Monday, September 17, 2007

Altar or Table?

I recently read a comment by Dr. John Mark Hicks, professor of theology at Lipscomb that really struck a chord in me. Here it is:

“God never intended an altar, though he planned for it. Instead, God intended a table to enjoy the communion of his people.[1]
Perhaps it doesn’t hit you the way it hits me, but think about it for a moment: God never intended an altar—he intended a table. The purpose of an altar was to provide a way for people to come to the table—to be able to be in relationship with God and with each other. The altar is a place of violence, of pain, of sorrow for sin. In the Old Testament if you were to make a sin offering you would take your lamb, or goat, or bull to the altar before the priests. I used to think the priest was the one who slaughtered the animal—but that was only the case in a single offering for the entire community or an offering for himself. Otherwise, the individual who brought the animal was responsible to slaughter the animal (see Leviticus 4). The altar was a bloody, violent place of pain and guilt.

The altar was the necessary station on the way to the table. Without the altar there could be no table. The altar wasn’t the goal, though. It wasn’t the destination. The table was the destination. God’s plan had always been for his creation to enjoy his presence, to live in fellowship or communion with him. Isn’t it interesting how after the sacrifices there would usually follow a feast—a full blown thanksgiving meal![2] During the meal you remembered and celebrated how God had delivered you so you could enter his presence, so you could sit at his table and dine with him.

I would like to suggest to you there is an altar in Christianity. We’ve been looking at how the church has changed over the generations from simple Christianity into something more complicated. One of the changes was the introduction of an altar into the Christian assembly. The Lord's Supper or Eucharist was changed from feast to sacrifical rite. What was once a common table where people ate a meal, became an altar presided over by a professional. At the altar, the sacrifice was presented. In time the only occasion one could eat the feast was in the presence of the professional.

But the table is not the altar. Blood was not shed at the table. The altar and sacrifice was a one time event: sufficient for all time. The altar was a cross. And rather than being called to a place of sorrow, violence, guilt and pain, we were supposed to have been called to a Eucharist: a thanksgiving meal. What was once a communal gathering where people ate and laughed and remembered God’s great act of deliverance became a place where people mournfully meditated. Instead of a communal experience—it became an individualistic “between-you-and-me-God” ritual.

As I mentioned last week, part of our problem is a seating arrangement inherited from 1,500 years of church tradition! Sitting in benches and staring at the backs of heads make it very easy to turn a fellowship meal into a silent ascetic ritual. But look at Jesus’ behavior with his community of disciples in Luke and Acts. You will discover God sitting with scoundrels, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and yes even religious people and eating a drinking with them. Luke records ten such meals in the first book and nine or ten meals in Acts. Most of the meals were probably similar to our thanksgiving feasts: a lot of interaction, teaching, dialogue, and laughter.

Another problem is the various interpretations about what happens during this Supper. Some traditions believe the bread and juice are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus—the sacrifice occurring all over again. Others hold a similar belief except they believe the bread and wine is both the literal body and blood and literally bread and wine too. Some believe bread and wine are merely metaphors or symbols reminding us of Jesus’ sacrifice, while others believe while it is a metaphor—Christ is somehow present at the taking.

I’d like to suggest Jesus is present as we take of the supper—but in a different way than you might imagine. Jesus is present as the host of the meal. He is the sponsor, the one who has invited us to come. He is the one who breaks the bread and serves us. He doesn’t call us just to remember the sacrifice—he calls us to rejoice in the sacrifice and to enjoy his company. It is a communion, a fellowship with each other and with him.

In Emmaus, two disciples encountered the resurrected Lord—not realizing it was him. They invited him to eat with them—and he did a very unusual thing. He took the bread and blessed it. This is the job for the host to do. Jesus acted as if he were the host! When he blessed the bread, broke it and handed it to them—suddenly their eyes were open and they recognized Jesus was in their midst. In their joy they rushed back to tell everyone what had happened!

So, how does this affect the way we take the supper? If the table is not the altar—but a thanksgiving for the altar, then it must affect our demeanor. If it is a meal with the resurrected Jesus as our host, then it is not a moment of sadness but a time of great joy. If it is a communal meal, it is not a time for silent individualistic reflection, but a time to enjoy each other’s company.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if we lingered over the meal. We aren’t going to rip the pews out and install tables—although we could certainly do worse! Perhaps when we pass the trays to each other we should pause and look at each other—give a word of encouragement, a “God bless you.” A hug might be appropriate—maybe even pausing to pray for each other. Maybe we should share something we’ve been reading in the Bible—or like at so many thanksgiving dinners share something you are thankful to God for. The least we can do is thank God for the altar of the cross and to thank him for inviting us to join him in a fellowship meal.

So, may you experience the joy of God’s presence. May you open the door of your heart so he may come in and eat with you—but keep the door open for your brothers and sisters! May you rejoice in his love and in his mercy!
[1] Dr. John Mark Hicks, Come To The Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper (Leafwood Publishers, 2002), 13. I owe much to John's book and internet articles. I also remember starting thinking along these lines years ago after reading Our Life Together (Sweet Publishing Company-out of print) by James Thompson. Other excellent resources are books by Robert Banks (Paul's Idea of Community and Going to Church in the First Century).

[2] “The eucharist in the Didache appears to be set in the context of a social meal. This may have been the usual setting in the early days of the church. Jesus instituted the memorial of himself during the celebration of a religious meal. The disorders at Corinth were occasioned by the circumstances of a common meal. As gathered together, perhaps in a house church, to eat together would have been the time when the necessary elements were present for the communion. But very soon…the Eucharistic celebration was separated from the common meal. The evidence of Pliny is usually taken as implying this separation in Bythinia at the beginning of the second century.” Dr. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries, (Abilene: ACU Press, 1981), p 99.


Anonymous said...


It's always good to read your thoughts. I appreciate the way you explained that the altar is on the way to the destination--the table.

Yesterday, we considered Eutychus in Acts 20. They had come together "to break bread" and later (sometime after midnight) they "broke bread," and in the middle Eutychus ("Lucky") died and was raised becoming a living example of what the table is about--a present meal, looking to a future resurrection meal, based on a past meal (all with Jesus).

I found it facinating that the references to breaking bread offered book-ends to the episode of Eutychus.

Just a thought.


Darryl said...

Excellent point, Tom. I too have noticed how "breaking bread" serves as an inclusio to the text. Can you imagine how poignant that supper must have been after Eutychus was brought back to the room alive? They probably had a better understanding of the "thanksgiving" than they ever had previously!