The Lord’s Supper

Dr John Stott

by Dr John Stott

Most churches agree that the chief expression of fellowship between Christian people is the Holy Communion service. Paul called it ‘the Lord’s supper’ (I Corinthians 11:20), which indicates what it is, namely the fellowship meal of disciples, by invitation of their Lord. Instituted by Jesus himself during his last evening on earth, it has been almost universally recognized ever since as the heart of Christian worship. Luke seems to indicate that, at least in Asia Minor in AD 57, it was the churches’ custom on the first day of each week to assemble in order ‘to break bread’ (Acts 20:7). The Lord’s Day would have been incomplete without the Lord’s Supper. Some churches this century have been seeking to recover its centrality by making it the main Sunday service. Others believe they can best emphasize its importance by holding a Communion service for the whole church family on one Sunday a month.
The Israelites were given the instruction that ‘When your children ask you “What does this ceremony mean to you?”’, they were to explain its origins at the time of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12: 25-27). Similarly, it is important for us to ask and answer questions about the meaning of the Communion service. I am going to suggest that it has four main themes which, although I write as an Episcopalian, I think all Protestant church members will find acceptable. You may find my explanations too analytical for your taste, and perhaps too controversial as well. But if we are to continue attending the service regularly, and if our appreciation of it is to keep growing, we need to reflect on its meaning and to face the differences of interpretation.
1. Remembrance
The simplest and most obvious meaning of the Lord’s Supper is that it commemorates the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. According to the earliest account of its institution, which Paul preserved, Jesus took and broke bread, referred to it as his body, and said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, after supper, he took a cup, referred to it as ‘the new covenant in my blood’ and repeated the command ‘Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11: 23-25). Thus both by what he did with the bread and wine (breaking the one, pouring the other) and by what he said about them (‘this is my body, this is my blood’), he was drawing attention to his death and its purpose, and urging them to remember him in this way.
For example, the Episcopal church has always recognized the value of this remembrance. The third exhortation in the 1662 service reads:
To the end that we should alway remember the exceeding great love of our Master and only Saviour Jesus Christ, thus dying for us, and the innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained to us, he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort.
More simply, the old Anglican catechism stated that the Lord’s Supper was ordained ‘for the continued remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby’. In order to stimulate our minds and memories, the officiating minister both copies the actions and repeats the words of Jesus in the upper room. It is essential that what he says is audible, and what he does visible, to the congregation, so that we may look, listen, understand and remember, just as the apostles must have done at the Last Supper.
2. Participation
Jesus did more than take and break bread, and take and pour wine, saying ‘this is my body, this is my blood’; he also gave the elements to the apostles, saying ‘take, eat and drink’. Thus they were not only spectators of the drama (watching and listening), but participants in it (eating and drinking). Just so today the Lord’s Supper is more than a ‘commemoration’, by which we recall an event of the past; it is a ‘communion’, by which we share in its present benefits. This was the apostle Paul’s emphasis when he wrote: ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16).
From this it is clear beyond dispute that in some sense at Communion we are meant to ‘participate’ in Christ’s body and blood. But two questions now confront us. First, in what do we actually participate? Secondly, how do we participate in it?
First, in what according to God’s purpose do we participate at the Lord’s Supper? The answer must be ‘the body and blood of Christ’. But what does this mean? It means the death of Jesus Christ, together with the benefits which he obtained for us by his death. It is important to be clear about this because some people teach that ‘the body and blood of Christ’ mean his life, not his death. Since our body is the instrument of our personality, they argue, and since our blood is the carrier of life-giving oxygen, therefore Christ’s body and blood together symbolize his living personality, and it is this that we receive at Communion. But this is not what Jesus himself said. He spoke of his body not as it lived in Palestine but as it was to be ‘given’ on the cross, and of his blood not as it flowed in his veins while he lived but as it was to be ‘shed’ in his sacrificial death. Thus ‘the body and blood of Christ’ is a figure of speech for the benefits of his death, not for the power of his life.
Secondly, how do we participate in Christ’s body and blood? The Catholic answer to this question is that the ‘inner reality’ of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ (traditionally called ‘transubstantiation’), so that to eat and drink the elements is ipso facto to partake of Christ. Lutheran churches teach ‘consubstantiation’, which is somewhat similar. The Anglican Articles reject this, however. Article 28 declares both that transubstantiation cannot be proved from Scripture, and that it overthrows the nature of a sacrament by confusing the sign with the thing signified. Article 29 says that those who lack a living faith, even though they receive the sacrament, ‘yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ’. If, then, it is not by eating and drinking that we receive Christ, how is it? It is by faith, of which eating and drinking are a vivid picture. For just as by eating the bread and drinking the wine we take them into our bodies and assimilate them, so by faith we feed on Christ crucified in our hearts and make him our own. Thus, to return to Article 28, it states that those who ‘rightly, worthily and with faith’ receive the sacrament also partake of Christ’s body and blood, and that ‘the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith’. Similarly, the famous sixteenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker wrote: ‘The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament’.
As we saw in an earlier chapter, the sacraments have been given to us in order to stimulate our faith. In fact, they are means of grace mainly because they are means to faith. And the Lord’s Supper is a means to faith because it sets forth in dramatic visual symbolism the good news that Christ died for our sins in order that we might be forgiven. Hugh Latimer, the great preacher of the English Reformation, explained this symbolism during his trial in Oxford, before going to the stake:
There is a change in the bread and wine, and such a change as no power but the omnipotency of God can make, in that that which before was bread should now have the dignity to exhibit Christ’s body. And yet the bread is still bread, and the wine is still wine. For the change is not in the nature but the dignity.
This is sometimes called ‘transignification’, in distinction to ‘transubstantiation’, for the change which is in mind is one of significance, not of substance. As the officiant offers the bread and wine to our bodies, so Christ offers his body and blood to our souls. Our faith looks beyond the symbols to the reality they represent, and even as we take the bread and wine, and feed on them in our mouths by eating and drinking, so we feed on Christ crucified in our hearts by faith. The parallel is so striking, and the corresponding words of administration are so personal, that the moment of reception becomes to many communicants a direct faith-encounter with Jesus Christ. This was so, for example, in the case of John Wesley’s mother, Susanna, just over a year following her son’s conversion. As the cup was given to her she heard the minister saying ‘the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee’, and at that moment ‘the words struck through my heart, and I knew God for Christ’s sake had forgiven me all my sins’.
3. Fellowship
Five times in 1 Corinthians 11, in the space of eighteen verses, the apostle Paul uses the verb to ‘come together’ in relation to the Lord’s Supper. He seems to have regarded it as the main gathering together of the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day. This ‘togetherness’ should be facilitated by the arrangement of the furniture at Communion. Already the 1662 Prayer Book directed that the Holy Table ‘shall stand in the body of the church or in the chancel’. It was intended that the congregation would kneel round it, like a family gathered for a meal. Unfortunately, Archbishop Laud (1633-1645) directed that Communion tables (partly because they were not always treated with proper respect) should be placed against the east wall of the chancel and railed off. In recent years, however, many English churches have been re-structured in such a way that at Communion the table is brought down into the nave and the people are able to gather round the action. As we stand or kneel round the table, men and women, parents and children, from different racial and social backgrounds, we express and experience our undifferentiated unity in Christ.
The breaking of the bread demonstrates this. It is not just that for centuries in middle eastern culture to ‘break bread together’ is the way in which people pledge and cement their commitment to one another. It is also that the nature and means of our unity are symbolized in the bread we eat. ‘Because there is one loaf’, Paul wrote, ‘we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Corinthians 10:17). In order to retain this vivid symbolism, real bread should be used rather than wafers. Each communicant then receives a fragment from the same loaf, because each is a member of the same body, the body of Christ, the church. Further, since the loaf is an emblem of our crucified Saviour, it is our common participation in him (set forth visibly in our common participation in it) which makes us one.
The Lord’s Supper, which is the church’s fellowship meal on earth, is also a foretaste of the heavenly feast. Paul tells us that, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). For when he comes, he will consummate his kingdom, and the symbol will give way to the reality.
4. Thanksgiving
‘Eucharist’ (eucharistia being the Greek word for thanksgiving) was from very early days a name for the Lord’s Supper, and it is increasingly used in our day. Indeed, this service is an appropriate occasion on which to thank God for all his mercies, in creation and providence as well as in redemption. At the same time, as we have seen, it is Christ’s death on which we should be concentrating, since this is what speaks to us from both the elements. They were not intended by Jesus to be symbols of our work (bread and wine being manufactured by human beings out of wheat and grapes), but of his (his body given and blood shed on the cross). Therefore, the focus of our thanksgiving at the Eucharist should be God’s wonderful love for us in the death of his Son in our place and in the Salvation which he has procured for us in consequence.
It is in this sense that the Lord’s Supper is, or rather includes, a ‘sacrifice’. In the course of the Anglican service we ask God to accept ‘this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’. I confess that, having been confirmed while I was at school, I used to think of the Holy Communion as a ‘sacrifice’ because it took place at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning and it seemed to me a considerable sacrifice to get up so early in order to attend it!
What is meant, then, by ‘eucharistic sacrifice’? In what sense may the Eucharist be regarded as a sacrifice or offering? The traditional Catholic answer is that it is an offering of Christ to God. During the third meeting of the Council of Trent (1562-3) it was affirmed that in the sacrifice of the mass ‘the same Christ is contained and is bloodlessly immolated, who once offered himself bloodily on the cross, and . . . that this sacrifice is propitiatory . . .’. This notion, that on the altar at mass Christ is offered to God as a propitiatory sacrifice for sins, was rejected by the Reformers, who were determined to go back to Scripture. They saw the Catholic mass as derogatory to the unique and wholly satisfactory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So, in order to be consistent, they carefully avoided every use of the word ‘altar’ and replaced it with ‘the Holy Table’, ‘the Lord’s Table’ or simply ‘the Table’. For they saw the officiant at Communion not as a priest sacrificing at an altar, but as a minister serving at a table. He administers a sacrament to the people; he does not offer a sacrifice to God.
In our day, although the Roman Catholic church has not officially rescinded the canons of the Council of Trent, they are trying to re-state their doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice in terms which are less offensive to the Protestant conscience. They affirm unequivocally that Christ’s death ‘was the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world’ and that ‘there can be no repetition of, or addition to, what was then accomplished once for all by Christ’. But they also speak (as do Anglican Catholics) of the church being drawn up into Christ’s self-offering, so that we share in the benefits of it, not in the sense that we share in the offering of it.
What, then, is the relation between Christ’s sacrifice and us? It is multiple. We remember his sacrifice with adoring gratitude. We partake by faith of its saving benefits. We enjoy with one another the fellowship which it has made possible. And we offer ourselves to God in responsive self-sacrifice. But we do not and cannot share in Christ’s offering of himself. To suggest this is to confuse what must be kept distinct, namely his offering and ours, ‘the perfect and the tainted, the atoning and the eucharistic, the divine initiative and the human response’.
This is an excerpt from Christian Basics, by John Stott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) p. 130-136 ] It is reproduced with the permission of the author.