Monday, June 08, 2009
The Ordinary Means: The Word and the Supper
On the night before his death, Jesus held a final supper with his disciples.
Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Two elements were used: Bread and Wine. The institution was short and poignant. But what did it mean? Why do we do we continue to do it? Mere ritualism? Because we have to (we are commanded to)?
To ask how this Sacrament accompanies the word in Christian worship, and thus Christian spirituality, Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 is very helpful. There are 3 important points Paul makes that we need to explore:
1)Word and Sacrament.
As we saw, the word and baptism are intricately associated, symbioticly linked, so that without the word, baptism is a mere wet action. In the Lord's Supper, we again given a similar description:
1Cor 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
In baptism, we were "washed in water by the word." (Ephesians 5:26) Here, a similar concept emerges. In the Supper, Christ's death is "proclaimed." It doesn't take much of a word study before one sees the close relation between word and proclaim. The usual content of proclaiming in Scripture is the word.
The Lord's supper is a "visible word" as Augustine calls it. John in his first epistle declares the word as "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life." (1 John 1:1) The problem for believers now is that though we have the word in our ears, we lack the word present to our other senses. Christ walked with, could be seen and touched by the disciples. To engage more than our sense of hearing, God condescends to our infirmity and proclivity to doubt by declaring Christ, and him crucified, also to our tongues and to our fingers. The message of Christ appears visibly before us.
2)It is to be done in remembrance
“Do this in remembrance of me”
The meal is also a vehicle of memory. We may know the story, but remembrance is an important necessity after the fall. Throughout the Old Testament, the narrative pauses to instruct the reader to do something (a meal or ritual) to remember an instance of God's salvation, either the Passover or the parting of the Sea (either the Sea of reeds or Jordan) and to use it to declare the salvation of God. Jesus, exercising his station as Lord, does the same with the disciples. We are forgetful creatures, so we require repetition for memory.
3) It is a communion with Christ.
1Cor 10:16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (κοινωνια) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (κοινωνια) in the body of Christ?
The word "κοινωνια" can be translated as "communion" or as in the ESV "participation." The word denotes a communication, a transaction or intercourse between two things. Paul here gives further interpretation to the words "This is my body/blood" spoken by Christ. Paul instructs us that these words cannot be construed as we may wish to construe them. Typically, these words are understood as "This represents my body" or "This signifies my blood." Yet a "κοινωνια" with the blood of Christ denotes much more than a symbol or sign.
Certainly, the bread signifies the body. The bread does not carry the atoms of Christ's physical body. Yet in the Lord's Supper, more happens between Christ and the faithful. With the bread and wine, the believer also communes/participates with the very flesh and blood of Christ.
Should this surprise and offend us? The disciples certainly were offended when Christ talked of it:
52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." (John 6:52-56)
Jesus was very specific with his words. What he meant to communicate was more than mere belief:
61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? 62What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life" (John 6:61-63)
We should not think that Jesus backs away from pointing to His flesh and blood which stood before them, but he does give more meaning to His words. The disciples are still offended after the explanation, but admitted they stayed not because he explained to their satisfaction that Jesus merely meant believing, but because they had no one else to go to (John 6:68-69). When Jesus explains that the Spirit gives life, He gives the agency of the communion between Jesus and His disciples. The Incarnation, Jesus as God taking on Humanity, has deeper layers of meaning and spiritual consequence than we typically think.
The flesh Jesus took on was the same as all men, a mortal flesh. Yet, in His taking on flesh, he displayed the compatibility of Immortality with flesh. Christ's life does not end, and the flesh he took on was raised and glorified. Such is the fate of the flesh we now sport. The source of vivification of that flesh is also the same, the life in the Person of Jesus, human and divine. That life Christ shares with us in union with Him. (Romans 5:15-17 ; 6:4 ; 8:11) The Spirit carries that life from Christ to the believer:
"If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)
Paul holds out the life in the flesh and blood of Christ to believers in the Supper. Not that the believer chews Christ, but yet with the act of eating, truly feeds on Christ, and the life in His flesh and blood, nonetheless. In it, the believer is vitally participating in the flesh and blood of Christ, received by faith, by the agency of the Spirit.
This is why we continue to come to the Supper. We come to the Supper for a similar reason we come to hear the word preached and why we pray. In each of them, we commune with the same reality, Christ, yet in different ways. They do not replace one another, as if we can go to a sermon rather than pray, or go the the Supper rather than a sermon. They each are points of communion with God, yet in different manners. We do not merely "do the Supper" because we are commanded to, but because of what we receive in the Supper, namely Christ.