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1.1 Statement of Problem
The Eucharist, in the words of Erickson (1985; 1108), is a rite which Christ Himself established for the Church to practice as a commemoration of His death. Unlike baptism which is an initiatory rite, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is a continuing rite of the Church. It is interesting to know that almost every brand of Christianity practices it. Every church denomination upholds its importance in the worship life of its congregation. It ought to be a common factor uniting all branches of the Christian faith. However, contrary to this expectation, historically as well as in our contemporary time, its interpretation and practice have tended to divide the Christendom. Consequently, diverse traditions relating to its observance have emerged. In fact, a critical examination of the understanding of the value and purpose of the Eucharist as believed, taught and practiced by church denominations today, shows that their points of disagreement outweigh those of agreement.
Contrary to being a vital tool for promoting unity in the Body of Christ, individual approaches to it have caused division.
The Christendom is not unanimous as to who qualifies to administer it, or receive it, the frequency of observance, the nature of the elements and its effects on the communicants. Even some denominations administer exclusively to their members even when those denied are as spiritual as their members in a mixed congregation, and are communicants in full standing from their churches. In the same vein, some denominations within the Christendom have introduced stringent conditions that exclude most believers from partaking in the Lord’s Supper, thus widening the gap of fellowship.
The summary of these observations is that the Christendom, by precept and practice, appears to undermine the Eucharist as a unifying factor within the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is more or less a will and the last wish of Jesus: “This do in remembrance of me”, he said (Lk. 22:19). This pronouncement has over the centuries nourished the faith of Christians, binding them in same love and hope. By the practice of breaking the “bread” and drinking the “wine”, the Church focuses on Calvary and there sees the blood of “the Lamb of God” shed for the salvation of humanity.
One of the fundamental and eternal truths Jesus stood for is the unity of believers. He prayed: “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). It then becomes a great embarrassment
to Him if the holy meal He Himself established becomes a tool of division among His followers. Kee and Yong (1969:377) observe that as in the earlier period, the primary meaning of the meal was Christ’s presence in the midst of those who ate, and the hope it brought for his final coming. Similarly, Stewart (1977:
168) remarks that the Church, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, has always found not only a memorial, but also a presence. The implication of these observations is that the presence of Christ as truly acknowledged in the observance of the sacrament of the Eucharist ought to be a unifying factor instead of a divisive factor. Even though Erickson (1985;1108), admits that virtually every branch of Christianity practices it, and that it is also a common factor uniting almost all segments of Christianity, he however laments that historically and as well as the present time, it has actually kept various Christian groups apart; and so it is a factor which unites and divides Christendom. This, of course, must be admitted, as allowing “fresh water” and “salt water” flow from the same spring” (Jam. 3:11).
It is against this background that this thesis seeks to advocate for the observance of the Eucharist as a religious meal that goes beyond a memorial service of commemorating the death of Jesus to a meal that strengthens the bond of unity among Christians. It is in the light of this that this thesis seeks
to study Paul’s teaching on this continuing rite of the Church as
contained in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 with the view to showing
that the Eucharist, in its original intention and tradition, is a rite
which its observance is beyond a mere memorial (a historical
reflection) to a fellowship (koinónia), a communion for union,
that is, it is unity based to the core.
1.2 The Purpose of the Study
The early Christian worship most likely had at its centre
the observance of the Eucharist. In other words, it occupied a
central place in the worship of the early Church. Thus, we read:
“They (early believers) devoted themselves to the apostles’
teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to
prayer” (Acts 2:42. Emphasis mine). It is no exaggeration when
Stewart (1995;166) describes it as “the great Christian
sacrament of all ages”. But the impression Apostle Paul gives us
in 1 Cor. 11:17 ff shows something went wrong along the line.
When he states,
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…when you come together it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk (1 Cor.11:17-21, NIV).
This introductory remarks of Paul when he addressed the abuse and desecration of the Lord’s Supper as being observed in the Corinthian Church leaves much to be desired. Paul here identifies an open case of division even at the Lord’s Table. The surprise and worry is that what ought to have united them is being used as a cause of segregation and disunity. Hence Paul sees no ground for praise for them.
It can also be observed that the contemporary Christendom may not be faring better. For instance, Erickson (1985:1108) observed that in some cases the subject of the spiritual value or practical value of the Lord’s Supper has become lost in the dispute over theoretical issues. He goes further to show that points of disagreement centre around the issues of the presence of Christ, the efficacy of the rite, who qualifies to administer it, the appropriate recipients, the elements used and time of observance. Those thorny issues are those of philosophical and theological debates but the implication is that one’s theological persuasion determines the practice and since there is no unanimity in theological and biblical interpretation, it leads to diversity of practice which edges out others whose theological position differs.
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