Two Ways to Think about the Lord’s Supper

“The Last Supper” by Vicente Juan Masip, circa 1562

Friends, I would like to consider today the deeper meanings of that meal we call the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, for I feel that in many places, its importance has been rather downplayed. Over the course of my life, I have attended multiple churches, each of which did the Lord’s Supper in a slightly different way. The Baptists I grew up with held it four times a year and with a purely symbolic interpretation. Later on, I was among other Baptists who felt it was important enough to do twice a month. The Anglicans, of course, did it all the time and used real wine. I was fine with the alcohol, for if it was good enough for our Lord, it was good enough for me. The communal cup did give me the heebie jeebies, but I got over it.

My academic study brought me into contact with a broad array of interpretations of this thing that we call either an ordinance or a sacrament. This caused me to truly contemplate the nature of what was occurring when I participated in the Lord’s Supper, and it became to me much more sacred and monumental. Over the past year, while in the process of observing the Lord’s Supper, I have had two different thoughts about how we can view it, neither of which is particularly original. However, I think you are less likely to hear these mentioned on a Sunday morning, depending on what church you attend. I would like to suggest that we can view the Lord’s Supper in terms of two words: communion and covenant.

Communion

Throughout Christian history, the single greatest controversy surrounding the Lord’s Supper has to do with whether or not the physical body and blood of Christ are present in the elements. Among those who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, there are a wide variety of views, some of whom believe in a physical presence and others of whom believe in a purely spiritual presence. It must be said that from the standpoint of this author, the latter view is closer to the mark. However, I would like us to think about this word “body” in a different way. Consider this text from 1 Corinthians.

 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Here is our clue. The body of Christ is broken and shared by the Body of Christ, that is, the body of believers. The Apostle Paul often used this terminology to refer to the Church, and it serves as one of scripture’s great metaphors. The dual use of the term “body of Christ” also points to an important truth that exhibits itself time and again: that our relationship with God is directly connected to our relationship with others.

Consider the word often used to describe the act of the Lord’s Supper: Communion. Linked to terms such as communicate, common, commune, and community, the word “communion” speaks to shared relationship and a life lived together. To commune with someone usually means to converse with them in a positive nature. Most of the time, we think of Communion as a chance to commune with God, and so it is. We try to “make ourselves right with God” before partaking. But what of the communion that we share with that other body of Christ – the congregation sitting around us?

Let us consider Paul’s prelude to the discussion of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians chapter 11:

But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

Painting of an early Christian “Agape feast” in the Catacomb of Priscilla

The believers at that time, similarly to some Christians today, would hold “love feasts” together in which a common meal was shared. The Lord’s Supper was apparently performed in this setting, and the two activities were seen as part of the same process, for Paul clearly links them in his later description. The ancient Corinthian church was allowing this chance to commune with one another to turn into a divisive experience, and they are rightly called out on this. Their behavior during Communion was indicative of their lack of communion with one another. One wonders if ditching the “love feast” element of Communion and turning this meal instead into a time of private reflection has prevented people from grasping the fact that they need to have communion with one another.

Immediately after warning the Corinthians about being “guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord”, Paul makes a somewhat quizzical addition. “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgement to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29) It is not the part about examining one’s self that seems odd, but rather the phrase that tells us to “judge the body rightly”. Does this mean that we must have the correct doctrinal understanding of the Real Presence (or lack thereof) of Christ in the Communion elements? Does it mean that a person must judge themselves according to God’s law and not their own desires? Or does it mean that we must be careful not to make hasty and incorrect judgements about our fellow Christians?

I cannot say for certain which of those three meanings Paul had in mind, if indeed it is not some combination of the three. However, we can perhaps take a lesson from his subsequent statement that, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” (verse 31) Jesus Christ used very similar words when talking about our behavior toward others.

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

 Matthew 7:1-5

When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, Christians have spent so much ink on the body of Christ, and yet less is said about the Body of Christ. Communion is an opportunity not only to make ourselves right with God, but also to make things right with our fellow man. It is meant to draw us closer to one another in addition to drawing us closer to God. On this occasion, joined in commemoration of and thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice, we enjoy this blessed gift of God: communion with our fellow man on a level that would be impossible without that very sacrifice. Christ knew that we would need this event to hold us together when the world and our own fleshly natures strive to pull us apart.

Photo by John Snyder

Paul speaks of the believer examining himself during Communion. Here again we can look to the words of Christ to further point us on our way. He said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matthew 5:23-24) While He was not specifically talking about the Lord’s Supper, I believe it is clear that Christ was laying down a universal principle. You cannot have an intimate spiritual experience with God, seeking His forgiveness for your sins, when you have sinned against a brother or sister in Christ and not made it right.

I would submit that Communion is an excellent time for us to consider not only our private thought life and attitude toward God, but also any ways in which we have committed offenses against the Body of Christ. If we are convicted of a sin for which we have not repented and begged forgiveness of that person or persons, then it seems best that we ought not to partake, but rather make amends first. At the very least, we must make an effort as soon as possible to reconcile with the offended person, doing all that is within our power to restore the relationship. Otherwise, we are coming before the throne of grace with impure hands and placing a barrier of sin between ourselves and the Almighty.

If we continue in unrepentant sin against our brothers and sisters, then we eat the bread and drink the cup in an unworthy manner. According to Paul, a person who acts like this “shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord”. To be guilty against the Body of Christ is to be guilty against the body of Christ.

Further proof of this connection with Christian unity is provided in John’s account of the Last Supper, at which the Lord’s Supper was initiated and explained. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Let us then stay true to this essential commandment and remember that Communion is all about the connection between ourselves, the Lord, and the Church. Let us honor the Body of Christ even as we would the body of Christ.

Eucharist celebrated at Saint James Church (Episcopalian) in New York City in March 2010, including Desmond Tutu and others. Photo by St. James Church

Covenant

The second way I would like us to think about the Lord’s Supper is as part of the New Covenant that we have in Christ. Consider the following passage.

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also 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.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

It was this word “covenant” that got me thinking about how the cup represents for us a very intimate sharing in Christ – a special symbol of the bond that exists between God and His people. But what does the cup have to say about the nature of that covenant, and what is symbolized when we drink it? One possible answer became clear to me when I started thinking about some of the other times that Christ talked about a cup.

In Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Christ says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20b) The Apostle Paul twice wrote that he was “poured out as a drink offering”, referring to his efforts – and indeed, his suffering – on behalf of the Church. (Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6) Perhaps more importantly, in Paul’s letter to Philippi, he said of Christ’s incarnation that He “…emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

Therefore, when we hear talk about a cup, particularly one that is Christ’s blood being offered just hours before His crucifixion, we probably ought to be associating this cup with sacrifice…indeed, with suffering. There is another episode from the life of Christ that illustrates this point.

James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.’ And He said to them, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ They said to Him, ‘Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

Mark 10:35-40

Baptist Communion elements, photo by Alan Scott Walker

James and John had come to Jesus with an outlandish request. They were seeking glory for themselves. Yet, Jesus seems to suggest to them that true glory comes from drinking the cup He drinks and being baptized with the same baptism. He implies that they have no idea what this would require of them, and I believe that is because this cup was a cup of suffering and the baptism a baptism by fire. The final proof of this is found in Jesus’ own words in the Garden of Gethsemane, immediately after He established the Lord’s Supper.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.’….He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.’

Matthew 26:39, 42

This is a clear reference to the horrific suffering that Christ is about to endure. He commits Himself to drain the cup of God’s wrath on behalf of all those who will believe. When Jesus was arrested and Peter attempted to set Him free, Christ said, “Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11b)

Fortunately, none of us are being asked to take on the wrath of God, but we may well face suffering in the Christian life. In essence, to choose to take up one’s cross and follow Christ is to submit oneself to the possibility of suffering, even as our Lord suffered. This is what Paul meant when he hoped “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

You see, to be a part of this New Covenant is to drink that same cup that Christ had to drink: to be poured out as a drink offering and to be made empty. When we drink that cup, we are sharing in Christ’s blood, and we are also committing to share in His suffering. We are surrendering to the will of God and choosing to follow our Savior wherever He may lead us. But the cup is not the only part of the Lord’s Supper, and God has more to give us as part of this New Covenant. He wants to constantly sustain us throughout that Christian life. That is why we have the bread, as Jesus said.

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh…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 yourselves. He who eats 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. He who eats 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 he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.

John 6:48-51, 53b-58

A mass held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 8 November 2012, copyright Marie Lan-Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.5

That bread that Christ calls His body is for us a source of eternal life. This is not to say that anyone who eats a Communion wafer will suddenly have eternal life. Rather, it means duly that 1) Christ’s offering of His body on our behalf did secure us eternal life, and 2) even as the Israelites were fed on the manna from Heaven, we are daily sustained by that life we have in Christ. One of my very, very favorite hymns, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer”, speaks to this fact. “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, / Pilgrim through this barren land. / I am weak, but thou are mighty; / Hold me with thy powerful hand. / Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, / Feed me till I want no more”.[1] (Our friends in the UK must be truly sick of this hymn, as it gets trotted out at every important occasion, including royal weddings and the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.)

If the cup beckons us to surrender and suffer, the bread is an eternal promise of salvation and sustenance. Both of these things are essential to the New Covenant we have in Christ, and the Lord’s Supper is to serve as a reminder of these facts. They are the flip sides of the Christian life.

These are by no means the only ways of thinking about the Lord’s Supper, and better men (and a few women) have written better things in the past. Yet, these were simply two things that struck me recently, and I wanted to pass them on in case they might edify someone else. Perhaps you will find fault in my musings, but I think that if we remember these two words of communion and covenant, we will be led into a deeper understanding of the Lord’s Supper and it will become a much more meaningful part of our Christian life. Let that be the takeaway.

All scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Original Welsh text by William Williams (only Griffith Griffiths would be more Welsh!), English text also by Peter Williams, music by John Hughes