Communion Began as Supper. What’s this got to do with Food Policy?

By: Taylor Bell

5 Minute Read

For Baptist Church of the Covenant, October 20th is Bread for the World Sunday. We hold this annual service in partnership with Bread for the World, a faith-based advocacy organization that works for better domestic and international food policy. Their central concern is those who are chronically hungry and malnourished. Each year, Bread hosts a national campaign inviting their partner churches to write their federal legislators advocating for certain food policies. This year, the ask is to advocate for funding that supports global nutrition. We partner with Bread because we believe hunger and malnutrition are curable social ills, and good public policies are essential steps to curing them.

In preparing for Bread for the World Sunday, I have been exploring the Biblical reality that Communion began as a meal. All four Gospels and Paul refer to it as the Lord’s Supper. We in the South know a thing or two about supper. It’s what most people call dinner, it’s a family meal, and it doesn’t start until everyone is seated at the table. Yet, though communion is practiced in diverse ways throughout the world, it is predominantly observed as eating a tiny morsel of bread and drinking a teensy sip of wine or grape juice. I am not saying that the ways Communion has evolved are bad or non-Scriptural. But where supper implies a meal where all are fed, physically, emotionally, and communally, what does it mean for us that Communion began as supper?

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians offers us some answers. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 Paul admonishes the Corinthian church’s rich members for reducing Communion from a holy communal meal to an elite social gathering. In 1st century CE Corinth, it was proper social custom that a dinner party begin with high-status individuals arriving early for the best food and wine, and then lower status individuals arrive later for left overs. It was this social custom the church was practicing when Paul laments, “When you come to together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”[1] According to Paul, the high crime is when the Corinthian Christians practice normal social convention, they defiled Communion by reducing it to an exclusive dinner party. For Paul, Communion is a communal meal that embodies Christ’s unconditional and powerful love for us. Communion is therefore a holy supper, and as holy supper it implies that all who come hungry have a right to leave fed. Fed physically, emotionally, communally, and spiritually.

I can hear the Corinthians grumbles now. “But Paul, this is normal. There’s no reason to get so upset, this is just how we do things.” Normal for society, yes. But normal for the Gospel, no. For Paul, Christ’s love doesn’t care about social conventions, or what’s normal, or how things are usually done. Rather, Christ’s love cares about people and their real lives. This means Christ cares more about people’s well-being and nourishment than our social conventions. Yes, Jesus cares more deeply about whether you’ve eaten and if your food is nutritious than if you’re dressed appropriately for church or sitting in your proper seat at the dinner party. Paul’s lesson for the Corinthians and us is that the Gospel is proclaimed when all Christians gather around a large dinner table to share a holy supper. Holy because it embodies Christ’s unconditional love for everyone. And because of this love there must also always be a few empty seats for any visitors arrive hungry, because Christ had a way about including everybody at the dinner table. Even those who weren’t like him. So, here’s an empty seat for you, have some bread and wine (or juice), get your fill, and know that you are always welcomed at this table. Normal for society, no. But normal for the Gospel, yes!

It seems then we cannot be Christian and at the same time be okay with hunger and malnutrition in the world. Or rather, we cannot celebrate the Communion Supper while at the same time neglecting our hungry brothers and sisters. Because for Paul, the Communion Supper becomes just food when we just eat the bread and drink the juice to remember Christ. For to remember Christ is to remember his love and service for the poor, hungry, and oppressed. If the Gospel is a liberating and nourishing good news, then the Communion Supper is a remembrance of Christ’s love and a divine clarion call to end hunger and malnutrition. Communion is more than bread and wine. It is a holy supper. And when people gather for supper, to eat their fill, talk late into the night, and become friends, holy things tends happen. People depart fed. Fed physically, emotionally, communally, and spiritually.

The Biblical reality that Communion began as a meal is important for food policy! It means that being Christian and advocating for good food policy go together. Because the Lord’s Supper is the experience of holy community, divine love, and the call to make the dinner table bigger so more people can be fed. And advocating for good food policy is one way we work with Christ to make a bigger table. Because Jesus was and is always seeking to feed more people. We Christians cannot take Communion this Sunday and forget about our brothers and sisters who struggle with chronic hunger and malnutrition. So, as we prepare for Communion may we remember that part of this holy supper’s preparation is making the table a little bit bigger so a few more people can be fed, both within the church and out in the world. As the apostle Paul teaches us, the Christian meal of Communion demands nothing less.

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:20-21, NRSV

2 thoughts on “Communion Began as Supper. What’s this got to do with Food Policy?

  1. I appreciate the connection you have thoughtfully woven together here. Christ sets the table and we are all invited and we too can set a table and welcome others. We advocate when we see that others are being pushed out or ignored or denied access.

  2. I think this is what happens on Wednesday nights. Ironically, as our table has gotten bigger to include our guests, fewer of our members have been present to welcome them. Regardless, I think welcoming our guests to eat with us on Wednesdays is a great example of advocating for better food policy!

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