“They Devoted Themselves to the Breaking of Bread”
Pastors and elders often lacked a mandate to govern the church because spiritual authority was vested in the church meeting or the deaconate. I would contend that all of those frustrations, and many more besides, were perfectly legitimate but that many of us, if we are not careful, are in danger of being hoisted by our own petard!
If we claim that we are trying to be “New Testament” and do not break bread on a very regular basis in our churches then we are simply not being true to what we say we believe. The Acts 2:42 church loved doctrine and Scripture, they loved the deep partnership they enjoyed in the Gospel and they loved to call out to God together in prayer. However, they also loved to eat together and, as they did so, to remember and celebrate through bread and wine all that Jesus had accomplished on the Cross.
Breaking bread is vital for at least three reasons: -
1) It keeps us focused on Jesus and the magnificent salvation He won for us at such huge expense on His part at Calvary. By breaking bread again and again and again we are reminded that the Cross is everything to us.
2) It reminds us of our need to live in right relationship with each other. There is a vitally important “one another” element to our breaking bread (see 1 Corinthians 12:27-34). I have been in contexts in the past when I have been breaking bread when I have come under conviction of sin because of a breakdown of relationship with somebody else in the church and I have felt compelled to go and put things right there and then.
3) There is an eschatological dimension to breaking bread; we do so “until He comes” (1 Corinthians 12:26). There is a day coming, praise God, when we will drink wine with Jesus in the kingdom at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Matthew 26:29 and Revelation 19:6-10)
For all sorts of reasons, however, breaking bread can so easily get squeezed out of church life. Some of our churches, I am sure, will be exemplary in this regard. From the surveys I have conducted on the various leadership training and Impact / Frontier Project courses with which I am involved, however, many are not. We can have lots of excuses: we have too many other things to do on a Sunday morning, we have lots of visitors on a Sunday, we don’t want to make visitors feel excluded, we expect the midweek small groups to be doing it and sometimes they are not.
It is not my intention here to be prescriptive in terms of how we break bread. It is down to local church elders as to whether they see it worked out in terms of Sunday mornings, small groups, prayer meetings or some other setting. However, I am being prescriptive in saying that the Bible does not give us leeway to more or less completely rule breaking bread out of the lives of those under our care. Personally, I was greatly challenged by discovering that at Mars Hill Seattle they break bread every Sunday and Mark Driscoll still manages to preach for an hour!
I would suggest that many of us as evangelicals have devalued breaking bread in our minds because we have unthinkingly and unwittingly adopted a Zwinglian Eucharistic theology. As I implied in my last blog, we can end up running so scared of an over-developed sacramental theology that our sacramental theology is way too under-developed. Of course, we all know that the bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ in any physical sense, but we should not end up at the opposite end of the scale where the bread and wine are purely a memorial. Hence we lead our people to believe that another couple of worship songs will have more power to enable our people to encounter the crucified and risen Lord Jesus than His explicit command to encounter Him through bread and wine.
The point is that when I hold a “memorial” service for a member of my church who has gone to be with the Lord, the person in whose honour the service is held is not there. They are with the Lord! We can so easily end up in the same mind set of some of the Reformers who were anxious to distance evangelicalism from the idea of the real presence and teach that Jesus is not there when we break bread because He is now ascended and seated at the Father’s side. All of this overlooks one crucial fact – Jesus has poured out His Holy Spirit. When we break bread Jesus is with us, not physically in the bread and wine, but by the power of the Spirit and He has confirmed and demonstrated His presence through bread and wine – physical signs of a spiritual not a physical presence. Is Jesus truly present when we break bread? Of course He is!
I will leave the final word on this subject to Calvin. Calvin is normally seen as a contentious, divisive figure in Church history. This is very unfair. He had a great concern for the unity of the body of Christ and was anxious to plough a mid-course between the excesses of Lutheranism and the excesses of Zwinglianism on the issue of the nature of Christ’s presence when we break bread. For Calvin, Jesus is present by the Spirit in the same way as the Spirit Himself was present at His baptism. The presence was a spiritual presence but the sign of His presence in the former case is in bread and wine and in the latter was in the sign of a dove:
Now, if it be asked whether the bread is the body of Christ and the wine His blood, we answer that the bread and wine are visible signs, which represent to us the body and blood, but that this name and title of body and blood is given to them because they are, as it were, instruments by which the Lord distributes them to us. This form and manner of speaking is very appropriate. For as the communion which we have with the body of Christ is a thing incomprehensible, not only to the eye but to our natural sense, it is there visibly demonstrated to us. Of this we have a striking example in an analogous case. Our Lord, wishing to give a visible appearance to His Spirit at the baptism of Christ, presented Him under the form of a dove. St John the Baptist, narrating the fact, says that he saw the Spirit of God descending. If we look more closely, we shall find that he saw nothing but the dove, in respect that the Holy Spirit in His essence is invisible. Still knowing that this vision was not an empty phantom, but a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, he doubts not to say that he saw it (John 1:32), because it was represented to him according to his capacity. - John Calvin, A Shorty Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1540)
Let’s break bread regularly and, as we do so, let’s expect to encounter the crucified, risen and exalted Lord Jesus by the power of His Holy Spirit!
This is the final part of a series on Communion.