13 June 2011

Breaking Bread or Sharing Sandwiches?

I resisted the urge, weak as it was, to go along to my friends' Evangelical church yesterday; I'm busy, after all, and I really think that no matter how ecumenical I may be feeling, I just don't have the time to be attending another service after Mass on Sundays at the minute.

It was for the best, I think, as having listened to the sermon online, I'd have gotten very exasperated. The first half of it was excellent, all about the idea of the Spirit as a purifying fire, existing both in a corporate and an individual way in the Church. Unfortunately, things fell apart in the second part of the sermon, commenting on Acts 2:42-47... 
'Secondly, 'devoted to the fellowship'... koinonia. 'Fellowship' is a weak word. It really means a 'partnership', a 'bonding together'. And in Acts 2 it has the effect in a practical way of our homes, our familes, and our money. It's very concrete. It spreads its umbrella down to 47. Verse 47. These are the things that it means to be devoted to the fellowship. You see they're together daily, and when they break bread it doesn't mean Communion; it means that they ate together in their homes. [...] They devoted themselves to one another and they met together.'
At which point the minister began recommending that the congregation should eat with each other, or even just meet up for coffee. Well, if you've read my post from the other day you'll see why I'm frustrated with this analysis of the passage. It's not just that it's banal; it's that it's wrong, and it seems to be wrong because the NIV translation is inaccurate.

Here's the NIV again, to remind you:
'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.'
Now, the first thing is that yes, it's true that 'fellowship' is perhaps a weak word to render koinonia with, but 'partnership' seems even more so; curiously, if one wanted a technical term to translate koinonia, there'd be a very serious case for using 'communion'; I doubt this would have confused anybody, as in an Anglican context the term is often used to describe all Anglican churches in union together.

I'll get back to that later, but for now I want to focus on the perplexing question of why on earth the minister claimed that when the first Christians broke bread they weren't participating in Communion, by which he meant the Eucharist. The passage twice refers to the breaking of bread, the first time saying that the early Christians devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread, and the second that they broke bread every single day. Based on how the NIV renders this passage, one might well be tempted to assume that when it says 'they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,' it's simply describing the same activity in two ways, but again, the Greek doesn't say that. Rather, it clearly distinguishes between them.

Let's take a look at the Greek again, remembering what we know about 'te... kai...' constructions, which is that they're used to indicate a series of distinct points which are connected together. All told, then, this passage tells us that the daily activity of the early Church entailed four discrete things:
  • kat hēmeran te proskarteroūntes homothumadon en tōi hierōi,
  • klōntes te kat' oikon arton,
  • metelambanon trophēs en agalliasei kai aphelotēti kardias,
  • ainountes to Theon kai ekhontes kharin pros holon ton laon.
So, there are four separate elements here, each one clearly marked by its own 'te' or 'kai', and all four collectively governed by that opening 'kat hēmeran' which means 'every day'. Daily Christian activity for the Jerusalem Church consisted of:
  • Continuing in their devotion at the Temple.
  • Breaking bread in their homes.
  • Partaking of food with glad and sincere hearts.
  • Praising God and having goodwill towards the whole people.
Curiously, if you go back to the start of this section, you'll see that Acts 2:42 clearly states that these first Christians continued in their devotion -- yes, it's exactly the same verb later used for their continued Temple activity -- to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. I'm inclined to believe that this sentence refers to the same four points later detailed, in that the the breaking of bread and the prayers are clearly present in both sentences, the apostles evidently taught in the Temple, and fellowship certainly entailed eating together.

It's worth noting that there are a few definite articles in Acts 2:42, which shouldn't be ditched in the way the NIV ditches them: it doesn't just say 'to the breaking of bread and to prayer'; it specifically says 'to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers'. This matters, because such formal language points to formal activity; it's describing liturgy, not lunch.

That's not to say that the Jerusalem Christians didn't eat together too, in association with their Eucharistic celebration. They evidently did just this, and it'd be surprising if they did otherwise, given that the passage and Acts 4:32 onwards make clear that they did everything in common. 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 shows that twenty years later the Christians of Corinth continued to associate a common meal -- albeit one where social divisions were problematic -- with their Eucharistic feast. However, the fact that Acts and 1 Corinthians reveal that the early Christians broke bread together and ate meals together should never cause us to assume that 'breaking of bread' in early Christianity was just another way of saying 'having dinner'.

Look at Luke 24:35, which records how the two disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus told the Apostles that Jesus 'was known to them in the breaking of the bread', the exact same words being used as at Acts 2:42. Look at 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, where Paul asked his Corinthian brethren,'the bread which we break -- is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.'

For what it's worth, the word we usually translate as 'participation' there is koinonia again, so we could well render it as 'fellowship' or even 'communion'. I'm inclined to go for the latter, myself. Anyway, it seems that however we slice this -- and I think with we'd need to look carefully at John 6:32-66 and the various Last Supper narratives even to begin to understand it -- the breaking of bread is absolutely essential to koinonia, and it's not simply a matter of meeting up for coffee or inviting people around for tea.

No, for Paul the breaking of bread was by definition a ritual activity, and we have no reason whatsoever to think that it was otherwise for the Jerusalem Church and the author of Acts.


Jeannette said...

"the bread" yes....communion. This post does further explain your concerns in the previous post about the NIV translation of the Acts 2 passage. I shared it with someone who wasn't convinced it was a significant difference, but this example of preaching based on it shows how when we are just a little off the mark in stance when we send out trajectories from that position will are likely to miss the distant mark as well and mislead others.

*So will it be sourdough or rye for you this morn?*

laBiscuitnapper said...

Brilliant. I am going to keep this in a very safe place for the next time I have to defend (minimum) weekly Holy Communion.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Heh. Thank you. I hope you find it useful.

Do you have to do that often?

laBiscuitnapper said...

Too often. Not to be a typical snooty Anglo-Catholic, but there's a tendency to let the more evangelical anglican churches off the hook on these matters. A tad unfair considering the bashing the liberals get (not that I'm particularly in that camp either).

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I suspect you're right. In general I held my tongue, as I was coming along to listen and learn, not to be a snooty Catholic, but this pretty much caused me to throw my hands up in despair.

Leaving aside theology, it seemed to contradict all I'd been told about their care in preaching.

I'm pretty sure, given that we're in more or less the same neck of the woods, that you could make an educated stab at which church this was in, but I'll be nice and decline to say.