The Gospel and The Table

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 11:20-22

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26, rsv

What do these phrases have in common: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Table of the Lord? Actually they all describe the same thing. They all point to what happens when believers in Jesus Christ partake together of the bread and the cup. Some call this a sacrament, some an ordinance, some a holy meal. But all look back to something Jesus urged upon His disciples the night before He died.

Christians agree that this meal was instituted by Jesus, that it was meant for all His followers, and that it involves some kind of bread along with the fruit of the vine. But that, sad to say, is usually where the agreement ends.

Scholars have debated endlessly over what Jesus meant when He said of the bread, “This is my body,” and of the cup, “This is my blood.” Did He mean “this represents my blood” or “this symbolizes my body”? Or did He mean “this actually is My physical flesh and blood”? Do the elements remain bread and wine or are they miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus?

And how is Christ present in the celebration of this meal – present in the thoughts of His followers, present by the power of His Spirit, or actually present in or with the bread and the cup?

Who should partake of this supper – only the members of the church where it is served, all who have professed Christ as Savior, or all of these together with their children?

Should everyone receive both the bread and the cup? Or should some receive only one of the elements? Should wine be used or grape juice? How often should this observance be held – daily, weekly, quarterly, occasionally?

With regard to these questions, the church of Jesus Christ has at times been bitterly divided. Such concerns have led to major schisms in Christendom, as well to controversies within denominations and congregations. They are among the greatest obstacles to deepening fellowship between churches and communions today. Isn’t that strange, ironic and sad?

Even where people agree about the meaning of the supper, abuses often arise in the practice of it. The apostle Paul notes some of these in the church of Corinth. Listen to his words in chapter 11, beginning at verse 20:

When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?

Imagine that! People were gathering in this Christian congregation to observe the Lord’s Supper but there was anything but togetherness among them. Some had an abundance of food and drink while others had nothing. Some started to partake right away before the rest were ready. Some, before long, were shamelessly drunk. Could this be the Lord’s Supper? Was this what Jesus had in mind?

Now the apostle Paul goes on to explain what this meal instituted by Jesus really means. Listen to him:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Earlier, in chapter 10, Paul had said this about the cup and the bread:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

Paul here is seeing the Lord’s Supper, in both of these passages, in the light of the gospel, the heart of the Christian message. Let’s try to look at it with him. Let’s try to see in it what he saw.

SHARED MEMORY

The Lord’s Supper is a feast of shared memory. Did you notice how Jesus said, both about the bread and the cup, “Do this in remembrance of me”? Now recall the moment at which these words were first spoken. Paul notes that “it was on the night when he was betrayed.” In other words, it was just before Jesus’ crucifixion. That gave a special poignancy to the occasion, and a special focus to the memory.

The meal that Jesus had with His disciples that night was a kind of “Passover feast.” This was for all Israel a festival of cherished memory. It was a time when they celebrated their deliverance by God’s hand. In the liturgy of the Passover, they savored these words, “He brought us out from slavery to liberty, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to holiday, from darkness to great light, from servitude to redemption.” God had been their strong Redeemer. On this night, at this meal, they remembered His mighty work on their behalf.

The apostle Paul sees what we call “the Lord’s Supper” as a kind of Christian passover. Believers in Jesus have passed from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from darkness to light. But for them this has come about not by a physical deliverance at the Red Sea but by a spiritual redemption through the Cross. It is Jesus whom Christians remember. They remember His life of obedience, His words of truth, His works of mercy and power. But especially, they remember His suffering, His self-giving, His dying love. They celebrate this memory because all that Jesus suffered and accomplished was for them. “This is my body,” He said, “which is for you.” They remember Him with deathless gratitude and devotion, singing, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” This is a “new covenant,” Jesus told them, sealed not with the blood of slain animals but with His own blood. It means forgiveness, a new heart, the gift of the Spirit, the knowledge of God – all through His broken body and poured-out life. Christians sing, “O Lamb of God, my sacrifice, I will remember Thee.”

SHARED HOPE

The Lord’s Supper is also a feast of shared hope. Listen: “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

From the earliest times apparently, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was accompanied by Christian preaching. Our four New Testament gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all consist of material that was proclaimed before it was written down. And, in each of these gospels, the central focus is unquestionably the passion and resurrection of Jesus. The last week of His public ministry receives more attention in them than all the rest of His life put together. The heart of Christian proclamation has been from the beginning the cross and the empty tomb. The passion narratives as we now have them were doubtless shared orally many, many times before they were written. What keeps the Lord’s Supper from becoming an empty, isolated celebration is this living connection with the gospel message.

But the passage we have just read is saying something more than that. Not only is the Lord’s Supper to be accompanied by the preaching of the Christian message. It is actually a form of that message. When Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they are proclaiming, Paul says, the Lord’s death. That’s what the elements themselves, the words of institution, and the act of partaking, are all designed to convey. The Lord’s Supper is the word made visible, tangible, even edible. It presents to all our senses this glorious message: Jesus Christ has died for us, to set us free. It demonstrates how “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Christians around the table of the Lord keep on proclaiming His atoning death until the Lord comes. That’s another vital part of the gospel. The Lord who came once will come again. First to be rejected, then to reign. Once to die in weakness and shame, finally in power and unimaginable glory.

Do you see how the Lord’s Supper keeps us close to the gospel? Thank God for this great gift! Even in ages when the church has forgotten the heart of the Christian message, this has continued to be a reminder and a testimony, holding up Christ crucified as our Savior, assuring us that He will return in triumph.

SHARED LIFE

But this marvelous provision of the Lord is more than a memory and a hope, more than a backward and a forward look. It is also a feast of shared life. Remember how the apostle called it, “a participation in the body of Christ, a participation in the blood of Christ”? The Lord’s Supper is a sharing in the life of Jesus Christ.

The message of Christ dying for our sins is gloriously good news because death could not hold Him, because God has raised Him from the dead. The gospel proclaims a living Lord, a Redeemer who has conquered the grave. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate that reality, along with the confidence that we who believe are now united with Him. There’s a vital connection between Christians and their Lord. They can be called in the New Testament, “members of His body,” partakers of His risen life.

In the Lord’s Supper, that is visibly, powerfully expressed. Just as the food and drink we take into our bodies becomes a part of our living tissue, a part of us, so those who receive Christ by faith become one with Him and are nourished by Him. The Lord’s Supper expresses that, embodies that, even more, every partaking of it means experiencing that reality afresh. By faith we really do partake of Jesus Christ. As our bodies are fed at His table, so our souls are nourished by His risen life. The Lord’s Supper is a feast of communion with Him.

And this communion we share with all of God’s people. As Paul puts it, “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Since we are united to the one Lord, we are made one also with each other. Joined forever to Him, we belong also to one other.

That’s why the behavior of these Corinthians, when they had gathered for a common meal, was so scandalous. This was a feast of shared life. Imagine some gorging themselves while others had nothing at all to eat! Imagine one digging right in without waiting for a brother or sister! This is the celebration in which we are to show ourselves one in Christ, members of His body, each caring deeply for the other.

Again, that’s why divisions in the Church over the supper are so tragic. The feast intended to draw us together, sets us apart. Instead of celebrating it in love, we fight with each other over the details of what it means. Instead of rejoicing in our oneness, we sometimes seem to glory in our differences.

The apostle wants us all to examine ourselves about these things. When we think of coming to the Lord’s Table, when we prepare to partake, are we thinking of one another, caring about our fellow Christians, rejoicing that we share together in Christ’s own life?

Yes, and as we come, are we embracing the heart of the gospel? Do we remember with thankful trust the One who bore our sins and gave Himself to die for us? Are we confident that He is Lord and that one day He will come again in triumph? And do we come with a vital awareness that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and present in our hearts? Oh, may it be so! Then this will truly be for us, the Lord’s Table, the Lord’s Supper.

PRAYER: O God, help us all so to trust in Jesus Christ, that we may fittingly celebrate His supper. Amen.