At the church I pastor, we have four servers who distribute the communion elements to the congregation, and I distribute the elements to those in the foyer and nursery. The servers and I do not partake of the bread and wine until the congregation is served first. As this has developed, the servers eat while standing in the back of the sanctuary or as we walk back up to the table. Everyone else is seated – the proper posture for the Lord’s Supper– while we eat on the run. It looks sloppy and irreverent, not fitting for the occasion that the Supper is. Though there were time constraints laid upon me by a previous Session that led to this custom, I’m convinced there is a more biblical and glorious way of performing it.
We will soon be implementing changes to our distribution practice. When I speak the words of institution, the servers will already be sitting in chairs on either side of the table. As I take the bread, I will break a piece and commune first. I will then serve the servers and they will partake. Once they have finished eating, they will stand and distribute the sacrament to the people, who will eat as the bread passes. The same will be repeated for the wine.
Why is this a better way? And is it a better way than waiting to eat and drink until the congregation is served, so that the minister and servers serve one another, participating last of all? That’s a fairly prevalent custom in Reformed churches. Why should the minister partake of the elements first?
The answer is found in Jesus’ own example in the Gospel accounts. We’re told that he “took bread, blessed and broke it.” (Mark 14:22). What does it mean to say He “broke the bread”? The answer is found in Acts 27, where the breaking of bread means to “eat” it. When Paul directed his shipmates to eat during the storm it says that he “took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat” (Acts 27:35). It was only after Paul’s eating that the others imitated him. The word for “broke” is klao and it is used in every instance of breaking bread in the Gospels, Acts, and 1st Corinthians. This gives us good reason to assume that Jesus ate the bread before passing it on.
The pattern for drinking the wine is more conclusive. Consider Mark 10:35-39. If the disciples are to drink the same cup as Jesus, it is clear that he drinks from it first. And what is this cup? Jesus says it is his blood of the covenant, which is shed for many (Mk. 14:24). Granted, when Jesus instituted the Supper he had not gone to the cross yet, and the text does not specifically tell us that he drank first. Symbolically speaking, however, we may affirm that Jesus drinks “the cup” before the disciples do. He does go to his death first.
Furthermore, it fits with the biblical pattern that the head goes first and the body follows. The head of an animal precedes its body and goes first into the altar fire in the ascension offering of Leviticus 1. Moses spends forty years in the wilderness and then leads Israel there. Likewise, we are the body of Christ and he is our head. We do what he did. This is also the obvious pattern in the book of Acts, where the disciples go through death and resurrection, as his body, just as He did in the gospels as head. He goes first to death and resurrection and we follow.
Thus, in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, the minister partakes first as Jesus’ representative. He sets an example for the people just as Paul said as an apostle, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” The minister dramatizes the role of Christ when he takes the bread and says, “This is my body, which is given for you; do this as my memorial.” This was the understanding of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and Wesley, as their liturgies continued the practice of the minister communing first (see Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, Fortress Press, 1961).
The minister serves the congregation in this way, even as the cupbearer served the king. This reminds us of how dangerous the Supper is. Paul says God strikes people dead at the table (1 Cor. 11:30). Eating this bread unites us to the body of the church with all her sufferings and problems. Drinking the wine is volunteering for martyrdom. Drinking the cup first symbolizes that the minister is willing to die for his congregation, for the body of Christ. Surely the minister must not ask the congregation to consume the sacrament if he has not done so himself.
None of this is to say that the minister is holier or more important than the laity. Rather, he is serving the congregation by leading the way in battle. It is right to seek the joy and camaraderie in the Supper, but it must be the joy and camaraderie of battle. It is participation in Christ’s death. The minister does not bring up the rear but marches forward as a servant of all.
Jesus eats – and dies – first. Ministers should do likewise.
Burke Shade is Pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church, Carbondale, Illinois.