Every second summer we visit family and friends in the U.S. and Canada, since Jessica’s from New Hampshire and I’m from B.C. This summer churches in both countries asked me to do the Sunday morning Communion talk, which means talking for a few minutes to prepare everyone to take the Lord’s Supper, which is, in those kinds of churches, a weekly ceremony where everyone very solemnly gets a cracker crumb and a sip of grape juice to commemorate Jesus’ death and silently think about its significance for a moment or two (symbolically, it’s sharing a meal together, hence the token “bread” and “wine”, in imitation of Jesus’ final meal with His closest followers before He was crucified).
While the form of this particular church heritage’s Lord’s Supper ceremony could be much improved (back in grad school we did it as part of a real meal with real food, sitting around an actual dinner table at someone’s apartment), someone who knows their Bible and theology would still be able to explain the powerful meanings and community implications that this ceremony is supposed to communicate.
Anyway, of course I made my talk China-themed, though different for each church since they’re both very different. The American church is mostly (but not entirely) white, middle and upper-middle class with a high level of education (closely connected to a local Christian university and it’s graduate school of theology). The Canadian church is in the middle of the most ethnically diverse region in all of Canada, so they have a large number of first-generation immigrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe in addition to a born-and-raised-Canadian legacy crowd of fifth and sixth-generation immigrants.
Each church is also going through different things, so I emphasized different things to each church. At one church I said very little about the form/style of the ceremony but emphasized its social status division-demolishing meaning; in the other church I talked more about cultural differences. Below, I’ve mashed both talks together so it’s a bit of a mess, aiming for too many targets at once, but there it is.
When you live immersed in a culture that’s very different from the one you grew up in, like my family does in China, it gives you lots of opportunities to notice how our own culture from North America affects not only our understanding of the Gospel, but also our experience of life together in the Kingdom of God.
Take sharing a meal together, for example (since that’s what we’re about to do, at least symbolically). If there’s one thing the Chinese know how to do well, it’s eat together. When you’re invited to a meal in China, everyone sits around a round table, facing each other, looking across more food than the guests can possibly finish. And you literally eat and drink together; you don’t scoop food on to your plate with a serving spoon and then eat off your own plate. There are no serving spoons and you don’t get your own plate. You and everyone else each take each bite with chopsticks directly from the serving dishes. Foreigners in China (like us and the other North Americans and Europeans that we know) usually call this “eating family-style”.
And it’s not just the food: even though you get your own cup, you won’t fill it yourself; someone else will make sure it doesn’t stay empty. And before each sip from your cup you’ll first catch someone’s eye across the table, raise your glasses toward one another, and then drink together. Or you’ll first clink glasses with everyone before all drinking together. But you never drink on your own.
It’s all intended to communicate acceptance, respect, and togetherness. When you literally share the same bowl of food and acknowledge one another with every single sip, you’re saying that we’re in the same group; you’re one of us and I’m one of you (or at the very least, we could be). You’re honouring each other. It’s a reinforcement and celebration of that circle of relationships, of that community.
And so here we are, on the other side of the world, symbolically sharing a meal that also expresses a kind of togetherness – but this is a togetherness that only Jesus’ death and resurrection can make possible: where the honour we all receive as guests at Christ’s table, as adopted siblings in His family, and as fellow subjects in His Kingdom, transcends and makes obsolete the artificial status divisions of race, nationality, economic class, and gender. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – we all sit equally at this table.
Now, the meal we’re about to share doesn’t look much like a Chinese meal. Maybe one day it could. But for now at least, this church does things according to the culture and traditions of the fourth, fifth and sixth-generation immigrants to Canada – white, native English speakers. We are lovers of efficiency and convenience, and we’re highly individualistic and private. That’s why we have our little cracker crumbs, single-sip cups, and individual moments of introspection where we see the back of one another’s heads instead of each other’s faces. It’s almost like someone in the 19th century asked, “How efficient and individualistic can we make this meal while still technically ‘eating together’?”
Our modern form of Communion emphasizes each individual person’s individual relationship with God more than our relationship with God, or with one another as God’s people together. That’s why, even though we’re sitting next to each other, we typically close our eyes and ignore each other so we can have our personal moment of prayer and reflection. You can maybe imagine how from a certain angle that looks a bit odd: everyone coming together and then trying to do the most important thing alone. But that’s our modern culture and tradition. You can take it or leave it.
The New Testament churches, however, did this ceremony much more like a real meal. They were served by the host family of whatever home they were meeting in, with real bread and real wine. We can safely assume this just based on what we know about the 1st century world in general, but we can also see this reflected in the specific problems that the first churches faced that were related to the Lord’s Supper (it’s hard to overeat on cracker crumbs, for example, and it’s even harder to get drunk on grape juice. Can you imagine? Getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper? Maybe that’s why we changed it to grape juice… So we got rid of the alcohol but kept the shot glasses…?). But it helps to remember that they weren’t only somberly memorializing Christ’s death; they were also celebrating His resurrection and the new life together that they shared because of it.
Those New Testament churches didn’t have church buildings or pews or special round silver trays with little shot glasses. The shared homes and dinner tables and food and wine. But still, regardless of what form or style we choose, whether 1st century or modern, when we share our cracker crumbs and sips of grape juice we’re remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and we’re also proclaiming that Jesus’ triumph over death has given us hope and new life with Him, and new life with each other together under His authority in His Kingdom.
When we do this ceremony together, however we do it, we’re saying that we’re part of the same big family, eating at Jesus’ dinner table together, and that the spiritual family bond we share, the allegiance to Christ that binds us together, takes priority over all other identities and allegiances.
At this family dinner table sixth-generation immigrants honour the first-generation immigrants as equal members; senior managers and nannies take from the same bowl; university professors acknowledge cafeteria workers before they drink – all of us humbled and all of us honoured together under Christ.
So as we share the Lord’s Supper together, remembering how Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed for us, and celebrating His resurrection and the new life together in His Kingdom under Him that His resurrection makes possible, let’s also use the image of a Chinese meal to consider what Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus’ triumph mean for us together.
And since I’m playing the “host” today, we’ll imitate an ancient New Testament church by having my “household” serve the “meal”.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Jesus, who makes it possible for us to receive the honour of sitting at Your table. Please teach us to realize in fact around our actual dinner tables the kind of community that we symbolically proclaim this morning. Amen.
*Just to clear up potential confusion: This description of drinking at Chinese meals applies to the main beverage, which is alcoholic – usually beer, baijiu, and/or wine. Each person will also get a cup for tea or hot water as a secondary beverage that you can drink casually on your own. But the alcohol is the main drink, as it’s the one with the social significance.