READ : Galatians 1:1-24
Does your church ever eat together? That is an important mark of a Christian community, but in today’s program we explore a very special sense in which Christians gather together at the table for the breaking of the bread.
We read in Acts 2:42, speaking of the first Christians and their life together in Jerusalem, that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship: to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Apostolic teaching, apostolic fellowship, apostolic breaking of the bread and apostolic prayer; these are the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ.
Today we come to the third of them, the breaking of the bread. In this text we are meant to understand “the breaking of the bread” in a technical sense. This is apostolic bread-breaking, solemnly done in the name of the Lord Jesus. It is, in fact, the re-enactment of Christ’s own breaking of the bread, as with his disciples in the upper room. The meal referred to here is not a pot-luck supper in the church basement or an ice cream social on the lawn. This is the gathering of the church around the table of the Lord: the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
A Visible Word
St. Augustine taught the church to understand the sacraments as visible words of God, and as signs and seals of the promises of God that come to us through his Word. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the clearest sign of the gospel itself; the tangible, visible means by which God proclaims his grace to us in Jesus Christ.
As physical beings we long for physical signs to confirm what we think or believe. For example, when a man and woman make their marriage vows to one another, they usually give and receive a ring as a symbol to confirm their promises.
God also has not left us without such signs. He sets his rainbow in the sky as a reminder that he will not destroy the earth until the day of consummation arrives. In the Lord’s Supper God, using the signs of bread and wine, condescends to assure us of his gracious love. He doesn’t just tell us that Christ is our salvation and our life. He enables us to see it, to touch it, to smell it, even to taste it, so that we can be fully convinced of his forgiveness and of our salvation.
The Christian faith is not a philosophy, or a theory about God. It’s not even an ethical system. It is a message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. To understand the deepest meaning of that message, of that gospel, think about the four actions by which Jesus in the upper room instituted the Lord’s Supper. He took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to them saying, “This is my body which is broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
Jesus and his disciples had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It would be Jesus’ last observance with his disciples of the covenant meal that celebrated God’s saving acts for his people Israel. But Jesus had just dropped a “bombshell” on the table by saying to his disciples as they reclined together, “One of you is going to betray me.” One after another they asked, “Lord, it is I? Is it I?”
Now the Savior stands and picks up one of the loaves of bread left over from the meal. Jesus takes it in his hands and in so doing he draws his disciples’ attention once more to himself. Something important is about to happen. Jesus himself is the host at table. The bread which he takes up, and later the cup, both point directly to him. In taking the bread, Jesus is revealing himself to be the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. Not just this text here or that psalm there, not only the great Messianic passages like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22, not merely isolated texts scattered throughout the Old Testament; no, the whole of the Old Testament story, it all points directly to him.
He is the bread of life, the bread come down from heaven (Psalm 78:24, John 6:31-35). He is the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13). He is the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1 Corinthians 5:7, John 1:29).
His body is the temple that will be destroyed and raised again in three days (John 2:19-21). He is the torn curtain, through whom we pass into the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 10:19-20). He is both Chief Priest and sacrificial victim (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is the Mercy Seat and his is the blood sprinkled upon it (Romans 3:25). He is the bread, and he is the wine. It is all Jesus himself; it all points to him.
Then, after taking the bread, next Jesus blesses it. At this point in the history of the church much confusion entered in and began to distort the Supper of the Lord into something it was never intended to be. The great Reformed scholar Hughes Oliphant Old in his book on worship points out that the early church (especially in the centuries after Constantine) made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, and was much influenced by the mystery religions of the East. These popular cults would celebrate a kind of central mystery in which the priest would re-enact some secret ceremony in order to offer the benefits of salvation to the great mass of members. This kind of thinking began to creep into the church as well, bringing with it a sense that this sacrament was really a secret mystery.
The priest was thought to be consecrating the bread, or host, as it came to be called. He was blessing it and thereby transforming it literally into the body of Christ. Even the act by which the sacrament was celebrated began to change. In the western church the priest would turn his back to the people at the moment of consecration and he would lower his voice until it became inaudible, as he raised on high the host to be adored by the faithful.
In the eastern church they took it one step further. The priest would literally leave the room. He would pass through the iconostasis, the wall of holy icons built across the front of the church sanctuary. At the moment of consecration the priest would enter this doorway and go into a secret place so that the mystery would take place shielded from probing eyes.
Thus was the worship of the church changed, and the simple supper of the Lord commemorating his death on the cross was turned into something mysterious, almost magical. Of course, that is not what the text means at all when it says that Jesus took and blessed the bread.
When Christ blessed the bread he did not consecrate it somehow, or turn it into something else. He was simply giving thanks for it, undoubtedly he used the words of the great Jewish prayer that begins, Baracha Adonai Elohim; “Blessed art thou, Lord God, King of the world, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Jesus did not bless the bread and the cup; he blessed God for the bread and the cup. He gave thanks. And having taken the bread and thus given thanks for it, next Jesus broke it, for the bread does not merely symbolize the body of Christ, it symbolizes the brokenness of the body of Christ.
It isn’t Christ’s incarnation that saves. It isn’t his birth or his life, his teaching or his miracles or his marvelous example, wonderful as all those things are. No, it is the death of Christ that is our salvation. It is his body broken and his blood poured out and shed on the cross that makes atonement for our sins. So he breaks the bread, not just so that everyone can have a piece, but to point to the great act that saves us, the gift for which our eternal thanks are due, the sacrifice of the Messiah, the Lamb, the Son of God.
The Lord Jesus, the same night on which he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and then, finally, he gave it to them, saying ‘This is my body. Take. Eat. Do this to remember me.'” And so we do each time we come to the table of the Lord, not merely to remember, but in remembering and partaking to receive him. For he really is present here in his supper in a unique and unrepeated way, as in no other place. He’s not present physically, for his glorified body, still real, still very much tangible, is in heaven.
But Christ is present, as the reformers liked to say, “Not on the table, but at the table.” The Lord’s Supper is no mere act of looking back or recalling things. It is a real communion with our Lord, who meets us at the table and gives himself to us through the operation of his Spirit, to be received by faith. We cannot be saved in any other way than by receiving Christ himself, by faith.
Sometimes the evangelical doctrine of justification is caricatured as a sort of legal transaction or some kind of doctrinal head-trip. If you understand and accept the correct mechanics of the theory of atonement, then that takes your sins away. Not so! No one is saved by doctrine, even by correct doctrine. What saves us is being united to Christ by faith, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is God’s visible word to us that we actually do receive Christ when we believe, Christ himself. “Believe,” said Augustine, “and you have eaten.” Added Calvin, “Faith is the mouth and stomach of the soul.” We do not receive Christ with our mouths and our tongues, we receive him in our hearts, by faith. But we truly do receive him.
So come to him, receive him, welcome him, embrace him. And feed upon him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving. Amen.