Dr Gregory Soderberg is a Lead Teacher at Logos Online School, a Teaching Fellow at the BibleMesh Institute, and a Mentor-Professor at Redemption Seminary.
In one sense, the Bible is all about food and eating. This theme runs throughout Scripture, from the fatal bite in the Garden of Eden to the tree of life in the garden/city of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21–22). Meals play a prominent role in the history of salvation, including meals that mark the institution of covenants, sacrificial meals eaten in the presence of God in the tabernacle and temple, the Passover, and Jesus’ meals with sinners. When giving his disciples a commemorative ceremony that encapsulates the meaning of salvation, Jesus gave us a meal – the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist or Communion.
Some have criticized the Protestant tradition of forgetting the central nature of this meal. In writing my dissertation on Communion frequency in the Reformed tradition, I found that most branches of the Christian church have struggled to make the Eucharist a meal that everyone is regularly invited to, and participates in. Even in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions, where the Eucharist is a central feature of worship, people have hesitated to attend this meal for various reasons.
In the wake of the liturgical renewal movements of the last century or so, the Lord’s Supper has been observed more frequently, and much valuable work has been done to try to reach an ecumenical consensus about the meaning and practice of Communion. What is sometimes overlooked is that this theologically charged ritual is a meal – involving food. Theologians have formerly argued strenuously about the metaphysics of this sacrament, while ignoring the fact that it is a meal. Theologians in recent decades have studied the sociological and eschatological aspects to the Eucharist as a meal as well. As a ritual meal, the Eucharist both defines and creates community; builds on the pervasive OT theme of God eating with his people; is partially fulfilled in Christ; looks forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb and shows us how the world will be in the consummation of all things. Enacting the eschatological feast here on earth, we eat and drink with Jesus, which helps to bring about what we were taught to pray: “Your will be done on earth, even as it is in heaven.”
According to Peter Leithart, this eschatological feasting aspect of the Eucharist shows us the “way things really ought to be.” (1) When we participate in the Eucharist, we are, in some way, enacting the kingdom. It is a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6–9) and a partial fulfilment of the meals in the Old Covenant when the people “ate with God.” Abraham ate with the Lord (Gen 18). The elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Sinai (Ex 24) as did the people of Israel in certain sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple (Lev 7:11–38). Isaiah prophesies that all people will come and feast on God’s holy mountain:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. (25:6)
This connection between food and faith, sociology and eschatology goes back to the ancient church. The Didache, one of the earliest post-biblical Christian writings, puts it beautifully in its model prayer for the Eucharist: “Just as the bread broken was first scattered on the hills, then was gathered and became one, so let your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for yours is the glory and power through all ages.” The Eucharist unites people from various races, ethnicities, genders and cultural identities into the one loaf of the church. This theological reality lies behind Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:17–34). They were preserving the socioeconomic distinctions of their culture when practising the Lord’s Supper. Rich and poor were separated, the poor went hungry and the rich indulged themselves. Practising the Eucharist rightly should drive us to transcend economic and cultural divides as we pursue the tangible unity of the body of Christ.
The Eucharist should also help to retrain and refocus our economic life. As we eat and drink together in the church, this fellowship, this communion, should spill out into the rest of the world. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for sharing their resources unjustly at the Lord’s table. Meditating on the Saviour who became poor for our sakes (2 Cor 8:8–14), who gave up privilege and power (Phil 2), should motivate us to seek economic justice and true shalom in our communities.
There are also ecological aspects of the Lord’s Supper. It reminds us of a number of things: the good God who works throughout creation, causing the rain to fall and the wheat to grow. We should be thankful for the creativity of a God who designed the processes of fermentation to produce exquisite wine out of ordinary grape juice. We should thank God for the hands and the labour that produced what we consume in the Eucharist. In a world plagued by agricultural disasters and over-consumption, the Eucharist can be a time of teaching, reflection and prayer for our local and global communities; of meditation on our own complicity in destructive systems of industrial agriculture. We should pray for God to reveal the extent of our economic idolatry and to tame our desires for consumption, teaching us grateful contentment. To teach, pray and meditate thus should not detract from the Christological focus of the Eucharist. Rather, it is an application of Paul’s teaching that God is reconciling all things in heaven and earth through Christ (Col 1:20). The Eucharist reminds us that God does not devalue the physical world. Matter matters to God. He created it. He is redeeming it all through Christ. As we take the elements of the physical world, develop and reshape them into bread and wine, and consume them in the Eucharist, we are living out God’s call to take dominion over the earth and enjoy it under the blessing of God.
So, when we partake of this sacrament, all of this (and more) is in the background. The Eucharist helps us remember the death and resurrection of Christ, but it also helps to extend his work through his body, the church. Rituals form and shape us – spiritually, psychologically, and even physically. The redemption accomplished by Christ has cosmic implications. It is somewhat trendy to say that Christ is the Lord of all of life. Celebrating the Eucharist frequently can help us to keep this from being simply an abstract theological formulation or slogan, and help us acknowledge the lordship of Christ over food, and over all the material world. It can help to mould us into a people that live Eucharist-shaped lives, being broken and sacrificed for others, even as we follow in the footsteps of our crucified King, the bread of life.