Communion & Compassion
I Corinthians 11:17-22, 33-34
It is my understanding that one of the early church’s practices at a communion service was to bring food to be delivered to the poor. As the church gathered for the celebration, they would bring gifts. In much of that ancient society the gifts would be gifts-in-kind. That means that you would not bring your church envelope with a cheque enclosed, but instead would bring the produce of the field or the farm. Or you might bring something that had been made. Then this would be redistributed to those within and outside the church that had need.
There is a movement within the current church to do something very similar to that, though I am not sure whether there is a desire to have plucked chickens or bushels of grain deposited at the communion rail of the church. But now the practice is growing to bring canned goods, or packaged foods to the church to be distributed. There is something important to the practice of remembering the poor in very tangible ways at a communion service. Why did the early church wants these gifts for the poor associated with communion?
The continuation of the Jewish sacrifices.
The church was Jewish in its origins. At some of the sacrifices of Judaism, a communal meal would take place where the people of the community would feast on the sacrificed animal. This was true of the sacrifices of thanksgiving, where a person desired to celebrate the goodness of God towards their family. So the animal would be offered to the priest, he would dedicate it to God, and would roast the meat, take part for the priesthood as their means of sustenance, then the rest would be set up as a thanksgiving dinner for all to share in.
There is another part of Jewish practice that is described in Nehemiah 8:9-12. The people of Israel were gathered for the hearing of the Scriptures. The people began to weep. They had not heard the scriptures read for so long that there was a mixture of joy and conviction. Nehemiah told them not to weep, but to celebrate. Have a great thanksgiving banquet he said. Eat, drink and be merry. But, also in your celebrations, remember those who have nothing, and send Portions to the ones for whom nothing is prepared.
Desire to share
There may have been a second reason for sending gifts to the poor at a communion service. The eating of bread and drinking of wine at this communal meal reminded them of their having so much, and then of others having so little.
The symbolism of the early church at worship is rich. The primary service of the early church was to be seated at a table, eating a meal together. It had been initiated by Jesus in his practice of gathering his followers together at table. The church was to be a family, a fellowship, and that always found its best expression at a meal.
The earliest communion services of course were not just a very small piece of bread and a very small sip of wine. It was a pot luck dinner where each brought food and beverage, and at which there would be a loaf of bread and a chalice of wine so that at the start of the fellowship meal, there would first be the remembrance of Jesus and his death and resurrection. As the church ate this meal together, there would have been a strong impetus to share with those who were the poor in their community. Unless the poor were Christians, they could not share in the communion part of the meal, but it was right that they receive food to nourish their bodies, and so food was brought for the poor and the hungry. Compassion and communion were natural companions in a caring community.
To counteract an abuse
But there may have been a third reason for providing for the poor at the communion service. There was abuse in some of the churches, such as in the Corinthian Church. At the communal meal time, the wealthier brought wonderful dishes, and kept them to themselves. Some were gluttons and ate their fill. Others, who had little and could bring hardly anything went hungry. Those who had nothing were humiliated. Listen to Paul’s accusation, “When the times come to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes away hungry, and another becomes drunk.”
(I Corinthians 11:17-22, 33-34)
In the face of such abuse the church may have decided to tip the teeter totter in the other direction. Whenever we get together for the communion, we shall remember the poor for sure. We shall bring food for ourselves, but we shall bring food for those who have little or nothing.
Communion services were not only to remind ourselves of what Jesus had done, but also a reminder of what we ourselves are to do. So when we come together, it is not only for the forgiveness of our sins, and the nourishment of our lives, but it is also to fulfill our mission to be a blessing to the whole world, particularly those who are the most in need.
And so my friends, whenever we gather for communion, it would be well if we were to be givers as well as getters, sharers as well as consumers. So let us continue to bring something to give to those who are in need, each time we have communion. Are you OK with that?
And now let us celebrate communion together.