The Lord's Table can be a confusing place to be. It may seem an unhappy accident that the Lord would give us so little instruction about important things. But it is better to see this lack of info as being a deliberate act of providence. In his wisdom he has left it to his church to develop our theology of the table, hopefully in faithful dependence upon him and his word. It should not surprise us that there are many differences (small and great) from table to table. Most differences (if not all) come out of the good intentions of the people participating in it to do right by Christ and his church. And often times appreciating these differences can serve to benefit our collective understanding and participation in the ritual. This post aims only at a narrow part of all that is involved with the table of the Lord - how we conceive of table fellowship. But hopefully it will be helpful in describing our good intentions at Redeemer to do right by Christ and his church in faithful accord with scripture, and also perhaps shed light on a few shortcomings we hope to navigate around.
The original supper was done at a normal table, around which were Jesus and his apostles. We can assume that the actual meal that preceded the ritual meal was like any other meal. An aspect that sets it apart is the context of political revolution. For Jesus, it was his last before his humiliation and death which was simultaneously the end of the old covenant creation, via the ultimate betrayal by regicide of the righteous king, and the bringing about of the new creation. For the disciples it was less understood, but still very much the meal before climactic political action. But if this actual meal is different than another meal between such a leader and his followers it is mostly only different in the dramatic amplitude. Here is Jesus and his friends and followers sharing a meal, getting nourishment and rest before a new day of mission. This is the context (in part) of that meal.
The ritual meal that Jesus follows it up with is related to it. Jesus breaks bread, and shares his cup, inviting his followers to participate in a memorial meal that marks the work of atonement and victory Christ did (was about to do) on the cross, and the inauguration of the new covenant, a covenant with a victorious man bringing about peace and full fellowship between humanity and the Triune God.
In the diagram below I have included three ways in which we tend to conceive of the table fellowship we have in the memorial meal. The first one shows "we" as a collection of individuals engaged in one-to-one fellowship over the table with Christ. While it is certainly true that we as individuals have a one-to-one fellowship with our Lord I think the diagram shows that this way of conceiving of the table does not go far enough. The table shown looks more like a trysting place, a performance evaluation, or even an altar where we either sacrifice ourselves or re-sacrifice the Lord.
The second picture shows "we" as a collective engaging in a collective-to-one relationship at the table with Christ. While this seems to deal with the potential pietist/individualist problems of the first picture it ends up also taking what is good about the first one out of the picture. It is true that we, the church, collectively relate to Christ and do so at the table, but this particular way of conceiving of the meal falls short. A collective requires a representative mediator, like the high priest of the OT or the popes of Rome. This way of conceiving of the table creates needless distance. The truth is we have that mediator in Christ, so the picture is flawed by having Christ apart from the collective. And we still have the problem of the approach to the table looking like the tryst/interview/altar approach from the other picture.
The 3rd picture, while imperfect, attempts to correct and collate the other two. In it we see that "we" as individuals in a collective are united to our covenant head, Christ, and in fellowship with him... "in him". But just as significant we see that we commune with the saints while we commune with Christ. Because of the success of Christ as man, and because of our union with him, humanity is brought in peace into the presence of the triune God as a people, where we participate in the ritual, as his people. And how we relate to each other at the table is deeply important. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul takes great pains to emphasize this importance to the Corinthian church. If Paul was referencing the diagram he'd rephrase things this way, "If you are not being Christ to each other during the meal in the relational arrows between yourselves then the arrows between you and Christ are not happening. What you are doing is non-sensical. In fact, you are in danger of inviting serious judgement upon yourselves (individually and collectively) by the manner in which you commune with one another."
The third picture also has the advantage of looking like a meal. Here is a place where Christ gathers his people together in peace to relax together, to be nourished together, to look forward to the new day of mission together. The table is not a barrier between Christ and his people, or a barrier between persons. We have been buried and raised up in Christ, above the barrier of sin and death. Christ and his table are beyond barriers.
What does that mean for us? For those of us who were raised in the tradition that relates more to the first picture, it is not a bad thing to want some time with the host of the party. But the host himself does not ignore the other guests, so if we are to be meal takers in his image we ought not fall into rudeness and ignore our brothers and sisters in Christ. For those of us who are more in the second picture camp we ought to feel the freedom of approaching our host ourselves, as well as our brothers and sisters, instead of watching from a disengaged distance. And for those of us who feel comfortable in the third picture, we ought to remember that 1 Corinthians 11, while emphasizing relating to others at the table, warns against the temptations that arise around a table. The peace and freedom we have in Christ does not give us license to ignore our host and choose the brothers and sisters we fellowship with. It is the Lord's table, after all. And it is he and his character that we are participating in.