The vast majority of churches celebrate a meal variously called “the Lord’s Supper”, “Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist”. Having in the previous article made a study of the Last Supper, what bearing might this have on our understanding of the Lord’s Supper?
Many of the debates around the Lord’s Supper focus on the question of elements themselves. Is the bread and the wine really the body and blood of Jesus? If not, then in what does it mean to say “This is my body”? Spiritual language? Symbolic language? A mere aid to memory? It can end up sounding like a competition between those who take it the most to the least seriously.
A raw choice between ‘real’ or ‘symbolic’ is a little like asking of a wedding band ‘is this ring the actual marriage, or just a meaningless piece of gold?’ It’s a textbook case of the law of the excluded middle
I think we are asking the wrong question. A raw choice between “real” or “symbolic” is a little like asking of a wedding band “is this ring the actual marriage, or just a meaningless piece of gold?” It’s a textbook case of the law of the excluded middle, the logical fallacy which presents two extreme options as if they are the only two. In the case of options for the significance of the Lord’s Supper we are entitled, with Oliver Twist, to ask, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”
Consider the wedding band. It is, obviously, not a marriage. That’s absurd. But, in the context of the wedding service, neither is it just a circle of gold. We need a third option. It is a sign of the covenant made between the husband and wife. It is, in that context, highly significant.
The language of “covenant” is not used a lot in the New Testament. But it is used here. And that is significant. I believe that, as Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper, the best way to understand it is as a covenant renewal ceremony. It’s not a covenant ceremony—that covenant was made once for all on the cross in the body and blood of Christ. But neither it is merely a memory aid or convenient visual symbol of the death of Jesus, a reach out to those who are purportedly “visual learners”. If it is a covenant renewal ceremony, it is not something simply watch, but something participate in. Which brings me to the second point.
It is not possible to have the Lord’s Supper alone—a fact worth reflecting on. Many other aspects of Christian devotion, such as prayer, Bible reading, singing, and fasting can happen alone. In some cases (such as prayer) solitude brings certain advantages. But not the Lord’s Supper. It necessarily a shared meal, an activity requiring two or more players. This points to important vertical and horizontal truths.
The vertical truth is that the Lord’s Supper includes us in Jesus’ death as participants, not simply observers. Historically, Jesus died very much alone—a point to which the Gospel’s regularly draw attention. He died instead of us and for us. But the first disciples were invited, ahead of that lonely death, to claim their stake in what was about to happen. The death of Jesus and its benefits are not things that happen outside of us, to which we merely assent. As the apostle Paul will go on to write, we were buried with him in his death. We died with Christ. We died in him. This doctrine of our union with Christ was taught by Jesus himself, before it was taught by Paul.
The death of Jesus and its benefits are not things that happen outside of us, to which we merely assent. We died with Christ. We died in him.
The horizontal truth is that what’s true for me is true for the people with whom I share the meal. We are all in this together. We are constituted as a new people by Jesus’ death, and in the Lord’s Supper we re-affirm our common identity and fellowship with those who are at table with us. Some aspects of the Lord’s Supper are incidental—what reformed theology sometimes calls the “circumstances”. The grain used for the bread, the precise vintage of the wine, the bakery or vineyard employed and the building in which it takes place—these are all incidental “circumstances” of the Supper. (I argued in the previous article that the breaking of the bread is a “circumstance” rather than an essential element of the meal’s meaning.)
Conversely, just as we are liable to pour meaning into “circumstances” (such as claiming the breaking of the bread symbolises Jesus’ broken body), our modern celebrations of the Supper are sometimes prone to miss elements that appear to be “circumstances” but are, on closer inspection, essential to the meal’s meaning.
For example, sharing from one loaf and drinking from one cup are both in this category—part of the meaning of the meal. “Drink from this, all of you” says Jesus. “We all share in the one loaf” says Paul.
Paul chastises the church in Corinth because, in their celebration of the Supper, they do not “discern the body of Christ.” This is not a failure to perceive that the bread is body of Christ, but rather a failure to perceive that the community with whom they share it is the body of Christ. It is failure to recognise Christ in each other rather than Christ in the elements. Their sin was to have the audacity to divide into rich and poor, in group and out group, haughty and hungry, and still have the temerity to describe what they were doing as “the Lord’s Supper”. No. As we will explore in a future article in this series, the cross binds us simultaneously to Christ and to each other. It may well be appropriate at the Lord’s Table to close our eyes to examine ourselves and confession our sins. But it is also appropriate to open our eyes, look around that room of people and say: “These are also people for whom Christ died. This is the body of Christ. Am I, in my heart and life, in the way I treat these people, discerning in them the body of Christ here?”
It has been fashionable in recent years to draw attention to the political nature of the Lord’s Supper. Some of these observations can be interesting, others a bit of a stretch. If by politics you mean party-politics; if you infer that the Lord’s Supper confers specific policy wisdom on believers, or that it gives us permission to provide smug commentary on the genuinely hard decisions our political leaders have to make, then none of that, thanks.
But politics is about the question of power and authority. The central Christian claim is that “Jesus is Lord”. It’s a straightforwardly political claim. It’s about who has authority. Not just in my heart, or even in the church, but in the whole universe.
John Chrysostom said, “When we come back from that Table we ought to be like so many lions, breathing fire, dreadful to the devil.”
John Chrysostom said, “When we come back from that Table we ought to be like so many lions, breathing fire, dreadful to the devil.’
Is the Lord’s Supper political? Depends on the context. The Passover was not inherently political, but when you continued to celebrate it under the nose of the Roman forces, it couldn’t help but acquire a political hue. In the Lord’s Supper, says Paul, “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Proclaim it to whom? To each other? Yep, sure. To the unbeliever perhaps present at church? Probably. But I put it to you that we also proclaim the Lord’s death to the powers of darkness, to the principalities of this world, to Satan, and to the gates of hell. The Lord’s Supper might involve handshakes and kisses, but it is, in its own quiet way, a fist in the air. It is a sign and warning signal to the forces of evil that Jesus has conquered, that sin, death and Satan are notice. The game is up. Jesus is Lord. And every knee is on track to one day bow before him.
 There is an argument that can be had in good faith about whether Jesus intended us to continue to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. See for example Barry Newman’s book, The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments. For what it’s worth I find the arguments interesting, but not ultimately convincing.
 Drinking from one cup and sharing from one loaf presents practical problems for a gathering of more than about twenty people. I don’t know that this is a perfect solution, but for what it’s worth at our church we have display one loaf and one cup in the middle of the table, even whilst providing cups for all and pre-broken bread for all. This way at least we are able to refer to the one cup and one loaf, at least as a picture of what the meal means.