The Church’s Thanksgiving Meal
Today, on Thanksgiving, or during this Thanksgiving season, various churches will celebrate a thanksgiving feast, sometimes even inviting non-members who are poor or needy to join them. Such a mixture of diverse people sharing a bountiful meal together is meant to reflect the (supposed) original Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims and Indians in New England joined together to celebrate their harvest blessings. Even if there was such a feast, it was an exception to the rule: Pilgrims were more inclined to take over the land of the Indians than to share the harvests of the land with them.
As an annual holiday, the Thanksgiving feast of sharing a meal with extended family or even with the poor in a church is likewise more of an exception to the rule: our nuclear families and local churches are more inclined to feast among ourselves, with little thought of sharing with others. Some churches do have church pantries where they give limited amounts of certain kinds of food to the poor once a week or once a month. Yet, rather than a shared meal together, the dynamics are more about church volunteers being the givers to people they don’t really know, who are expected to be thankful to their givers (and perhaps come to their church, to fill up empty pews–pews where people don’t really interact together).
In 1 Cor. 11:17-34 Paul gives an extended description of how the church was–or should be–eating the Lord’s supper. Some churches now refer to this supper as the eucharist. The Greek verb eucharisteo is about giving thanks. The original model Paul depicts is Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and telling his disciples, “This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me” (11:23-24). That original setting was Jesus and his disciples eating bread and drinking from the cup as part of a supper or meal. Likewise, in 11:20-22, the church was eating a meal; but those who brought most of the food went ahead and ate before those who had little food arrived. As a result, the “early birds” became drunk with the wine of the cup, while the late comers remained hungry. Paul concludes that this is not eating the Lord’s supper; this is just the usual neglect of, and even contempt for, those who have less by those who have more.
The sharing of food as part of the Lord’s supper eventually led to the giving of a small morsel of bread (or a “wafer”) to each church member by a member of their clergy. This ritual could give thanks for the gift of Jesus and his body given in death for their sins; but it still was not really the Lord’s supper. For it was done along with the usual neglect of, and even contempt for, those who have less by those who have more. Supposedly their sins of arrogance and malice would be forgiven through this ritual. But Paul said those who ate the bread and drank the cup without discerning the body (the body that includes those who have less food) would eat and drink judgment upon themselves (11:29).