As the sun begins its final arc toward dusk, children and husbands smell the delicious aroma from the kitchen, tantalising the taste buds and creating a gaping chasm in the gut that can only be filled with that special experience of supper time. At this time, “When is supper?” becomes a more important question than, “What’s for supper?” Real hunger has the egalitarian power to see all foods as created equal. I heard a comedian say that, when she is on a diet, even the wallpaper in her kitchen looks appetising. A healthy, but empty stomach moves the tongue to ask, “When’s supper?” Similarly, the forgiven Christian, aware of his own shortcomings and longing for family fellowship around the Lord’s Table will, by now, be wondering: “When’s Supper?”
As the lockdown continues, with its attendant restrictions on religious gatherings, church members are understandably wondering, “When and how are we going to enjoy the Lord’s Supper?” Is it something we can do at home, or is it something we continue to wait for with eager anticipation? That is a really good question, and one that I aim to answer in this article.
The Lord gave to his church two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both of these serve, in a mysterious way (hence, they are often referred to as sacraments), as both signs pointing to a greater reality and means of grace for the partaking/witnessing believer. Scripture makes it clear that these are to be carried out by, before and therefore with the congregation of church members.
The lockdown has regrettably, but necessarily, interrupted our normal gathering together. I know that many—and I hope every church member—are very hungry for the Supper and some are asking, “When’s Supper?” What’s for Supper is settled. There is no debate about the menu: bread and wine. The body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is the sustenance we desire. But, in light of the indefinite nature of lockdown, when are we going to partake of this meal? And some are asking, can we have a “virtual” Supper?
Well, first things first. When answering this profoundly serious question, we need to remember first principles. We need to reflect upon what it means to be a church member.
A church member is not simply someone who enjoys a particular doctrinal statement, preaching style, or even who likes the other members in the church. Rather, a biblically-instructed church member understands his or her privilege and responsibility to regularly gather, agreeing to oversee one another’s membership in Christ’s kingdom (cf. Matthew 16:18; 18:15–20; 28:19). This oversight is primarily carried out through sitting under the preaching of God’s word together and partaking of the sacraments/ordinances together. That means that, when you join a church, you’re both (1) inviting a tangible community of believers to affirm your faith and (2) taking responsibility to affirm the professions of faith of those believers. Note that the observance of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper play key roles here. Upon public baptism—before the corporate gathering of the church—one is added to the local church (Acts 2:40–41). Baptism upon repentance and faith in Jesus Christ serves as the means of admission to the local church, with all its rights and responsibilities (Acts 2:42–47).
Practically, this means that, as a church member, I have the responsibility to encourage, exhort, affirm, and even rebuke the members of Brackenhurst Baptist Church. This is not because I serve as an elder (Acts 20:28), and not primarily because I exercise the spiritual gift of pastor-teacher (Ephesians 4:11). Rather, my responsibility for the spiritual well-being of my fellow church members is because I am a church member.
Because we belong to the same church, each of us has been given unique authority by Christ to speak into each other’s life for the building up of our local expression of the body of Christ.
I belabour this point to highlight that the biblical description and prescriptions for the local church mean that church life cannot be fully expressed virtually. In fact, to borrow Paul’s words, to try and replace the gathered church with virtualchurch is to merely “see through a glass darkly” whereas what we need is “face to face” fellowship (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Interestingly, when Paul wrote those words, he was addressing a local church in a historical period of transition. The old covenant era was passing away as the new covenant era was soon to come in its fullness (see Mark 13; Hebrews 8:13; 12:25–28). This is what Paul meant when he pointed out that it was their generation “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). “One day,” Paul said, “a clearer day will come, but for now, they ‘see through a glass darkly’”—a glass that exists under the providence of God. How does this apply to us and the Lord’s Supper during lockdown? Well, a better day is coming when we can gather together but, until then, the church will face some restrictions and limitations. One of those is the carrying out of the ordinances.
Until we can meet face to face, we will not be able to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Just as the first century church was providentially hindered from enjoying all the privileges it would enjoy after the destruction of the temple and its old covenant rituals, so the church today is providentially hindered from enjoying all the privileges of church life, including gathering and participating in the ordinances.
As I have often mentioned these past weeks, I am grateful for technology that enables our church to be instructed from God’s word via livestreaming, pre-recorded sermons, and other forms of social media. Anyone who is hungry for Scriptural truth has access to it. This helps to sustain us in these unprecedented days for our congregation. But even with such virtuously virtual opportunities, it is not the same as our church gathering together. Worship is experiential and it is meant to be an experience shared together. Corporate worship is to be, well, corporate! A congregation congregates!
This is true for singing together (Ephesians 5:19), praying together (Ephesians 5:20), serving together (Ephesians 5:21), and eating the Lord’s Supper together (1 Corinthians 11:17–20, 27–34; 10:16–17). The Lord’s Supper, as Paul makes clear in the aforementioned passages, is a meal to be shared by members of the local church who are in communion (fellowship). It is to be eaten from the same bread and drunk from the same cup. This requires that it be eaten in the same place.
A while back, my family, scattered abroad throughout Johannesburg, tried having a Zoom meal. We chatted with each other while we ate our individual meals, seated at different locations. It was nice to see each other and to talk with each other but it was miles from the Sunday lunchtime gatherings we used to enjoy at one table. Likewise, for the Lord’s Supper to be meaningful, we need to be physically together.
One of the blessings of the Lord’s Supper is that of being with one another, in the same room, serving one another as we pass the trays and experiencing a corporate amen. This cannot be done virtually.
Further, the Lord’s Table serves as a means of discipline and as a means of caution to those who are not living out their covenantal commitment to the body. The Table serves to show who is “in” and who is “outside.” In other words, it is more than a memorial; rather, it is a message, it is a gospel call to the unrepentant. This important aspect of the Lord’s Supper cannot be exercised virtually.
I have heard of local churches in these days encouraging the heads of each household to lead the family in Communion. After all, it’s been argued that this was how the Passover was observed in homes. That, of course, is fine, as long as you are living under the old covenant. But, of course, I would think one would need a lamb and some bitter herbs and some hyssop to properly do so. No, as Paul told the Corinthians, “For Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us” and therefore the feast we keep is vastly different from that instituted at the Exodus (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). The Lord’s Supper is not simply the Christian version of the Passover; rather, it points to the fulfilment of Passover and the reminder of the coming marriage supper of the Lamb. That won’t be virtual, and therefore neither should its forerunner: the Lord’s Supper.
For many years, our church has observed what we believe is a biblically called-for practice of only observing the Lord’s Supper when the congregation gathers. (“When you come together,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:20). We do not do “home-delivery” of the Supper for those who are providentially hindered from gathering. This is simply because we have no biblical precedent or biblical precept for doing so. Home “Communion” is no communion at best and can become a superstitious confidence at worst.
At this time in our history we are all providentially hindered from gathering and therefore we are all hungry for the Supper. Our Father knows this. In fact, he has ordained this, at least for now. God has not prescribed the frequency of celebrating Communion, although it would seem the early church celebrated it quite often, as we seek to do. But one day, under God’s providence, the doors of our church will once again be opened and he will ring the proverbial, bell calling us with the glorious summons, “Come, it’s Supper time!” I hope each of us will be good and hungry. I suspect we will enjoy the Supper as never before.
So, when’s Supper? God knows. Let’s be sure to let him know that we are hungry for it. I wonder if perhaps God is using this lockdown to make us hunger for the gathering and for the grace of which his Supper is a means? How hungry are you? Be encouraged by the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled” (Luke 6:21).