and intent of this meal, showing how this meal can actually unite the Body, rather than cause division as it so often has. He challenges both the high-sacramentalism of the Roman Catholic Church (and others), and the low-ordinalism of those who treat this meal as a throw-away thing to do every once in awhile, restoring its dignity without turning it into a magical charm. The book is deep and broad enough to interest scholars and theologians, but simple enough for the average Christian reader looking to expand their knowledge on this issue. It was extremely helpful to me, even affirming a few ideas I'd been pondering but had yet to see in any theological discussion. It's given me a lot to think about, both as a pastor and a participant in the Body of Christ.

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