Thursday 9 April 2020

Zooming in on the Lord’s Supper? Some reflections… Part 3

- Arguments based on analogies to other festivals or rites.

Strong biblical arguments have been brought forward here on the basis of OT sacrifices and the Passover. 

In Lev 10, Aaron is approved by God, even though he offers a sin offering in an irregular fashion. As Stephen Clark has pointed out, the law required the sin offering to be eaten, but Aaron does not do so because he cannot eat with “rejoicing and thanksgiving” (as per Deut 26:14; Hos. 9:4) in light of the death of his two sons. For Stephen, this is evidence that God considered the sacrifice to have been offered even though one its essential components (the eating of the flesh) had not been observed. 

Would that legitimate the irregular observance of the Lord’s Supper without one of its essential components (the gathering of the church). I’m not persuaded that it does. One could turn the analogy around and argue that Aaron is basically refusing to participate in the sacrifice in an unworthy manner, comparable to the believer who absents themselves from the table until they have made right a grievance. Regardless, it seems to me that the very essence of the Lord’s Supper is that it a communal meal, and for that reason it simply cannot be observed in any sense where the church is not gathered.

A closer analogy would seem to be the observance of the Passover in the OT. Of course, the Lord’s Supper has a strong connection to the Passover. Just as the nation of Israel annually commemorated its rescue with a festive meal, so the church retells its story of redemption through sacrifice when it meets. So it is striking that in extraordinary circumstances, irregular observance of Passover was permitted. In Exod 12 the Passover is set on the 14th day of the first month, and in the event of ritual uncleanness this can be postponed for one month (Num 9:6). 2 Chronicles 30 records Hezekiah’s reforms where the temple is in need of cleansing and where Passover has not been observed at the proper time. Once the temple is purified he issues a decree that all Israel should gather to the proper place for worship. Although many refuse, a large crowd gathers in Jerusalem, shares in the work of stripping way idolatrous altars, and celebrates the Passover. They do so in an irregular way because many of them have not purified themselves (30:17-18), and the lambs had been sacrificed by the Levites instead of the people themselves.   Despite these irregularities, highlighted by the text (30:18), the LORD blesses the people (30:20).

This might seem to be an argument in favour of flexibility, and the wider trajectory might also reflect a sense in which the Passover evolves over time from a household meal to a national and centralised festival. And yet I don’t think there is anything here that argues clearly for flexibility in our observance of the Lord’s Supper. Passover in 2 Chron 30 remains a centralised festival for all who faithfully gathered. The LORD’s blessing seems to be more in response to those who are observing the festival after a period of national apostasy and who, though ritually unclean, have joined the effort to purify Jerusalem (30:13-14). There is no reversion back to a household celebration of the Passover, instead 2 Chron 30 looks like a step on the way to a climactic celebration of the Passover in 2 Chron 35 under Josiah which is now able to be celebrated at the right time and in the right manner.

Perhaps most significantly though, I would argue that in these instances you have an irregular but genuine observance of Passover. That is different to the proposal to describe a meal eaten apart from one another as the Lord’s Supper. I do not think we can say that is in any sense a Lord’s Supper since the church family are not meeting and nor are they sharing a meal.

That raises two questions. First, what about the possibility of households eating the Lord’s Supper together as smaller clusters of the church? And second, can we really say that a church which shares a Zoom call and takes bread and wine together are not in some sense a gathered church?

So, what about the idea, suggested by Andrew Wilson and Ian Paul that “households” could continue to share in the Lord’s Supper? It would depend on who makes up that “household.” In this time of lockdown it is in most cases biologically-related families. To observe the supper in those units could I think very seriously miss the nature of the new covenant community as a family of faith (hey, I’m a baptist after all). This is where the parallel with Passover is weakest. In its earliest form, the Jews celebrated it in their households as a national rescue of Abraham’s physical descendants. The new covenant celebrates the redemption of Abraham’s children who share his faith, and there is a real danger of obscuring that. The breaking of bread in homes in Acts is not I think a strong counter-argument to that, given how little we know about the size and make up of those households, save that they were often the locations where churches would meet.

If, on the other hand, there are half a dozen Christian housemates living together, then could they celebrate the Supper together? I’d also be inclined to discourage that, given that this would still be “what you do at home” compared to “when the church gathers,” to recall the language from 1 Cor 11. It would also be to celebrate a meal that very many (all those living alone) would be excluded from.

Finally, then, what about the suggestion that a church could meet on Zoom, with bread and wine at hand, and share in the Lord’s Supper?