Today is MauThursday, and many Christians around the world will be coming together this evening, to celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper. They will be given a piece of bread, and a small glass of grape juice or wine – food and drink of the most elementary kind. And yet if they come hungry, or parched with thirst, they won’t go away with their hunger satisfied, or their thirst quenched. Therefore, there must be something more to it than food and drink. There is.
The people who come are prepared for this extra meaning, because they see it all the time. Thousands of young people every year go forward to the platform at Convocation and receive a diploma. It is a sheet of paper, but certainly no student thinks, that there’s nothing more to it than a piece of paper. And hundreds of brides process up the aisles of churches to receive a ring. Surely none of them think that they are given nothing more than a band of metal to wear on their finger.
So in order to appreciate what this meal means, people have to know something about what happened a long time ago. They don’t have to be an intellectual to know it, but they do have to know the essential facts, and have a picture in their mind of what took place.
It happened in the city of Jerusalem, in an upper room, borrowed by a small group of men who were in the city for a holiday. They were all Jews, and all meals were sacred to Jews, at least in the sense that before any food was eaten, God was blessed for the food.
Some scholars are convinced that it was a fellowship meal – a Kiddush, a group of people very closely knit together, having a meal in which the closeness of their fellowship was made even closer. The leader of this group was a man named Jesus – young, about their own age.
He knew that he was going to die. He had come to the point where he no longer resisted the fact. He wanted to live, not only for his own pleasure and satisfaction, but for the things he wanted to do for God and the world. He could have escaped if he wanted to, but he came to see, that the only thing that could do for the people what he wanted done, was the offering of his life. He knew that it would break through the alienation that had come to exist between individuals and God, and this alienation was communicated through all their relationships with one another.
So the night before he died, he met his closest friends for supper. As they met around the table it must have brought back to their minds, and to his, other suppers, which they shared together when days were brighter; when they believed that he would be the One to redeem Israel, and bring back to their people the glory that had long since departed, and give them the freedom, both political and spiritual that they had longed for and never had, not for centuries.
It must also have made Jesus think of the time yet to come, when they would once more be gathered together in God’s kingdom. Sometimes this is overlooked when Christians remember what happened that night in the upper room. In all the accounts of it Jesus makes it clear, that this is their Last Supper together until they are once more united in the kingdom of God.
So that in addition to thinking back to the days that had been bright, he was looking forward in anticipation to a yet brighter day. But he was thinking primarily of tomorrow and what would happen then; he was thinking of his death and of them. He took the loaf of bread and blessed it – that is, he thanked God for it. He broke it, gave it to them, and said, “This is my body.” He poured out the wine, “This”, he said,“ is my blood”. The blood to the Jew is the very essence of life. “This is my life” he said, “given for you”.
We do not know whether he intended this meal to be repeated. In his account of what happened at the Last Supper, Paul says that Jesus commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Gospel accounts this commandment is not included (cf. Luke 22:19b-20 is lacking in many manuscripts). The point is, whether or not he intended it to be repeated, it has been repeated ever since, accompanied by ceremonies and ritual elaborate and bare and simple, in every language under heaven; interpreted in a variety of theological ways, week after week, day after day, for two thousand years. Why do you think?
Well, for one thing the early Christians did it, because it was a continual reminder of what happened when Jesus died on the cross. It was acting out in drama, music, art, words, and deeds of what happened on Calvary. Memories they knew were short and easily blunted and dulled by the flowing streams of events. They were men and women whose souls had been pierced by the cross, but they were also men and women whose wounds, like ours, were often easily healed, and who were likely to forget the cross and what it meant. Here in this meal, was a reminder that one perfect life was broken that other lives might become whole.
Whenever today’s Christians receive the bread and wine, they remember. They let their memories be stabbed by this event. They remember that Someone’s life has been given for them, and that life was the life of Christ, and that this goes on everlastingly, and that as they make their mistakes, he continues to give himself for them. That is one reason the early Christians repeated it, and why today’s Christians repeat it. Another is that it is infinitely more than a reminder; it is a revelation of his presence among them. They know in their minds that he is always present, but in this meal which is closely associated with him, it opens their eyes to his presence.
One can be in the room with a person, and not be aware of the person’s presence, until the person does something that arouses their interest – in this case, arouses their faith. That’s what happened on that Easter Day when Jesus broke bread with the two disciples, and then they “recognized” him.
In Seminary we were told, that Jesus is more present in the Lord’s Supper than in the preaching of the Word. Coming from The Salvation Army, where we didn’t celebrate the sacraments, I wondered how could Jesus be more present than present, but we weren’t given an explanation, it was just stated as a fact. Then one day, I came across a sentence which mentioned that the bread and wine were the only symbols known to humanity which involved all of the five sentences. Then it dawned on me that it is not that Christ is more present in the Lord’s Supper than in the preaching of the Word, but that with all of the senses being involved, one’s awareness may be heightened to the point that one is more conscious of his presence.
Each time believers come to this meal and are given the bread and wine, their consciousness is awakened so that they become more aware that Christ is present among them, even when they are not thinking about him. Each time they take the bread in their hands and take the cup to their lips the Presence may be revealed to them, as it had not been before.
What is it then that they receive? What they receive reminds them how much Christ cared. It feeds their hungry spirits in some way, which they can never describe to anyone. And it binds them together with him in a new and stronger compact of agreement, which in turn binds them more closely with others. And it gives them the promise that they will sometime be joined together with him and their loved ones at a table in the greater world, to which “people will come from the east and west, from the north and south, and eat in the kingdom of God”. In that kingdom there will be no more traitors, or deniers, and no more tears.
Dr. John Sullivan <))><
Canada & Bermuda
Dr. John Sullivan <))><
Canada & Bermuda