1 Cor 11:23-26 – ‘For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’
We have here one of the most provocative, puzzling, and powerful passages in the whole of Scripture. Provocative: Christian men and women have been imprisoned, whipped, pilloried, tortured, and burned alive because of their opinions about what some of this teaching actually means, especially the words, ‘This is my body’. Puzzling: the apostle tells his readers in Corinth that their own unworthy attitude towards the Lord’s Supper is actually causing illness and even death among some of their number. Powerful: this teaching about the Lord’s Supper takes us to the very heart of Christian faith, experience, and worship. It makes us look back, and remember what Jesus has achieved for us on the cross. It makes us look up, and contemplate our blessed Saviour and to deepen our relationship with him. It makes us look around, and strengthen our ties of fellowship with our fellow Christians. It makes us look inwards, and purify our hearts before God. It makes us look ahead, and anticipate the future glory which is promised to all who are God’s children through faith in his Son.
1. AN ACT OF REMEMBRANCE, v25: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
On the night before he was crucified Jesus gathered his little band of disciples together and shared one last meal with them – a Passover meal. Now the Passover was a commemoration of the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. During the ceremony, the story of the Exodus was always told, no matter how familiar. That story told of the sacrifice of a lamb, whose blood was daubed around the door of the house. And when the Angel of Death came by, he would pass over these houses, so that the Israelites were unharmed and able to make their escape across the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and on towards the promised land. As the head of the house broke the loaves of unleavened bread, he would say, ‘This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the wilderness.’ But when Jesus came to that point, he said, ‘This is my body, which is for you.’ Thus the Jewish feast of the Passover was transformed into the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And in that meal we are taught to remember Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself for our sins on the cross of Calvary and our own deliverance from bondage – our bondage to sin. The Lord’s Supper, then, is an act of remembrance; it makes sure that we never lose sight of the place called Calvary; that we never forget how much we owe to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
2. AN ACT OF COMMUNION, 1 Cor 10:16, ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’
The Passover itself was more than a simple remembrance; it was a virtual re-living of the experience. One Jewish writing says, ‘in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ So it is with the service of Holy Communion. It is more than a sort of Christian Poppy Day. Your Christian life is a relationship between you and your Saviour which is nourished and strengthened by your participation in the Communion Service. When you take communion, you are re-living our personal experience of Christ. When you put out your hands to receive the bread and the wine, you are saying, in effect, ‘I receive the benefits of Christ’s death: I am ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven; I am adopted into God’s family; I am “in Christ”.’ Jesus spoke vividly of this relationship in Jn 6:54 when he said, ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ Now, it is a woeful misunderstanding to suppose that the bread and the wine change physically and literally into the body and blood of Christ. But still the Lord’s Table is a real meeting place between Christ and his people. Our Saviour pledges to meet with us there in a special way. It is a place where we ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. And, just as our bodies need food and drink regularly in order to keep them strong and healthy, we ought to come regularly to Lord’s Supper in order to be nourished and strengthened by communion with our living Lord and Saviour.
3. AN ACT OF FELLOWSHIP, 1 Cor 10:17, ‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.’
The Lord’s Supper is shared meal. It is a symbolic feast. It was just so with the Passover. It was a joyful occasion which involved not only the whole family, but any stranger who happened to be present. The Corinthians, however, were violating this sense of togetherness in a big way. They would meet together first for what was meant to be a love-feast, a bring-and-share meal. But in fact they didn’t share at all. The rich folks would arrive early and get stuck into their caviare and smoked salmon washed down with lashings of wine. The poor would come later with scarcely a crust of bread to share between them. Added to that greed and selfishness were the divisions and party-spirit with which the Corinthian church was beset. Paul had to declare: ‘This is not the Lord’s Supper at all, your meetings are doing you more harm than good.’
Coming to the Lord’s Table is a great leveller. It obliterates the distinction between rich and poor, old and young, and so on. None of us has earned the right to be there. We all come on the same terms – as forgiven sinners. We all stand in equal need of the grace and power of God. We come as members together of the body of Christ. There is no place there for those attitudes of pride, discord, rivalry or resentment which can too often lurk just beneath the surface of our well-practiced civility and politeness. The service of Holy Communion is meant to be an act of fellowship.
4. AN ACT OF SELF-EXAMINATION, v28, ‘A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.’
The Passover was preceded by a day of purification. The head of the house would take a candle and a pair of tongs and search the building for any leaven. Leaven was a symbol of evil or impurity. This action indicated the need to approach the Lord with a pure heart. The Corinthians were failing in this. Because of their lack of concern both for Christ and each other, they had turned the Lord’s Supper into an orgy of greed and drunkenness. They had forgotten that there needs to be a spiritual spring-clean before taking the Lord’s Supper. We should come to the Lord’s Table worthily. This does not mean that we must wait until our lives are completely flawless, because this would exclude everyone. But it does mean coming with a sincere heart, and with a prepared heart.
A teenage boy was overheard talking on a payphone. “Hello, sir, I was just calling to see if you needed anybody to deliver newspapers. Oh, you have someone. Well, are you satisfied with him? Oh, you are! Thankyou, I was was just checking.” A friend, overhearing this conversation said to the boy, “Sorry you didn’t get the job.” “Oh, no,” said the boy, “I’ve got the job. I was just calling to check up on myself.”
5. AN ACT OF ANTICIPATION. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper ‘until he comes’, v26.
At the Passover meal, an extra place would be laid at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah. It is similar with the Lord’s Supper: it always looks forward. On the night before he died he said, Matt 26:29 “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” This is looking forward to the great festivities which will take place when Jesus returns, and is reunited with his people perfectly and for ever. The church is the bride, Christ is the groom, and that great homecoming will be celebrated in the ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’, Rev 19:9. In the meantime, Jesus has instructed his people to celebrate it ‘until he comes’. He has left us with not with a good-bye, but an au revoir. We therefore come to the Lord’s Table hopefully and expectantly. Through all the changing scenes of life, its troubles and its joys, the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper encourages us to see that everything we have now as Christians is the first instalment, and guarantee, of the glory which is yet to come.
The early Christians would shout out an old Aramaic word at their communion services: ‘Maranatha!’ – ‘O Lord, Come!’ It is the cry of those who love the Lord now, and long to be with him for ever. When Christ invites you to come to the Lord’s Supper, he is inviting you to enjoy a foretaste of the great banquet to come.
Provocative and Puzzling it may be in some respects. But the teaching of Scripture about the Lord’s Supper is also exceedingly Powerful. It encourages us to look back, and to remember what our Saviour has achieved for us on the cross. It prompts us to look up, and to commune with our living and ever-present Lord. It urges us to look around and deepen our fellowship with each other. It makes us look inwards, and examine our hearts to see if they are sincere. It invites us to look ahead, and to view with joyful anticipation our eternal reunion with him to whom we owe so much.