A Note on The Lord's Supper

Home Up

A NOTE ON THE LORD'S SUPPER

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

 "All my life I have been confused about the Lord's Supper", the parishioner told me at the door of the church.  I felt better right away.  I had just finished preaching on this very topic.  Surely she would tell me with her next breath that the sermon she had just heard had evaporated her likely confusion as surely as the morning sun dispels fog.  "And I am still confused!", she said as she moved away.  Since I have been in Streetsville for one and one half decades it is fitting that I try again.

   I understand why people are confused.  They have always been confused.  Do you know how the expression "hocus pocus" arose?  The Latin  for "This is my body", the words our Lord pronounced at the Last Supper; the Latin equivalent is, "Hoc est meum corpus".  In the middle ages most people didn't know what they were mumbling; they mumbled the words so quickly that "Hoc est meum corpus" came out as "hocus pocus."  And when Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper was celebrated in that era, it was hocus pocus for most of the people.  The truth is, many people today continue to look upon it as hocus pocus.

   We want to move beyond this.  In order to get beyond the hocus pocus we should begin with the writings of Dr. Luke.  In Luke's writings ordinary meals loom larger than anywhere else in the New Testament.  (Ordinary meals; not ritual meals, ordinary meals.)  One-fifth of Luke's gospel and his Acts of the Apostles have to do with eating; that is, one-fifth of Luke's material concerns events in the life of Jesus where Jesus eats with others, where they eat following something he does for them or where parables and sayings have to do with food.  If we are to understand what the Lord's Supper is about, we should begin with the everyday, ordinary meals which Jesus shared with so many different people.  

I: --  The first point Luke makes about all this food appears obvious yet is profound; namely, WE EAT IN ORDER TO LIVE.  Food is essential to bodily existence.  Human beings are not disembodied spirits.  We need to eat and should eat.  Only a false spirituality, an unbiblical spirituality, an unchristian asceticism disdains food.  To be sure we do not live by bread alone; at the same time, without bread we do not live at all.

   There are furthest-reaching physical consequences to food -- or its absence.  Without food people develop bone disorders and diseases proliferate.  Without nourishment the human brain does not develop and the undernourished child risks permanent mental impairment.

   There are also psychological consequences to food -- or its absence.  The thinking of hungry people is very different from the thinking of well-fed people.  Hungry people are much easier to prod into drastic action.  It's understandable that underfed people are much quicker to embrace totalitarian governments.  It's understandable that underfed people -- now desperate --  are ready to do anything, however extreme.             

   One of my acquaintances was an officer in the Canadian army during the last great war.  One day he and his driver were eating tinned fish when a group of wretchedly poor Italian children gathered around the jeep, eyes fixed on the two men, waiting.  The Canadians didn't know what the children were waiting for.  When the two officers finished eating they flipped the empty tin out of the jeep.  Whereupon the children savaged each other in order to get a trickle of fish oil from an empty tin.  I have no difficulty understanding the hungry people will readily exchange political freedom for food, exchange virtue for food, exchange simple decency  for food, exchange loyalty for food, exchange anything for food.

   A hungry body twists the mind's thinking, and therein twists the entire person.  Luke knows this.  He reminds us that we are to pray for food every day.  He recounts the story of the feeding of the multitudes.  We eat in order to live.  The Lord's Supper reminds us constantly that without food, ordinary food, people are warped.  It reminds us that God has promised to provide food.

 

II: --  Yet Luke knows too that food does not meet all human needs.  There are deeper needs which can be met only by fellow human hearts and minds.  And there are deepest needs which can be met only by God himself.

   Everywhere in Luke's writings people whose hearts ache with a hunger only God can satisfy find their heart-hunger met in Jesus Christ.  When people do find their heart-hunger met in him, they eat; that is, they eat as a celebration.  Now they are not eating in order to live; they are living in order to eat, in order to celebrate, in order to party.  Food facilitates festivity, and the festival is in order because they rejoice in their fellowship with the One who has blessed them.

   We who know ourselves grasped by our Lord can only celebrate.  Zacchaeus illustrates this transparently.  Jesus revolutionizes the man's life.  As Zacchaeus finds his life moving in a new direction, sustained by his new friend, Jesus exclaims, "Today salvation has come to this house!"  And then they go off to eat together.  Wherever Jesus eats with people; wherever these people eat with him, the meal is a visible declaration of Paul's announcement, "Now is the day of salvation".  Note: the meal Jesus eats with Zacchaeus is an ordinary meal.  And this ordinary meal, because graced by Jesus himself, announces "Now is the day of salvation".

   We must be sure to give the word 'salvation' its full weight.  It doesn't mean that people have been made to feel better or helped a bit.  IT MEANS THAT WE HAVE BEEN DELIVERED FROM REAL PERIL.  If We are not delivered from real danger, then the word 'salvation' is a silly exaggeration.  If a non-swimmer overturns a canoe in twelve inches of water and is helped to her feet by a kind friend, we would never say that her friend save her.  But if a non-swimmer overturns a canoe in one hundred feet of water, the vocabulary of being saved is no exaggeration.  let us not deceive ourselves.  Ultimate loss is possible.  if it weren't, then dozens of our Lord's parables would have no point.  The name "Jesus" is a Greek form of the Hebrew name "Yehoshuah", and "Yehoshuah" means "God-to-the-rescue".  Jesus is friend of sinners only because he is first saviour of sinners.  In clinging to him I shall be spared a condemnation which both he and his Father endorse.  Because of the provision made for me in the cross I can be spared it.  And because I entrust myself to the crucified One I am spared it.  As a believer who knows he has been spared final loss I shall surely find myself moved to heart-felt gratitude and glad obedience for as long as there is breath in me.

   Food is eaten when the younger son comes home from the far country.  His father cries, "Dead! - and now alive!  Lost! - and now found!".  And people feast just because they know that the father's exuberant declaration is no exaggeration.

   That ultimate death which is spiritual annihilation is anticipated in that everyday death which is biological cessation.  And so when the daughter of Jairus is raised from the dead people eat.  Death which is biological cessation is itself anticipated in everyday sickness.  And so when Peter's mother-in-law is healed of her sickness people eat.  In Luke's writings eating is a festival which celebrates deliverance at the hand of God.  We live in order to eat, in order to celebrate, in order to party.  Yes!  We live to party.

 

III: --  Despite the theological heavy-going of the last few minutes the mood of that meal which praises God for the gift of the Saviour is not heavy at all.  The mood is one of joy.  It's like an underground stream of water which bubbles or gushes up to the surface from time to time when people are together.  Sometimes this joy erupts in howling merriment.  Jesus is asked why his followers don't fast in view of the fact that John the Baptist's followers do fast.  "Tell me", replies Jesus, "have you ever been to a wedding reception, however cheap, where there was no food at all?  Have you ever been to a wedding reception, however sober, where no jokes were told at all?  Well I'm the bridegroom", Jesus continues, "the party's mine, and I say we feast and frolic!"

   You have heard me say many times that the English translations of the bible tend to flatten out the vividness of the Greek text.  For instance the English translations tell us that Jesus was stirred with compassion when he came upon people who were spiritually leaderless.  He was stirred? moved?  The Greek text tells us that their predicament knotted his bowels.  In Acts 8 Peter says to a voodoo-specialist, "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!"  In the Greek, however, Peter says, "To hell with you and your money!"  The English text of Acts 2 tells us that the early-day Christians "partook of food with glad and generous hearts".  Glad hearts?  The Greek word means to break forth spontaneously in great joy -- like the sudden clap of laughter when the punchline of a joke is a humdinger.  I understand why bystanders were puzzled if not shocked at the meals which Jesus shared.  Not only was he eating with the wrong people, the mood of the meal wasn't sombre enough.  It was too uninhibited, too happy, to be holy.  "Not so!", Jesus says, "no one goes to a wedding reception with the face of an undertaker!"

   I am still bothered at the mood which has traditionally characterized the Lord's Supper.  It is too introspective,too bent on having us fish around in our spiritual innards until we dredge up something about which we can feel bad.  Some communion hymns are especially morbid, I feel.  "Look on the heart by sorrow broken, look on the tears by sinners shed."  As if the words weren't lugubrious enough, the tune would depress anyone.  I much prefer the glad and grateful amazement of Charles Wesley's fine hymn, "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour's blood?...  My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee".  The only reason I am at the Lord's Supper at all is that I know I am the beneficiary of an inexhaustible mercy and a glorious promise.  "My chains fell off, my heart was free.  I rose, went forth and followed thee".  Over and over the book of Deuteronomy insists, "You shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice."

 

IV: --  There is one last item we must look at.  Who eats and drinks with Jesus?  Who?  Many different people do.  Yet they all have one thing in common.  They love him and want to be with him.  When his heart went out to them theirs went out to him, and still does.  It is not the case that everyone eats with Jesus, simply because not everyone wants to.  Not everyone without exception loves our Lord: but it is true that all kinds and classes without distinction love him.  That is, all classes and kinds and types of people are found rejoicing in his presence among them.

   And so we have the woman who poured out on his feet that jar of perfume which cost a year's wages.  In giving up her perfume, however, she gave up more than her bank balance; she gave up her livelihood.  You see, people of that era rarely had a bath.  This woman was a streetwalker, and all such women used perfume to hide body odour and keep themselves purchasable.  When she poured out her perfume she rendered herself unemployed.  Does my love for our common Lord approach hers at all?

   And then there are the twelve whom Jesus called to train as shepherds.  Shepherds?  They were so fickle that they did not even arrange for his funeral!  Yet underneath their fickleness and fear they loved him and ate with him repeatedly.

   And then there are what the gospels call "publicans and sinners".  Publicans were Jews who worked for the Roman department of taxation.  They were hated by all self-respecting Jews.  "Sinners were the religiously indifferent who sat loose to Jewish custom and couldn't have cared less.  And then there were the poor.  All these people had one thing in common:  they knew the blessing, thrill and assurance of a great deliverance.  Their hearts were knit to their Lord's and they wanted only to be with him and serve him. 

   Their longing to remain with him outweighed their fear of being shunned.  Their longing to remain with him outweighed their nervousness at the sidelong glances of family-members and former friends who wondered what on earth possessed anyone to follow an itinerant preacher, an itinerant preacher who claimed to speak and act with the authority of God, whose own family was embarrassed at him, and whom church authorities alternately feared and despised.

   Then who eats and drinks with Jesus?  All who have found in him a great deliverance, a wonderful companionship, and a trustworthy way to walk; in a word, those who find his yoke easy and his burden light; those who know their loyalty to him, to be sustained by his faithfulness to them.

   Not only do men and women of different classes and kinds and types eat and drink with Jesus before the Gethsemane "crunch".  After he has been raised from the dead; that is, between his resurrection and ascension, he eats and drinks with those who had fallen down and forsaken him only a short time ago.  He seeks out those who have faltered on the way and have failed him for any reason.  He restores them to him and equips them to be trustworthy witnesses to his risen life, witness to his risen life risen in them.

   In the Lord's Supper there is no hocus pocus.  We eat and drink ordinary foods.  Our Lord blesses us with his presence (as he blessed Zacchaeus), suffuses us with his strength, informs us with his purpose. We glow in it all, even if we don't have words to articulate it.

 

   Remember: because we are creatures who need food in order to survive, we praise God for bread -- as we eat in order to live.  And yet because we are creatures who need more than bread we also praise God for him who is the bread of life -- and so we live in order to eat, and drink, and feast with our Lord until the day of his glorious appearing when faith gives way to sight,

                                             our journey is over,

                                           and we are at home with him forever.

 

F I N I S 

 

Rev. Dr. Victor A. Shepherd
April, 1993