In worship this past Sunday, we looked at the story of the first Deacons (Acts 6:1-7). In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word “deacon” (diakonia) means “to serve.” While the Apostles tended to the “spiritual food” (the Word of God), making sure the study of the Word was not neglected, the Deacons were tasked with making sure that all were fed with physical (literal) food; that none were neglected nor excluded. Where we see the distinctive role of Deacon best in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) today is during communion. Elders occupy the role of Apostle, speaking words about the spiritual significance of the bread we eat. And Deacons make sure that all are fed. They distribute the literal bread among the people.
At our traditional services at Central, deacons serve trays of bread and grape juice to people among the pews. They then serve one another along the pew, except on Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday when, like at our weekly 9:00 contemporary service, we serve by “intinction.” This is a Latin word that means “to dip into.” At these times, members come forward and dip bread into a cup of juice before partaking of it. But there really isn’t a “right” way to do it.
Our ancestors, Presbyterians in Scotland, served communion 4 times a year. That tradition carried over to Colonial America where the August communion celebration (after the planting and before the harvest) grew to be huge, outdoor, festive affairs. Multiple congregations came together and sat at long tables, where the bread and cup would be passed down the long rows.
When the Disciples of Christ split from the Presbyterians, we carried some of those practices with us. One of our founders, Alexander Campbell, in his book The Christian System published in 1835, noted that some congregations invited congregants to the front of the church in groups, where they sat at an actual table and passed the bread and cup, as if to replicate those August outdoor services.
Campbell, who was our most influential founder, came to believe that the best way to serve communion was to pass the elements to one another in the pews. Each congregant, in serving his/her neighbor the bread and cup, conveyed to them, “You are a Disciple of Christ (my brother/sister). As Christ embraces you in his arms, so I do in mine.”
For many Disciples, coming forward for communion looked “too Catholic” and therefore was resisted. But in recent decades, there has been a trend toward the orthodox and Disciples are becoming less biased toward practices that were once conceived as “too Catholic.” Serving communion by intinction is quite pragmatic from a planning standpoint (it requires less overhead to implement) and pragmatism is, not coincidentally, a cornerstone Disciples value. Moreover, there is something powerfully intimate and personal about receiving communion, one-on-one, or dispensing it and hearing (or reciting) the words “This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is blood of Christ, shed for your salvation.” However we distribute the elements in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it is far more important that we do it than how.
Blessings – Michael