Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Lord’s Supper

An education in higher mathematics has several side effects. The student learns how vast his ignorance is and always will be, but he also gains a cheerful insouciant confidence that he can tackle the same problems that exercised the great masters. In that humble spirit I want to think about the institution established by our Lord on the night we celebrate today.

Begin with the documents. The passages cited are from BibleGateway, NIV edition.


26While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."

27Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom."

30When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.


22While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take it; this is my body."

23Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.

24"This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them. 25"I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God."

26When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.


14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God."

17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes."

19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."

20In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

John 7

25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?"

26Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."

28Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

29Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

30So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

32Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

34"Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread."

35Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

41At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42They said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I came down from heaven'?"

43"Stop grumbling among yourselves," Jesus answered. 44"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." 59He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"

61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? 62What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him."

1 Corinthians 10

14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

18Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. 22Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

1 Corinthians 11

17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don't you have homes 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 praise you for this? Certainly not!

23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.

1 Corinthians 12

13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

The passage from John’s gospel is inexplicable apart from the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus states an identity between himself and bread from God and his flesh. Nobody understood what he was talking about at the time, and the claim lost him a lot of disciples.

Look to what He did for an explanation. From Matthew, Mark and Luke we find that he gave thanks, broke the bread and told the disciples to divide the bread among them, telling them it was his body. It wasn’t his body, it was bread; but this is Jesus speaking. He gave thanks and gave them the cup and told them it was a new covenant in his blood. It wasn’t blood, it was wine; but this is Jesus speaking.

Paul gives a slightly different account. He wrote earlier than the rest, but presumably had access to the same body of testimony from which the gospel writers drew. Why the details differ I cannot say, but I guess that the “in remembrance of me” was dropped from the other version in the interests of succinctness.

Paul seems to be trying to distinguish between this observance and ordinary potluck dinners (though he’s not happy with their church dinners either). Important details here are that

  1. the communion includes both the bread and the wine
  2. this is to be done “in remembrance” of Jesus
  3. participants must recognize the body of the Lord
  4. participants must do this in a worthy manner
  5. participants must examine and judge themselves
  6. failure to partake properly brings judgment (and possibly physical punishment—sickness or death)
  7. participants should “wait for each other”
  8. the cup is a cup of thanksgiving and a participation in the blood of Christ
  9. we are to do this “whenever” we do it
  10. the loaf is a participation in the body of Christ, and an emblem (and possibly one source) of our unity

Some Old Testament sacrifices were eaten by the worshippers, and it seems clear enough that some pagan rites worked the same way. Some sacrifices were holocausts, others eaten by the priests, but some were eaten by the offerers. Paul warns against joining in their sacrificial meals and becoming participants with demons. This suggests that Paul saw some similarity between the two meals: not that one was transcendentally different from the other.

I’ve heard it asserted that the bread is “merely a symbol” of the body of Jesus. That flatly contradicts Paul’s passage, which says we must recognize Jesus’ body (and since when do mere symbols bring judgment on you?), and Jesus’ claims in John’s gospel that this bread and wine bring eternal life. This is clearly more than a symbol.

On the other hand it is universally recognized that this is bread and wine. Some hold that the “accidents” are the same but the nature is different. Some hold that the physical nature is the same but it has a spiritual nature. Another view is that it is a physical object but becomes a spiritual food when taken in obedience (or disobedience, per Paul). There seem to be quite a few subtle variations on these themes—and though they seem similar they have different operational consequences.

Let me introduce some test cases. My favorite test case is the repentant thief on the cross. He was never baptized, never ate the Lord’s Supper, never did anything but turn to Jesus and ask him to remember him—and he was promised paradise. (I don’t think it is safe to distinguish paradise and the salvation offered believers—there is no warrant for it.)

Another test case is the mouse. It has happened that a wafer or morsel of bread is dropped, and gotten away. A mouse eats it. What is the effect of the food on the mouse?

Let me be clear: I do not thoroughly understand what is meant by “spiritual” or “real presence.” These are things that are outside ordinary experience, and for which we have only the loosest sort of words. We experience our own selves, but we do not understand our selves in any clear and undisputed way—how much less the presence of Christ in bread and wine? Call it projection or “dog in the manger” if you like, but I don’t think the professional theologians understand “spiritual” much better than the laymen. “Spiritual” is a place-holder word to label aspects of reality outside our physical experiences.

If the bread changes its nature after the consecration and becomes Jesus’ body in all but the “accidents” then it makes sense to adore it and take every precaution with every bit of it; burning or burying the leftovers. If the bread is spiritual food, it is more plausible to say that it is spiritual only in relation to men, since bread is not notably naturally spiritual. Leftovers can be disposed of as convenient, and it is nearly idolatrous to adore it outside the service.

The operational implications are significant. If the Lord’s Supper is a reenactment of the sacrificial meal (as one would conclude from the once-for-all language in Hebrews), then a priest is not so essential, and if the bread is the body of Jesus only in relation to the worshippers there seems to be no need for a priest at all. The High Priest and Sacrifice is already ready, and there is nothing to take care of afterwards.

Enter the mouse. In the first case, if the mouse eats the wafer the mouse is eating the real body of Jesus—and if not sacrilege this is at least defilement. In the second case the mouse, having no spiritual nature, cannot relate to the presence of Jesus; which therefore does not exist for the mouse. This is unbefitting, but not a sacrilege.

Given our inevitable ignorance about spiritual natures, what can we safely say about nature of the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper is not intrinsically required for salvation/eternal life. The case of the thief on the cross shows this. He was not baptized because it was impossible, not a participant in the Lord’s Supper because it was not possible. For almost all the rest of us it is possible, and for us refusing to partake is disobedient and ungrateful. It is not our own acts that save us, but rejecting the means of grace is not a route to salvation. Jesus seems to have thought this important (verse 56), and we should follow his lead.

Jesus is present, in some way, in the bread and wine. I am suspicious of theories about the nature of this presence. The minimal statement I know how to make is that he is present there in relation to us as worshippers, as we gather to obey his command. When we eat and drink we participate in some way in his life.

At a minimum, he is present in the elements for the duration of the service (and for any later services when things are brought to shut-ins).

If we participate carelessly or without recalling our own sins, we risk God’s judgment. I do not know how this will manifest itself.

Participation together in the Supper makes us participants in Jesus’ life somehow, and also in each other.

Paul said he had further instructions, but presumably these are the important details.

How should we participate in the Lord’s Supper?

We must come together with the intention of celebrating it together. Unity is an aspect of the celebration.

We must prepare ourselves, examining our consciences and judging ourselves.

We must remember Jesus’ sacrifice, and remember his presence in the bread and wine

We ought to give thanks, as Jesus did

It is customary to recite scripture describing the original supper to (at minimum) remind us of the purpose of the service.

It seems fitting, as far as is reasonably possible, to use similar elements to the original ones: a loaf of bread and cup of wine. If there is no wheat, use rice or whatever will make the emblem of the broken loaf (and daily bread). These were simple ingredients; ordinary staples.

Singing hymns seems appropriate, since this is what was done at the first Lord’s Supper and is a natural part of worship

How often isn’t indicated, but I know no good reason why “very frequently” isn’t a good answer.

Lord, thank you for your inexpressible and mysterious gift.

Part 2

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