A missional meal: The digital practice of the Lord's Supper

April 14th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” — 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic our church has moved into an entirely distributed form. Our approach with worship has been not to do the stage production in an empty sanctuary bit, but to return to the church we see in the Book of Acts who met primarily in their homes. We call this “Living Room Church.” Using various technologies, we have sermonic conversations, pray, sing and interact together. The centerpiece of our worship each Sunday is partaking in the Lord’s Supper. From our living room, we proclaim the remixed and recoded Eucharistic liturgy into the living rooms of several hundred people. Before the Coronavirus struck, we had Holy Communion multiple times weekly, including in most of our mature fresh expressions of church. Jesus’ table is the center of worship for us.

This is who I’m thinking of as I offer Communion in our digital worship experiences:

  • The terrified elderly widow sitting in her living room, who endured the Great Depression and World War II, but tells me she has never “experienced anything like this pandemic before.”

  • Of the couple, both precious long-time members, who just lost their adult child to COVID-19. 

  • Of the 70-year-old military veteran, awaiting his Coronavirus test results, wondering if this may be his last Communion.

  • Finally, of the family experiencing church for the first time through Facebook Live, who are being invited to reflect upon the real presence of Christ in their living room.

I am thinking about them, what they are feeling, what fears and hopes they have. I’m thinking about the power of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the Eucharistic elements they chose, the ones sitting on their coffee table. 

In A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions I explore the work of pioneering sociologist Manuel Castells on the “network society.” I offer extended reflections on globalized, digital culture, technology as an extension of the human mind, “real virtuality,” “space of place/space of flows,” “deterritorialization” and “recoding” the gospel. Some are finding these explorations summarized in my recent article

One key point noted is the phenomenon of “real virtuality.” While “virtual” implies presence in the online platform which may be defined by the lack of materiality, this separation is not so clear in a Coronavirus world. I personally consider face to face encounter and touch an irreplaceable aspect of community, however, for emerging generations this is not necessarily the case. [1]

While COVID-19 may have thrust many clergy and churches into this new world where “virtual is real” overnight, this is something fresh expressions practitioners have been grappling with for at least the last decade. 

The handling of the sacraments has been a major area of contention. Often in our national trainings, people get to the consecration dilemma … “So if most people leading fresh expressions are laity, who is serving Communion and conducting the baptisms?”

For Methodists, the struggle over sacraments may be a little bit of history rhyming. Some have argued that the distributing of sacraments actually led to the creation of a new denomination rather than a renewal movement within the larger church. There was significant debate concerning rogue lay preachers serving sacraments, as well as charges of separatism. Further, this issue led Wesley himself to conduct ordinations outside the proper Anglican ecclesial channels. 

Because we believe one dimension of God’s grace precedes our own awareness, one of our distinct Wesleyan emphases is the open table

For Wesley, Holy Communion, was in one sense, a sacrament of maintenance in which we remember our unification with Christ. Yet, more than a remembrance and short of transubstantiation, the Spirit makes the presence of Christ real in the elements. We partake, we drink and we eat of his own living presence which sanctifies and sustains us (John 6:56-58). In a mysterious way, our spirits are nourished as grace is conveyed to us. We begin with confession and pardon, as we acknowledge “we have rebelled against your love.” [2] And because Wesley believed this can be a moment of conversion, Holy Communion is a missional phenomenon.

Frequently in fresh expressions people receive Christ through partaking in the Lord’s Supper for the first time. We’ve heard variations of “when I tore the bread, I realized Christ died for me” many times. 

The graceful meal can both spark faith and sustain it. Further, an open table means that all are welcome no matter what their status may be. Our inclusivity is based on the radical table fellowship of Jesus himself (Matt 9:10; Lk 15:2). No one is “worthy” to receive. “We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart…We have not heard the cry of the needy.” [3] It is a feast of forgiveness and acceptance, a foretaste of God’s Kingdom open to all sinners, where we proclaim three essential truths, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” [4] It is one of the channels through which this relentless, seeking God initiates a relationship with us.

I will not base my actions on what Wesley would or wouldn’t do. Wesley could not possibly foresee and offer prescriptions for the complexities of missional evangelism and social holiness in a pandemic world. Instead I take the “first principles,” the seeds of Wesley’s organizing principles and practices, then replant them on the new missional frontier.

I will follow the advice of my spiritual forefather, where we “might not think alike,” with John Wesley, we will choose to “love alike” as he did. We will take his hand, in the places where our hearts are the same as his. We too will “set aside” the confining structures born from Wesley’s own thought, as he did with Anglicanism of his day, to center ourselves in missional engagement in the present century. These risk-taking, system-bending, practices in the pursuit of holiness is the most “Wesleyan” tradition of all.  

Some arguments against “online Communion” diminish the very self-donating nature of the body of Christ. A body broken and freely given to all sinners. A body torn and distributed for a hungry world.  

I’m convinced that when we have an institutional log jam in sharing this grace-filled sacrament with all people, it’s time for a reset. Occasionally, Mother Nature shows us who’s boss. In those times of natural disaster and pandemic, there is a profound opportunity to hit the reset button. To reset family discipleship, to reset the deeply divided state of society, and to reset the church. 

Let’s take a trip back to Corinth. Back to square one.

Paul is dealing with a controversy over Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34. Paul seems to have viewed the Lord’s Supper as a “proclamation,” a missional meal handed down through the first disciples to Paul from Jesus himself. The missional nature of the meal is threefold; (1) to sustain those inside the community with the energy to carry out Christ’s mission until his return, (2) to create an atmosphere of social equality, (3) which together then serve to “proclaim” or to witness to those outside the community. 

For Paul, the central act of worship in the community of believers at Corinth was this meal (1 Cor. 11:20). The Supper was also called “the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:30, 35; Acts 2:42, 46) and possibly the “love feast” (Jude 12). Toward the end of the first century the early Christian authors began to refer to the Supper as simply “the Eucharist” (giving of thanks). The word “Eucharist” was probably used over “Supper” by the first century church to begin to distinguish between the Christian ritual and the popular pagan “suppers” celebrated to honor their polytheistic deities. 

It is certain that whenever they met as a church, early Christians regularly ate a meal together. Yet it is also certain that when any group of people met in the ancient Mediterranean world for social or religious gatherings, these gatherings were centered upon a common meal or banquet. [5]

The Old Testament reveals that the “shared meal” was a symbol of divine blessing and covenant between God and humanity. Within the first Christian communities this Jewish “table fellowship” experienced a radical transformation, as Jesus’ own person and presence became the center. [6]

The meal at Corinth drew upon the social milieu in which it was situated. The Lord’s Supper was not simply bread and cup, but a full meal, or banquet, as evidenced in the text (1 Cor. 11: 20-22). The meal at Corinth likely followed the early Greco-Roman banquet order of two well-defined courses, to which an appetizer course was added later. The first was the deipnon, when the actual meal was eaten; the second was the symposion, an extended period of relaxed drinking during which entertainment would usually be presented. The conclusion of the main course at a Greco-Roman banquet would be an elaborate ritual in which libations were offered to the gods and a “paean” was sung. [7]

These Greco-Roman banquets obviously have clear parallels to the Lord’s Supper recounted in 1 Corinthians 11 and the synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20).  

As with banquets there was a tendency of these early meals to create “social boundaries.” This is the controversy we find Paul addressing with the believers at Corinth. Paul is none too pleased with the community’s tendency to exclude some from the meal. This is creating a scenario in which some are enjoying excess and others arrive late and go without (1 Cor. 11:33). This form of the meal could not be called the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21).

Paul refers to the meal’s power to create social bonding and define social boundaries. Two missional elements of the meal lay in their potentials to draw the community together and produce equality, while sustaining their momentum as a movement (1 Cor. 11:20-22). 

There are a staggering number of meal images in Jesus’ talk about the kingdom related to eating and drinking, in which no other metaphors even come close. Some examples include Luke 6:20; Luke 11:2; Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28; Matt. 22:2; Matt. 25:1-10. Much of this table theology is drawn upon by Verlon Fosner as the foundation of the Dinner Church movement, in which the whole meal is essentially the “Lord’s Supper.”

Another point in Scripture for the interpretation of the meal as missional in nature is the ironic complaint that the Son of Man came eating and drinking in the communal meals of his ministry, where certain righteous people took great offence at his behavior: “They say, ‘look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt 11:19). 

Wikimedia Commons

The Lord’s Supper itself is missional, meant to nurture and sustain the followers of Christ until the eschatological heavenly banquet to come, but also to be a demonstration to the world of the reality of the kingdom here and now, while extending social equality even to “sinners.” It is a manifestation of Christ’s reaching into his disciples, and their reaching into the world. Paul was taking his cues from the historical life of Jesus Christ and his habits of using the meal’s power to create social bonding and defy social boundaries. The Gospels portray Jesus as extending social equality even to the marginalized, outcast and untouchable. 

As Richard Hays suggests, Paul is first and foremost a missionary, who was establishing Christian communities around the Mediterranean world. Hays states, “According to Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus was an apocalyptic event that signaled the end of the old age and portended the beginning of the new.” [8] This must have shaped Paul’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper as expressed in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “in doing this, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”; καταγγε­λλετε, root “to announce” or “to proclaim,” (indicative) “you proclaim.” For Paul, the missional language seems to describe the ritual is in itself a proclamation that holds the community to participate in the death of Christ, while looking expectantly to the judgment to come.  

Paul obviously believed that the Lord’s Supper as proclamation actually communicated something; it encoded and expressed an idea. Ritual is a type of performative speech, it does something. The Lord’s Supper itself is a mission, something that should bring unity and eliminate all social, race, gender, status, and economical distinctions.

This was a demonstration to those outside the community, which earned Christians a reputation as “cannibals” by outsiders, as documented in the second century by apologist Athenagoras.

Just as Jesus’ missional table manners were a hot topic of debate and point of criticism in his own earthly life, as he sought to bring together the downtrodden and marginalized of society (sinners, prostitutes and tax-collectors). So in the community at Corinth the Supper should be a proclamation of equality among the believers, a witness to the present reality of Christ’s kingdom, while simultaneously serving as a proclamation to those outside the community, a tangible action that heralds the coming of God’s cosmic feast in the perfected kingdom. 

The Lord’s Supper is a component of the missio Dei — the sending of God. The meal is the instrument of God’s mission that served to sustain the community and ensure equality (11:21-22), while simultaneously serving as a proclamation to the world. Visitors and people on the fringes of the community at Corinth were brought fully into the reality of the Kingdom through the meal. The grounds for Paul’s warrant: the people of Corinth were failing in this equality hence distorting the proclamation. It was not simply a memorial meal; it actually sent God into the lives of those who witnessed it (11:26). 

If understood in this way, to withhold Communion in the “real virtuality” of the distributed community connected across geography and time in the space of flows, would be the very kind of withholding of social bonding and the creation of exclusive social boundaries Paul was trying to correct. It is not a faithful “proclamation” of the grace-full reality of Jesus’ table. 

Perhaps, to offer digitally the Lord’s Supper, is to recover its true essence from the many sedimentary layers of church bureaucracy. To recover its origin as a missional meal.


[1] Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. p. xxix.

[2] The United Methodist Hymnal, 12.

[3] The United Methodist Hymnal, 12.

[4] The United Methodist Hymnal, 14.

[5] Smith, D. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. P. 3.

[6] Perry, J. Exploring the Evolution of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1994. P. v-vi.

[7] Smith, 2003, 27-28.

[8] Hays, R. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. P. 19. 

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