Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Reflections on the Lord's Supper

I wrote this reflection on 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 for the Feast of Corpus Christi or, as it is known in the Church in Wales the "Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion.

The Feast of Corpus Christi dates back to the 13th century and is mainly celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church although it is included in the Church in Wales Prayer Book and other Anglican Rites. The 15th century Reformers weren't keen on it and it fell out of use in many of their churches. Theirs was a reaction against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church of the day but now a more balanced view of Hol

Holy Communion generates more light than heat and we can take a more measured view of the feast.

The above arguments centred on the bread and the wine and whether they really become the body and blood of Jesus when the Priest prays over them, or are they merely symbolic.

I don't want to get into the controversy that has plagued the church over the past two thousand years, but just look simply at the one text we have in front of us that talks about the Lord's Supper.

1 Corinthians 11:23-29 which is thought to be the earliest account of the Lord's Supper. Here Paul is writing somewhere between 53-57 AD which is within 20-25 years of the death of Jesus. Here he recounts what he says he received from Jesus himself about the words and actions of the night when Jesus shared bread and wine with the disciples. A few things stand out.

First,  it was passed on by Jesus. When my mother passed away each of us children had something of hers to remind us of her. For my siblings it was probably jewellery, ornaments or similar. For me it was a pair of hair-cutting scissors. These have a particular resonance because my mother always cut my hair and wherever I have lived I have, invariably, gone 'home' to my mother for her to cut my hair. Thus the scissors bring back memories of those times. Jesus wanted the disciples and Paul to remember him and what he had done for them on the cross. He wants us to remember too.

Second, Jesus refers to the bread and wine as his body and blood but gives no explanation as to what he meant. Did he mean that the bread turned into his body as he ate it and the wine into his blood? I am not convinced. I think the emphasis is more on what the bread and wine point toward and not what they are in and of themselves.

So the bread is a reminder that Jesus gave his body for us: "This is my body which is for you." In other words it points towards his death on the cross for us. We are told to remember this when we eat it.

And the cup of wine points to the new covenant Jesus makes with those who believe in him, sealed by his poured out blood on the cross. In the Old Testament, covenants or contracts between individuals were sealed with the sacrificial deaths of an animal or animals. This also translated to the Covenant God had with his people where a Lamb was sacrificed to signify God's Covenant between Him and his people. Jesus is the Lamb of God who seals his agreement with the believer through his death. Pointing again to the cross he bids us remember "the new covenant in my blood".

Third, taking the bread and wine is not just about me. Jesus says that it should be a spur to mission. When we eat and drink it we are to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

At the start of a sports game the teams often gather together in a huddle, encouraging one another and speaking last minute instructions to one another before starting the game. Jesus wanted his disciples to do the same, sharing bread and wine, remembering his sacrifice and death for them, before going out to "proclaim the Lord's death" to others. But all too often we have narrowed it down to our own private form of religious devotion which is much too inward looking and me-orientated. We even refer to it as "my communion"and this is where we have gone wrong.

Fourth, Paul talks about the dangers of mistreating this meal. He talks about eating and drinking in "an unworthy manner" and even "drinking judgement" on ourselves. Strong words. Some people have taken this to be the result of receiving the bread and wine with unconfessed sin in our hearts or even because we come in unbelief, not "discerning the body" meaning not accepting that this is Jesus' body and blood. However I think Paul means something more than that.

In verse 17ff Paul has been complaining about the divisions there are in the Corinthian Church. He writes "..your meetings do more harm than good. ...I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you." So in the light of that he comes to this conclusion in verse 20 "when you come together it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat."

In other words they are not discerning that as the Body of Christ - which is Paul's description of the Church - they should be united with the sharing of the bread and wine. But by falling out with one another and quarrelling they are not only denying that but showing disrespect to Jesus and his commandment to love one another and be one as he and the father are one. They are profaning the body and blood of The Lord, says Paul, i.e. treating it as if it meant nothing. As they do this they are eating and drinking judgement on themselves.

This has nothing to do with what we actually eat and drink and everything to do with our attitudes, our selfishness and our refusal to work together as the people of God instead getting caught up in petty quarrels and causing harm to Christ's cause.

So the lessons from all this are as follows:
1. Don't make too big a deal about what the bread and wine represent but what they point to which is Jesus himself, what he has done for us and what he calls us to do for him and for each other. That's when the Lord's supper truly becomes significant.
2. How do we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." In the first place we take in what it means for us. As we eat and drink the bread and wine and digest them so that they become part of who we are, so we are to 'take in' and grasp the significance of Christ's death for us and the world he died for. Once this this truth has become part of us then the proclamation of his death for others becomes a natural outworking of who we now are, his body the Church.
3. I find it sadly ironic that the one thing that should be equipping us and gearing us up for mission is having the exact opposite effect in our churches. As we have become almost obsessed with Holy Communion and it's spiritual significance to us as individuals, we have become more introspective and inward looking. This hinders rather than helps us and becomes an end in and of itself rather than the means to the end that Jesus intended.
4. How many churches are in danger of eating and drinking judgement on themselves by narrowing down the Lord's Supper to just me and God? It's a scary thought that as churches die that may well be what is happening today.

To close I have to add this rider. I am not criticizing anyone's interpretation or understanding of the Lord's Supper in terms of what they understand the bread and wine to be. If people see it as something more literal than symbolic or vice versa then if that draws them nearer to God that's got to be a good thing. I believe there is room in the Scriptures for that. But what I am warning is of the danger of turning this into a sort of individualistic spiritual exercise that takes no cognizance the wider body of Christians or of the significance of Jesus' death for the world which we are duty bound to share and not hoard to ourselves. "For God so loved the world..." Jesus says in John 3:16, a fact that seems to fly in the face of some of the spiritualities that centre on a more individualitic interpretation of what the Lord's Supper is all about.

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