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Some Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper

June 9, 2010

The right place to begin the discussion is with the principle questions, which are: 1) what is the nature of the Supper, and 2) what does participation in this ceremonial meal accomplish in the participants particularly, and the church generally?

With regard to the nature of the Supper, early questions include transubstantiation (the Roman view) vs. consubstantiation (Lutheran view) vs. the memorial view (Zwingli) vs. spiritual presence view (Calvin). For the Reformed, the only two views that have any hope of acceptance are the memorial view and the spiritual presence view. Reducing the Supper to a mere memorial is to make it a mental exercise, and suits pietism better than true spiritual nourishment. I take Calvin’s view of spiritual presence – which also accords with the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF):

Worthy receivers, [which I understand as all baptized Christians who are not barred from the table due to disciplinary action of the church] outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally or corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. [LBCF 30.7, Emphasis added]

I take this to mean that there is real spiritual nourishment that takes place in the eating of this ceremonial Meal. This takes it way beyond a moment of self-examination – often conceived of as a moment of spiritual navel-gazing and self-flagellation – to something that has far greater spiritual value.  The point of the Supper is not to direct us to ourselves, but to Christ. This, of course, does not mean that we do not examine ourselves, but I doubt that what Paul had in mind was the assembled church individually doing self-examination, hunting the corners of our hearts for unconfessed sin and feeling sufficiently contrite before the passing of the bread and wine.

This brings up an interesting question concerning the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11. What Paul seems to be correcting here is not that people are not adequately contrite when they come to the Supper. He begins his rebuke by pointing to divisions that exist among them. This is very important because Paul has as his concern not so much procedural problems, but problems that exist amongst the body. In verse 20 he gives the stinging indictment, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” Here the Corinthians are operating as though they are independent from one another, each eating and drinking according to their own status and resource, neglecting those who are of more modest means. They are each having their own personal “religious” experience, but are missing the whole point of the communal nature of the Supper. The contemporary version of this is the introspective, pietistic approach in which we are instructed to “get right” with Jesus (and occasionally to reconcile broken relationships within the church body).

Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11 is for the church there to understand the full meaning of the Supper. Paul’s concern is for them to understand the gospel and its implications in the community of saints. As it is they come together and practice their religion in neglect of one another. Verses 21 and 22 read, “For in eating, one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” Paul is incredulous at the disregard some have for the “church of God” saying that their behavior indicates that they despise and God’s church (the body of Christ) and humiliate those who have nothing.

All this is to say that eating the bread or drinking the cup in an unworthy manner is not likely to mean that we have not done an adequate job of ferreting out our own transgressions, but have not been rightly mindful of the body with whom we eat. In other words, it seems that when we make it about ourselves, we have missed the boat. We are to be celebrating the unity of the body and our unity with Christ – thus the right use of the word communion (lit. with union).

Central to the gospel message is the reconciliation and restoration that comes in Christ. Indeed, this is the good news. It is not just a message about going to heaven when we die, rather it is a message of things that were broken (including us to the point of death) being made whole. And this is not in some squishy, psychological sense – Christ has really made us whole, both individually and corporately.  This means that central to the gospel message is the obliteration of distinctions we would normally make in class, gender, ethnicity, etc. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (especially v. 26); Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:1-6; Colossians 1:19-20.)

But this is hardly all that we are to learn about the Lord’s Supper from this chapter. In the institution language of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 we discover several profound ideas that add layers of texture and meaning to the Feast of the Lord.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Notice first that Jesus, whom Paul is quoting, says, “This is my body which is for you” (some manuscripts read, “This is my body which is broken for you”), and later, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” How are we to understand this? To think that these things, bread and cup, are merely symbolic of a grander truth is to truncate its meaning rather significantly. To understand the meaning of bread and cup, body and blood, we must appeal to what Jesus intended to convey implicitly and explicitly in the institution language – namely, covenant.

A full-blown treatment of covenant is far beyond what I can do here, but it is necessary to have some insight into OT covenants as a backdrop for our understanding of the new covenant about which Jesus speaks. The purpose of covenants is to bring peace where there was previously not peace (at least formally) and to obligate parties to certain conditions. There are different kinds of covenants, such as friendship treaties, treaties of respect, trade treaties, suzerainty covenants, etc. Some features of Old Testament covenant ratification include a sacrifice, a memorial (or a token or a witness) and a meal. In other words, when the covenant had been established, it was sealed by certain rituals (we should not be afraid of the word). The participants would often sacrifice animals, cut them in half and the covenanting parties would walk between the animal parts to signify that each party was willing to suffer the same fate as the animals if they broke covenant. A memorial such as a heap of stones was frequently set up as a witness of the covenant, and when people would come upon the memorial, it would serve as a time of teaching and remembrance of the covenant. A meal was also a frequent part if the ratification process, the parties eating together –often the sacrificed animals – as a sign of peace. (For a fuller discussion of these ideas, as well as a very helpful treatment of the gospel in relation to covenants see Dr. C. van der Waal, The Covenantal Gospel.)

In the way that Christ presents this communion meal, we see that it is full of covenant meaning; Christ himself uses the word covenant. In short, we see that the body and blood of Christ are given (sacrificed)  as a means of ratifying the covenant between the Father and the Son – the covenant of grace – of which we are beneficiaries, and through which our sins are forgiven and we are brought into peace (shalom) with God and with one another. (Some manuscripts read, “This is my body which is broken for you.” This is often objected to because not one bone in Christ’s body was broken. (John 19:36) I do not find the language of Christ referring to his body being broken at all objectionable because while none of his bones were broken, his body certainly was.)

It is also a meal given as an ongoing ratification of the new covenant. In this fellowship meal, we mark in a very physical and real way the fellowship we now enjoy with God and each other, and the food we eat and the cup we drink are nothing less than Christ himself who is our life. Recall John 6 in which Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-59)

Thirdly, as a memorial, this meal serves to remind us of the covenant we are a part of which has been sealed by Christ’s own blood, and of the blessings which are ours in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). It is a heap of stones that we encounter every time we eat it, and a witness to us of the covenant, the new covenant, in which we are joint heirs with Christ and fellow citizens of the New Jerusalem. As often as we eat this meal, we are remembering the covenant, and calling upon God to remember it (Jeremiah 14:21).

Additionally, when Jesus instituted the Supper in Matthew 26:26ff he says, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Jesus indicates two significant things with this statement. First, he is saying that he is going away. There is a real sense in which he is not going to be with us in this kind of fellowship for a time. Secondly, he is also saying that there will be a time in the future when we will drink this fruit of the vine with him again. There is a lot of meaning here.

On the first point, his going away is in two-stages. He departs in his death and returns upon his resurrection – a time in which he ate with his disciples, but there is no record of drinking wine with them. Then he departs at his ascension, and will return at the consummation – the time of the resurrection. During his absence (post ascension) how are we to interact with the words he spoke before he ascended, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 26:20)?

It is through the bread and the wine that he is with us. We eat and drink his body and blood, we feed upon him as often as we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper. (Recall John 6.) Jesus has left this meal as a means of being spiritually (and quite really) present with us in his physical absence. “This is my body. This is my blood of the covenant.” (Of course I deny the Roman’s transubstantiation and the Lutheran’s consubstantiation. But we cannot deny that Jesus said and meant something by these words.)

When Jesus says what he says about drinking it new in the Father’s kingdom, I take this to mean the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10). That introduces another layer to this meal. It is eschatological, meaning that it anticipates (remembers what is to come) the glorious feast that awaits the bride in the consummation.

So, to wrap this up, the Lord’s Supper is multi-layered and pregnant with meaning. The more you dig in Scripture the richer it gets. Perhaps the best way to lay it out is like this:

Past: The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal, a witness and a token of the covenant between God and his people, which is an everlasting covenant of peace. We eat it to recall the sacrifice of Christ, and to remind ourselves that the price of our transgression has been paid. We eat it as part of the ongoing renewal of the covenant, a joyful marker of Christ and his benefits.

Present: The Lord’s Supper is a communion meal. In eating we are in communion with Christ (we eat his body and drink his blood), and with each other as we share the common loaf and the common cup. We show that we are one as we bless one holy name and partake one holy food, to quote the hymn. We demonstrate to each other and to ourselves that we are one and that we are one in Christ and one with Christ. We are his body, and we feed on his body.

Future: The Lord’s Supper is an eschatological meal, the marriage supper of the Lamb, eaten now in anticipation and assurance of that glorious day.

We celebrate this meal every week as a part of our worship service because it is integral to our identity as the people of God.  Our entire worship service is designed to reflect and display the gospel. The covenant of which we are members is marked by the Supper, so to not have this as an ordinary part of our Lord’s Day worship would be quite inconsistent.

To the question of it becoming routine or merely ritualistic I have a couple of comments. First, it is ordinary. We eat ordinary bread and drink ordinary wine with ordinary people in an ordinary building. But it is not ordinary at all, because this bread is the body of Christ, this wine is his blood, these people are the saint of God and this building is the gathering place of the elect. It is routine that we share this meal, but it is never old. To suggest that we shouldn’t do so on the grounds that it will become less meaningful is to suggest that prayer or preaching or giving or reading the word or singing would become old.

Secondly, we are good with the word ritual. The Lord’s Supper is a ritual (no matter if you do it weekly or annually), and that is fine. We are ritualistic beings, liturgical beings. Just think about your morning routine, or your going-to-bed routine. What we should reject is ritualism – that is, thinking that by performing the ritual we are ex opere operato accomplishing something. But we should not reject rituals (like kissing our wife good morning and goodnight, or brushing our teeth).

There is obviously more to be said about all of this, but I need to get back to work.

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