Recently I was asked about the practice of coming to a physical table during the celebration of the Lord's Supper. This practice is one that is very ancient and I would argue ought to be maintained or revived in our churches.
Nobody disputes that when the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus Christ that it was at a meal wherein disciples reclined at table. The sacramental symbolism of bread and wine were accompanied with fellowship– communion with one another--around a physical table.
The Reformed Presbyterian Directory of Worship (1945) said, “The use of tables, which has come down from the past, has helped to guard the purity of the ordinance and should not lightly be set aside.” The common reading of the Directory would have us believe that there needs to be a reason not to use a table in our sacramental practice. The current Directory (2009) says, "Those who are to commune may be invited to move forward or to be seated at tables." Clearly the Table is a part of our sacramental feasting, whether seated literally around it or moving forward toward it. The table, I would argue, is to be the standard practice of the reformed and presbyterian churches, not the exception as our confessional standards presume its use. The table was the way of the main-line Presbyterian, Covenanter and Seceeder Churches for many generations. This is true in continental Reformed traditions as well.
What are some reasons to revive or maintain the practice in our churches?
The Example of Christ & the Apostles
Matthew 26:20 and Luke 22:14 record the disciples sitting at the table at the Passover meal. This is the context in which the Lord's Supper was instituted. Luke 22:28-30 gives the Christian the hope that when we are all finally with Christ in paradise, we will indeed sit at a table as we begin eternity together as a completed Church of Christ.
In I Corinthians 10:21 Paul talks about the table-practice at the Lord's Supper as well. A few verses back in I Cor. 10:16 Paul speaks of the communal aspect of the table. The idea set forth is that as the bread is broken and the cup is poured, we are communing together with Christ. The table aids the Church in the communal fellowship aspect of the sacrament.
The Historical Testimony
In the writings of the Church Fathers, the use of the table is widely mentioned. Ignatius of Antioch in 105, Tertullian in 200, Dionysius in 244, and Chrysostom in 398 all mention the table of the Supper. In 370, Gregory Nyssen mentions the table as being 'consecrated to the service of God.'
In the middle ages, the practice of a table was set aside and replaced with the altar, which was closely connected with the superstition that grew around the sacrament in that time.
The Reformation of the 16th century revived the practice and found it to be an example set forth in Scripture as well as a way to give back the communal aspect to the sacrament. John Knox wrote in 1553, 'Christ's action was most perfect', and that 'it was most sure (safe) to follow his example.'
The Church of Scotland in 1645 commended the practice by finding it, "to be most agreeable to the Word of God, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the nature of that heavenly feast."
The practice of communing at a table remained in all branches of Presbyterianism until the 1820s when a minority began to administer the sacrament in the pews. The practice of the table remained in the RPCNA for much longer than this, only being able to be replaced in the early-mid 20th century when individual cups came into practice. 'It should not be set aside lightly.'
The Practical Reasons
There are good practical reasons for coming to a table during the Lord's Supper. Let's look at some of those briefly:
*The table aids a Session of elders in guarding the Sacrament against those who would participate in an unworthy manner. This is one of Session's duties during the administration of the Sacrament.
*The table is better suited for promoting the 'family feel' of the sacrament. We are a spiritual family who are communing together.
*The table helps the communicant to focus on the spiritual meaning of the bread and cup. It is a very special aspect of Christian worship, a commemorative meal wherein the church is lifted up to the presence of Christ.
*The table adds an element of intimacy in which greater fellowship and worship can be fostered.
*It helps us to be able to look into one-another's eyes, and see one-another's facial expressions. Communion is a congregational event as much as a personal communing with Jesus Christ. It is not "me and Jesus" it is "we and Jesus."
*It aids in worshipful response of the communicant as he or she looks back on Christ's death and looks forward to eating and drinking with Him in His Kingdom.
* It connects a congregation with the historic Christian practice of communing at table, which causes us to have a more eternal perspective on Christ's people.
The table is biblical, confessional, historical, and practical. This historical practice ought to be revived or maintained in our churches.