Real Presence and First-Day Pitch-Ins: Why Quakers Are, and Must Be, a Eucharistic People

By Patrick J. Nugent

“Wait upon God for the Living Bread, that never fades away.”

George Fox

“I myself am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger: whoever trusts in me will never thirst.”

(John 6:51)

I. A Eucharistic Theology for Quakers?

In a recent paper, Scott Holland, a minister and seminary professor in the Church of the Brethren, criticized the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder for tending to collapse the sacraments into social processes, just as many have charged Yoder with collapsing systematic theology into social ethics. Anabaptists, Holland pleaded, need to develop a rich sacramental theology which understands and experiences the sacraments (by which he meant only baptism and communion) as mediating the awesome and majestic presence of God.

What about Quakers: do we likewise need a sacramental theology? Do we already have one? Is the common Quaker claim that all of life is sacramental really true to our experience, or do we lodge this claim superficially in order to dismiss uncomfortable theological and biblical questions?

Liberal unprogrammed Friends are accustomed to answer questions about the sacraments with this claim, or with a short and dismissive rejection of “ritual.” Yet there are good reasons for arguing that certain kinds of Quaker practice are in fact deeply sacramental, in the Christian and biblical sense: outward signs of inward grace rooted in the practices of Jesus. At their best, Quaker worship and our practice of table fellowship are eucharistic practices; further, they are, and ought to be, faithful to biblical eucharistic mandates. (Similar arguments might be made about the baptismal character of Quaker worship, but are best left for another occasion.) The sacramental character of Quaker “eucharistic” practice deserves to be explored and more thoroughly grounded in biblical tradition, partly because our own theological tradition is grown thin, and partly because other Christians ask these questions of us.

Friends from pastoral traditions face a different and, for them, more troubling question: how do we justify as biblically faithful our rejection of the so-called “Lord’s Supper” in the face of Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me?” Even though Early Quakers understood scripture differently from twentieth-century American or African evangelicals, they would not think this question strange. And even if the question seems irrelevant to some modern Quakers, to others it is a burning one. Students at Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya, where I am principal, are deeply vexed about this question and under terrible pressure from other African Christians to propose an answer.

The answer given them by the missionaries of the first sixty years “Quakers just don’t do that” has, as in other instances, betrayed them and left them theologically impoverished. Whether American liberals like it or not, African and North American Friends of a more evangelical stripe need an account of their practice which demonstrates thoughtfulness and fidelity about the biblical eucharistic mandates.

Closer to home, it is an open secret that in many places in the United States, Quaker Meetings do celebrate some version of the Lord’s Supper. This is prima facie evidence that Friends over the last century have failed to address this difficult question. Why are we not bound by the scriptural injunction, “Do this in remembrance of me”? If we are held to the biblical injunctions to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, refrain from killing, and the like, why are we exempt from the eucharistic injunction?

This paper does not systematically address that question from the standpoint of early Quaker arguments about the Eucharist, nor does it seek to explore systematically the ways early Friends used eucharistic language to encode their experience of the divine. Rather, it seeks to give some modern theological and practical substance to a claim that some may find astonishing, but which others may recognize from offhanded jokes about pitch-in suppers. Namely, in our worship, our ethical practice, and our practice of open table fellowship, Quakers, already are a eucharistic people, and indeed we ought to be. What follows is a theological meditation on this question.

A. On Brethren Being Brethren: The Inwardness of Sacramental Power

First, a digression which helped me not only to frame the question but point to one important way in which Quaker spiritual practice is eucharistic. In the spring of 2002 Bethany Theological Seminary gathered a group of Quaker and Brethren youth ministers for a consultation. The Quakers present were from both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. Two professed the influence of Conservative Friends. We were nevertheless in the minority: five Quakers, fifteen Brethren. In small group discussions the Brethren articulated frustrations about youth ministry which they believe to be symptoms of deeper adult problems in their congregations. The Quakers shared many of these frustrations.

The great strength of the Church of the Brethren is the clear articulation of Christianity as discipleship grounded in the Gospel, an ethical response of loving obedience to the commands of Jesus, living the life Jesus wanted his followers to live. My Brethren colleagues, however, mourned because they have lost this tradition of discipleship and the systems of accountability to the church community which had been a their hallmark. Once upon a time, the church community could articulate a Christian, Anabaptist ethic and then, on that basis, care for relationships and mediate disputes in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A congregregation could not celebrate the Supper if disputes remained unresolved and members unreconciled.

For better or for worse, this authority had long ago collapsed. Brethren, the conferees complained, are so worried about losing members that they hesitate to articulate the demands of Gospel ethics including pacifism and nonresistance. The result: excessive individualism abounds and a rich ecclesial community has collapsed into a pleasant but ineffectual social gathering. One participant quoted Dale Brown with both chagrin and appreciation: “Catholics go to church to receive God’s grace in the sacraments; Calvinists go to church to receive God’s grace in the preached Word of God; Brethren go to church to see one another.”

I know both youth ministry and the Church of the Brethren too well to embrace this anguished venting as unvarnished truth. But my colleagues’ mourning revealed they had lost what Quakers would call a spirituality and that their richness of ecclesial experience had disintegrated into social process complaints familiar to Friends of all stripes. I also detected in their words some characteristic themes of Brethren Christianity. The fundamental experience of Christianity, one participant declared with the force of fundamental doctrine, is ethical action in the form of obedience to the commands of Jesus, acting in love in the world, bringing about reconciliation, and resisting violence. Further, they articulated to one another that when Brethren argue (if you want to know what people really care about, ask what they argue about), they argue about doctrine, ideas, and ethical observance (not, for instance, relationships, decision making processes, or styles of ritual).

In a small group discussion I pressed the Brethren to talk about how and where Brethren experience the presence of God. They thought the question a little odd, but one youth minister finally articulated that Brethren experience God when they act in obedience to the commands of Jesus, living the life he taught them to live. This seemed to me to collapse spirituality into ethics. With some consternation I asked, “Do Brethren have a spirituality?” The group was silent for a moment. Then one member said quite simply, “no.”

I know this is not true, and I continued to be vexed. In the larger group, I reflected what I had heard. (I was searching, in helplessly Quaker fashion, for how Brethren experience Christ inwardly.) I left my deepest thought unuttered, a thought grounded in my own experience of the Catholic piety with which I grew up: these youth ministers discern in their church no living sense of the Real Presence of Christ.

I did suggest aloud that I was hearing nothing about a crucial component of the Brethren tradition. In their emphasis on ethics, discipleship, and the authority of the church community, they sounded like good Mennonites. But Brethren have historically another distinct characteristic that sets them apart. Brethren are not just Anabaptists, they are also Pietists. They are nurtured by the same stream of eighteenth-century spirituality that nourished the Moravians and John Wesley, the conviction that Christian faith and action are grounded in an inward, personal, and intimate relationship with Christ. The group agreed that the Church of the Brethren has lost, or is losing, its Pietism. And therefore, I thought silently, their sense of the Real Presence, the living bread that nourishes and never fades away, which I take to be the goal of the Quaker meeting for worship in any of its forms.

Later in the day we were discussing activities we might offer as part of a youth gathering of Brethren and Quakers on the theme of the vocation of the peace churches in the context of a global church. A Brethren participant, stretching, I am convinced, for an experience of transforming sacramentality suggested we incorporate some non-Christian practices such as the sweat lodge for which he had enormous enthusiasm.

I lost my patience. Brethren complain that they have lost their spirituality and their distinctiveness. If we want to help Brethren youth identify more deeply with their own tradition, I asked, why not help them experience that distinctiveness in bodily, Christian, Brethren ways rather then gadding abroad? Brethren do have a spirituality: a corporate, sacramental spirituality, centered around the Lord’s Supper, foot-washing, the holy kiss, and the love feast. Why not show Brethren youth the deep spiritual power of these most characteristic Brethren practices? Why not re-articulate the precisely sacramental piety of Brethren, especially since this has traditionally warranted and grounded the ethical commitment and the Pietism of personal experience that distinguishes Brethren?

B. Real Presence: The Heart of Spiritual Power

This exchange left me a little bewildered to see myself a former Catholic, an anti-liturgical and anti-sacramental Quaker urging Brethren to preserve the spiritual power of their sacramental practice. I regretted the Brethren’s loss of sacramentality–not the practice of fixed, outward rituals, but the corporate awareness of the real, inward, and transforming presence of Christ in themselves and in their midst. Quaker worship, both silent waiting on the Lord and pastoral Quaker worship, attracts me and holds me fast precisely because it mediates the living, palpable, transformative presence of Christ, what Roman Catholics call the Real Presence. It does exactly what the Catholic Eucharist claims to do.

Sacraments are a failure when the outward performance distracts attention from the real presence of Christ and from the transforming work of God which they are supposed to mediate. But in churches which practice them, sacraments are often the last and best hold they have on the Real Presence.

I am a Quaker precisely because I am a disappointed Catholic. I was brought up to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist but never experienced it inwardly through the sacraments and knew very few people who did.

Where I did experience it was in the practice of silent and wordless contemplative prayer. I became and remain a Quaker because the traditional Quaker conviction that Christ has come to teach his people himself satisfied my Catholic longings and proved experientially true. In waiting upon the Lord among Friends I have experienced the bread of life, the real Real Presence. Unprogrammed Quakers have only fragmented and isolated language for naming this experience, but what keeps us together is our shared sense that in worship at its best, we experience the transforming presence of the divine. (The proliferation of “Nontheist Friends” workshops at Friends General Conference Gatherings may portend the loss of even this fragile thread of unity).

I am bold enough to believe and to assert with Robert Barclay that whenever goodness radiates and transforms the heart, whenever the conscience rises up and stands in the revealing and liberating light of goodness, whenever the creative power of God, the Logos, moves people to love–there, whether named or not, is the bread of life which never fades away, the redeeming presence of the risen and living Christ (see Barclay 1908, prop. 2). One cannot enter the fullness of spirituality without a sense of the Real Presence; without it, even if we disagree about whose or what presence we mean, religion consists only of empty outward performance. It is precisely this empty outward performance against which the early Quakers railed.

Similarly, to risk a comparison, Muslim piety at its richest is not only the performance of salat or the recitation of the Qur’an. Real salat is the inward appropriation of the real presence of God, embodied in the Arabic words of the scripture which emanated directly from God’s being and which therefore bear the divine presence on the believer’s lips or in her ears. To speak or to hear the words of the Qur’an is to be directly in the presence of God.

Comparisons from Hinduism and Buddhism abound as well. The Quaker Thomas Kelly puts it simply: “What is the ground and foundation of the gathered meeting? In the last analysis, it is, I am convinced, the Real Presence of God” (Kelly 1966, 79). Quakers have been no strangers to eucharistic language to express this Real Presence in the gathered meeting. Daniel Wheeler, the Quaker minister and civil engineer and traveling minister to Russia, wrote of a meeting near St. Petersburg in 1818:

Last First Day, in our little meeting, the Master was pleased to preside, and it was indeed a “feast of fat things”; and the language which arose in my heart was, “Take, eat, this is my body.” I never remember being under such a covering, and my desire is, that I may never forget it.

Wheeler 1842, 79

True to Quaker form, however, the immediate issue of this communion was ethical and inspired him to a sense of “communion” with humanity. The evangelical Wheeler continues,

and oh! that the fear of the Lord may so prevail amongst us, as to entitle us to His Love, which can alone enable us to ‘run through a tropp, or leap over a wall’: and which at this time enableth me to call every country my country, and every man my brother.

Quakers are a eucharistic people, though we would hardly put it that way. Because we insist traditionally that the foundation of both spiritual life and ethical action is the real, inward, transformative presence of the Living Christ, Quakers reject outward sacraments because we want to be possessors, not professors who have got “the form, without the power.” We want the Real Thing, not the sign; the moon, not a sacramental finger pointing to it; the body and blood of Christ, not bread and wine. We want to build communion, koinonia, fellowship, deep engagement in one another’s lives through sharing good meals together in open table fellowship, not a churchly ritual in which a priest dispenses bits of pseudo-bread and tiny sips of wine.

II. Do What in Remembrance?

Friends loyal to the deep and rich Quaker tradition as it existed before about 1940, and before the Wesleyan invasion of the later nineteenth century, take comfort in knowing that we believe and wait for and practice the Real Presence of Christ. Even modern liberal Quakers will invoke fondly the admonition of Brother Lawrence to “practice the Presence.” But as disciples of Jesus who believe that we are redeemed by the inward work of his inward Light, we cannot ignore the scriptural injunction of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Quakers in Africa and in the Wesleyan milieux of pastoral Quakerism are under constant pressure from other evangelical bodies to account for this commandment of Jesus. In Africa this is a particularly difficult point because the Quaker missionaries who told Kenyans that Quakers don’t celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper never successfully explained why.

Are Quakers guilty of biblical infidelity on this point? (If this question seems irrelevant or unthinkable, consider why, if we are not held to this biblical injunction, we ought to heed injunctions to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, abstain from killing, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and the like.)

We ought to begin by asking whether other religious societies are as faithful to Jesus’ mandate and Paul’s elaboration of it as they assume they are and too often we with them. Just what did Jesus command his disciples to do? What were they doing when he said, “Do this . . .”? And what were the Corinthians doing when Paul reminded them of what the Lord Jesus had handed on (1 Cor 11:23 26)?

A. Jesus’ Passover Seder

The Last Supper as it is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels presumes that the disciples of Jesus were fully Jewish. The supper seems to be a celebration of the Passover seder, though the seder had not yet achieved its mature rabbinic form. Therefore, what Jesus and the disciples did at that meal, and the way they understood that meal, evoked and invoked all the Jewish meanings of the Passover seder, not just the meanings later Christians found in or projected onto the “words of institution.”

Because the seder was first and foremost a celebration of the Jewish feast of Passover, it was an irreducibly and peculiarly Jewish event. A full meal, a feast, not just a sharing of a little bread and a little wine, it required celebrants to recall and recite the liberating deeds of God throughout Jewish history. As such it was the prototype and the most privileged example of the weekly erev Shabbat meal, the Sabbath eve celebration in the home, which similarly included the offering of bread and wine and the remembrance of redemption. Finally, the Passover seder was embedded in the larger ritual context of the Passover sacrifice in the Temple.

Upon the early reader of Luke’s gospel, sometime in the 80s or 90s, the portrait of Jesus’ Passover seder would leave a poignantly antique, even nostalgic, impression. Luke’s readers lived in the decades after 70 C.E., the end of the rebellion which Romans crushed, destroying most of the foundations of “Second Temple” Judaism: the Hellenistic and philosophical cosmopo-litanism of Mediterranean Judaism, the sacrificial system, and most importantly the Temple at Jerusalem (Dunn, 1991 Wilson, 1991). Luke’s readers lived in the advanced stages of the painful family quarrel and divorce between emerging rabbinic Judaism and the emerging Jesus-movement. The Last Supper unites things that by Luke’s day had been forever sundered: disciples of Jesus as Messiah naturally and unselfconsciously being Jews together, doing what Jews did together on Passover.

Luke’s narrative invokes this poignant antiquity again in Acts 2 when he once more sets side by side two practices which would never again converge: the apostles both prayed in the Temple together and shared in the breaking of the bread with one another. Both these Lucan accounts are sepia portraits of a nostalgic past which set the scene for the painful “partings of the ways” between rabbinic Judaism and missionary Christianity, a parting which Luke narrates in the Acts of the Apostles.

Early in Acts he furnishes a warning that this antique unity would be ruptured. God’s gift at Pentecost is that the disciples learn the languages of the world, foreshadowing the mission to the Gentiles which would, within a few chapters, cause open conflict with more Jewish-minded believers. Yet the occasion which gathered the apostles and portended missionary expansion was Pentecost, the Jewish Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, celebrated fifty days after Passover (Pentecost = Gk. “fifty days”). Originally an agricultural holiday, Shavuot evolved into a commemoration of God’s gift of the Law to Israel on Sinai, an event which for Luke was one of God’s great deeds in the Jewish past, now overshadowed, subordinated, and fulfilled by the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.

The Last Supper of Jesus precedes Luke’s last, idealized picture of disciples-as-Jews praying together in the Temple, and precedes the decisive dispute among the apostles over whether Gentiles who confessed Jesus must convert fully to Judaism. After the compromise at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the unity of discipleship and Jewish observance which the Last Supper embodies and idealizes would be henceforth impossible and, by the end of the century, unthinkable.

In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper represents a much more advanced and bitter stage of the divorce, at least in concept if not in time. Nobody eats any bread or drinks any wine, and the meal is not the Passover seder, though it precedes Passover. The only food which appears is the bread Jesus dips into the dish and hands to Judas – a sign of betrayal, not of eucharistic unity. Further, the most distinctive element of the Passover seder, wine, appears in John’s gospel only in the story of the wedding at Cana in chapter 2, and in a later reference to that episode in chapter 4. The Johannine community is not and cannot be a Jewish community and therefore cannot use those distinct elements of seder, bread and wine. Their situation is therefore much closer to our own situation as twenty-first-century Christians, about which more later.

B. the Problem of Supercessionism

What, then, did Jesus mandate? What did he ask his followers to do? If we take the Last Supper as normative for Christian practice, we have to face that Jesus asked his followers to:

(1) celebrate the Passover seder;

(2) do so in remembrance of him, recalling his suffering on the Cross as the latest of God’s liberating deeds on behalf of Israel;

(3) celebrate a meal, perhaps including open table fellowship with sinners and the outcast, but perhaps only with disciples;

(4) invest the Passover bread and wine with particular remembrance of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.

Most Christian societies teach that they satisfy Jesus’ mandate by abstracting the elements of bread and wine from their setting in a meal and from their embeddedness in the Jewish Passover celebration, and then investing that bread and wine with some memory of the Cross and a specific association with the body and blood of Christ. Open table fellowship which Jesus practiced often but not always, and not at the Last Supper is entirely missing from the Christian Eucharist. In fact, many Christian communities exclude even other Christians from their celebration of Eucharist.

Nor is the modern Eucharist a meal in any recognizable sense, except in those churches where communion is combined with a Love Feast; the Last Supper by contrast was a real meal which both Jesus and the Pauline communities celebrated. And needless to say, the modern Eucharist is no longer a Passover seder, liturgical references to Passover notwithstanding. (If Eucharist is Passover, where then are the lamb bone, the place of bitter herbs, the haggadah?)

Retaining bread and wine while jettisoning seder and all the rest of Judaism raises a conceptual problem. Scholars of early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism have suggested in the last decade that Christianity should not be regarded as a branch broken off the ancient tree of Judaism. Rather, rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity are parallel forms of late Second Temple Judaism which really came into their own after the fall of the Temple. The common, ancient parent they share, the Hebrew temple-religion of Israel displayed in the Hebrew Bible, died a definitive death in 70 C.E., allowing both infant movements to come to maturity, splitting one from the other along the way.

The gospel narratives about Jesus and Luke’s account of the early church were constructed during and after this divorce and were painfully aware of it. The tension between Jesus’ Jewish character and mission, the church’s openness to Gentiles, and its gradual withdrawal from rabbinic Judaism are evident on nearly every page of the New Testament, whose authors all struggled over whether and how to appropriate the Jewish elements of Jesus’ words and commands.

Just how to “do this in remembrance of me” when “this,” the Passover seder, has been rejected, is only one of several New Testament questions about whether Christians should retain Jewish practices (such as circumcising converts, observing Jewish dietary regulations, and immersing converts in the Jewish ritual bath). These questions are only partly settled in the New Testament, and plenty of evidence remains to show that the tensions abided unresolved. These practical questions were logically dependent upon more fundamental theological questions about how the disciples of Jesus related to the people of Israel. Since a substantial part of Jesus’ hope (the renewal of Israel) miscarried, what does the election of Israel mean for Christians?

One extended and articulate consideration of this question is furnished by Paul in Romans 9-11, another by the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. Their solutions have usually been interpreted as “supercessionism,” the claim that the old, carnal Israel has been supplanted or superceded by the new, spiritual Israel, the Christian community, and that the old Mosaic covenant is supplanted by a new covenant. The new covenant is of course not a uniquely Christian invention; the promise of it is embedded in the heart of Hebrew religion, in the prophets, who were neither Pharisees nor rabbis (see Jeremiah 31:31).

Supercessionism has been a powerful and persistent intellectual weapon of Christian anti-Semitism, and Jews involved in Christian dialogue have asked Christians to abandon it. By and large, theologians have done so, but much liturgy and not a little preaching continue to rely on it even in mainline and liberal churches. The persistent use of Passover elements in the Christian Eucharist continues to bear the marks of supercessionism. Quakers should continue to resist the use of bread and wine in order to bear witness that Christians need to come to terms with bread and wine as elements of Jesus’ command to continue using Jewish ritual practices, a command which did not foresee the great divorce, and therefore ought not to be understood as binding on Christians after the apostolic period.

C. The Agape Meal in the Pauline Churches

The other important eucharistic passages in the NT come from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10: 14-22, 11:17- 34). The Pauline communities were uncomfortably and painfully diverse (1 Cor 11: 18). Paul understood why the human, flawed, complicated Corinthian community needed the shared meals Jesus employed in his ministry. They were occasions for a truly open and socially transformative table fellowship.

Like any eschatological irruption of the kingdom, open table fellowship is both exuberantly joyful and unnervingly dislocating. The occasion of the Corinthian misconduct about which Paul complained was, like the Last Supper, a meal. Like so many of Jesus’ meals, the agape meal was open and included groups not accustomed to eating together or mixing socially: rich and poor (11:21-22), Jew and Gentile (10:18-33), men and women (11:4-16).

When these usually-segregated groups feasted together, tensions ran high and disputes erupted, so Paul had to lay out ground rules. When believers eat together in open table fellowship, he argued, they must treat one another as equals and share their food equally. Praying together required establishing common rules for dress and grooming (11:4-16) because Jews and Gentiles differed on these socially significant, gender-coded practices. The practices he advises are reminiscent of Jesus’ own practice of open table fellowship, sharing meals with disparate persons and groups unaccustomed to eating together, who consequently fell into tension and dispute at table.

In order to argue for a peaceable agape meal which brings followers of Jesus into deeper communion with one another, Paul invokes the tradition of Jesus’ words over bread and cup at the Last Supper. “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 12:25; see also Luke 22:19-20 and par.) Jesus’ words and Paul’s recollection of them make sense only from the vantage point of open table fellowship. Paul inquires, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? For we are many, yet are one bread and one body, for we all share in that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16).

Sharing in open table fellowship at which we remember Jesus’ suffering makes us a part of his suffering and one another’s, and brings us into deeper communion with one another. Jesus took onto himself the suffering of the world; those who share bread with one another in his name do likewise. To share in prophetic open table fellowship is already to share in Jesus’ body and his blood, his very being, and his participation in human suffering. It is to share both his power and his brokenness.

From here Paul proceeds to ask a vexed question, whether Christians could eat food offered to other divinities. This was not just a Christian but a Jewish question: any food, especially meat, bought at market from a non-Jew would likely have been offered to other gods. Because Jews who ate Gentile meat courted implication in idolatry, Jews in the diaspora communities without Jewish butchers constantly risked offense, and Jews as a rule did not eat with Gentiles precisely to avoid this offense. The polestar of Paul’s discussion turns out to be open table fellowship, because Paul himself, sharing a meal with Gentiles, gave the appearance of implication in idolatry and so provoked angry opposition from more conservative elements in the Jerusalem church who opposed the divorce of Christianity from Judaism. (See Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9 16; Gal 2; and Acts 15:20.) Paul’s interest is not in avoiding idolatry but in being tender to the diverse consciences present.

D. Bread, Cup, and Eucharist

Still central to this agape meal, this feast, were the bread and cup. Still in Paul’s day these would have had clearly Jewish, Passover resonances, as indeed the crucifixion was for Paul the paschal Passover sacrifice once and for all. The divorce between Jews and Christians was well underway, but not over. Paul referred to the bread and cup in context. That context was open table fellowship, at a meal in which participants recalled in Jewish fashion all the liberating deeds of God, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus was appended along with the invocation, “Come Lord Jesus.”

Paul used the word “participation” (koinonia) to name how the action of open table fellowship unites us to Christ. Luke uses the same word to characterize the Christian “fellowship.” Koinonia is just as well rendered communion. Open table fellowship which remembers God’s work in Jesus, opens up the opportunity for communion with Christ and with one another, becoming “members of one another,” knowing one another in that which is eternal.

If we identify Paul’s “bread and cup” too closely with the later Christian eucharistic bread and chalice of eucharistic wine, we commit an anachronism and therefore distort the reading of 1 Cor. 10. Certainly a hundred years later bread and cup had become isolated as ritual elements in an early form of Eucharist, a process which reflects their privileged use in Passover but abstracts them from their situation within a meal. In Paul’s day and time, every meal, Jewish or not, ritual or not, would have revolved around staples of bread and wine. Non-Jewish believers are likely to have interpreted Paul’s injunctions about bread and cup at some remove from understandings about the specifically Passover bread and cup. Quakers would be justified in understanding Paul’s, and Jesus’, injunctions applied to every time we take bread and cup that is, the staples of any meal in open fellowship.

Leave a comment