With the COVID-19 pandemic making church gatherings unwise at best, many churches in recent days have moved to live-streaming or offering their services online. My own church has been one of those. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are approaching. In many churches, there have been times when an observance of the Lord’s Supper has seemed especially appropriate and meaningful. But should a church observe the Lord’s Supper online, with members partaking in their homes? I think we can best answer that question by reflecting on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Why did the Lord command us to do this practice in the first place? What are we saying when we do this?
Four “Looks” Un 1 Corinthians 11
I see five points related to these questions, four of them found explicitly in 1 Corinthians 11. I call them five “looks.” First, we look back in remembrance. We are commanded in vv. 24 and 25 to do this “in remembrance of me.” In my experience, many churches start and stop with this point: we remember the body broken and the blood shed for us. And it is entirely appropriate that we do so.
But second, we look ahead, because v. 26 tells us that we are only to do this “until he comes.” Some see the Lord’s Supper as the rehearsal for the marriage feast of the Lamb, and thus there should be an anticipatory look ahead in the Lord’s Supper to when Christ returns and remembrance becomes reality and faith becomes sight. By the way, this verse also relates to the age-old controversy of the nature of Christ’s presence at the Supper. In at least some sense, by observing the Supper, we do acknowledge the absence of Christ, because if he was present as he will be one day, we wouldn’t be observing the Supper.
A third aspect of the Lord’s Supper that I do not think we observe as carefully as we should is the command to look within. This is seen in the command in v. 28 to examine ourselves before we partake, lest we partake in an unworthy manner. Exactly what should be involved in this self-examination is not given to us in the text. I have found helpful the practice outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, in which those about to receive the Lord’s Supper are led to renew their penitence before God, their faith in gospel promises, and their love for the body as preparation for the Supper.
I find the last aspect of this renewal, love for the body, especially significant. It seems to be what was especially missing in the Corinthians’ observance of the Supper and the reason for Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11. It leads us to the fourth aspect of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. As we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are called to look around in fellowship. This is seen in numerous ways. Five times in 1 Corinthian 11, Paul emphasizes that the Supper is something they do when they “come together” (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33, 34). He refers to the gathered body again in v. 29, when he warns of the danger of eating and drinking “without discerning the body of Christ.” Paul does not say body and blood of Christ; if so, we might think he was referring to the right understanding of the elements or the physical reality they symbolize. Rather, he says “the body of Christ,” which he develops in 1 Corinthians 12 as a major image for the church.
Proclaiming Our Unity As One Body
In the observance of the Lord’s Supper, we say something about ourselves as churches, local bodies of Christ. We proclaim our unity (see 1 Cor. 10:17: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf”). We say, “We are in this together; I have your back, and you have mine. We will walk this journey together. We will love, pray for, encourage, admonish, lift up one another.”
I think it is this aspect of the Lord’s Supper that is most instructive for us in terms of the question with which we began: Should churches observe the Lord’s Supper online? Certainly Christians, in the privacy of their homes, can look back and remember Christ’s broken body and shed blood. They can joyfully look ahead to the time when remembering will no longer be necessary, when Christ will be fully present among us. We can even look within and renew our penitence, our faith, and our love. But it is difficult to see how we can look around and discern the body of Christ in our homes. Hopefully, there may be family members with whom we can observe the Supper. We can see members of our local body on our computer screen and partake at the same time as them. But I think we lose some of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
I see the same application to the practice some have of a bride and groom observing the Lord’s Supper at their wedding. They do this out of love for Christ and the desire to have their first act as a couple be an act of worship. More recently, small groups have wanted to observe the Lord’s Supper in their small groups, rather than the larger, corporate worship gatherings, feeling closer to the members in their small group than the church as a whole.
Observing the Lord’s Supper in these instances, as well as online, I would not see as sinful or wrong. I would not condemn individuals, small groups or churches who celebrate the Lord’s Supper in such contexts. Much of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be preserved in such observances. But I would see them as incomplete, and not fulfilling all the purposes for which the Lord gave us to practice. Thus, I would counsel churches to patiently wait until we can gather together again and are able to look around as we observe the Supper. I think this is especially important for North American Baptists, as our Christianity tends to be excessively individualistic already. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper online would push us further in that direction.
One More “Look”
For the sake of completeness, let me add one more “look.” It is not explicit in 1 Corinthians 11, but I think it is implicit. As we observe the Lord’s Supper, in faith and obedience, I think we should look up, in expectation of God’s blessing. Historically, Baptists have emphasized what we do in observing the ordinances, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We testify to faith in baptism, we remember and proclaim Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper. We have hesitated to speak of God acting in and through these observances, not wanting to give the impression that God automatically confers grace on those who partake. But I fear we may have overreacted. Surely God always desires to bless believing obedience, and why any less at the Lord’s table than anywhere else?
So as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, look back in remembrance, look ahead in anticipation, look within in self-examination, look around in fellowship, and look up in expectation.