This was going to be a comment on the last post on the Lord's Supper but it kept growing and growing so I've turned it into its own post...
It would seem that most if not all of us understand the Lord's Supper ("LS" henceforth) as a "token meal" by default. That is what we were taught. That is what we practiced. That is how we see the text. In some ways this is why I am arguing so hard for the "full" meal understanding - to combat years of momentum. I don't necessarily favor the idea of a full meal, I simply want us to weigh all the evidence regardless of our past experiences and understanding. My goal is to understand the text of Scripture, and that involves challenging ideas that I already hold. If it truly espouses a "token" meal then that's what I will heartily embrace. If not, then I'll embrace the "full" meal or perhaps something altogether different - whatever the text says!
Most if not all of us agree that the immediate backdrop of the LS is the Passover feast. It was while Jesus and the twelve were eating the Passover that Jesus instituted the LS (Luke 22:8-20). The Passover of course is rich with symbolic meaning just like the LS.
However I think most of us would agree that there is a greater context in the Old Testament for meals in the presence of God. As Wayne Grudem explains in Systematic Theology,
...when the people of Israel were camped before Mount Sinai, just after God had given the Ten Commandments, God called the leaders of Israel up to the mountain to meet with him:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel...they beheld God, and ate and drank (Ex. 24:9-11)
Moreover, every year the people of Israel were to tithe (give one-tenth of) all their crops. Then the law of Moses specified,
Before the Lord your God, in the place which he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your win, and of your oil, and the firstlings of your herd and flock; that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always...You shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Duet. 14:23, 26)
But even earlier than that, God had put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and given them all of its abundance to eat (except of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Since there was no sin in that situation, and since God had created them for fellowship with himself and to glorify himself, then every meal that Adam and Eve ate would have been a meal of feasting in the presence of the Lord.
For Jesus and his contemporaries there was an even wider context for the importance of meals. Ancient near eastern culture (Jewish culture not least) placed special significance on meals. As I. H. Marshall explains in his article on the LS in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters,
Communal meals were important in both Judaism and Hellenistic religions. They served a social purpose in bringing the adherents together, and they functioned religiously in a variety of ways (see Food).
For the Jews in general each and every meal was "religious" to the extent that it was accompanied by the giving of thanks to God for the food. The main evening meal at the beginning of the Sabbath (which commenced at sunset on the previous day) had a special character, and there were special meals associated with Passover and other festivals...Festal meals on special occasions, including Sabbaths, other festivals and gust-meals, included wine (which was not drunk at ordinary daily meals). Thanks were offered for each cup of wine (Klauck 1982, 66-67). At the Passover meal a more elaborate procedure was followed. An important element was an explanation of the symbolism attached to the various parts of the meal (including the lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herb). This verbal proclamation (cf. katangello, 1 Cor. 11:26) intended to make the occasion a remembrance (Ex 12:14, 13:9; cf. anamnesis, 1 Cor. 11:24-25) of what God had done for his people
The situation in the Hellenistic world has been described fairly exhaustively by Klauck (1982), who discusses in turn meals associated with religious offerings and sacrifices, meals held by associations, meals with various mystery religious both in Hellenism and also in Judaism, and cultic meals in Gnostic sects. He notes that the communal meals held by associates were particularly important and that they maintained a religious character. Individual Christian converts could well have been familiar with any of these types of meal and also with some of the practices of the different mystery religions.
Jesus' ministry was peppered with meals (Matthew 8:11-16, 11:19; Mark 2:13-17, 6:30-44, 8:1-10; Luke 7:36-50, 10:38-42, 11:37-54, 14:1-24, 15:1-32, 19:1-10, 24:13-35; John 2:1-11, 21:1-14). Some of his most significant Kingdom revelations were in the context of a meal. I haven't studied any of these meals at length, but Lewie has recommended Craig Blomberg's Contagious Holiness for deeper exploration
Then there is the meal that we will share with Jesus at the end of this age. Grudem continues,
...the Lord's Supper looks forward to a more wonderful fellowship meal in God's presence in the future, when the fellowship of Eden will be restored and there will be even greater joy, because those who eat in God's presence will be forgiven sinners now confirmed in righteousness, never able to sin again. That future time of great rejoicing and eating in the presence of God is hinted at by Jesus when he says, "I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29). We are told more explicitly in Revelation about the marriage supper of the Lamb; "And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb'" (Rev. 19:9). This will be a time of great rejoicing in the presence of the Lord, as well as a time of reverence and awe before him.
In my opinion all of these facets combine to form an incredibly rich context in which to understand the LS. I do not believe it is simply coincidence that the meals in this context were "full" meals and not "token" meals. If we do conclude that the LS was a "token" meal I think we need to give an account of our reasoning that encompasses the context I just outlined. However, I am less convinced of the tokenness of the LS than I am of its fullness.
In the previous post about the LS Jonathan made the point that "wine and bread" are clearly part of the definition of the LS whereas a fuller meal is not. I wonder if the Gospel writers and Paul were keen on mentioning the "wine and bread" specifically because those were new, special elements in the "full meal" - a "full meal" which was implicitly understood because of the rich context I have already described. The combination of the bread and wine was a new twist, different from the lamb/bread/herb combination present in the Passover meal, and was therefore of special note. I agree with Jonathan that the bread/wine combo appears to be a lowest common denominator or a "minimum requirement," but I do not think that precludes other elements from the "Lord's Table" that would be part of a full meal
One of the most common arguments against the LS as a full meal are Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 11:22, "...Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?..." and 34, "...if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home..." Many conclude from these statements that the LS was not meant to satisfy physical hunger and by implication cannot be a full meal. I think that conclusion is a non sequitur. In other words, it doesn't logically follow that just because the LS is not meant to satisfy physical hunger it is not a full meal. I agree with the statement, "the Lord's Supper is not meant to satisfy physical hunger." In my opinion however that statement isn't about the practical outworking of the LS which would lead me to infer it can't be a full meal. Rather, that statement is theological. It is about the meaning of the LS. Let me explain.
While the Passover and other old covenant meals (the closest analog we have to the LS) were full meals, none of them were about satisfying physical hunger. The point of those meals was dining in the presence of Yaweh, fellowshipping with Him, remembering and celebrating what he had done for them. Satisfying hunger was a consequence of the meal, but not the meaning of the meal. As is, I currently believe, the nature of the LS.
Why then does Paul make those statements in 1 Corinthians 11:22 and 34? Let me paint a picture of what I think is a highly plausible interpretation (also supported by other scholars I've read). The LS was meant to be focused on remembering Jesus and bringing unity to His body. The Corinthians had failed in both these areas. Instead of remembering Jesus the rich appear to be focused on fulfilling their personal desires while the poor were neglected. Likewise, this lack of concern of the poor by the rich enflames the economic divide between them. In effect, the Corinthians have turned the LS on its head, accomplishing exactly the opposite of Jesus' goal for his supper. Paul therefore admonishes the rich (as they were likely the only ones such alimentary means) to eat in their homes before they gather. This was a practical way they could avoid focusing on their own desires, opening the door for selflessness toward the poor when they gathered as a church. It was a specific recommendation by Paul to the rich Corinthians on how to solve their problem, not a statement with general implications about the nature of the LS.
I posted a comment on the previous post about the LS emphasizing the role of the LS in explicitly remembering Jesus and bringing unity to the body. Jonathan responded, "I agree on the emphasis of the explicit remembrance of Jesus and unity of the Body. The bread and wine facilitate the former and a meal can facilitate the latter." I can only agree with that statement if a full meal and a bread/wine ritual are complementary components of a single custom that we call "the Lord's Supper." In other words, I cannot accept that statement if only the bread/wine ritual is considered "the Lord's Supper" and the full meal is a separate, coincidental custom. Why? Because the Scripture makes clear that it is the LS itself that facilitates unity among the body, not some other coincidental custom. This brings me to my next point.
Whatever consensus we reach on the LS (whether token or full) we must not only agree with Scripture that it facilitates unity but we must explore how it facilitates unity. It is easy to see how the LS helps us remember Jesus, but not so easy to see how it facilitates unity. I mention this point here because I think it's easier to see how a full rather than a token meal facilitates unity. We have examples of this from Scripture. Jesus' own table fellowship with "sinners" helped establish his mission to heal the sick, to reconcile and unify them with himself. Table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles was forbidden, but Jesus' death and resurrection inaugurated His kingdom and abolished such distinctions bringing unity to all peoples in Christ (see Acts 10 for the story of Peter's vision and subsequent trip to Caesarea to see Cornelius). For a specific example of this see Galatians 2:12 for an account of Cephas (Peter) curtailing his table fellowship with Gentiles out of fear - illegitimate fear that Jesus has conquered through the Gospel.
Further, when I think of the full meals we observe when we gather on Sunday evenings its easy to imagine those facilitating unity because there is conversation, serving one another, laughter, etc. (basic, personal relationships through which Jesus may flow in love) not to mention the bread/wine ritual (when we choose to observe it) that makes our time together intentional and explicitly focused on Jesus. Contrast this to the token meals that most of us grew up observing, meals that really had no fellowship whatsoever. I cannot imagine how such meals might foster unity among the body except perhaps in some kind of abstract, doctrinal sense. To be clear, I do not believe that just because I can't imagine a token meal facilitating unity doesn't mean it can't. My imagination or lack thereof is definitely not the bottom line. I just wanted to make the observation.
As of this moment I see the full meal and the bread/wine ritual like notes in a chord. The notes by themselves do not make the rich, beautiful sound of a chord, and a chord that is missing a note or two is a different chord (or not a chord at all). In essence, I do not feel that the meal and the bread/wine ritual should be separated for all the reasons I outlined above.