Compared with 1978 (when I came to this city 25 years ago), a major change has been the discovery that Christians live and grow by eating together. The change in my own denomination over the past 150 years has been as gradual as a trickle becoming a river. We can see the difference in our ordering of the communion service.
The evening before his crucifixion Jesus took the ordinary bread and wine of a meal with his disciples and said "Take, eat; this is my body" (a Greek aorist, Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22-23). From those words we would not know that the eating was to be repeated. So Luke included "Keep doing this in remembrance of me" (a Greek present imperative, Luke 22:19, as in 1 Corinthians 11:24).
Later in his Gospel Luke described how on the first Easter day Jesus appeared to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize him, but they invited him to come and eat with them. "When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him" (Luke 24:28-31). That same evening he appeared to the apostles and their companions, asked "Have you anything here to eat,"and ate a piece of broiled fish with them (Luke 24:36-43). Probably the fish was eaten with some pita bread, and Luke wants us to know that Jesus intended to be present when his disciples gathered to eat an ordinary meal together.
In Eight Sundays from Easter to Pentecost I suggested that Jesus may have appeared to the disciples on successive Sundays (with a break in between, as in John 20:19,26, 21:1, 9). Luke then explained that after 3000 people had been enrolled by baptism on the Day of Pentecost, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:41-42). Evidently Luke knew that the early Christians continued to gather for the breaking of bread on a regular basis..
He also made clear that, whereas large numbers could gather for teaching (see the convention in 1 Corinthians 15:6), the breaking of bread was in private homes. "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). But, whether in Jerusalem, or any other place, all who broke bread in the various house groups (as in Romans 16:3-16) were the one body (1 Corinthians 10:16-17) of the church in that city (see chapter 1).
The problem was that among Christians in the middle ages there was a focus on "This is my body" taken in a literal sense. Instead of the bread and wine of an ordinary meal, priests were required to conduct an elaborate ritual. Access to communion was strictly controlled. It was only after the sacrament of penance, when people had confessed their sins to a priest, that they were allowed to receive the consecrated wafer. Any who did not submit to church discipline were excommunicated (Go Make Learners chapter 8 gives reasons why excommunication is never right).
As a result of the Reformation, Protestants taught that Jesus gave himself on the cross as a sacrifice instead of us, and the bread and wine of communion were a reminder of this. Only those who had believed that and had been confirmed were allowed to take communion. Calvin (1509-64) apparently wanted to have a weekly communion service on the Lord's Day, but the elders of the church in Geneva felt the service was too awesome for that and it should only celebrated four times a year after careful preparation. This fencing of the table of the Lord to keep out the unworthy was based on "All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). In view of the teaching Paul gave earlier in the Epistle, it seems more likely that the failure to discern the body was a failure to recognize the church as one body (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 10:16, 12:12-27).
The error was compounded by each denomination excommunicating the others. Forgetting that this was the Lord's table and that he invites all his disciples (learners) to break bread at his table, rules were made to demand submission to a particular statement of faith before people could be admitted to communion.
Recovering the original meaning of the communion table was not easy and took a long time. Among Anglicans J.N.Darby (1800-82) was an Anglican minister who wanted to retrieve the New Testament pattern of assemblies where true believers broke bread together every Sunday. It was a very moving service. The first regular gathering of this kind in England was in Plymouth (1830). True Christians should reject their Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations, and unite at a simple breaking of bread service without the need of an ordained priest or minister. But the Brethren soon became a denomination as usual, and excluded those that they viewed as non-Christians because they were not "born again." Fifteen years later they split into what became known as the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren. The latter, at first called Darbyites, still keep themselves separate by refusing to eat with others (even family members) who did not join them.
J.N.Darby's brother, and many other Anglican ministers moved in a high church (Anglo-Catholic) direction which became known as the Oxford Movement (1833-45). They stressed the apostolic succession of bishops and the need for ritual and dignity in the communion service. They tended to believe in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, and favored taking communion (fasting and very devoutly) at least once a week and daily if possible. As a result they restored the centrality of the Eucharist (Greek for thanksgiving) in building up the church as a holy temple. But taking communion remained more of an individual act of devotion. The early church emphasis on breaking bread together was mostly forgotten. Some of the leaders of the movement including W. G. Ward, F. W. Faber, and John Henry Newman (1801-90) became convinced that only Roman Catholics belonged to the true church, and they left the Church of England when they submitted to the authority of the Pope (1845).
The result of this ferment of interest in the meaning of the communion service was taken out to the colonies and impacted the church in my city of Kingston. We were founded by the French as a military and commercial base for opening up Upper Canada (1673). There were Roman Catholic priests serving the garrison of 1400 soldiers, voyageurs (canoe traders), and their families for seventy years. Then the British captured and destroyed Fort Frontenac (1758). As a result of the American war of independence the first United Empire Loyalists began to arrive (1783). They were mostly Anglicans loyal to King George III (King 1760-1820) and they founded the parish of St. George (1785). But there were also Methodists and Presbyterians among them..
During the war of 1812-14 Kingston was the military capital of Upper Canada. And as the city grew, the Anglicans viewed themselves as the established church, though they were unable to prevent the growth of other Christian groups. All of them assumed that Christians would attend their services every Sunday, and it was not acceptable to move to another denomination. It was the preaching that was important, and communion was on rare occasions except among Roman Catholics and high church Anglicans at St. George's (later the Cathedral of the Diocese of Ontario). St. James' was the low church congregation where morning and evening prayer were the main services. But in both these congregations (constantly at loggerheads over fine points of doctrine) communion was an individual matter, and ideally you did not need to talk to others who attended at the same time.
Nothing much changed in our perception of the meaning of the communion service in the various denominations till the charismatic movement of the 1960's (see The Church: An Organic Picture). Partly as a result of the recovery of the idea of Christians each having one or more spiritual gifts to offer, the communion service began to be viewed as a time of breaking bread together. Among Canadian Anglicans, Christians of all denominations were welcomed to break bread with us in our communion services. More recently the astonishing impact of the Alpha movement is partly based on the insistence that those attending should eat together when they gather every week.
Why is eating together so important? A family is created by eating together, and those who belong to the family have a right to the family table. Others have to be invited. When you adopt a child into your family, the first thing that changes is that he or she has a right to eat with you. Before the adoption a little boy has to ask "Mrs. Brown, can I eat supper with you this evening?" But now he has the right for ever to eat at the family table. That is why Anglicans have seen that little children have a right to the family table, and in Canada we now we welcome them to break bread with us.
Slowly we are discovering that eating together celebrates the birthday party of the church, the wedding anniversary, the business lunch of the Kingdom, and the assurance of adoption into the eternal family of God. But when the Messiah said "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53-58), he had to explain "It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless" (John 6:63). It is not the physical eating that counts, but the meaning that the Holy Spirit gives to the occasion.
In the first chapter we showed that there is only one church in each city, but it meets in many places under many different names. The Messiah promises to be present. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). As we take the bread and wine in small groups here and there, it is not to divide the Christian family, but to declare our oneness in the Lord.
We used to sing "Be present at our table, Lord; be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless, and grant that we may feast in paradise with thee." Where that is sung or said in any home, there is already a connection with the one church in our city. All that is needed is the recognition that the Lord is also present with many others in the family.