Christians go to church to eat and drink. This is nothing new. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, through a complex history of liturgical change, there is one constant: The people of God always worship at the table.
At the center of Eden’s garden-sanctuary were fruit trees, good for food. The sacrifices of Abel, Noah, and Abraham were food rituals, sacred barbecues. An ancient Hebrew worshipper offered an animal, with flour or cakes, on an altar. In the Hebrew Bible, sacrificial fire “consumes” flesh (akal, “eat”; Lev. 9:24), Leviticus calls the offerings of the tabernacle “bread of God” (Lev. 21:6, 8), and Ezekiel says that the altar in the temple is Yahweh’s table (Ezek. 44:16). The “peace offering” was a shared meal: Fat was burned as the Lord’s food, while the rest of the animal was divided between worshipper and priest. The point of erecting a sanctuary was to have a place where Israel could “eat, drink, and rejoice” before Yahweh (Deut. 12:15–19; 14:6).
Though early Christians soon stopped offering sacrifices, food remained central to worship. Jesus came eating and drinking with prostitutes, publicans, and even Pharisees, using meals as occasions for healing and table manners as object lessons for disciples. After Pentecost, the disciples continued to gather to hear the apostolic teaching, to pray, and to break bread (Acts 2:42, 46). Paul assumes that the Corinthians “come together” to share the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:33). When we finally enter the new Jerusalem, we will enjoy the eternal marriage supper of the Lamb. In Christ, we are brought to a better Eden, a better feast where fruit has grown up to become wine.
Foodless worship is unthinkable in the Bible and has been unthinkable through most of Christian history. That didn’t change at the Reformation. Most Reformers wanted to increase participation in and frequency of communion. Only recently have Christians become accustomed to seeing an empty table, or no table, at the front of the church. Ironically, the Christians who claim to be biblical are the ones who ignore the most consistent element of biblical worship. Christians in liturgical churches wonder if these un-festal gatherings, as joyous and edifying as they may be, qualify as Christian worship at all. They are as anomalous as a temple without sacrifice.
Today there are probably more Protestant churches celebrating communion every week than ever before. This hunger and thirst for the Lord’s flesh and blood is one of the most momentous developments since the Reformation. Even Christians who practice weekly communion, however, don’t always grasp how momentous it is, because they don’t grasp the character of the Church or the role of the Supper in the Church’s life.
We are social and communal creatures: It’s not good for man to be alone. Sin damages social life. Disobedience disrupted the intimate harmony between Adam and Eve; the first son ever born murdered his younger brother; God scattered nations and confused languages after Babel. The biblical history of salvation is about the restoration and glorification of humanity and creation. If God rescues humanity, he must repair human relationships and societies. Salvation has to take a social form, or it is not salvation for the social beings that we are.
Final salvation has a civic form: The new heavens and new earth is a city, the new Jerusalem. In the present, too, salvation takes communal shape as the Church. The Church is not an “instrument” or “means” to achieve individual salvation. The Church is the present form of salvation in history. Of course, this salvation is ambiguous and partial. Bridal Jerusalem hasn’t yet descended from heaven, and the Church often plays the prostitute. Still, the Church is what God says she is: the new humanity gathered to Jesus, the body of the Father’s incarnate Son knit together by the Spirit.
Salvation is visible in the worship of the Church, which gathers—or should gather—to eat and drink. “The Eucharist makes the Church”—it’s an old axiom revived in the past century. Paul said it first: “We are one body because we partake of one loaf.” The gathered Church is participating in the communal form of salvation, and the focal point of the Church’s gathering is the Lord’s table. There we see the world as it ought to be, the world as it will be: a joyful society of men, women, and children communing with God by sharing the gifts of creation.
You want to see the renovation of the world? Look for a group of Christians sharing bread and wine, and you’ll see the beginning of humanity’s return to Eden’s tree of life. This is what makes weekly communion so momentous. Where Christians gather to eat and drink, salvation has come to town.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.