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.
—Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).