Devoted to the Breaking of Bread
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42 NRSV).
This is the third article in a series on Acts 2:41-47. The first article can be found here, and the second article can be found here.
Acts 2:41-47 offers an elegantly simple portrayal of the first Christian church. After Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that the new believers were baptized and included into the fellowship of the apostles and the other disciples of Jesus. Along with Acts 4:32-37, this passage gives a brief glimpse into the daily life of the Jerusalem mother church. There are signs and wonders, gatherings in homes, and a general spirit of radical generosity, amongst other characteristics. In Acts 2:42, Luke identifies four practices the early believers devoted themselves to, one being the regular breaking of bread.
While the book of Acts certainly suggests that the first believers shared common everyday meals together (Acts 2:46), the expression “breaking of bread” most likely suggests the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Whenever Christians gather to break bread around the table in a home, it is going to evoke memories of the Lord’s Supper. In Luke 22:19, Jesus breaks bread and gives it to the disciples who are seated around the table. Anticipating that his disciples will continue to gather in his name after his death and resurrection, Jesus adds the instructions, “Do this in remembrance of me (Lk 22:19).” Later in Luke’s Gospel, the risen Jesus breaks bread in a home with two disciples, revealing his identity through this ritual act (Lk 24:30-31). When the believers assemble in the book of Acts, they honor Christ’s words by breaking bread together as a remembrance of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Even though Luke seems to differentiate between common meals and the Lord’s Supper in Acts 2:46, the line between the two is often blurred in the biblical text. Paul’s corrections to the Corinthians illustrate this point well. Paul criticizes them for several things in relation to the Lord’s Supper–division, gluttony, and drunkenness. The believers who are able to arrive early, presumably the wealthier members of the congregation, are gorging themselves on the food and drink. By reducing the meal to a drunken feast, Paul says that when they come together “it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper” (I Cor 11:20). Later in the passage Paul tells them to eat at home if they are hungry so that they do not make a mockery of the Lord’s Supper and bring judgment on themselves (I Cor 11:34). Paul’s comments suggest that the bread was broken in the context of an everyday meal. Through unity, awe, and reverence, the meal was transformed into a sacrament. However, the meal could also be reduced to common food through disunity and selfishness.
The letter of Jude makes a passing reference to this early practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal in the home. In the middle of a section where Jude proclaims judgment on false teachers, he says that such false teachers are “blemishes on your love-feasts (Jude 12).” The critique is that these people “feast with you without fear,” and that they are “feeding themselves.” As in Corinth, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is compromised by a lack of reverence and selfishness. Once again, Christians are breaking bread in the context of an everyday meal in the home, but the meal is transformed into something deeper by the spirit of unity and the presence of Christ in their midst.
A Serious Meal
Apart from Christ’s words of institution in the Gospels, 1 Corinthians 10-11 offers the most information about how the early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper, although much of the information is somewhat tangential. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul describes the meal as a “sharing” in both the body and blood of Christ. In the next verse, Paul explains that all the believers share in one bread as a sign of the unity of the church (1 Cor 10:17). This is why division poses such a threat to the true celebration of the Lord’s Supper; it cuts to the very heart of the sacrament.
After passing along the words of institution that Paul received from the Lord (1 Cor 11:23-26), Paul elaborates on the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper. Those who eat and drink “in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27).” Paul then exhorts the Corinthians to examine and judge themselves correctly so that they do not share in the meal in an unworthy manner. While the meal should provide believers with a kind of spiritual nourishment, some of those who have received wrongly have become weak and ill or have even died (1 Cor 11:28-32). When the believers examine themselves, presumably they should be looking for signs of disunity, selfishness, spiritual pride, and a lack of love. These are the behaviors that poison the goodness of the meal. Paul ends the section on the Lord’s Supper by telling the believers to “wait for one another” before receiving the meal, along with making a final remark about giving more instructions when he comes to them (1 Cor 11:33-34).
Putting aside theological debates about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, and symbolism, it is clear that the Lord’s Supper is a serious meal in the biblical text. When treated with reverence, it becomes a sacrament and source of healing and life. When the meal becomes plagued by disunity and a lack of love, it is reduced to nothing more than a mere dinner and potentially becomes a source of sickness and death.
While each church or denomination must make its own liturgical and pastoral decisions about how to celebrate the meal and the frequency of such observances, the biblical text offers several factors that should be taken into consideration. Acts 2 says that the early believers were “devoted” to breaking bread and that this practice was happening “day by day” (Acts 2:42, 46). At minimum, churches should think about celebrating the meal on a regular basis, if not every week. While the practice of celebrating the meal only a few times a year certainly highlights the sacred nature of the meal, it fails to recognize that the regular celebration of the meal cements the bonds of fellowship and offers spiritual nourishment for the daily life of faith. Furthermore, the scriptures reveal that the original liturgical context for the Lord’s Supper is the table in the home. While the history of Christian worship suggests that the meal can be received in the context of a religious service, the scriptures remind us that the Lord’s Supper was not so sharply divided from everyday meals in the context of the New Testament. Rather, the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper elevated common meals in the home to the level of a sacrament and bound believers together in the presence of the Lord.