Before the actual post begins, I need to give thanks for the great help which I received on this from Joel Burdeaux (Pastor of New Life Community Church in Farmington, Maine) and Alastair Roberts (a student in Durham, England). These two fine (and well-bearded) gentlemen I consider friends (although we’ve never met in person). But they graciously engaged in an online conversation which helped immensely, and I unashamedly “borrow” (read lifted) much from their side of the conversation. Although I don’t agree with these gentlemen on several finer points of theology (they both have more Calvinist leanings), I found the conversation delightfully helpful.
Once a month, year in and year out, we take some time to observe the Lord’s Supper. We’ve done this thing so many times, but do we ever stop and really wrestle with what’s happening here. I am not about to provide a comprehensive theology of the Lord’s Supper. That would be unrealistic. Just to give you an idea of how huge a task that would be, I once partook of a two hour lecture just on the theology of how the preparation for the Lord’s Supper happens. The mechanics of this event speaks volumes about what we believe it to be. But what I want to do is give a brief introduction to the key ideas we need to make note of as we think about this ordinance. In order to frame it, I borrow some terminology and themes from Stanley Grenz’s, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Grenz outlines the three orientations of the Lord’s Supper (past, future, community). But I want to propose 5 (re)orientations of the Lord’s Supper. 5 theological themes which we are drawn into in this practice (the other three fall as subpoints in Grenz’s work).
1. New Covenant (oriented to relationship)
“When the church takes this meal looking back to this event, it becomes a statement of solidarity with Jesus, a public covenant renewal” (Bock, Luke [IVPNTC], 350). Jesus initiated this observance declaring it to be the inauguration of a New Covenant. Alaistair Roberts mentioned to me the vital importance of emphasizing “the notion of covenant memorial.” First and foremost, what we do here is publicly declare our place as being under the new covenant. When Jesus spoke of the new covenant, his disciples would have immediately jumped to Jeremiah 31. In that passage Jeremiah outlines some of what a New Covenant will consist of. I generally like to break it down into four main components (verses 33-34).
1.a. Writing or imprinting of his Word/Torah/Wisdom. Bread and food is associated with Wisdom and with Torah. For example, when speaking of the Torah, the book of Sirach says “Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.” (Sir. 24:21). Elsewhere there are connections between bread and life and the word. “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3). When Jesus takes bread and says “this is my body which is for you.” He is speaking of himself. He is referring to the gift of his incarnation. I am here for you. And he then points to the crucifixion and resurrection. All this is so that he can be present with us always. The bread is a symbol of his life; the life we find in him.
1.b. Personal knowledge of and participation in God through Jesus. The act of eating together demonstrates a familiarity and friendship with the company you are in. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures didn’t not view meals as simply ways to nourish the body. Meals were places to offer friendship, closeness, connectedness. It was a gathering of people who shared life. Ever wonder why in our culture when young infatuated folks work up the courage to ask another on a date, it usually consists of a meal? It’s a place to build a relationship. That Jesus regularly eats in the New Testament narrative is vital. He invited people (and by extension us) to become friends with him and each other.
1.c. His people. The promise of the God and human relationship echoes down through Scripture. He is God, we are his people, and the Scriptures reveal God’s pursuit to reconcile that relationship through any and all means. That God and his people relationship is vital to the unfolding of Scripture. In the Lord’s supper, in the blood of the Lamb and the participation in the fulfilled Passover story we see who we are as his redeemed people. Remember, Jesus died during the Passover/festival of unleavened bread. We often look at this as indicative of his “dying for our sins”. But, let us not forget that Passover is not about sacrifice for sin. That’s the Day of Atonement. We do see Jesus’ death equated with atoning sacrifice in the New Testament (most notably in Hebrews 12). But Jesus’ death during the Passover should draw our attention elsewhere. Passover was about the separating out and redemption of God’s covenant people and their relationship to God. The blood of the Passover lamb was not about cleansing from sin, but was a marker of belonging to God’s covenant people (see Ex. 12). The blood on the door posts differentiated Israelite from Egyptian. Then, after the Exodus, Moses took the blood of oxen and marked the Israelites themselves. The blood marked the people as being the redeemed of YHWH and the people of the covenant (Ex. 24:1-8). So when we see the connection of Jesus to the Lamb of God (John 1, Rev. 5 etc) we are not actually talking about atoning sacrifice. When in Revelation we are told that we overcome by the blood of the Lamb, what is meant is that we overcome because we belong to him, we are the bride of the bridegroom. Atoning sacrifice was not done with lambs but with goats and rams. The blood of the covenant is not primarily about atonement for sin. Instead, the blood of the covenant is about identifying as one of God’s covenant people. Of course, being one of God’s people means being forgiven and atoned for, so the two are interconnected, but the connection is at best implied by Mark, Luke and Paul in their sharing of the Last Supper events (Bock, Luke [IVPNTC], 350).
1.d. Forgiveness of Sin. Sin is only mentioned in Matthew’s telling of the last supper events (Mt. 26:28, cf. Heb). We generally speak about communion with reference to the forgiveness of sin accomplished by the death of Christ on our behalf. But in the texts which speak of the Lord’s Supper (Mk. 14, Lk 22, 1 Cor. 11) only Matthew mentions sin at all. And when it is mentioned in Matthew it is done so with a certain lack of clarity. Is Mt. 26:28 a reference to substitutionary atonement? If that is so vital, why did Luke, Mark and Paul leave it out? Elsewhere in the New Testament (esp. Heb. 12, also Rom. 3) this theme of substitution and atonement as part of the purpose of Christ’s death are examined. Substitutionary atonement can be drawn out of the New Testament, but the Last Supper texts themselves don’t make that connection. Forgiveness of sins is implied, because the reference to New Covenant would immediately draw the Jewish memory to Jer. 31:34. But none of the biblical authors tells us that Jesus teases that out in those instances. Instead, I would argue that the emphasis of the Last Supper texts is actually on the theme of covenant participation. The covenant promised by Jeremiah mentions the forgiveness of sins, but notice the “for” in there (“for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more”). Covenant participation begins with forgiveness. We can freely participate with God in covenant fellowship because we are forgiven. But the Lord’s Supper points to more than that forgiveness itself; it points beyond to the fellowship we have.
2. Gathering of the graced (oriented to community of grace)
2.a. “Communion”. Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 1 Cor. 10:17. The term communion used to refer to the sharing of the bread and fruit of the vine is a fairly recent designation, historically speaking, but was started to capture this aspect of what we do in this celebration. We celebrate the personal relationship with Christ, but also with each other. By calling it communion we capture the sense of community. In many Christian communities this communal aspect is demonstrated more fully in how communion is done. Here, and in most baptist church, we each have our own little individual piece of bread, and our own little cup of grape juice, and we can lose a sense of the togetherness of it. It’s me, my bread, my cup and Jesus. But even here, we divide up one loaf (makes you wonder how that works in megachurches). In many traditions, there is one cup shared by all. For health and safety it might be best to not do that. But when Jesus had that upper room gathering, he would have used one cup shared by all who were there. We, as the covenant community are such because of grace. Grace doesn’t simply pertain to individual salvation. The community we have is a gift of grace. When we gather together as community we acknowledge the graces offered to us through Christ. Christ’s covenant is given to his people.
2.b. Mephibosheth and David (2 Sam. 9). Now Joel brought this one out, which I thought was outstanding. Never have I seen 2 Sam. come out in a conversation of communion. But there, David, after consolidating power over Israel remembers his relationship to his beloved friend Jonathan.
Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.
Mephibosheth is the grandson of Saul, who attempted to kill David on several occasions. David, in taking the throne would be rivals with Mephibosheth. In ancient kingdoms, Mephibosheth and David would be enemies, and since David is the one on the throne, Mephibosheth would be dispensed with, and Mephibosheth would likely jump on any opportunity to assassinate David and claim the throne. But David extends hesed (loving-kindness or covenant love). He extends loving-kindness to Mephibosheth, who would expect nothing but death from his grandfather’s replacement. But notice how that kindness is shown- I’ll give you all the family land back, but you’ll stay and eat with me. If he has land and wealth, why would he stay and eat with David? Because loving-kindness is shown in an ongoing faithfulness and hospitality and friendship. This is the offer extended to us from God, through Christ. We’ve done nothing which would warrant loving-kindness. But David made a covenant with Jonathan, binding himself to Jonathan and Jonathan’s descendants to show kindness (1 Sam. 18, 20 & 23). God opened his covenant to all people who would accept his over of loving-kindness. We have been graciously invited to the table of the king. When we gather, we gather as the graced people of God.
3. Remembrance (oriented to past events)
3.a. “Do this in remembrance”. We all have memory issues. We forget things. We wander. As the hymn says “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love” (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Robert Robinson). We need markers to remember- Ebenezer’s if you will (1 Sam. 7:12). People have created monuments to recall to mind events and people. We need memory aids. We need to be reminded over and over of God’s great compassion. We need to retell ourselves and each other of the covenant we’ve been drawn into. That’s why Passover was supposed to happen annually. Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget what God did in bringing you safely from Egypt. The Lord’s supper says similarly to us don’t forget what God did in bringing you out of darkness into his light.
We all need to be reminded of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1).
3.b. “You proclaim the Lord’s death”. When we gather at the table we look back. We reflect on something which occurred long before we were alive. We declare that Jesus’ death is unique. It was not like any other death and it was not meaningless. Lots of people die for a cause (political, humanitarian, good, evil, loyalty to someone or something). A lot of people have died sacrificially (soldiers dying to protect civilians from foreign aggression and violence). Those deaths are something we should give thanks for, but Jesus’ death is bigger and much more far reaching than that.
When we commemorate this, we proclaim that Jesus death wasn’t just a commendable and honourable thing to do. We proclaim that it has ramifications for us now.
4. Participation (oriented to the present)
4.a. “as many times as you do this”. Each and every time we do this, we connect the past to the present. We draw a link between Jesus life, death, resurrection and my life now. Each time this is done, we declare that we identify ourselves with an event which has already taken place. It is finished. What happens now is shaped by the completion of the death and victory of Jesus. We claim that for our now.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Coming to the table means coming to share with Jesus. While Baptists generally speak of communion as symbolic and the real presence of Christ is not in the bread and fruit of the vine (as in Catholic theology of transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation). But at the same time, biblically, we have to affirm that there is something about this event in which we encounter Christ. We don’t literally eat his flesh or drink his blood, but we participate in him now. We affirm our belief in his death which relates to us now. His life and death resurrection means something and impacts this moment. We partake of the bread to partake of him.
4.b. “Bread of Life”. Jesus called himself the “bread of life” (John 6:35). What this means is “He is claiming to be that which one needs in order to have life and continue to live” (Whiteacre, John [IVPNTC], 159) You see, bread is often a symbol of life. So it’s curious that we read the bread as symbolic of physical death. Part of that is rooted in a bad translation in the old KJV- “This is my body which is broken for you.” That word broken is nowhere in the Greek. More recent translations correct this. “This is my body which is for you.” Jesus is offering himself. Not just his death, but his incarnation, life and resurrection also, to us. He offers us Jesus. He offers us his sonship, his glory and righteousness, his eternal life. “Jesus is himself the gift of which he is the giver” (Lindars, quoted in F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983. p.153).
Ever wondered about why Jesus uses bread to symbolize being killed? Why not use the lamb? Wouldn’t that make a better illustration of being killed? I am arguing that he’s alluding to something more than his death. He is saying that he brings life. “In him was life and that life was the light of mean. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Yes, his death is present in that, but even in his death, he offers life. His death accomplishes life. Life wins.
5. Trust (oriented to the future)
We proclaim the past, and participate in the present and we do so “Until he comes”. This ordinance points back to the incarnation and life and death of Jesus, it declares the life received and made manifest in the present and it points ahead to the future. It proclaims hope and trust that Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits, and a taste of what’s to come for us. Jesus’ death and resurrection secures our hope for eternity in fellowship with him. We are now the bride of Christ, his covenant people, waiting for the final consummation. We are like the Israelites after the first Passover, clinging to the bread from heaven, wandering in between the great and decisive act of God, and the prize which awaits us at the end of the journey- the rest in the final and fulfilled Kingdom.
Matthew’s account says “Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” (Mt. 26:29). You see, in the Passover dinner there were four cups. Most agree that the cup which Jesus offers is the third (in Luke’s version two cups are mentioned, presumably the second and third). A Passover meal began with a cup of wine, followed by vegetables dipped in saltwater (to commemorate the red sea passing), then another cup, then the main meal lamb and unleavened bread with bitter herbs, followed by the third cup, then bread and then the final cup before singing the haggadah (believed to be the hymn sung before the disciples go out the Gethsemane) with readings and prayers interspersed. Jesus though says I won’t finish this, I won’t consummate everything today. The end isn’t here yet. The feast reaches its climax later. This feast continues as the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19).
As we prepare to gather for the sharing of the table, it would do us good to reflect on what we’re being offered. God has issued an invite to join him, to share with him, to encounter him through a covenant relationship. We in return receive that offer, and find our life in him. We abide in him. We pull up a chair, and participate in the covenant life which Jesus has opened up to us.
Our sins are forgiven, and we have been offered life and light to replace the death and darkness which comes from sin. Now, we can know him. We can have his life live in us. We are marked by the blood of the Lamb which means we are his people. We shall overcome even death by the blood of the Lamb.