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Since January 1, 2005
A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth
ARTICLES AND STUDIES
Worshiping at the Lord’s Table
From the church's earliest days the Lord's Supper has been a basic action of Christian worship. In one form or another, all Christians gather at the Lord's Table. The shape of this gathering may vary from a highly ceremonial action in sacramental churches to the simple administration of the free churches; from weekly or even daily observance in some communities to the quarterly or even annual observance of others. Historically in Christian worship the service of the Lord's Table follows the service of the Word, the reading and teaching of the Scriptures.
Worship at the Lord's Table embraces a variety of meanings. The act is known by several terms in the New Testament: breaking bread, communion, the Lord's Supper, or thanksgiving (Eucharist). Christians of different communities understand this action in different ways. For some, especially in the Catholic tradition, the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus in another form. For others, particularly Lutherans and Anglicans, the life of Christ is present with the elements while not being identified with them. For still others, including most Protestants, the action of receiving the elements is a symbolic way of remembering Jesus Christ and his death on the cross.
Whatever the understanding, there is one basic reason why all Christians worship at the Lord's Table: because Jesus commanded it when he said, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). Like baptism, the Lord's Supper is an ordinance of Christ, and many Christians call it a sacrament — a tangible and visible sign of God's grace at work in our lives.
One way to approach the richness of meaning invested in worship at the Lord's Table is to discuss the different terms used to describe it in the New Testament.
The Book of Acts describes the life of the earliest Jerusalem Christians in this way: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42 ). The breaking of bread was a community meal which probably included the blessing of the loaf and cup according to Jesus' instructions. Eating together, then as now, was a symbol of community identification. As an often persecuted and misunderstood minority, the early Christians found strength and hope in sharing at the table. Perhaps David's words came to mind: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (Psa. 23:5).
Paul later criticized the Corinthian Christians because they ate their common meal in a selfish manner, each one taking whatever he could for himself. This violated the symbolism of their bond in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:20-22). They failed to "recognize the body rightly" (1 Cor. 11:29), or to see that Christ himself is present in the community meal. That Jesus is known to his people when they break bread together is the point of Luke's account of his appearance to two disciples at Emmaus after his resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). The words of Jesus in the Revelation underscore this thought: "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20).
The Lord's Supper
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul uses the term "Lord's Supper" to describe the Lord's Table (1 Cor. 11:20). His point is that there is more to the ceremony than simply consuming food together. Through his death, Jesus has brought into being a new community loyal to him as Sovereign. Sharing the tokens of his body and blood is a way of setting forth this basic gospel message, to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).
But for Paul the focus is on Christ's presence with his people now, as well as in the future. Otherwise he would not be disturbed that believers were observing the supper carelessly, failing to discern or recognize the body of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Jesus blessed the loaf and cup as a sign of the covenant between God and his new people, "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:29). In the Bible a covenant is like a treaty between a Great King and his servants; such agreements were sometimes sealed by ceremonial meals (Exod. 24:11). Therefore, the Lord's Supper is our covenant meal through which we acknowledge Jesus' kingship and authority over our lives. The Greek words translated "Lord's Supper" may also be translated "Royal Banquet." Christ himself is our host at the Lord's Table, receiving our renewed pledge of loyalty to him and his kingdom.
Paul supplies another term when he speaks of the loaf and the cup as koinonia (1 Cor. 10:16). This term has no exact English equivalent, but may be translated as participation, sharing or communion. The cup we bless is a sharing in Christ's blood, and the bread we break is a participation in his body. The term "Holy Communion" originates in this expression, and refers to the inner unity of believers one with another through their union in Christ. The Lord's Table symbolizes and even brings about that unity: "We, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17).
On the night before his death, Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples. In that context, he performed a simple and common Jewish ceremony, giving thanks over the loaf and the cup (Matt. 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17, 19; 1 Cor. 11:23-24). It was this act of blessing, not the Passover which is celebrated only once a year, which eventually became the Christian ceremony of the Lord's Table.
John's Gospel, which omits the account of the institution of the Lord's Supper, seems to record Jesus' teaching about the Eucharist or Thanksgiving in the account of the feeding of the multitude (chapter 6). Here, Jesus' action of distributing the food is twice called his "giving thanks" (John 6:11, 23). In his discourse, Jesus uses language which prefigures the church's worship at the Lord's Table: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (John 6:53, 56). It is no wonder that in early Christian art the loaves and fish are often found as a symbol of the Lord's Supper.
Giving thanks means more than simply expressing gratitude. In the Bible, especially the Psalms, to "give thanks" means to confess that the Lord is our King and God. That is why Paul finds the refusal to give thanks to be such a fundamental act of rebellion and sin against the Creator (Rom. 1:21).
The Lord's Supper, or Eucharist, is the expression of our loyalty to Christ. As the King present in our midst, he is our host in the Lord's Supper. Sharing with other Christians in the breaking of bread, we symbolize our bond with other believers, our mutual communion with him who is the source of our life.