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Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology…

Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord's Supper (2007)

by Ben Witherington III

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For theologians, "The Lord's Supper" evokes memories of old battles. Arguments about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Real Presence, and Memorialism all rise to the surface. For many church-going Christians, on the other hand, "The Lord's Supper" is a concept associated with seriousness, stale wafers, and lengthy sermons!

Witherington III challenges all these misconceptions by returning to Scripture, interpreting the few passages we have in light of cultural traditions, and tracing the threads of this understanding throughout church history. We see how the Lord's Supper is rooted in the Passover feast (although the two are not coterminous). We see how the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples became celebrated regularly as the Lord's Supper, or Communion.

As church history progressed, the Love Feast (Jude 12) changed. The rise of asceticism (which certainly made a feast unwelcome) and clericalism (which insisted that a Priest had to conduct the ceremony) undermined the communal nature of the meal.

Some of Witherington's ideas are unusual. For instance, he makes a case for Lazarus being the "beloved disciple" who wrote the Gospel of John (which John of Patmos fame later redacted). This explains the unusual and lengthy Last Supper account. It was a conflagration of the meals held in Bethany the week leading up to the Passover. You can choose to agree with him or not, but his detailed and carefully laid out argument demands a thoughtful response.

Witherington III ends his book with a chapter on how we should celebrate the Meal today, in light of scripture and tradition. The greatest challenge for me was his call to reclaim the unity symbolized by one loaf of bread, in contrast to the lifeless individualized wafers we serve today.

Although this book is brief (160 pages), it is jam-packed with thoughtful observations. Making it even better is Witherington III's sense of humour and clever wordplay. Consider this closing sentence to the chapter on "Second Century Sacraments":

"The church had come a long way since the Last Supper, and much of it had involved a journey away from , and even against, its original Jewish recipe. The result was half-baked sacramental theology with too many foreign flavors overwhelming the main ingredient" (112).

Well played, Sir!

Making a Meal of It has inspired me to revisit the way I celebrate communion and has deepened my understanding of the ceremony. I highly recommend it to any thoughtful Christian. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Dec 5, 2014 |
This is a fairly short, and easy to read exploration of how the Eucharist or Lord's Supper originated and developed. It would be useful for anyone who wants to know more about this central feature of Christian worship and life.

Witherington covers cultural, OT, NT and patristic literature relating to meals in Jewish and Gentile areas, and shows that much current-day practice surrounding the Lord's Supper is man-made accretion. He also urges us not to read too much directly from the Passover into the Last Supper as Jesus changed significant features of it. ( )
  jandm | Dec 24, 2013 |
I enjoyed this book thoroughly. I'm typically a fan of BW's commentaries, and even where I might disagree with conclusions, his perspective adds great insight. Here BW traces the meal from its origins in the passover and gospel accounts, through the NT practice, down through 2,000 years of (abbreviated) church history. Three main strengths to this book...

1) He places the meal in question firmly in it's first-century context. How helpful it is to know what the meal was then in order to know what it should be now.
2) BW's familiarity with the gospels as a premiere historical Jesus scholar aids greatly in his analysis of the gospel passages which provide the basis for the meal. Little is assumed and so much is learned.
3) With all his scholarly weight behind him, BW make few if any direct applications. He points out instances where the church has erred, from transubstantiation to serving Kool-Aid and animal crackers. But the main strength in this book is that it suggests a topic of conversation and provides the necessary information for the conversation to proceed.

This book is a great start to a conversation worth having with your church leadership. BW has set the table; sit down with your brothers and sisters and eat! ( )
  Garrett_Lee | Jun 3, 2013 |
Perhaps the greatest aspect of this book is the way Witherington pushes beyond what usually becomes the focus of this debate - sacrament or ordinance - and reminds us that it's not about the elements, the priest, the prayer, but Christ Himself who invites us to the table as sinners saved by grace. Covering the pertinent NT texts, as well as the historical development from the early church up through the reformation and beyond, Witherington explains just how we've lost the most crucial meaning of this meal: unity with Christ and with others. Those who hold to a highly Catholic understanding of the table will find their position undermined, but those who see it simply as a ritual empty of spiritual meaning will be challenged to see it as so much more. ( )
  rpdan | Jun 5, 2009 |
Mr. Witherington's book is useful for anyone wishing to look at the history of communion practices. However, his suggestions for how churches might practice communion seem to place more empasis on how the early church observed the Lord's Supper than on the practices of Christians through the thousands of years since. Simply because the early church followed certain practices does not mean that God has not continued to reveal himself through the sacraments of the church.

The other fault that I have with the book is that it seems to address the issue as if churches seem to be having controversial discussions of the topic. While I agree that there is vast difference between congregations in the ways the ordinance/sacrament is observed, I don't think any individual traditions are unsettled about how they are involved.

Still, this is a useful and thought provoking book for people interested in the topic of communion observance. ( )
  gmw3550 | Jan 14, 2009 |
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Neither the celebration of Passover nor the celebration of early Jewish communal meals nor the celebration of the Last Supper nor the celebration of the Lord's Supper could by any stretch of the imagination be called entrance rituals, unlike baptism or circumcision.
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A call for new ways of looking at communion based on early church practice.
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