A meal to remember Jesus and why it’s so contentious

OPINION | Michael Jensen
Sunday 5th April 2015

It is one of the saddest ironies of Christian history that a meal designed to symbolise the unity and fellowship of Christians in the death of their Saviour, Jesus Christ, has been one of the points of greatest contention and division. Even in what I have just written, I have probably described the Supper in such a way as to annoy someone.

We need only recall the Marburg4572740916_386c4b8105_z Colloquy of 1529, in the middle of the Protestant Reformation. It started with so much promise: if the leaders of the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli from Zurich and Martin Luther from Wittenberg, could come to an agreement on their core convictions, then who would be able to stop them? Who would be able to contend against the gospel of justification by faith alone, and the authority of Scripture over the church with these two massive figures standing side by side?

A central part of the ‘protest’ against the Roman Catholic Church was on the very issue of the Lord’s Supper (or the mass). Saying masses was seen as a way of accruing merits with God. You could even have a mass said by a priest for a dead person, to reduce their time in purgatory.

The Reformers agreed that this was unbiblical. They both agreed that you didn’t receive justifying grace in the communion service. In fact, they agreed on most things. At issue between them was the idea of the ‘Real Presence’: was the bread and the wine used in the meal united to the real body and blood of Christ (Luther’s position), or were the bread and wine simply symbols (as Zwingli argued)?

But in the end, Luther would not move on the Real Presence. He pointed to Jesus’ words ‘This is my body’, recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Surely, if you interpret the Bible in the literal sense, he said, you are committed to taking Jesus at his word here. The bread and wine are his body. He didn’t say ‘This symbolises my body’.

And thus, the young Reformation movement was divided. From that moment on, Protestant Christians have differed from one another on the Lord’s Supper in every conceivable way. How often should we celebrate it? Is it purely symbolic, or does it do more than that? Should it accompany an ordinary meal? Should church members come forward to receive it, or stay in their seats and pass it to one another? Should an authorised person say the words that explain and enact the Supper? Should we guard the table from unrepentant sinners, or should we allow people to exercise their own consciences?

There are even some Protestants who argue that we shouldn’t celebrate it at all – that Jesus was in no way setting up a ceremonial meal of any kind.

Why is there such heat in the issue?

First, evangelical Christians are united in wanting to preserve the ‘alone’-ness in the gospel of justification by faith alone. What that means is that it is Christ’s death on the cross that saves a sinner, once for all, and that salvation is applied to us by the Holy Spirit by the means of faith and no other thing. No ritual action or good work does that – not even the meal that Jesus showed his disciples.

The potential for people to misconstrue the Lord’s Supper as some kind of alternative to justification by faith is amply illustrated by the whole history of the medieval church.

Second, the Lord’s Supper is one of those issues where theology and practice overlap. It concerns what we actually do when we meet together, which involves not only theological convictions, but habits, and traditions, and aesthetics. Changing what happens at the Lord’s Supper is a bit like moving the furniture around in your home. We become irrationally attached to the familiar.

So, where does that leave us as Christians wanting to be faithful to Christ and to the Scriptures?

It is to these we need to turn in order to gain a bit of clarity. We can say six things with confidence (though I am sure someone will disagree somewhere!)

First, the early Christians when they met recalled and to some degree re-enacted the meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed. That’s the scene that Paul is referring too in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33. Of course, he’s complaining about how it is badly done, so that we get a sideways glance at what early Christians did through Paul’s criticism.

Secondly, the Lord’s Supper is an occasion for giving thanks to God for his gifts of food and drink, but also for his gift of his Son. Paul is quite particular about recalling Jesus giving thanks to God before he breaks the bread and passes the cup around.

Thirdly, at that original meal Jesus had taken bread and wine and had spoken of them as symbols of his own body and blood, which would be given in death. This happened at a Passover meal, in which the idea of the death of the lamb in the place of the first born sons of Israel is remember. Jesus’ death was to be ‘for you’ in the sense of ‘in place of’.

Fourthly, the meal that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians, was clearly also meant to symbolise the togetherness and unity of Christians. We know that, because the selfishness, gluttony and divisiveness of Christians at the table was so appalling to him. It was a perversion of the meaning of the Supper itself. In 10:16-17, Paul speaks of Christians ‘sharing’ in the blood and the body of Christ.

Fifthly, though the meal looks back to the events of Golgotha, it is not simply a piece of nostalgia. It also looks forward. Paul includes the words: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). The eating of the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel not only of the Lord who died, but also of the Lord who rose from the dead, and who will return.

Sixthly, the Lord’s Supper is a very serious thing. The misbehaviour of the Corinthians had brought them illness and even death. If you do not ‘discern the body’ (11:29), then you bring judgment on yourself. Paul says that we should ‘examine’ ourselves, and then only eat and drink.

So what does that mean for Christians today? If I am part of denominational tradition with an inherited practice, must I make it look more like 1 Corinthians? If I am part of a new church plant, what are we to do about celebrating the Lord’s Supper?

I think we need to keep a couple of things in mind here. The first of these is that recreating the New Testament practice exactly is neither possible nor even desirable. For a start, the picture that we have is one that is being critiqued quite savagely! What we have to do is not replicate a 1st century meal, but put into practice the principles we have learnt. For example, most church traditions have made the Lord’s Supper into a token meal, where you get a tiny bit of wine and a small piece of bread. Is that directed in Scripture? No. But it is a wise response to the problem of gluttony exposed in 1 Cor 11, and it helps to remind us of the unity and fellowship at the heart of the meal. It helps to remind us that we are being spiritually, not physically, fed at this table.

Likewise, do we have to recite a formula of words? There is no indication that we have to, but it is certainly the case that various churches have found it helpful to agree on a pattern of words, usually based on the words that Paul quoted from Jesus himself. If there is a problem with people misconstruing the meaning of the meal, then it seems like a good idea to provide some guidance. Paul asks us to examine ourselves before we eat: it is a good idea then, to provide a prayer or a moment for prayer which helps us to do just this.

Many of the variations in practice amongst Christians come because people have felt that one part of the rich meaning of the Supper or other was being obscured. Of course, correcting imbalances often falls over into an imbalance on the other side! We need to recognise that custom, history and habit have led to many of these variation in practice more than real theological difference, and exercise a bit of tolerance for one another.

But most of all, we need to recognise that the Lord’s Supper is an extraordinary gift from Christ to his people – and enjoy it. Symbols are never ‘mere’ symbols. A wedding is a symbol of a marriage, but it is indispensable to that marriage, because it is a visible enactment of the love and trust that makes the marriage. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper does not save us. But it is an instrument by which God may move us to trust him even more deeply.

Image courtesy Neil Conway, via Flickr

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