Brethren Communion and Love Feast
Feasts of Charity ~ Jude 1:12
Written by Ronald J. Gordon ~ Published February, 1996 ~ Last Updated, January, 2018
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The descriptions, accounts, opinions, illustrations, and theological predilections should be understood as the personal viewpoint of the author, and does not presume to represent denominational policy, nor that of any distinct group within the Church of the Brethren. Additionally, traditions, customs, and procedures vary among local churches, and frequently modify with advancing years. This exposition is offered to give the casual visitor an overview of the Brethren Communion and Love Feast.
Events of Passion Week
Jesus paused near the town of Bethany on top of the Mount of Olives, and instructed two disciples to search in the village for a mother donkey and it's unridden colt, whereupon He may ride the colt into the city of Jerusalem. “Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her; loose them, and bring them unto me,” (Matthew 21:2). This well known passage is the launching pad for the events of what Christians call Passion Week. During the next few days, Jesus would be subjected to heart wrenching emotions, or passions, that would both precede and include his death, a death that He did not deserve but ultimately the very reason why He came to earth. John the Baptist may have expressed this particular more succinctly than anyone else: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). From the moment that Jesus was born in a stable, the destiny of the cross was ever before him. He both knew and understood His earthly mission. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” (John 18:37). And what was this truth? That God loves us! In fact, God loves us so much that He designed this wonderful plan of redemption so that we may obtain eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved,” John 3:16-17. Passion Week also parallels the selection of the Passover lamb from the twelfth chapter of Exodus. Jesus was that lamb. God's lamb. This is why Jesus is also called the Lamb of God, the final sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and traditionally stated: “He paid a price that He did not owe for the debt of sinners who could not pay.”
Principles of Justice & Mercy
Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? The answer to this question is explicitly set forth through numerous passages of scripture, and especially during Passover where Christ depicted His death through the symbolism of what we now observe in the communion service. The Holy Spirit explains the necessity of His sacrificial offering because all humanity is guilty of sin; “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), and the outcome is eternal alienation from God, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 6:23). This creates a dilemma for us, for how shall we obtain righteousness before God if we are sinful? What deed or thinking process may we execute in order to acquire righteousness? The problem of sin also creates a dilemma for God, for how can the Almighty be just and yet merciful at the same time? If God would be just, then we are condemned to damnation for our sins, but then there is no allowance for mercy. If God would be merciful, then we are released from the condemnation of our sins, but then there is no opportunity for justice. How can God treat us with both justice and mercy, yet still remain true to His own Word? In God's infinite wisdom came the answer in Jesus, who would be totally human, and totally divine! He would incur the wrath of justice and experience the penalty of sin that was meant for us, so that God may bestow mercy upon us. Whereas the Son would be totally human, His sacrifice would also extend to His fellow brothers and sisters through faith. Likewise the Son being totally divine, He would be an acceptable sacrifice that is free of the blemish of sin. The Holy Spirit speaks through the prophet Isaiah when he writes: “He was wounded for OUR transgressions, he was bruised for OUR iniquities: the chastisement of OUR peace was upon him; and with his stripes WE are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of US all,” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Notice that the Holy Spirit is speaking in the past tense, “He was....” This indicates that God views the event as already finalized according to His plan of redemption. God is telling us through Isaiah that Jesus will endure the penalty for sin that we should experience. Jesus WAS wounded for us! Jesus WAS bruised for us! Jesus WAS chastised for our eternal peace! And we ARE healed by His stripes! Notice also that the last phrase switches to the present tense. We ARE experiencing the fruits of Christ's redemptive action through faith. Once we understand what really happened on that middle cross, God's love becomes ever more appreciated. Once we realize what Jesus has done for each of us, the words of John 3:16-18 make God's love so incredibly easy to understand: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Jesus tells us in His own words that it was because of God's infinite love that He came into the world to save it, and that anyone refusing to believe in this plan of redemption is condemned already (vs.18). How wonderful that we experience the eternal majesty of God's unrelenting desire to love us through grace. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8). Perhaps this is why some people become teary-eyed at only the mention of Jesus's name, so intensely realizing that they should have died on the middle cross for their sins, but that Jesus endured their penalty in order for them to experience the awesome love of God through the gift of His grace! One writer has reflected that John 3:16 is shallow enough for Babes in Christ to wade through without fear of drowning, yet it is deep enough for the theologian to dive towards the spiritual depths of the very mind and soul of God.
The Passover Lamb
The Bible is more than a record of the wanderings and misadventures of a nomadic people. These precious writings explain the love of God for all humanity which is revealed through the drama of one nation. God has told His story through direct narrative, and frequently with embedded symbols that reward diligent seekers with truths that are reserved only for the faithful. Uncovering these symbols and wresting their meanings gives us a more complete understanding of God's own nature. The real service of communion begins many generations before the events of Passion Week, because the principles of redemption are demonstrated for us in the first passover where God's symbol of grace to humanity is a lamb. “Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house,” (Exodus 12:3). Likewise, on the tenth day of the month, Judas, filled with envy, went to the chief priests and offered to betray Jesus for money. Unknowingly and unwittingly, he was assisting the fulfillment of parallel drama for with the exchange of silver coins, the nation of Israel had corporately selected their passover Lamb. “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year......And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month,” (Exodus 12:5-6). So profoundly serious was the event of passover that the lamb was to be inspected for four whole days, from the tenth day until the fourteenth. Likewise, following Judas' treachery, Israel's national Lamb triumphantly marched into the temple where He would also undergo an intense, four day inspection by priests, the national heads of household. These are known as the "days of questions", Should we pay taxes? Whose wife will she be? Who gave you authority? What are the real commandments? As men of Israel in ancient days looked for blemishes on their lambs, so also did the priests look for blemishes on their national Lamb. Having found none, their Lamb was suitable for the next stage of the passover drama. “And the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening,” (Exodus 12:6-7). After four days, Israel's national Lamb was slain on the very Day of Preparation, “in the evening.” One can only wander if Jesus was dying at the very moment that all the other lambs were being slain in individual households across the nation. Is it not remarkable that God has timed parallel events, to the very hour of the day?!
Brethren Communion & Love Feast
A four-part service of: The Meal, Feet Washing, Sacrament of Bread, Sacrament of the Cup
As the disciples gathered around a table to share a meal with Christ during their observance of passover, the Brethren also gather at tables to share a meal with Christ. It is a time of quiet fellowship, introspection, and worship. Not all local churches follow the same order of service, but each incorporate all four parts; the Meal, Feet Washing, and the Sacraments of Bread & Cup. This first stage of communion is usually a simple meal consisting of a single bowl filled with a soup-broth mixture which is most often beef, rice, and pieces of bread, although the ingredients do vary among different congregations. The communion service is usually held in the sanctuary with uniquely constructed shelves, fastened to the back of each pew in order to support all the elements of the communion service. “Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat...” (Matthew 26:20-21). This time of eating is an opportunity for reverent fellowship. Moderate conversation along spiritual themes is frequently encouraged. In older times, the preparation of the meal itself was an all day's job. Some churches used large butchering kettles over an open flame to boil the meat. As families gathered to help prepare, it became a time of bonding and renewal. Children played games while adults talked about meal preparation in bygone years or general church life.
During that first Biblical communion service in the Upper Room, the disciples began arguing about who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom. “And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest,” (Luke 22:24). It's human nature to vie for dominance and this jostling for priority resulting in a hierarchy has been labeled the “pecking order” among behavioral scientists. Jesus was displeased with this unspiritual exhibition of self-centeredness. And he said unto them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them...But ye shall not be so, but he that is greatest among you...as he that doth serve,” (Luke 22:25-26).
It is very possible that while the disciples were quarreling over hierarchy in the coming kingdom that Jesus chose to theatrically impress upon them how God perceives greatness. Quietly leaving the table, He girded Himself with a towel in the role of a servant and proceeded to wash their feet, a common task of slaves who refreshed sandal clad travelers upon entering a house. The disparity of role playing attained an immediate response from the very one who would have assumed the greater role in the kingdom, Peter. Although other denominations regard this event as a teaching rather than an ordinance, the Brethren continue to follow Christ's example because He clearly said, “ye should do as I have done to you,” (John 13:15). In a typical Brethren communion service, men and women sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary and sing favorite hymns, a capella, during the feet washing service. Men remove foot wear while seated in each pew, and women generally walk to another room of the church to remove shoes and hosiery. As instructed by an appointed deacon, each member then walks to the front of the church, sitting on the first pew and positioning, in turn, each foot in a basin of water. A waiting celebrant washes one foot at a time and dries each with a towel, girded at the waist with a string. Traditionally, each participant then embraces with a holy kiss and customarily greets the other with “God bless you (first name).” Roles are then exchanged so that the latter is girded with the same or fresh dry towel in order to wash the feet of the next person coming forward as the previous member returns to his/her seat. Feet washing continues to cycle in this fashion until each member has participated. This current method is called the ‘single mode’ as opposed to the former ‘double mode’ in which one person would continue to only wash feet while another person would only dry. It was not without worldly dismay and heated debate as the single mode gradually became more popular in one congregation after another.
Singing familiar hymns, a capella, during this service has a dynamic impact on formative hearts. Tears of joy frequently issue as persons of all socio-economic and occupational levels commune in a classless harmony of worship and praise. In melodious quietude, one often recalls past communion services and is additionally enriched by the import of their remembrance. Tragically, many of us also notice that departed loved ones are not present at the table. Although tears of remorse may flood our eyes, they are changed to tears of hope as we look forward to that great communion in God's coming kingdom, when we shall once again embrace each other in Christian love, but in a new multi-dimensional communion. A favorite minister repeatedly made the analogy during this part of the service of our need to “clear the pipes” before the contents may flow easily. He meant that before communication can freely flow vertically between us and God, we must first restore communication horizontally between our fellow members. In other words, before the sacraments of bread and cup which restore us vertically with God, we should wash each others feet and reaffirm our Christian love to our brothers and sisters. We need to remove any obstructions in our horizontal relationships before we may “clear the pipe” in our vertical relationship with God.
Sacrament of the Bread
Bread is a universal food product which is known in almost every country of the world. It is simple, yet very nourishing. How appropriate that Christ used it to represent Himself, for His message of repentance and restoration is universally simplistic and nourishing to hearts and minds suffering from spiritual emptiness. During the last supper with His disciples, Jesus took bread, and blessed it prior to breaking it. More than one pastor has seen a deeper truth in this action, for the bread may also symbolize each of us as Christians. Jesus takes our searching hearts from the routine of daily living and blesses them in consecration for service before He breaks us with trials and hardships that are intended to increase our commitment for service. As we are broken for service, we are strengthened as we realize that Christ becomes our power for service. Jesus did the very same thing when feeding the multitude. He blessed the bread, broke it, and then the miracle took place. Likewise, if we humble ourselves to the leading of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will also direct our contrite hearts along miraculous pathways of service. Our responsibility is to yield ourselves to God.
Brethren observe these considerations during the receiving of the first sacrament of communion. Historically, the Brethren and other Anabaptist groups reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation which holds that the bread actually becomes Christ's body. Although scripture records these very words “Take, eat; this is my body,” (Matthew 26:26), Anabaptists regard the bread only as a symbol, and hold that this belief does not diminish it's sacredness. Procedures and methods vary among local churches, but generally, deacon wives will meet in the church kitchen, days before the communion service in order to bake unleavened bread. Usually it is formed into long strips, one inch wide, and then cut at three or four inch intervals so that two people may simultaneously hold one piece and break it together. During the service of communion, the presiding minister typically asks each member to share one piece of bread with another member. Following a brief prayer of consecration, each person recites the words of Apostle Paul, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16), and further attempts to break the bread during the recitation when saying the very word “break.” One of this writers childhood memories of communion was actually following the evening service at dismissal when he would race through the back pews having clean, unused tables, yet containing fresh, sweet communion bread. After collecting several pieces, he would then run off to a private classroom to enjoy his treasure. Now as a middle-age adult, he observes small boys and girls doing the very same thing, and with difficulty, resists a “tear of remembrance.”
Sacrament of the Cup
As grain offers bread, likewise the fruit of the vine yields a multitude of products to consumers world-wide, some of which are intoxicating. Although more liturgical denominations may use wine as the communion sacrament, the Brethren insistence on temperance generally excludes it. Vineyard oriented words occur at least 520 times in the Old and New Testaments, bringing joy at a marriage in Cana, healing wounds on the road to Jericho, an element of passover, and the shamefulness of Noah. Additionally, it's storage in animal skins offered a parable of Christ's kingdom in Matthew 9:17, and on the pathway from the Upper Room to Gethsemane, it's trunk served to illustrate a believers dependence on Christ as the vine from which all the branches receive their life sustaining nourishment. Brethren furnish each table with enough small glasses of grape juice to accommodate the number of adults that may comfortably sit in one row. The presiding minister instructs that the previously filled glasses be carefully passed from their repository to all celebrants in each row. Following brief remarks and a prayer of consecration, each member repeats the words of Apostle Paul, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). While drinking the Blessing, members are encouraged to consider that it symbolically represents the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and to additionally reflect on the price of His sacrificial death that has reconciled us to God. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come,” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Closely observing that final night in the Upper Room, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives,” (Matthew 26:30), a final hymn precedes dismissal.
“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come.”
1 Corinthians 11:26