In this article on the Lord's Supper and deaconry, the author also discusses love meals and generosity to the poor.

Source: Clarion, 2000. 2 pages.

The Lord’s Supper and Deaconry

The Question🔗

On our Lord’s Supper table there are always a few collection bowls in which those who attend the Lord’s Supper put their donations. Originally these gifts were designated for the ministry of mercy (deaconry), but at the moment they are for the building fund of the Theological University. In our council meeting the question was raised whether it would not be better to do away with these collection bowls and have a normal collection during the service so that everyone who attends can contribute.

This “problem” was handed over to the deacons because they had agreed to give up the proceeds which in the past went to the deaconry.

These collection bowls may have an historical, maybe even a symbolic origin of about twenty centuries. That is why we come with this question: does it still make sense to keep up this tradition today? Or is it better to give up this practice since not everyone who attends church also attends the Lord’s Supper?

The Love Meals and the Lord’s Supper🔗

When we trace the long history of this custom we soon discover the rich meaning of this thanksgiving offering at the table of our Lord. From the New Testament, we know that caring for the needy brothers and sisters and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper were closely related. Maybe even so close that both activities took place at the same table. The reader only needs to turn to Acts 2:42 and Acts 2:46 and read them together in order to get an idea of how this matter was dealt with in the life of the congregation just after Pentecost.

We don’t know the details and the exact order in which they did things in the worship services of this first Pentecost congregation. But we do know of the so-called love meals or love feasts of that early time. We read about them in Jude 12 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-33. The richer members of the congregation brought along so much food and drink that also the poor brothers and sisters had enough to eat.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul warns the congregation that their love meals tend to develop into something which was the opposite of what they were supposed to be. The intention of this meal was that it reflect the fellowship and communion described in Acts 2:42. But in Corinth they were in danger of letting it degenerate into something totally different. It is this table of love and the Lord’s Supper which is also meant in Acts 6:1.

In time this custom developed in such a way that the believers brought all kinds of food to their church buildings. We get the impression of a very colourful scene when we read that in those first centuries bread and wine, oil and cheese, olives and other fruit, plus all kind of birds were brought to the church. The deacons were always the ones who were active in collecting and distributing these donations of food. During the Middle-Ages this colourful scene changed when instead of all these various donations, money was taken along to church.

We also know that a small portion of these various donations was taken to be used as food and drink for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. All the rest, and that was quite a bit, was designated for the clergy and the poor. These poor brothers and sisters lived off the donations that had been reserved for them at the Lord’s Supper table.

Thanksgiving and Generosity to the Poor🔗

There is something beautiful and meaningful in this practice. In the Christian church the poor will not go hungry but they may live from what they receive in a direct manner from the hands of Christ. The love of the Lord Jesus Christ which made possible the Lord’s Supper table in this world also incites much love and fellowship in the hearts of the believers so that the poorer brothers and sisters may expect their sustenance from that love and that table.

Although we know that already quite soon these donations became part of the “good works” and the “sacrifice” that at the Lord’s table was offered to God (the beginning of the so called offertorium in the framework of the Eucharist), all this may not keep us from continuing to appreciate the Scriptural idea behind it. Despite that historically these donations later degenerated to “sacrificial gifts of atonement” offered by men to God, originally they were gifts of praise and thanksgiving for forgiveness received.

This custom of the New Testament church is also completely in line with the Old Testament stipulation that an Israelite not appear before the Lord empty-handed when he went to celebrate the feasts of salvation. Precisely when he remembered God’s deliverance from Egypt, the house of bondage (Passover), and God’s taking care of his people in the desert (Feast of Booths), he had also to remember those who were so vulnerable among God’s people: the widow, the orphan and the Levite (e.g. Deuteronomy 14:28, 29; 16:11,14). It was a good Jewish custom to remember the poor especially on the Passover evening. If we keep that in mind, we understand better a passage such as John 13:29.

The joy in God’s salvation is the framework for caring for each other in the congregation (see Acts 2:46). It is there where the deep roots of the work of the deacons are.

A Meaningful Tradition🔗

When we keep in mind what we have learned so far, then it is clear in which direction we must go to answer the question. The presence of collection bowls at the Lord’s Table is not just an age-old tradition. It is also a meaningful tradition which provides a direct link to the church of the New and Old Testament. Those collection bowls remind the brothers and sisters who approach the Lord’s Supper that the celebration of God’s salvation also means caring for those members whose joy is dimmed by worries for their daily needs. The powerful symbolism of the Lord’s Supper is in an essential way enriched by these thank offerings.

Another aspect is that also the deacons are reminded that the roots of their office become visible at the Lord’s table. Their work and visits in the congregation find their origin at this table. They distribute that which the believers have brought to the Lord’s table out of love for his salvation. But, it is of course essential that we always designate these offerings as being for the work of the deacons! In the congregation where this question was raised things went wrong when the deacons allowed these gifts to be designated for something else. No wonder that then the question comes up whether it is not better to replace this custom of Lord’s Supper bowls with an “ordinary” collection!

We would regret it very much if we would go in that direction. It would be to the detriment both of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as well as the appreciation of the office of deacon. There is already among us a lack of recognition and an underestimating of the symbolic-power of the Lord’s Supper. We should go into another direction. We have to learn again as congregation and deacons that the Lord’s Supper donation is the offering for the deaconry, and the other so called “ordinary” collections of every Sunday are an extension of that Lord’s Supper offering.

The argument that not everyone can bring his offering to the Lord’s Table is really no argument and no way to discuss this beautiful custom. Any baptized member who has a donation which he or she wants to offer will also able to find a way to hand in these gifts.

If we lose the right perspective in this matter then indeed the collection at the Lord’s Supper table turns into a “vulgar” way of “making money” in the church. Then it would indeed be better to quickly remove these collection bowls from the table. But if that would happen we would be going in the wrong direction both with respect to the liturgy as well as in appreciating the office of deacon.

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