I learned very quickly when you are with a bunch of Protestant Christians, you can always get a good argument going when you try to explain what the Lord’s supper means. One wise teacher once said, “That is because the only thing we all agree on is that we are not Catholic.” So, it is with great trepidation that I try to engage with the Lord’s supper with my Protestant friends.
The Lord’s Supper1 (1 Cor 11:20) is one of the few ceremonies that most Christian church around the world does. In fact, it is regarded as one of the few marks of the true church. The Belgic Confession (Art. 29) explains the marks of the church as “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practises church discipline for correcting faults.”.
It is clear that the Lord’s supper points to something beyond itself, but what exactly? Rather than describe it, I would like to spend time I would say it points in 10 different directions, like a jewel with light point through that refracts the night in different directions making a picture of beauty. I should point out, this is highly summarised and each point should have more detail (but this is a blog people!! Not a PhD!).
So, here are the 10 different directions of the Lord’s Supper.
1. To the cross
Obviously, the first and most important direction is that the supper is meant to point us to the cross (1 Cor 11:26). We can see this from the way it is clearly put so closely to the death and resurrection of Jesus in the narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
2. From Passover
Each of the synoptic gospels mentions repeatedly, that this was the Passover meal that Jesus was modifying for his disciples. In a sense, it means meant to find its meaning pointing back to the Passover meal. That meal was meant to be a clear identifying ceremony for the Israelites to remind them of their identity (Ex 12:24-28). This new meal is meant to remind the followers of Christ that of who we are2.
3. To the end and what will be won
As Jesus drinks the cup he marks out a new era. This era would continue until the end of the world and we are meant to be reminded of that (Matt 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). It is not merely about the events of the cross, but what the cross will win for Jesus and his people.
4. Bringing the new Covenant
As Jesus gives the wine for the disciples to drink, he is reminding them that this is the marker of the new covenant (Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). The agreement between God and man will now be marked by the blood of Jesus. The wine, reminding us of that blood.
5. Our connection with Christ
As Jesus is inviting his followers to take and eat and then identifying the bread as his body, he is reminding us of our union with him. He is in us and we are in him (e.g. Rom 6:23, 8:9-11, etc.). He is in us, as the bread is in us.
6. Our connection with each other
Paul takes this another step further as rebukes the Corinthian church for the form they have taken in how they celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34). In celebrating what Jesus has done in his body on the cross, we are to recognise his body the church (1 Cor 11:29, 33-34).
7. Our need to Jesus for life
By using bread (Matt 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:23) Jesus is using a key symbol of life ( Ex 16:1-16, John 6:32-35, etc.). Eating the bread is to remind us that we need Jesus for life. Eating the bread of the Passover has an added level of meaning that we are eating a meal that is to remind us we are still journeying to the promised land (Ex 12:17-20)3.
8. Our need for Jesus alone
Jesus does not ask anything of his disciples except that they take and eat (Matt 26:26) and that they drink (Matt 26:27). They are not required to do anything else. This illustrates perfectly the act of accepting God’s grace to us. We bring nothing to the Lord’s Supper or our salvation, we simply accept what has been given to us.
9. Jesus willingness to give
Throughout the meal, the last that Jesus will have with his followers before the cross, we are reminded that he is giving his life. He holds nothing back (John 3:16). This self-giving is to be a hall mark of his followers (John 15:13, 1 John 3:16).
10. Jesus willingness to share with his betrayer
Even more astounding is that this meal that is so full of meaning, is shared not just with his friends and followers but also with his betrayer. This is a point that all of the Synoptics are keep to highlight (Matt 26:21, Mark 14:18, Luke 22:21ff). Matthew and Mark begin the account pointing to the betrayer being in the midst of the meal, Luke mentions it at the end but includes more detail.
What does all of this mean? Firstly, we need to be careful that we don’t discount different meanings of the Lord’s Supper. There is a priority here, which I have tried to follow. But I wonder if some of our disagreements come from not following that priority or being selective in which directions we see. Secondly, I believe, different aspects of the Lord’s Supper should be highlighted in its practice. But this will have to be worked out by each congregation.
Have there been any that I have missed?
1 Also known as Communion, the Last Supper, etc. But since Paul has called it “the Lord’s Supper” so will I.
2 Note how the term “In remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24-25) is used.
3 To be honest, I am not sure how much the theme of “unleavened” needs to be a part of the Christian Lord’s Supper, but 1 Cor 5:6-7 seems to allude it reminding us that we are not part of the world we live in.