A while ago I published this sermon on baptism. I never got round to posting the sequel, however, on the Lord’s Supper. So now, to complete my sacramental series (much shorter series as a Protestant), here it is.
Introduction: Awkward and unhygenic?
Today we continue our series on key practices in the life of our church by looking at the practice of sharing the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. I have had some interesting experiences with communion. I was once visiting a very small church in Cambridge while I was on holidays there. I went to take communion with the rest of the congregation – all seven of us – one of whom included an older lady who, to put it politely, was not as in control of her body as I am sure she once was. I had a moment of distress when the ebb and flow at the rail made clear to me that she would be receiving the cup just before me. And sure enough, it was not just wine that I received that morning.
It is another odd practice, the Lord’s Supper, isn’t it. As well as being a little unhygenic, it frankly creates fair amount of awkwardness as we work out how to do it, worry about it, and so on. It is a practice that, as you may be aware, can be exclusive. That is, we always stress that it’s not appropriate for just anyone and everyone to participate in this. It would be much easier if we just didn’t have it. It would make our Sunday meetings much more outsider friendly.
So what is this practice about? Why do we do it? And do we really need it? This is our interest this morning. There are lots of questions we are not going to have time for; but hopefully what we do cover will be helpful. Let us begin by asking why we do the Lord’s Supper.
§1 Why do we do the Lord’s Supper?
The Lord’s Supper is, like baptism, a symbolic ritual action. It is a symbolic meal in which bread and wine, or wine-substitute, are given out accompanied by words that connect them with Jesus’ death.
The words we say though, also connect this meal to a particular moment in the Gospels – the last supper. When we introduce the Lord’s Supper, we deliberately recall this moment. And this is not just an Anglican thing. From the beginning, the Lord’s supper has been connected to the last supper (1 Cor 11:23).
What happend, then, at the last supper? In our first reading, from Luke 22, we saw it. It is the climax of Jesus’ mission, just before the festival of Passover, when the Jewish people celebrated how God had rescued them out of Egypt. The key symbol was a slain lamb, which had been sacrificed as a substitute so that their lives would be spared. Jesus secretly makes preparations to eat a passover meal with his disciples.
Jesus uses this secret passover meal as a way of interpretting to his disciples the meaning of his coming death. Read with me from verse 14.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Jesus essentially talks about two things: what the meal means for him, and what it means for the disciples. For him, the meal is a last meal – it is his last moment of sharing in the normal joys of food and drink and fellowship with his friends. And yet it is not actually a last meal; because he also knows and looks ahead to the time he will eat and drink in the fulfillment of the kingdom of God.
For the disciples, the meal has another meaning: the bread and the wine represent Jesus’ death for them – his body given to death for them, and his blood, poured out for them. This meal is meant to show them the meaning of what they will witness just a few hours from this time: Jesus being brutalised and murdered. It is nothing less than a sacrifice given to God so that they can be forgiven, like the passover lamb slain as a substitute to make atonement for sin. When he gives them the bread and wine to eat and drink, Jesus is showing them that he is giving his own life up so that they can live.
Can I ask you to imagine for a second what it must have been like to be there at this moment? It must have been eery. By this time the disciples were aware that something big was happening. Can you imagine passing the cup around and having a drink and then, only afterwards, as if to make it so you couldn’t avoid it, Jesus tells you that it symbolises his death!
And yet we shouldn’t overestimate how much the disciples understood. They were still in many ways deeply confused. The verses that follow show us this plainly. Straight after, verse 24, they start squabbling about who is the greatest. They might have some inklings, but they have not at all gotten hold of what this really adds up to.
In fact, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that the true significance of this moment would have become clear: as they looked back on it after seeing Jesus crucified, and meeting him alive again. It is with the benefit of hindsight that the terrible beauty of this moment would have become clear.
But here lies the significance of Jesus’ command at the heart of the supper. In verse 19 he says, “Do this in remembrance of me”. You see, Jesus’ intention was that this meal be re-enacted later on, and re-enacted with the benefit of hindsight. Jesus’ intention was that his followers, after seeing the events this meal pointed to unfold, re-enact it with new understanding.
This is what we do when we do the Lord’s Supper. In obedience to this command of Jesus, we re-enact the last supper with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what Jesus meant when he said “given for you” and “poured out for you” – he meant the cross.
§2 What does the Lord’s Supper mean?
What does this mean then? How should we think about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? We can answer this by saying that the Lord’s Supper points in two directions: backwards, and forwards.
First, it points backwards – backwards to the death of Jesus on the cross. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, a way of remembering. We do it in remembrance of Jesus’ death. What we are not doing, that is to say, is conducting a sacrifice. This is how the Roman Catholic church understands the Lord’s Supper, but it is wrong. There was only one sacrifice, and it was done, once and for all, never to be done again, on the cross. If we think we’re doing a sacrifice then we are saying Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was not enough, which is blasphemy. No, what we re-enact in this meal is not Christ’s death itself, but the last supper. That’s why we do it on a table, not an altar. In the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ death on the cross by re-enacting that incredible last meal in which our Lord himself gave out bread and wine to illustrate what his death would mean. We come to his table and hear him teach us what his death means, and that it is for us.
But second, the Lord’s Supper also points forwards – forwards to the fulfillment of the last supper in the kingdom of God. This is something that is often missed, but should not be. You see, we shouldn’t forget the meaning we noticed this meal had for Jesus: it was his last meal with us, but also the promise of a new meal in God’s kingdom. So when we eat this meal, we also mourn the fact that Jesus is no longer with as as he was then, and we look forward to that time when he will be once more. We saw this at the end of our reading from Luke’s Gospel, where in verse 30 Jesus speaks of how he has conferred on his disciples a kingdom, so that they may eat and drink with him at his table there. When we share the Lord’s Supper, we also are conscious that we await a fulfillment, we look forward to the time when Jesus will be here with us again and we will eat and drink with him in fulfillment. Can I just encourage you to pause a moment and think, won’t that be great, to have him with us again? To actually share with him in celebration! I am deeply moved by that promise.
To sum up then, the Lord’s Supper points backwards and forwards. As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:26, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We look back to Jesus’ death for us, once for all, on the cross; and we look forward to being with him again in the kingdom.
§3 What is “going on” in the Lord’s Supper?
Understanding all of this will help us clarify how we should think about what is “going on” when we share the Lord’s Supper.
Here I want us to recall what we said last week about sacraments. The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is a “sacrament”, that is, a special kind of sign, given to us by God, which communicates his grace and shapes our response. It is not, therefore, magic; and it doesn’t work by magic. At one level, there is nothing else going on than what is plainly visible.
I stress this because the Lord’s Supper has frequently been the object of basically superstitious ideas. In particular, the mistake has often been made of thinking that the bread and wine in the supper are or somehow become literally Jesus’ body and blood. What this leads you to is an idea of the supper where the physical elements are what matters, and so if, for example, you were to spill the wine, it’s a disaster. This logic led the church in some ages to refuse to give the wine to the common people – think what they might do with it!
But this is to mistake the nature of a sacrament. A sacrament is a sign, and so not in and of itself the thing that it signifies. The bread and wine represent and point us to Jesus’ body and blood; but they are not the thing themselves. The elements acquire their special significance through their role in the symbolic action; not by being somehow physically or even spiritually transformed in themselves.
This also helps us steer away from the related mistake of thinking that the Lord’s Supper works automatically, so that as long as you take the bread and wine, you’ll be ok with God, whatever you actually think about Jesus. But this is nonsense, you see, because fundamentally the Lord’s Supper is a means of communication, and so it only “works” in our lives when the message it carries is believed and trusted, like a promise. Without trust in the death of Jesus for our sins, this meal will not help us. It is a sign that points us to something else. If you don’t follow a sign, it doesn’t take you anywhere.
But, like I did with baptism I again want to stress: this does not mean that there is nothing going on in the Lord’s Supper, nor that how we treat this meal has no consequences. On the contrary, there is something “going on” in the Lord’s Supper, something with profound consequences. What’s going on is that God’s grace is being powerfully and truly communicated through the physical symbol and words of explanation. And this is a significant thing, which you can’t expect to be a part of and it not affect you.
In our second reading, from 1 Corinthians 10, Paul describes the significance of the Lord’s Supper using the language of participation. Chapter 10 verse 14. His purpose in this section is to call the Corinthians to steer well clear of idol feasts, that is, meals of sacrficial meat held in idol temples. The danger with this is that they become, as he puts it in verse 20, “participants with demons”. What does he mean by this? People who are connected to through being identified with, demons. Why is this a danger? Not, please note, in verse 19, because the meat in itself has become something other than meat! No, but because this kind of action, that is, sharing in an idol feast, has a meaning: you become a sharer, a participant, in the table – you become linked to it. And this is unacceptable for Christians, says Paul, because they are sharers in the Lord’s table. See in verse 16: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
This symbolic action, you see, is powerful. Not because something unseen happens to the bread and wine; but because symbols are powerful, because this action communicates the grace of God such that sharing in it means something real.
§4 What does this mean for how we should do it?
How, then, should we share in this meal? How should we come to it and take part in it?
The basic answer is, not carelessly. We should not come to this table thinking it is a small thing, or not thinking at all. Rather, we should come with respect for what this act signifies. We should come to it with thankfulness, humility, and repentance. Above all we must not be arrogant, nor unwilling to turn our back on our sin.
In 1 Corinthians 11, just after the passages we have looked at, Paul stresses the importance of these things. It’s a bit of a weird passage for us; but we need to hear it. Verse 27: Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Now, there’s lots to talk about here; (and again I invite you to the question time next week after church.) But what’s the logic here? Has Paul gone back to a kind of magical idea of the supper. No he hasn’t. The logic, I think, is more like this: God’s mercy must change us. It must bring about in us a response of repentance and thankfulness. If it doesn’t, something has gone awry. Therefore, there is something deeply wrong with sharing in the Lord’s Supper – the purpose of which is to unveil the reality of God’s grace in a profoundly intimate way – without allowing your heart to be moved towards God. That kind of hardness of heart before God’s mercy can be deadly.
What, then, does it look like to come in a “worthy manner”? Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean being sinless. There is no one sinless except Jesus; and the whole point of the Lord’s Supper is that we are sinners who need forgiveness. So don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to stay away because you’re not perfect. If you were perfect you wouldn’t need it. No the Lord’s Supper isn’t for perfect people, it’s for penitent people. People, that is, who are willing to humble themselves and allow God’s grace to change them.
The point of the liturgy we say before the Lord’s supper is to help us with this. We pray prayers of confession and preparation in order to approach the table with the right attitude. These words are not just motions we have to go through; they are meant to lead us to the attitude of penitence that is appropriate for what we are doing.
But we should not kid ourselves that all that matters is that we say some words. No, the point is that we genuinely submit ourselves to God’s grace. And this means that we need to think about other things as well, like our relationships with others. When Paul spoke about sharing in the supper unworthily, the context makes it clear that he had in mind people who were being careless with their fellow church members, who were being selfish and proud and hurtful of others in their community. In a similar way, Jesus taught that we cannot have God’s forgiveness if we are unwilling to forgive others ourselves. For this reason, in the Anglican Prayer Book, the Lord’s supper would be announced in advance so that people would have the chance to mend the grievances they had with each other before they took it.
The Lord’s Supper, you see, is a profound and intimate reminder of what our salvation cost. And what cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Let me encourage you to take this call to self-examination seriously, to pray the prayers of preparation, and to come to the table with an attitude of humility and repentance.
§5 Why do we need the Lord’s Supper?
You may be feeling that this is all pretty serious. And after all these serious warnings, is it really worth it? Maybe we’re better off kind of avoiding this practice. There’s no doubt that what the Lord’s supper is about, what it signifies and confronts us with, is actually pretty disturbing. But you see, if we choose to just look elsewhere, what we’re actually avoiding is reality.
In the Lord’s supper, you see, the true dimensions of life are unveiled. This practice confronts us with the ultimate realities of the world: of death and judgment, forgiveness and grace. And these are the things which are, finally, the things that matter. We can avoid these things if we want, for now; but ultimately we will have to deal with them. The Lord’s Supper is an uncomfortable practice because it prevents us from living life superficially; it stops us closing our eyes. Yet that is also exactly why we need it. God has given us this practice to enable us to face and to engage with the deep, deep realities of the universe.
And we are able to face them, because at the heart of the Lord’s supper is grace. If it were anything else, we could only run and hide. But what this meal shows us is that at the heart of the deep things of life, of our relationship with God, is his grace to us, his mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s supper is a word of assurance to us, to each of us. It is the assurance that God’s grace is for me, and for you, that it extends to you, that Jesus died for you. When you come to communion, you see, Jesus is welcoming you to his table; and just like he did at the last supper, he gives you bread and wine and says, “this is my body, given for you” and “this is my blood, poured out for many”. It is Jesus’ own assurance that his death is for you, and his promise that one day you will eat and drink with him in the fulfillment of the kingdom. This meal is a gift for each of us, to assure us that Christ’s work was done for us. This is the food that sustains our faith.
§6 What does the Lord’s Supper say about us as a community?
Let us conclude by considering briefly, as we did last week with baptism, what this practice says about us as a community.
Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, writes Paul, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We are a community that lives by and in the death of Jesus. That’s what the Lord’s Supper shows us. Communities exist by holding things in common, sharing together in things, whether they be a love of a football team, a common nationality or history, a shared place. A Christian community is joined together by our sharing, our fellowship, in the death of Jesus. When we share the Lord’s supper, this is what we demonstrate: that the thing that unites this church is Jesus’ death on the cross.
This means many things for our life together. But let me highlight three things that seem to me to be especially important. It means we are utterly committed to forgiveness; we are not afraid to suffer; and we are thrilled by the promise of the future.
First, we are utterly committed to forgiveness. As a community defined by the death of Jesus, we believe in forgiveness. And we don’t just believe in it, we are obsessed with it. It is a deep, deep, value and conviction for us. We believe we will each need forgiveness from each other, and we believe we must give it to each other. For God has forgiven us. We don’t think forgiveness is easy – we don’t think it is simple. No; the death of Jesus teaches us very clearly that forgiveness is extraordinarily costly and painful. But that is what we are utterly, completely, committed to and invested in. A church should not be a place where the wrongs we do each other are ignored. Nor should it be a place where they have the last word. The Lord’s supper assures us that they do not have the last word with God.
Second, we are not afraid to suffer. A community that lives by the death of Jesus cannot be surprised by suffering, and should not be afraid to meet it. We know that this is what following Christ will involve in this time. Sometimes, it might mean suffering outright hostility and even violence, like our brothers and sisters in Egypt are experiencing at the moment. That’s hardly ever the case in Australia though. But it almost certainly will mean the struggles and pains that come from seeking to be obedient in the face of the limits and brokenness of life in this world – the pains of loss, sickness, difficulty, hardship. And as a community it will almost certainly mean facing painful challenges and threats. We should not be afraid to suffer in these ways, and to share in them with others. The Lord’s supper reminds us that this is the way of Jesus.
And finally, we are a community thrilled by the promise of the future. In the Lord’s supper we proclaim his death until he comes. We live in expectation, in hope; and it fills us with delight. The promise of his return, and being with him again, eating and drinking in the fulfillment of the kingdom. This is what we know lies before us. And so we must not despair when things are grim. And we cannot help a current of cheerfulness that runs through all our life together, even if things are not going so well in one way or another. This is why we sing, and why we enjoy life together where we can. Because the Lord’s supper promises us that fasting will turn to feasting, that our bridegroom will return, and we will be with him again.
St Stephen’s church, Newtown
25 August, 2013