V. The Covenant of the Body Broken

Here starts our focused and detailed treatment of the Lord's Supper. The method will be different from what we just used with baptism. There we located all the NT references we could find--and then tried to group and arrange them into logical order. Here we begin with a theory regarding the Lord's Supper--and then will adduce scriptural support point by point.

Our primordial premise, of course, has been developed at length in earlier chapters: The Lord’s Supper belongs solidly within the OT worship tradition of "historical recital" and not at all within the priestly temple tradition of "sacramental mystery." The Supper's eucharistic bread and cup are meant as reminder-signs of the New Covenant much the same as the rainbow, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and salt had been reminder-signs of the Old. Most specifically, the Lord's Supper is the new covenant’s version of the Passover meal that so fundamentally epitomizes the OT understanding of historical recital. The new covenant's initialization through the bloodshedding rite of human-life and divine-life flowing together to form one body--this happened through the bloodshedding of Jesus on the Good-Friday cross.

Although the logistics of the historical situation dictated that the original two events happen in the reverse of proper order, every Lord's Supper since Easter has had it right. Just as surely as Passover is an occasion for the Jewish people of God to remember themselves back into the covenant-making superintended by Moses, just so is the Lord’s Supper the occasion for the Christian people of God to remember themselves back into the covenant-making not merely superintended but actually performed by Jesus. This we have spent the better part of our book getting ready to say. Now we are going to say it--through the mouthpiece of NT texts.

A. If the Supper Is Historical Recital, it Can’t also be Sacramental Mystery

The first implication to be noted is that things can't be both ways at once. If the Lord’s Supper is what we suggest it is, it cannot at the same time be what the church has regularly taken it to be. The mouth of God which is Scripture does not have a forked tongue that speaks two ways at once. We will not find Scripture supporting the sacramental view that the Supper accomplishes some sort of self-operative transaction between God’s divine sphere and our human sphere through the vehicle of consecrated, divinized elements or objects. No such "mystical transformations" are involved.

Neither is there involved a "presence of Christ" that is any different in kind from his personal presence as we experience it at other tables, in other companies, on other occasions. No, we remember him there by the same operations of memory used in remembering him (or remembering others) in all kinds of situations. The communion service is designed simply to make us more aware of and sensitive to that unmediated presence of Jesus which is available any time and any place without the office of either priest or element.

Above all, the biblical texts will not support the idea that, with the Supper, it has been given into human control to turn God on or off at our discretion, to make him more present or less so, to channel his blessing to this person or that. Whatever sacramental claims we might make for ourselves, God is the ruler yet. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

< p>We are making another basic assumption, one closely related to this disavowal of sacramentalism: Surely Jesus intended the Lord's Supper for the likes of Peter, his colleagues, and the rest of the early Christians. (That insight is so obvious that it is incredible to me how regularly we ignore it and take for granted that biblical ideas can be understood only by professional theologians.) Yet this means that if the explanation of the Supper must be so complicated that a Peter would throw up his hands in frustration--then that explanation simply can't be the correct one. Yet read most books on sacramental theology and see how far you (let alone an uneducated fisherman) can get. However, if the case were that Jesus was talking "Passover," Peter would be as on top of things as anybody. This Peter Principle is so much more simple than anything else that has gone under the name that our tendency must be simply to overlook it. Yet I consider it entirely basic and profound. My goal for this book's explanation of the Supper is that Peter would be able to read it (if he could read English, of course).

B. The Supper's Relation to the Passover

Our opening and most critical question must be: Was Jesus’ last supper with his disciples intended to be an equivalent of the Jewish Passover recital? If the answer is "yes," then we have been given a leg up. We have been given, a key, a frame of reference and model, for interpreting the supper--have been as much as told that it belongs to the tradition of historical recital rather than to that of sacramental mystery.

However, we are unnecessarily complicating the matter when we try to make it hinge upon a detail of dating--as to whether Jesus' Thursday evening meal did in fact coincide with that year's regular date for the Jewish Passover meal. The problem of chronological calculation comes about in this wise: All three of the synoptic Gospels have Jesus talking with his disciples about preparing the upper room for "Passover." Luke goes a step further and also has Jesus, in the room, at the supper, call it a "Passover." However, the Fourth Gospel has things a bit different in saying that the supper occurred "before Passover "--so that the death of Jesus coincided with the slaughtering of the lambs (which would be eaten, presumably, on the Passover occasion of what would have to be Friday evening). Paul's account is of no help in that his only dating of the supper is "on the night he was betrayed." Nevertheless, Paul does say: "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival." And with this, he does put Jesus and his death directly into a Passover context.

Consider, then:

  1. It obviously was not the date of Passover that was determinative for the timing of the supper. That supper had to be held while Jesus was still available. Even if the Fourth Gospel is correct that the Passover meal did not come until Friday evening, that would have made it too late for Jesus to attend; by that time he was dead.
  2. The last supper came at Passover-time, whether or not it came on Passover-time. If, because of the exigencies of scheduling, Jesus had to hold his Passover celebration a bit earlier than the prescribed calendar date, that surely doesn't preclude it from being a true Passover. Jesus showed freedom in adapting the Passover liturgy to suit his own purposes; he could have been just as free in adapting its dating to fit his own schedule.
  3. Therefore, the matter of dating is altogether a non-issue. There is only one issue before us--and it is an entirely decisive one: Is there sufficient evidence to indicate that Jesus deliberately chose Passover language and liturgy as the best possible means of interpreting to his disciples (and preparing them for) the events of his death and resurrection that lay immediately ahead?

Put this way, the question can have no answer other than "yes"--with this "yes" being a superlative confessing that there is no evidence pointing anywhere other than to this one answer. Thus, all the language which actually calls the last supper a Passover is to the point. Even more compelling is that all the accounts (except the Fourth Gospel) center on a cup-word that speaks of "covenant"--and not simply covenant but "blood-initialized covenant," "in my blood covenant." (And Luke, we will see, gets even more covenant sayings into his account.)

All the accounts (including the Fourth Gospel this time) are strong regarding "table fellowship"--another Passover connection. The "do this in remembrance" line marks still another Passover connection. For Jesus to be identified as the sacrificed "paschal lamb" represents him as a covenant-reminder sign. Bread certainly figures in the Passover meal; and the tie of "bread" to "body" may even depend upon the covenantal idea of shared life, of the two becoming one body. (At least, Paul strongly reads the communion loaf this way; and he undoubtedly felt that he was following Jesus' lead in the matter.)

Finally, the last supper notes of eschatological anticipation1 of kingdom talk (of "covenanting a kingdom," even)--these all come out of Israel's tradition of historical recital as that is exemplified in Passover. There is no way of explaining the last supper other than as Jesus' deliberate choice of this Passover tradition as his means for interpreting to his followers the critical events of the next three days.

And note well, if Jesus chose this tradition, it means that he deliberately did not choose as his model any of the sacramental, priestly temple-rites that were familiar to him. Therefore, if our Lord's Suppers now more closely conform to the sacrament model than to the Passover one, that has to have been the church’s own decision (for which it must bear full responsibility) in that it can adduce nothing of Jesus' support or blessing at all.

Yet notice that, if we stick with the Passover model, the Supper pulls in another major strain of Jesus' ministry as well. Automatically and inevitably the Jewish Passover meal is strong on "table fellowship"--even "family dinner-table fellowship." For their part, all the Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus himself was very strong on "family dinner-table fellowship"; it was one of his major methods of operation. And what was unique about his was that he insisted on inviting people who the disciples and others had a hard time accepting as "family." Jesus wouldn't show any sense of discrimination in the matter at all.

Obviously, there is no way the supper on the night when he was betrayed could be called "the first supper"; no, church tradition has it right in calling it "the last supper." Even so, the precious memory of all the earlier suppers with Jesus would have made the "last one" a particularly memorable occasion--even without the enhancement of its being a Passover meal. And tell me this one: Is it credible that the early Christians could have thought to honor and extend the "Supper Tradition of Jesus" by practicing it with a closed table? This, when the very mark of the table that was truly the Lord's was its "come one, come all" openness? It strikes me that the clearest evidence that ours is actually a Lord's table would be that we take pains to have people there who would not normally be considered "family." As with Jesus' own example, this could be the best first step toward their becoming family. In fact, there is a regard in which Jesus' "last supper" would qualify as the most open table ever. With full knowledge of what Judas was about, Jesus nevertheless wanted him present. Judas, of course, was a former family member who had turned traitor and was now the prime threat to the transpiring table fellowship. Yet Jesus apparently felt that, if anything could dissuade Judas from his treachery, it would be the invitation that he was wanted and included in spite of all. Yet, rather plainly, if the disciples had known what was going on--and if they had been given a vote in the matter--Judas would undoubtedly have found himself rejected and banished. And thus it happens that the church has been closing Jesus' open table ever since.

C. The Supper as Table Fellowship

A final consideration is this: There is no way a bread-and-cup communion in a church sanctuary can pass itself off as "table fellowship." What it can, without difficulty, pass itself off as is a bit of priestly temple ritual. Under that model, of course, it makes no difference whether the participants (better: recipients) know one another--or even want to know one another. But how we can claim to be commemorating and perpetuating the table fellowship of Jesus (calling it "the Lord's Supper"), when our practice retains not so much as one point of likeness with his?

There is one apparent difference between Passover and the Lord's Supper we ought to address: Passover is celebrated annually; the Lord’s Supper with much greater frequency. How can the one be called an equivalent of the other? Easy. Particularly in light of the Deuteronomic command to teach the story of the Lord to your children diligently, when you sit, when you rise, etc.--in light of this command it seems clear that every instance of Jewish family-table fellowship is meant to be a miniature Passover. The annual, big Feast of Passover is simply the climactic prototype of what was supposed to be transpiring year-round.

Equivalently then, it seems clear that, regarding the earliest Christians, as often as any number of them gathered for the honest purpose of eating together because they were hungry--this common meal was in fact also a Lord's Supper. It was supposed to be a conscious extension of his table fellowship and a bread-and-cup remembering of his story. Both Passover and the Lord’s Supper are meant to be integral strands in the religious fabric of everyday family life.

If it showed no other traditional influences at all, the Lord's Supper would still stand as a remembrance, a recital, of the table fellowship practiced by the Lord Jesus. But, of course, there are connections that make it much more than that. The prime one of these is, of course, Jewish Passover. And it is under that influence, in the heading of this chapter, I have chosen to describe the Supper as "the covenant of the body broken." Yet if you can remember that broken bodies routinely bleed (and if you will give me liberty to sneak in some auxiliary terms) I think we can pretty well expound the NT understanding of the Supper through the key words: covenant, body, broken. Let's see how far they will take us.