Weekly Eucharist.

By Paul Duggan

This paper examines the question of the frequency with which the Lord's Supper should be administered and celebrated. In the history of the Church a variety of answers to this question have been given. Some would advocate annual celebration of the Lord's Supper, whether out of a parallel to the annual Passover celebration of the Old Testament or for some other reason. Many churches of the Reformation celebrate at most monthly or thereabouts, as a regular practice, but usually not with greater frequency, so that the sacrament might be preserved as a "special" occurrence. Other churches might have greater frequency. This paper will advocate the regular observance of the Supper each Lord's Day as that which is most clearly taught and set as an expectation and example by the Scriptures.

First it must be said that there is no overt reason or command against weekly communion set in Scripture. The Apostle's mention of "often" in I Corinthians 11:26 serves more to describe what happens when the Supper is eaten (that we show the Lord's death each time we celebrate) than set a specific frequency. The word "often" does imply a certain regularity of observance.

The usual objection against weekly communion, that the sacrament should be kept special, must of course be tested by Scripture to see if it is indeed to be kept as a peculiar ordinance distinct from preaching, singing Psalms, or prayer. But we should first note that the idea that it is to be kept special is also very subjective. If monthly communion keeps it "special," annual communion even more so. Or perhaps we would have it only once in our lifetime, to make it really significant.

This reduction to absurdity should serve to point out how subjective the view is that establishes the frequency of communion by its "special" character. The Scriptures do not admit of such considerations with the sacrament. What the Scriptures do indicate was that the practice and expectation of the Apostolic Church was to celebrate the Lord's Supper as a part of their regular worship observance, thus weekly, or even more frequently, during the revival in the early church.

The Scriptural Basis.

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and break it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. Luke 22:19-20

This is the institution of the Lord's Supper, as recorded in Luke. While nothing specific concerning the frequency of communion is in the institution, some introductory remarks may be made. The sacrament is an action to be performed. It is to be "done." That is its emphasis; Christ speaks the words of institution, which must be believed, but for the complete sacrament, works accompany faith and are its evidence.

The recipient must take and eat, in faith that the elements are what Christ names them to be. But he who officiates in Christ's name must perform that which Christ here does: taking the bread, giving thanks for it (as bread, but also as the body of Christ, broken for us, which it represents), breaking it, and distributing it to the recipients with the command. In the same manner he is to take the cup, and give thanks for it (as wine, but also as the blood of Christ, shed for our sins), and give to the recipients with the command. How often in the history of the Church has this rite been "condensed" by omitting one prayer, or giving out both elements together, or making the emphasis the gazing at the sacraments. But here we are to "do" what Christ has "done" as a memorial of him.

As we examine the meaning of this sacrament in other passages as well, the need for the cleansing of Christ's blood and the need for the sustenance of Christ's flesh each time the church worships together should be apparent. Why would we not want to follow this command as often as feasible? How would we come to worship God and not need His special presence? How is it that we would approach the Lord and not offer up to him the memorial of His death, that which has opened the way into the Holy of Holies?

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. Acts 2:42

Here the Eucharist is an object of equal devotion with doctrine, fellowship, and the prayers, all three of which have a weekly basis in the special worship of the church. To omit one from the regular worship of the church would be counter to their example. It may be objected that the breaking of bread referred to is a common eating of food. But the context of the verse is such that the other three things mentioned are of a peculiarly religious nature. And even if this were a reference to a common meal (as I Corinthians and Jude indicate the possibility), it is still something to which the church devoted herself steadfastly.

And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house... Acts 2:46a,

Here the Eucharist occurs as a daily celebration. To which might be objected that if the Scriptures here indicate a normative practice for the church today, daily worship would be mandated. It should be understood, though, that a special revival of the Church was occurring. During such times, when daily meetings might be held (of fellowship, worship, and instruction), the daily celebration of Communion might very well be expected. But simply this verse serves to point out the very high frequency with which the Church celebrated the Lord's Supper, a frequency we do not observe in many of churches of the Reformation, by and large.

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even til break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted. Acts 20:7-12

The purpose stated for which the people assembled was not primarily to hear the preaching of Paul, but as the text says, they gathered to break bread. The reference here to breaking bread is most obviously to the Eucharist. Their reason for coming together was to do that which Christ had ordained as his memorial. Paul was available to preach the word of Christ to them at the same time.

Coming together, hearing the Word, and breaking bread are in this text all religious elements. This verse is quite properly used as the evidence of weekly assembly for the hearing of the word, and on the first day. It therefore also stands to fix the observance of the Eucharist on the same pattern. The preaching of the Word which Paul ministered included the breaking of bread in course of the complete service. This text is primary in establishing weekly communion, other verses which are perhaps less clear should be understood in light of it.

For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. I Corinthians 11:18-20

Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. I Corinthians 11:33

These two sections should be incontrovertible, and when they are understood properly, they reinforce the usage in Acts. The Corinthian church is plagued with problems. They are misusing the Lord's Supper, to the extent that what they are eating is not even the blessed sacrament. But the statement as to the frequency which they misused the proper ordinance should be clear. Every time they came together as a church they attempted to celebrate the Eucharist. Paul doesn't instruct them to partake less frequently, but to partake with self- examination and in the bonds of love for the whole church. Thus, as we meet every Lord's Day, the Lord's Supper should likewise be celebrated each time, as by this example. We come together for the purpose of eating.

...This do in remembrance of me. I Corinthians 11:24

The Lord's Supper is a memorial of Christ. Like the Old Testament memorials like the Rainbow or Joshuah's stone heap, it signified God's mighty delivering act in history, and was a token of the covenant which God would see, remember, and act upon, coming in His presence in blessing for his people. The Passover was a yearly memorial of God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The Feast of Booths memorialized the presence of God with his people in their wilderness wanderings. We in the New Covenant stand in the consummation of all these types and symbols, and we have a need to memorialize Christ weekly in worship. The Scriptures are not given for this God-directed memorial function. The Word reminds us of the work of Christ, and to "do" the memorial act. The memorial is for God to see, like the Rainbow (Genesis 9:14-15), and it is to Him that we "show the Lord's death till He come" (I Cor. 11:26b). The need for the word to remind us of our salvation, is surely for each occasion of worship, and the need to eat the Lord's supper as Christ's remembrance is likewise weekly.

For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. I Corinthians 10:17

The bread of the Eucharist is particularly a sign of the individual and universal Church's unity. This needs to be expressed each time we come together. Shall we assemble ourselves and not be united? The unity which the church has must be expressed in truth, of course. Thus those that refuse to repent must be excommunicated, cut off from the sign of God's blessing and church unity, from which they are cast out.

Paul commands the Corinthians to expel the immoral brother. Were the Corinthians only having Communion monthly or annually, such a sanction is of little effect or even importance. It would hardly matter at all, as he would note no difference between what he experiences and what the church experiences three fourths of the time. But Paul rather commands that they "keep the feast" with the "old leaven" of wickedness purged (I Cor. 5:7=D08). It serves the interests of church discipline to have the central means of that discipline to be administered weekly.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Matthew 5: 23, 24

The regular worship of the church must be in the realm of forgiveness and repentance. The reference to the altar here might indicate to some that the relevance of this passage is more strictly related to the Old Covenant. "The sacrifices are done away," many would say, and in a sense they are correct. But the regular worship of the church is sacrificial (1 Peter 2:5, Phil. 4:18), and the altar of the old covenant is fulfilled in the Table of the Lord (Hebrews 13:10). An offender should avoid it until reconciliation with an offended brother is obtained. Thus confession of sin and repentance must precede the offering of tithes and receiving communion.

The weekly need for repentance and reconciliation in worship should be apparent, from which flows benefit and seal of our blessing, the Lord's Supper. The weekly offering of spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praises are modeled by and have their dramatic expression in the Eucharist. When the "sacrificial" (though non-propitiatory) aspect of worship is missing, when the "sacrament of the altar" is divorced from the service of the Word in the worship of the church, the force of the Matthew passage is blunted and sin expands unchecked by the ordinances God has given for it. The experience of the Corinthian church, alluded to previously, is instructive. The Corinthians were abusing the symbol of Church unity by partaking in a divisive manner, without prior self examination and confession.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20

In examining this verse we should take note of the context of Revelation. John has ascended into heaven on the Lord's Day, the day of regular Christian worship. Hebrews 12:22-23 shows us that every Christian by faith enters God's throne room. John witnesses the pattern of heavenly worship and the judgment brought thereby on apostate Judaism. The churches are warned as well, in the beginning of Revelation.

Laodicea's problem is described using meal-oriented metaphors. They are lukewarm and will be spewed from Christ's mouth. This is a pregnant metaphor in the context of the "mutual eating" (that we eat with Christ, and Christ eats with us) of the Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper, of course, is not only a time of blessing for those that are faithful, but also a time in which judgment is warned for wickedness (I Cor. 11:27). Christ's use of the image of being tasted becomes quite significant in this context. Jesus seeks to incorporate his followers into his body, but those that are "lukewarm" are not fit for that purpose. He vomits them out, as the land vomited out the Canaanites when their wickedness was complete (Lev. 18:28).

But even more clear is the often misused verse above. This does not speak of Christ coming into the heart in conversion, but the promise of the blessing of the Lord's Supper. The Laodiceans are keeping Christ from His own Supper! He stands without, promising to come into their midst, to be with them and share the meal of fellowship with them. How great their loss (and ours) that they refused their own Lord's presence in the worship of their church on the Day of the Lord. In light of this verse, and those above, regular fellowship with Christ through his established memorial sacramental meal is to be eagerly sought by every Christian, and should be present at every regular worship service in which the Word is preached.

While sufficient grounds have been given above for the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, some further theological reflection on the meaning of the sacrament will be useful to reinforce and fill out the significance of its celebration . While we should be satisfied with knowing that we are to worship God by singing Psalms, or weekly Eucharist, we increase our faith by meditating on the reasons and theology underlying the observance. Faith seeks understanding. The theological basis for what is taught by example and command in the cited scripture is brought out by examining the theology of the sabbath and Lord's Day, and how they relate sacramentally.

The weekly sabbath of the Old Covenant was peculiarly related to the tabernacle system, but in a predominantly negative fashion. Because of the sin of the people, the priests were not able to recreate in the sabbath rest of God in His tabernacle (Leviticus 10:9). God is in perpetual rest, enthroned on the praises of his people, and this was symbolized in the sanctuary. But the priests had to stand in the presence of the Lord, even on the sabbath (Matthew 12:5-6). There was even more work to perform on the sabbath, as a double offering was offered. The bread of the sacrifices might be eaten by the priests, but only outside the Holy Place. Jesus refers to the shewbread in this context of explaining the significance of the weekly sabbath principle. The wine of the sacrifices could not be drunken by the priests, but was likely poured out on the ground. (The faithful of the old covenant did share in the covenant blessings of wine and festivity, but only "afar off" at the Feast of Tabernacles. Lev 23:39, Deut. 14:26)

Negatively, then, the weekly sabbath is associated with the bread and wine of communion, by way of prohibition. Now that we have entered the rest of the new covenant=D1generally in all of life, and specially on the Lord's Day=D1we have a special privilege to take of that bread and wine. This explains the Apostolic Church's enthusiasm with regard to the Supper, as to eat bread and drink wine in the presence of the Lord was a privilege denied to the Old Covenant believers.

The Lord's Supper might seem like an unusual or unique way of memorializing Christ and his work. But in further reflection on the broad themes of Scripture shows that this is not the case. God often presents his covenant blessing in the form of food or a meal. From the Garden and the Tree of Life to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the fellowship between God and His people is symbolized and communicated through meals.

Psalm 23, for example, brings this to emphasis by the Lord preparing a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies. The church and individual believer face enemies without each day of the week. We come together to worship each week to escape briefly this persecution, and go out again and face the world, renewed by the Word, but not that alone! The Lord also offers us true food and true drink in the face of these enemies, whom he has defeated and subdued by that which the supper signifies, His death. The regular weekly need for and offering of the food by God is apparent. God prepares the table and bids us to the feast, but in the Protestant world by and large we meet with him monthly.

The sacrament is a memorial of Christ's death, representing, sealing, and applying the benefits of the New Covenant and Christ Himself in divine and human natures to us, through the Holy Spirit. Such has been the teaching of orthodox Protestantism. It is a dramatized prayer in which we ask God come to be with us in His presence, and in which he hears and comes to be with us. God remembers his covenant when He sees His memorials displayed; He acts, and comes in a very real way in blessing (and judgment, if used in vain).

The Old Covenant memorials functioned in a similar way, and form the pattern for understanding the memorial nature of the Lord's Supper. The rainbow is for God to see, and be reminded, and thus keep his covenant with Noah and all flesh (Genesis 9:12,16). In Exodus 20:24 God declares that He will memorialize His name in certain places by His presence, and there sacrifices are to be offered. Many other examples of these memorials, such as the grain offering of Leviticus 2:2, or the Passover (Exodus 12:13) could be given. The common feature is that a memorial is a sign given by God to man, that man might invoke the judgments of the covenant (with the intent of blessing, though if done in unrepentance with the effect of curse) and that God would see the memorial, and come, and be with man in fellowship. Through this memorial we "proclaim the Lord's death til he come" (I Corinthians 11:26). This proclamation should not be seen as being directed towards men (though it might have that secondary effect), but to God, as we claim the blood of Christ, shed once on the cross for our sins as our covering. The Lord's Supper is the special sacrament given for those within the church. It is not a public proclamation like that of the Word in evangelism. The Apostles in Acts preached in the streets, but celebrated the Eucharist in upper rooms and house to house.

We clearly need to do this weekly, as worship is renewal of the covenant. We lay aside our offerings, we meet together, we worship at the appointed time, confess and repent of our sins, and hear the Word all weekly. The regular memorial ordinance of the New Covenant, which testifies to the preached Word, is Christ's supper. We ignore its regular observance to our detriment.

The Lord's Supper is also known as the Eucharist, or thanksgiving. This comes from the action of Jesus, who gave thanks over both the bread and the wine of communion. That He did so in two separate acts is an important feature, as the blood and the flesh of the Old Testament sacrifices were always presented separately. Likewise, the flesh of the sacrifices was cut up, as the bread of communion is fractioned [creating crumbs, that fall from the Master's table?] Thanksgiving is the distinguishing mark of the Christian, as those that do not know God do not give Him thanks (Romans 1:21). The actions of laying hold, giving thanks, dividing, distributing, and eating, and evaluating (receiving the blessing: "O taste and see the Lord is good!") the elements set up the pattern for all covenants, and God's own work of creation. It communicates to us in a figure the pattern we must emulate in our daily lives with thanksgiving upon all occasions. God's pattern of work and rest set up the pattern of man's work and rest. Unlike man, God did not need to give thanks for the objects of his work, but man must express his dependence on God, and thus the Eucharist, when celebrated each Lord's Day, gives us a pattern for the rest of the week in our general cultural life.

The authority of God's Word rests solely on Himself. Yet even He condescends to testify to His Word, as He did by sending His Son Jesus Christ. Christ did not just come to instruct us in the will of God for our salvation, but performed miracles to testify to his divine power. He left his sacrament as a visible rite to be performed as His memorial. The inscripturated Word is where we may hear the Son of God, but it is in the breaking of bread that Jesus is made visibly manifest to the Church (see Luke 24:13-32, where the risen Christ is not recognized in his visible flesh until he breaks bread with the two on the road to Emmaus).

All things are established (in this case by God) upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. The sacrament fulfills the role of a visible sign which confirms and seals the Word. For Word to not be accompanied by sign is almost as great an error as sign without Word, which the the Reformation rightly declaimed. These considerations of course would have no weight, but that the scriptures examined in the previous section show the Church's pattern and example of weekly communion.

God is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We must confess our sins regularly, and certainly each Lord's Day in worship, and know we receive forgiveness from God. The Lord's Supper is the appointed means in scripture to receive cleansing. It actually effects sanctification, as a means of grace to those that take in faith. Thus it forms a regular part of the service of worship. We need cleansing from God to worship Him aright, and to ignore His appointed means is only to our detriment.

The above considerations are on the side of understanding the theological significance of the Lord's Supper. But to connect this to regular weekly worship, we also need to understand the theology of the Lord's Day, the day of Christ's resurrection, the day He showed His triumph over death for His people's sake (Romans 1:4). The Lord's Day and the Day of the Lord are identical concepts, and in Scripture it is the day of judgment of God's enemies and blessing of His people. John is "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day" and witnesses the worship in heaven before the throne, which we also, by faith, truly witness and participate each Lord's Day (Ephesians 2:6; Hebrews 12:22). John witnesses first the ascended Christ as He walks among the lampstands, symbolizing the seven churches of Asia Minor. Christ then gives His evaluation of the churches, warning them and giving a promise of blessing to the faithful (Revelation 1=D03). John then witnesses worship in heaven, and then judgment on God's enemies, and the blessing on the people of God, who feast at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

The Biblical concept of the Day of the Lord goes back to Genesis 1, where it is the Day that is the first of God's works of creation. This "first day" is the first Day of the Lord, as the Holy Spirit, hovering over the formless creation, begins to manifest the plan of God in the earth, by creating light. Light is the prerequisite to make evaluation and judgment. God judges the light Good, and goes on to judge each Day good.

As it is the Holy Spirit who manifests the heavenly plan of God in creation it is He who makes present to us the heavenly reality of Christ's ascended person, particularly in the Eucharist. It was He who descended upon the church at Pentecost, as the fiery cloud descended on Mount Sinai to constitute the people of Israel. Peter declares that Pentecost is the fulfillment of the Day of the Lord prophesied by Joel (Joel 1:15; 2:28-32) With the introduction of sin in the world, God also judges the wickedness of men, and thus the negative aspects of that Day, and the negative aspects of the judgment of Communion (for vain use). The Lord's Day worship of Revelation also fits this aspect, as the congregation beholds the slain Lamb of God, feasts at the Marriage Supper, and the seven angels (the seven ministers of the churches in Revelation 2-3) blow the trumpets of God's judgment (the Word), and administer the chalices of God's wrath on apostasy.

It is entirely fitting, that as we come as the Body of the Lord to the House of the Lord, to worship on the Day of the Lord, and hear the Word of the lord, that we partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord at the Table of the Lord. These things all most naturally go together.

Is this view of weekly communion an aberration in the history of the church? While certainly if it is taught by scripture that the Eucharist is to be observed weekly, we should do so whether the tradition of the church confirms it or not. Yet the wisdom that the Holy Spirit has lead the Church into these past two millennia is on the side of weekly observance.

What little evidence there is from the early post-apostolic church points to weekly celebration.

It might be objected that the Roman Catholic church celebrates their Mass each week, even each day, and that they do so because of the errors of their system. This may very well be true. But the Romanists do many other commendable things, such as sing the Psalms, oppose abortion, etc., which should by no means blunt our own advocacy of the same.

The middle ages saw the rise of many superstitious beliefs about the Lord's Supper, like that of transubstantiation. The belief that Christ's physical body was locally present, having replaced the bread and wine, brought fear of dropping a crumb or spilling a drop. This "magical" understanding made viewing the ritual of the Supper and gazing at and worshiping the elements, rather than eating and drinking them, a means of receiving merit and blessing from God. Thus the cup was refused initially by the laity out of fear, which became a traditional requirement later. And the obligations of communing on Easter, and at other special times were to offset the tendency of watching it as a regular occurrence rather than eating.

The Reformation made great strides in reforming these corruptions. Yet the fears of the people often prevailed. In Britain, communion rates of once a year predominated among the Presbyterian churches. The periods of time leading up to these "events," filled with dire warnings and introspective terror (out of all their Biblical proportion), lead to the revivalism of the Great Awakening, which in this aspect was not all positive. Rather than the appointed means of grace, the revivals sparked irrationalism, great upheavals and schism in churches, and many erroneous practices. The great fear which the people had for communion led to many feeling unworthy of communicant membership, from which the "half-way covenant" was devised that their children might be baptized.

Calvin in Geneva had favored weekly communion, actually every time the word was preached (which during the reformation revival was daily at times). To Calvin, whose doctrine of the supper we hold to be true, the Word should always be attested to by its appointed sign and seal to the people. The magistrates opposed Calvin in this, so he was unable to achieve this goal. John Knox also favored weekly celebration, but was unable to gain popular support. May we not be so consumed with our own imaginations concerning the sacraments, but reform and test our practices by the sure word of Scripture.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bahnsen, G., "Acts 20:7-12: The Frequency of Communion," Covenant Tape Ministry, 1985, audio tape. Reformed. Survey of Biblical basis for weekly communion.

Chilton, D., The Days of Vengeance: an Exposition of Revelation, Dominion Press, Tyler, Texas, 1987. Reformed commentary on the symbolism of Revelation, and its relevance of worship (among other things).

Jordan, J. B., Sociology of the Church, Geneva Ministries, Tyler, Texas, 1986. Reformed examination of worship and church sociology.

Schmemman, A., For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1988. Russian Orthodox, but Biblical, coverage of symbolic aspects of Lord's Supper.

Schmemman, A., Introduction to Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1988. Russian Orthodox; Historical study of early Church liturgical practice.