The Mysterious Case of Stale Crackers and Grape Juice (Theological Thursday)

As a Children’s minister, I get the privilege of helping children understand what it means to follow Jesus. It’s a joy, and can be overwhelming at times. Part of that job involves introducing kids to the practices that Christians have done for a couple of millennia now. And that awkward segue way leads us into the Lord’s Supper. (And also opens a large can of worms.)

Every week, at our church, I get to watch some faces look puzzled (even after the explanation) as the adults and some children pick up a broken piece of matzah and a tiny cup of grape juice and eat and drink them. If the look on their faces is any indication, their thought must be, “What do I have to do to get that snack? Doesn’t seem like much.” And as a snack, they’re absolutely right – it’s not going to tide anyone over until lunch. So why do it?

Easy. Jesus said so.

Oh… you wanted more than that? Well, if you insist. Honestly, we could just leave it there if you’re not too invested. All right then. But, remember, you insisted.

(What follows is as impartial an explanation as I can give. I can’t hit every point, and this won’t make everyone happy. I have been as fair as possible. If you have questions, contact me. I am also aware of my biases, and they’ll probably be apparent.)

So, in the beginning (not that far back, we’ll be in Acts, not Genesis) early Christians followed the oral tradition by meeting regularly to share a meal together. (Acts 2.42-47) These meals were a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. A remembrance of his death, for sure, but also an honest, fellowship-filled meal. No, really, Paul’s whole diatribe on the subject included a few lines on not getting drunk at the meal. (1 Cor 11.17-22 and following)

As time progressed, theology shifted and the Lord’s Supper was lifted from the meal context and placed in the context of the worship service. (This happened between the 2nd and 4th Centuries.) It was viewed as having taken on the nature of a renewal of Jesus sacrifice, and a bigger focus was placed upon the phrase in the gospel accounts, “This is my body.”

From that time on, the Lord’s Supper was known more regularly as the Eucharist (“thanksgiving.”) Each Sunday, the believers would gather, a priest would bless the elements (called the “host”) and the gathering believed at that moment there was something more to the bread and wine – it now was a place where heaven and earth met and Jesus’ presence was somehow there in the elements.

Later, we got a name for this happening: transubstantiation. Using Greek philosophical thought, Thomas Aquinas (arguably one of the greatest Christian thinkers) developed an explanation of how the bread and wine could still look like wine, but also be the actual body and blood of Jesus. (Short version: everything has physical attributes – accident, and a spiritual reality – substance. So, in the blessing, the substance [read spiritual reality] changed but the accident [physical properties] didn’t. It looked, smelled, and tasted the same, but was in a spiritual sense different.)

Some Reformers had different thoughts on the matter; notably Zwingli, who saw sharing the bread and wine as a moment where Jesus was spiritually present with the believers, not necessarily in the elements. Meaning, the bread and wine were symbols and were not transformed in any way. Rather, the moment when the believers shared together was transformed into a holy moment by the presence of Jesus with the spiritual family. Calvin differed slightly, taking a stance that included some kind of real presence, but that the action of sharing Communion allowed the believers to experience presently a moment of future heavenly joy, peace, and love. Many believers belonging to groups stemming from the Reformed tradition often share in Communion a few times per year in order to give it proper reverence.

Later movements (including the Stone-Campbell Movement) kept the elements, but returned to the ancient practice of weekly sharing of the Lord’s Supper.

So, long story short (for those of you who wanted a quick answer) Christians used to have a full-blown meal. For several reasons, the bread and wine was separated from the meal and became apart of the worship service. Many years later (depending on your church’s beliefs) you share communion/Eucharist together with other believers knowing that, in some way, Jesus is present while it happens.

Most traditions do require baptism before taking communion. Reasons differ, but there is an element of belief and commitment to Jesus that does need to be present. Because it is a remembrance and a future-looking action, we both remember Jesus’ death and resurrection and our own baptism, as well as looking forward to the resurrection and renewing of all things to come.

Now, as for stale crackers – that may just be that some of those crackers are held over from week to week.

Have you had a discussion with your children about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? Regardless of your tradition or church’s belief, you can have a discussions and explain how your church family believes and approaches this central moment of worship.

(For those of you that are interested, my sources, in no particular order are:

The Story of Christianity Volume 2 by Justo  L. Gonzalez

Reconstructing Early Christian Worship by Paul Bradshaw)

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