Authors produce nourishing reading about holy eating
Allan J. McNicol, professor of New Testament studies at Austin Graduate School of Theology, has written a helpful primer titled “Preparing for the Lord’s Supper,” a companion volume to his 2001 “Preparing for Baptism.” These books can help prepare older children and new converts for life in the church, but they should also prove useful to anyone seeking an articulation of fundamentals of our faith.
In “Preparing for the Lord’s Supper,” McNicol examines the Scriptures and explains what the supper represents: Christ’s death and resurrection, and our future celebration with him in heaven. This will be familiar ground to anyone who has spent much time in Churches of Christ.
What may be less familiar is McNicol’s brief historical review of shifting perspectives on the Lord’s Supper, his careful situating of the table against the background of Christ’s entire ministry and his argument that the supper is more than a thread tied around our finger — lest we forget.
“Something is happening that extends beyond the mind and faith of the recipient,” he writes. “Through the action of the Holy Spirit, God is active and at work as we feed on the spiritual food of the bread and cup.”
McNicol is well aware that many in Churches of Christ have tended, at least in practice, to disagree with this point. “All too often those presiding at the table … leave the impression that the supper, in the mind of the recipients, is nothing but a memorial of the event of salvation,” he writes. “Theologically speaking, they separate the symbol entirely from what it represents. … We are a people dedicated to the restoration of the faith of the ancient church, and yet the historical evidence suggests that practically no one in early Christianity viewed the Lord’s Supper as purely symbolic.”
McNicol does affirm certain boundaries traditionally recognized by Churches of Christ: “The idea … that the flesh-and-blood Jesus is present supernaturally in the transformation of bread and wine is not taught in John,” he writes, nor does the Lord’s Supper “magically convey eternal life.” And yet, he argues, real spiritual nourishment does occur, and real communion with Christ and with fellow believers is both proclaimed and attained.
McNicol tries hard, but he faces a typical human hurdle — there are mysteries our human brains cannot fathom, nor our words describe.
McNicol’s text is fairly easy to understand. I plan to read this book with my children, ages 9, 11 and 13. The readability of the book and its un-intimidating length mean that certain difficult concepts have been simplified or mentioned only in passing. Advanced readers who wish further to contemplate those issues can turn to several other recent books.
Whereas McNicol discusses symbols only briefly, Gordon T. Smith, in his 2005 book “,” provides an in-depth meditation on what symbols are — a topic dear to an erstwhile college English teacher like me.
“I am always a little perplexed … when I hear someone refer to something as ‘just a symbol,’” Smith writes. “By its very nature, a symbol is never just a symbol.”
Smith examines the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the context of seven words: remembrance, communion, forgiveness, covenant, nourishment, anticipation and eucharist.
While McNicol summarizes historical views of the Lord’s Supper, Ben Witherington III goes into far greater detail in his “Making a Meal of It.” The title is a reference to a British idiom that means making a mess of something. Christendom often makes a mess of the Supper, Witherington writes, “busily ignoring it altogether in some quarters, treating it as a mere symbol in others, or treating it as … some sort of magical act that transforms the elements into something they were not before.”
Witherington seeks to neaten up the mess through scriptural and historical analysis, sprinkling interesting stories throughout.
For instance, he describes an incident that occurred shortly after the Civil War. In those days, when many churches still had separate communion times for blacks and for whites, a former slave shocked his congregation by responding to the call for communion for whites. Fortunately, an elderly white man stood up, took the black man’s arm, and escorted him to the table, where they took communion together. The white man was Robert E. Lee.
Readers wishing to compare and contrast theological perspectives on the Lord’s Supper will find useful the carefully reasoned “Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper” by Russell T. Moore, a Baptist; I. John Hesselink, Reformed; David P. Scaer, a Lutheran; and Thomas A. Baima, a Roman Catholic. In each of the four chapters of this book, one author presents his particular view, to which the other three authors then respond.
The Lord’s Supper, though so easy to take — a sip, a tiny bite — is not easy to understand. By pooling our thoughts and studies, however, each of us may come to a fuller appreciation of the mystery. That is why, in my morning prayer and study time, I am slowly working back through this stack of books, pondering and considering, shrugging off some points and letting others sink in.
On Sunday mornings when I partake of the body and blood of Christ, I now am intensely aware of the public as well as private import of communion. We who partake are, as McNicol writes, “participating together” in proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection and our anticipatory hope for an eternity with him.
AMANDA WITT is a member of Grandville, Mich., church. She has degrees from Abilene Christian University, Texas A&M and the University of Kansas. She is a writer and a home-schooling mother of three. She maintains a blog at www.wittingshire.blogspot.com.