Lord's Supper Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Lord's Supper

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The Word becomes flesh over and over as Christ comes to us in the bread and cup of Holy Communion, confirming his forgiving grace to famished sinners. It is important that Christians not only participate in the Eucharist, but also that they have some understanding of what it offers and what it means (see sacraments for more on the meaning of sacraments).

In Scripture

Fulfillment of Passover While the Lord's Supper is, of course, not mentioned in the Old Testament, Jesus inaugurated it at a Passover Seder (Luke 22:7). It was meant to fulfill and therefore replace that old covenant meal. The connections are clear. Just as the Passover was a sacramental remembrance of and participation in the exodus, the Lord's Supper is a remembrance of and participation in Christ's ultimate liberation from sin and death. Also, just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed to free Israelites from the Angel of Death, so Christ's death and resurrection, remembered and received in the sacrament, free us from sin and death.

The three synoptic gospels give similar accounts of the Last Supper (John has no such scene, but many believe his teaching on the Supper is given in John 6:32-59). The important features are its Passover setting, its placement on the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest, and the use of the bread and wine.

Acts and Paul's Epistles It's clear from Acts and from Paul's epistles that the Lord's Supper became a central and regular feature of Christian worship (Acts 2:42, 46, 20:7, 11, 1 Cor. 10-11).

Meal of Remembrance: Lord's Supper An important feature of the Lord's Supper is the fact that it is a meal of remembrance — "Do this in remembrance of me." However, it's crucial to understand that this remembrance was not merely an act of recalling a past event. In scripture, remembrance is identifying oneself with that particular act. The Passover feast was meant not just to recall the event, but "so that all the days of your life you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt" (Deut. 16:3). It was an act not only of recalling, but of participating in that exodus community. So too, the remembrance of Lord's Supper means that participants identify themselves as those redeemed through the shed blood and broken body of the Lord.

Meal of Unity in Christ: Communion Paul's extensive discussion of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 revolves around its abuse. While meant to be a meal that united them in Christ (1 Cor. 10:17), it had become a meal of disunity (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The participants must discern the body of Christ (particularly its unity) so as not to "eat and drink judgment" on themselves (v. 29).

Eschatological Focus: Eucharist Another important biblical feature of the Lord's Supper is its eschatological focus. Jesus says he will not eat it again "until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:16). Paul writes that in this meal we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord's Supper points to its fulfillment in the "marriage feast of the Lamb" at the end of time (Rev. 19:9).

Points to Ponder

The words, "This is my body . . . my blood" echo across the centuries in both their blessing and the controversies they have incited. What exactly does the "is" mean here? The two main approaches are 1) the bread and wine symbolize, or recall to our minds, the sacrifice of Christ and 2) the bread and wine somehow actually convey the reality of Christ and his sacrifice to us. It has to be said that that the first understanding is rather recent, since the time of the Reformation, while the second is rooted in the early church and the Fathers.

A Symbol The idea that the bread and wine are mere symbols or mnemonic devices became widespread after the Reformation, especially in the work of Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli taught that spiritual grace could not be conveyed through material things. This was a reaction to the crassly carnal understanding of the Roman Church of the time, in which there was believed to be an actual physical change in the elements (transubstantiation). This was not the way it was understood in the Early Church and by the Fathers. Earlier, it was believed that while Christ was really present in and the blessings of his grace offered through the bread and wine, the actual way this happened was a mystery.

Christ Is Really Present Both Luther and Calvin, each in their own way, taught that Christ was really present, though in a "spiritual" way, through the bread and wine. Luther taught that Christ was present "in, with, and under" the elements, while Calvin taught that the Holy Spirit united us with the ascended Lord in the eating and drinking of communion. Either way, we can say that in communion we receive Christ and the blessings of his sacrifice.

Word and Sacrament Word and sacrament are bound tightly together. Without the Word the sacrament becomes an empty act. Without the sacrament, the Word becomes a mere idea in the mind. When Word and sacrament function together we have the whole of the gospel for embodied persons. Many interpreters have seen this bond of word and sacrament in the story of the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:13-31). As they walked along with the unrecognized Jesus, he taught them the Scriptures so that their hearts burned within them. When the day ended, and they ate together, "he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread." In this case, sacrament follows Word and makes it real.

Every Week in the Early Church It's interesting to note that those who understand the Lord's Supper as in some sense actually conveying spiritual reality typically celebrate it far more often. In fact, it seems clear in the New Testament (Acts 20:7) that in the early church the Eucharist was a regular weekly aspect of Christian worship. This was true until the time of the Reformation, when the Zwingian strain won many adherents.

Robert Bruce "Do you ask what new thing we get in a sacrament? I say we get Christ better than we did before: we get a better grip of Christ now."

Nancy Mairs "I don't partake because I am a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek. I partake because I'm a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger: fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul."

John Calvin "Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ's flesh, separated from us by such a great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space."

Flannery O'Connor Someone once told the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor that it is more open-minded to think that the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is a great, wonderful, powerful symbol. Her response was, "If it's only a symbol, to hell with it."

Belgic Confession "Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ's own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood — but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven — but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood."

Ulrich Zwingli Here are Zwingli's last words on the subject of Christ's presence in the sacrament: "We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord's Supper; yea, we believe that there is no communion without the presence of Christ. This is the proof: `Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matt. 18:20). How much more is he present where the whole congregation is assembled to his honor! But that his body is literally eaten is far from the truth and the nature of faith. It is contrary to the truth, because he himself says: 'I am no more in the world' (John 17:11), and 'The flesh profiteth nothing' (John 6:63), that is to eat, as the Jews then believed and the Papists still believe. It is contrary to the nature of faith (I mean the holy and true faith), because faith embraces love, fear of God, and reverence, which abhor such carnal and gross eating, as much as any one would shrink from eating his beloved son. . . . We believe that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religious, believing, and pious heart (as also St. Chrysostom taught). And this is in brief the substance of what we maintain in this controversy, and what not we, but the truth itself teaches.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.