A few weeks ago while preparing a talk for City Bible Forum, I read an essay by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne, entitled “Evidence for the Resurrection.” Swinburne, who retired in 2002, is a major Christian apologist of the late twentieth-century, with substantial contributions in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. He attached an appendix to his essay simply entitled “Sunday.”
Swinburne notes that since the earliest days of the church there has been a universal Christian custom of celebrating the Eucharist on a Sunday. This practice, in turn, is grounded on the belief—deriving from the apostles themselves—that Christ had risen on a particular day (Swinburne, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” in Davis, Kendall & O’Collins (eds.), The Resurrection (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 208). Swinburne provides evidence for this claim from the New Testament, but also from the Didachē, from Justin’s First Apology, and significantly, from Eusebius’ record of two Ebionite groups who celebrated “the Lord’s day very much like us in commemoration of his resurrection” (209). That the Ebionites, a group deeply committed to Jewish discipline, practised Sunday worship in place of the Sabbath, is particularly noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fact that there is no record in the early centuries of the church of the Eucharist being practised on any other day but Sunday.
There is no plausible origin of the sacredness of Sunday from outside Christianity. There is only one simple explanation: the Eucharist was celebrated on a Sunday from the first years of Christianity because Christians believed that the central Christian event of the resurrection occurred on a Sunday (209).
This, however, is only half the story; who, asks Swinburne, in those very early days decided that the Eucharist was to be celebrated on a Sunday? There is no hint in the New Testament that the apostles made this decision. Yet there are suggestions towards an answer to this ‘who decided’ question. First, Swinburne notes that the New Testament records a number of appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples on the first day of the week, including the day of the resurrection itself, and further, that a number of these appearances occurred in the context of a meal. Second, he notes that the descriptions of these appearances include the Eucharistic phrases Paul and Luke used in their last supper accounts (e.g. ‘breaking bread,’ ‘taking,’ giving’ and ‘in like manner’), and so suggests that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances included the Eucharist. Third, the synoptic tradition records the word of Jesus to the effect that he will not “drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when [he] drinks it anew” in the kingdom of God (cf. Mark 14:25). Yet Swinburne notes that in Acts 10:41 Peter testifies that the risen Jesus appeared to his witnesses, and that he used to eat and drink with them after his resurrection.
All this suggests an explanation of the universality of the tradition of Sunday celebration—not merely in the belief that Jesus rose on a Sunday, but in the belief of the apostles that they had joined with Jesus in post-resurrection Eucharists which he commanded them to continue on Sundays (211).
Swinburne acknowledges that his argument faces the silence of an explicit New Testament record of such a Eucharistic meal, but does not find this absence especially troubling. He also suggests that Paul’s “for I passed onto you what I received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), can be understood in terms of what came from the mouth of the Lord himself, via an oral tradition.
Whether or not Swinburne is correct in his suggestion—and certainly there are alternative views—some account must be given for the universal custom of Sunday Eucharistic celebration, especially amongst those Jewish believers who comprised the very earliest church. Such an account must surely come to grips with early Christian belief that Jesus rose on that first Easter, or indeed, that some of the earliest witnesses believed they ate and drank with the risen Lord on or shortly after that day.
Something happened which led to this new development in history. What happened? The most plausible explanation is simply that the earliest Christians truly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. What is the most plausible reason for the emergence of this belief? The belief that Jesus had appeared to a variety of individuals and groups, and the testimony of those who had seen him. Even the age-old tradition of Sunday worship is an evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
I must admit that I found Swinburne’s conclusion very attractive:
So there is some reason to suppose that the universal custom of Sunday Eucharist derives from the post-resurrection practice and command of Jesus himself… (212).
This morning in worship, the gathered community took the bread and drank the cup as we do each Sunday, and as God’s people regularly have done since the earliest days of the church, perhaps even, from that very first Easter when Jesus “took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them…” (Luke 24:30). Just as Moses and the elders ate and drank a covenant meal in the presence of Yahweh (Exodus 24), so the apostles and other believers may have done the same in the presence of the risen Christ. And so we, when we gather in worship to eat the bread and drink the cup, do so in the presence of the risen and coming Jesus, for he has promised: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them…For I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 18:20; 28:20).