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The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread

The Lord’s Supper doesn’t just say something, it does something

It was my first ever time breaking bread. I had recently become a Christian from an unchurched background. It was my first time sharing in the Lord’s Supper, gathered round the Lord’s Table in a Baptist Church. I knew nothing. I took the cube of sliced white bread from the plate… and I dropped the bread!

More on that story in a moment! The point today is to say that communion does something. It does not just say something. And that, for a non-conformist, is a revolutionary conviction!

And we evangelical, charismatic, non-denominational types need some convictions about the Lord’s Supper.

Andrew Wilson promotes the proper use of the sacraments in his book and then offers this assessment of the current church situation:

“Why, given how central to Christian experience baptism and the Lord’s Supper have always been—from Jesus, through the apostles, to pretty much the entire worldwide church until quite recently—are there so many churches today that would find the last few pages challenging or even bizarre? How have we ended up with entire denominations in which, on the basis of the space and time they allocate, the sacraments are relegated not just below preaching and singing but also below taking up the offering and even giving the notices? What is behind all this? Several factors are at work, I think. For some, it is a visceral dislike of anything that seems routine or repetitive as opposed to spontaneous and free. For others, it is the association of symbols and rituals with formalism, “religion,” and legalism. For others, the problem with particularly the Lord’s Supper is its exclusivity: those who are not believers are not welcome to participate, which makes it awkward for guests and visitors in attendance. For others, the context is the issue; breaking bread should happen in homes, not on Sundays. Many of us grew up in churches where Communion was extremely boring, a lengthy and solemn section of the service in which the children did not seem welcome, and the adults did not seem happy. Some (especially in larger churches) worry that it takes too long. Some find the whole process of taking Communion, especially the call to self-examination, to be introspective and uncomfortable. Many have simply been born or converted into churches that have never known anything different. There are probably other reasons as well.” (Wilson, pp. 68-69)

If you need to think more about the practice of communion in your church then read on… this is the first of a series of posts on this theme – click here to see follow-on posts two, three, four, five, six.

My background

I was not brought up as a Christian. I was taken to church only twice while growing up and there was no explanation why we went, and no discussion afterwards about what going to church was about.

I was 18 when I met some real Christians whose lives impressed me enough to win a hearing for the Christian message (that is ‘the gospel’). That’s a story for another day – but I responded to that message and started to follow Jesus.

I just assumed that as a follower of Jesus I should go to a church, so I started to visit all the churches in the nearby town, Godalming in Surrey, England. I settled on Queen Street Baptist Church where I joined the youth group and attended the Sunday evening services.

And so it was that I had my first communion. I knew nothing. They had large plates on which were small cubes of white sliced bread — about a centimetre cubed. And they had purpose-made trays that carried dozens of what I now know are called sip-cups, although I took them to be very small shot glasses.

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I had never done this before, and I was nervous. It felt very solemn. I was a newbie, and I didn’t want to get anything wrong. They’d said something about all participating together, and so when the plate with the cubes of bread came round, I took one cube and thought I needed to wait for a signal when we’d all eat. Then I notice everyone else had eaten straight away and now they were bringing the trays of sip cups around. I needed to catch up fast, but I wanted to do that surreptitiously. In my nervous state, I ended up dropping Jesus. He bounced away — a long way away. The chapel was full, and I couldn’t possibly start crawling around under the pews looking for my cube of bread. So, at that very first communion I never got to eat Jesus, I only got to drink his blood.

But here’s some questions:

Did I drop Jesus?

Did I drink his blood?

Where did I even get those ideas?

And why was this “gathering round the Lord’s Table” so solemn, so miserable, a ten-minutes tacked on to the end of the main service? (In asking this I mean no disrespect to the faithful people of Queen Street Baptist Church in 1976, where I learned and grew a lot).

It’s true that religious practices can be dreary, deadly, suffocating, empty.

What makes the difference between whether a practice brings death or life to us?

I suggest life will come through practices God commands if and as we bring changed thinking (repentance) and expectation (faith); and that expectancy needs to be focused on what God says is happening when we obey his commands.

What has God commanded about the Supper?

Jesus instructed his followers to share this Supper.

This instruction is recorded in three of the four Gospels. Let’s read Matthew’s account in Matthew 26:26-29 (ESV)

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

This Supper is gospel-shaped.

What do I mean? I mean that God invites us, and he feeds us. Our part is to come, to take, to eat, to drink.

That pattern of God coming to us, giving to us, and then in response us coming to God, receiving from him, is a gospel-shaped pattern.

What does God tell us happens as we take, eat and drink?

To answer this, let’s first consider…

What view of the Supper have we inherited?

I hadn’t been brought up going to church, and I had almost no church instruction, and yet, as an 18-year-old, I had imbibed from general knowledge, a particular view of the communion elements — that the bread was Christ’s flesh, and the grape juice was Christ’s blood.

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Where did I get these assumptions without ever going to church?

I suppose I got it from TV shows and films and books, I guess.

In church history we find four main understandings of the Supper, each differing on the nature of Christ’s presence in the elements.

Millard Erickson (p.1121) summarises the four main positions as follows (and, yes, this is over-simplified but useful):

  • The bread and wine are the physical body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine contain the physical body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine contain spiritually the body and blood of Christ.
  • The bread and wine only represent the body and blood of Christ.

Each of these four views can be associated with a principal advocate. The first is associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the second with Martin Luther, the third with John Calvin and the fourth with Huldrych Zwingli — the latter three being leaders in the Reformation era (i.e. the 1500s and 1600s). These four views are described in much greater length in the second post in the series on the Lord’s Supper here.

One of the great tragedies of the modern church is that we are so divided — not least over the meal which is supposed to create and display our unity!

For myself I am not able to subscribe to the Roman Catholic teaching about the Mass, although I have dear friends, true Christians, who are Roman Catholic.

It is not profitable to take time right now to say why I do not accept the RC view.

As regards the other three options, I believe any of those views are credible and tenable. I believe in deriving doctrine from Scripture, above all, as I have explained in another post here.

Let’s look first at the fourth view — the view that the elements are merely symbols to remind us about Jesus’ bodily death

  • I suspect this is the most common view among 21st Century Protestant Christians in Britain.
  • This merely symbolic view of the elements is welcome in church, however, I would encourage people to consider taking or moving to views 2 or 3.
  • I invite you today to consider this: that when we break bread/share communion, gather at the Lord’s table, share the Lord’s Supper, we actually receive into our bodies the presence of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.

Even if you take a purely symbolic view…

I suggest that you should reflect on the true power of symbols. Think about this…

If I were to set fire to a Union Flag on our church livestream, it could go viral and would cause widespread offence. Why is that? Because symbols do mean something.

If I took my wife, Elspeth, for a walk along the nearby River Aire today and then took off my wedding band and threw it into the river, I would cause deep hurt. Why? Because even symbols do mean something.

Symbols matter! At the very least please reckon with the power of the symbols — the bread and the cup.

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But I suggest we can go further than seeing the elements as only symbols…

The Supper is shared in most churches, but I wonder whether there is lots of faith to encounter God through those observances.

Observance is sometimes, or even often, rushed, and neglect of participation is not looked upon as any kind of loss.

When we consider the various means of grace set out in Acts 2, many Christians would appear to have more faith to meet with God when reading or hearing the Bible, or when praising God in song, than they do when sharing communion. Why is this? One possible reason is a deficient theology.

The Supper is about Remembrance, properly understood.

The Supper is not merely a remembrance — if by that we mean merely recollection or reminder.

I do not think the main emphasis is on conjuring up in our imaginations the horrors of the crucifixion.

Andrew Wilson, church leader, author, blogger, and one of the Bible scholars in the Newfrontiers network, writes:

“…for Paul, Communion is not just a memorial or a symbol; it acts, bringing the church together with Christ and with one another. We are one, he explains, because we all share in one bread. We share a loaf of unity and a cup of blessing. As we do so, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We actually participate in the body and blood of Christ.” (Wilson, p. 65)

True remembrance means being joined to those events today.

The great story becomes our story. To participate in the Supper is to rehearse the story into which we have been brought by the gospel. We are creating and reinforcing our collective memory as the people of God.

Our shared story, anchored in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, is that we are being put back together, reunited through Jesus with our Father in heaven, and then united with each other, looking forward to the reuniting of heaven and earth in God’s promised New Creation — to be fulfilled when Christ returns.

Our daily exposure to adverts conditions us to an alternate story in which self-realisation and consumption are the ultimate aim of existence. Global corporations promise us fulfilment without effort if only we’ll buy this or go there. But that story truly has no foundation.

Social media tells me I’m the good guy, the others are the baddies. This story is also not true.

At the Supper we are told that we also are part of the problem… but that Jesus wants to restore us.

The Supper calls us back to a truthful account of the universe, founded in the revelation of the Creator.

The Supper is an identity-making remembrance in which we are ‘re-membered’ with Christ AND with one another. This brings us to our next point.

The Supper both creates and requires community.

Paul insisted that we must ‘discern the body’ when we break bread (1 Corinthians 11:29).

A failure to ‘discern the body’ has nothing to do with failing to ‘see’ the ‘real presence’ of Christ’s body and blood in the elements, but rather with thinking, wrongly, that it’s OK to treat other members of the body, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with contempt.

The apostle believes that our union with one another as members of the one body is so real that broken relationships, whether by contempt, or rejection, or withdrawal and such like, are akin to tearing a body apart, limb from limb — actions that will incur injury and even death (1 Cor. 11:28-30, and Vander Zee, p.159).

Paul gives no instruction about the exact form of words to be used, nor about what elements should be used, nor about frequency. He addresses few of our most pressing questions. The only thing he calls out is the relational failures in the Corinthian church. That tells us what the Spirit’s priorities are; and this should point us to the most important questions as we approach the Supper:

How healthy are our relationships with each other?

You can think about this more by reading this post here. There is also a series of posts about our speech, telling the truth, and keeping confidences, and how this affects community and the first of those posts is here.

The Supper creates community

Even in our culture Christmas lunch has a weight to it. After weddings we offer a wedding breakfast. After funerals we have a wake. These matter.

How about we recover the notion that ‘eating together binds together’. The Supper establishes a bond. It does not merely symbolise a bond, it creates and reinforces that bond, it forges the new humanity in Christ’s person (Vander Zee, p. 143, 147).

Since the Supper simultaneously unites us with Christ and with Christ’s body, we must heed the many Scriptural statements that we cannot say we love God if we do not love our brothers and sisters (1 John 4:20).

The Supper reminds us that in Christ we are all equal (Gal. 3:26-29) and interdependent (1 Cor. 12:12-26). A call to reconciliation and mutual forgiveness is central to the Supper. It is just as central as the reminder that through his atoning sacrifice Christ made a way for us to know God’s forgiveness, and to be adopted into his family forever. When we gather at the table broken relationships become unbearable. This is the Lord’s Table.

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Psalms 15 and 24 tell us what sort of person can ascend the mountain of the Lord. To get into God’s house so we can sit at his table, there are matters you must leave at the door, better still renounce altogether. Enmity, gossip, slander, mockery, negativity, factions, pride, comparison, lust, greed, the list goes on. The confession of sin we make when we gather to the Supper is practice at letting these things go, practice that carries across our whole lives.

At the table we gather with those we don’t like, those we don’t much care about, people whose politics or manners we recoil from. We gather with those who have let us down, even hurt us. The scars on the resurrected Jesus remind us that we will all carries scars into eternity — scars from other people’s misuse of us. That misuse is not right — but in God’s new society misuse is forgivable, it is something we can and must let go of, we can and must leave at the door, with God the Judge. In these ways the patterns of the Eucharist give us training wheels, habituating us into the humble attitude that admits to failings, and the grace that learns to ask for forgiveness in like manner to how we have forgiven others — The Lord’s Prayer is commonly prayed when Christians gather round the Lord’s Table.

The Supper affirms the material world.

Biblical Christianity affirms the material world.

Like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper is annoyingly physical. The Supper is additional confirmation that Christ affirms the material world. He is not saving us from the material world. He is saving the material world from sin, Satan, sickness — from all that denies God’s glory, grace and goodness.

Just as Scripture assures our minds of Christ’s promises, the Supper assures our bodies.

Your body and what you do with it matters.

The Bible teaches that to be truly human is to be embodied.

A crucial step for me was to realise how faulty is the dualistic worldview that we all have inherited (unwittingly) from Plato and Descartes. This philosophy views us human beings as primarily ‘thinking beings’, and assigns to our bodies only a secondary role. In this faulty view (as I now see it), bodies are only containers for our minds, that one day we will jettison to be truly ourselves. In contrast, Scripture tells us that we were created as part of a material universe.

Embodiment is essential to what and who we are.

The Christian hope is hope for a physical resurrection.

Hence physical practices of worship matter. They train our bodies. They do ‘do’ something.

The Bible scholar Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew, about Christ’s statement, “This is my body,” says:

“Jesus could have said “this is my love,” or “this is my spirit,” or “this is my presence” — and all these would have been true enough — but he wanted in this major means of communication (“communion”) to get physical, to be with us as earthily as possible, to show us how important his body and our bodies are, to dignify the material…” And so he said, “This is my body.”” (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11622-11625)

Christian, are you embarrassed by the mechanics of breaking bread? Does passing around the elements, or going forward to collect them, and the muddle we feel about this, do these practicalities hinder your communion? Do you feel that they get in the way?

The Supper reminds us that God is with us in the preparation of food, in the sharing of food, in the clearing up and washing up. Bodies are good.

The Last Supper is not the end of all suppers for Jesus, a last meal before he escapes all further need for nourishment. The resurrection is not an escape from the body.

At his Last Supper Jesus makes promises about the next Supper he will have with them (Matthew 26:29). Feasting will continue in the New Heavens and Earth.

The Supper is to do with Christ’s presence.

But how is Christ present?

If we set aside a belief that the bread becomes Christ’s body, and deny that in the cup the wine becomes Christ’s blood, how else are we to conceive of Christ’s presence?

Calvin said it is the work of the Spirit to lift us up into communion with the ascended Lord at the Father’s right hand. (Vander Zee, p.198).

The presence of Christ is a personal presence mediated through the physical means of bread and cup shared in by a fellowship of believers who are carried by faith into union with the ascended Lord.

In the Supper we receive Christ’s presence.

The bread or wafer is unchanged in communion.

The wine or juice remains wine or juice.

[But] “…we must insist that through the sacrament we are actually united with the very Son of God in his glorified humanity. All this is accomplished through the Holy Spirit… In the bread and wine of the sacrament we receive and share in the Living Christ. However that is explained or unexplained is secondary to the gracious gift we receive in it.” (Vander Zee, p.200).

Hear what Jesus himself said, recorded in John 6:48-58 NIV-UK.

I know this passage does not mention communion… but John’s Gospel was written later than the New Testament letters, when the patterns of breaking bread were well-established.

I believe John will have realised that as he wrote down his account of Jesus’ words, Jesus would have known it would be heard as a theology of the Supper. So, if you accept that, what theology did Jesus offer us in these words?

48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’

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

53 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just 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. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.’

The Supper is essentially to do with Christ’s presence.

The Supper is also to do with Christ’s absence.

Each time Christians gather, awaiting Christ’s return, we break bread in anticipation of the promised marriage supper of the Lamb.

In view of this sense of Christ’s absence, of the promise of Jesus’ return still not fulfilled, the Supper is a meal for sojourners. It’s a table in the wilderness (Psalm 78:19), eaten in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5).

The Supper is a reminder of what is promised and not yet delivered, so it constitutes us as a future-oriented people, expectant, eagerly waiting, aligned to a new world that is not yet visible. This awareness and hope shapes how we live now. The Supper renews that hope. It mandates how we order our lives so they are aligned with what will be.

The Supper is a judgment on the values and priorities of this world. It is an invitation to live together in such a way that we offer others a foretaste of the future God has promised to bring about when Jesus comes.

The Supper reminds us of Christ’s absence, but it also assures us of his future presence, when he returns.

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Recommendations for future practice

On Sundays

I call you the reader to a renewal of faith in Jesus meeting us in the sharing of bread and cup.

I encourage a greater use of communion as another way to respond to what God says in preaching, for example.

In midweek groups

I encourage midweek groups to break bread from time to time (maybe at least once a quarter, perhaps once a month, or once every six weeks)— although please follow the direction of the leaders in your faith community.

If you lead such a group, and your church leaders do not object, how about you invite your group to discuss this and agree what faith you have for this.

Individually

I invite everyone who follows Jesus Christ as Lord to hear Jesus calling us to participate in breaking bread often as a means of life.

To gather with our brothers and sisters around God’s Table is central to being a part of Jesus’ community on earth.

Have faith to meet with God in participation.

The gospel is enacted when we break bread

The apostle Paul wrote this: (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV)

26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

God’s invitation is to all. Come to me. Come to my table. Implicit in the bread is Christ and all he has done.

The Supper proclaims the gospel. Those who lead others in gathering at the Lord’s table will issue Christ’s wonderful invitation to come to him:

53 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. …

John 6:53-55

This is the introductory post to a series.

The follow-on posts will explore these themes in greater depth.

One of the ways the Supper works is to recalibrate our affections. This is explored in the next post here.

The second post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table,’ can be found here.

The third post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life,’ is here.

The fourth post, “The Lord’s Supper 4: new philosophical objections to transubstantiation,’ is here.

The fifth post, “The Lord’s Table 5: Real Presence or Real Absence?” is here.

The sixth post, “The Lord’s Supper 6: communion faqs,” deals with questions that face any church about who to include, who is to preside, what elements to use, etc.

Bibliography

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

 

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