“As they were eating, he took bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is the Lord’s Supper? Or, depending on your tradition, what is the Eucharist? The answers to those questions are perhaps wider ranging than you might expect. Not concerning ourselves with theological distinctions for the moment, the Lord’s Supper is one of the two most significant Christian acts of worship there is. The other is baptism, but that is a discussion for another time. Followers of Jesus have been observing the Lord’s Supper (or, again, depending on your tradition, celebrating the Eucharist or Holy Communion) since the very beginning of the church’s history. A church that doesn’t observe this tradition in some form or fashion can openly be questioned as to whether they are a church at all. Yet what is it? Well, a full answer to that question is well beyond the scope of this brief reflection, but as we come to the most foundational passage on the matter, let’s reflect for just a minute on what is the most important thing to remember about it.
If you have been a member of any church for very long, these are words with which you are likely at least somewhat familiar. We are reminded of them several times during the year. In some churches that reminder comes quarterly. More frequent is a monthly observation. In most churches, it is a weekly event. These words, or at least the gist of what Jesus says here (and which Paul echoes in 1 Corinthians 11), are fairly universally part of the liturgy, formal or informal, that pretty well every church uses when taking congregants through the motions of their particular approach to this observation.
Different church traditions understand exactly what Jesus meant by this in different ways. For instance, Catholics take Him literally. Official church teaching for the Roman Catholic church holds that when the priest speaks the blessing over the elements of the Eucharist, they undergo a metaphysical transformation and as worshipers consume them, they become the literal body and blood of Jesus. Admittedly, as a Baptist who sits about as far on the opposite side of the theological spectrum on this issue as you can get, I don’t find any Scriptural warrant for this particular view. Additionally, extra-biblical church teaching on the matter holds no theological authority in my view. The result is that, with respect to my Catholic brothers and sisters, I reject this view.
Protestant churches as a bloc don’t accept the Catholic position, understanding Jesus as speaking metaphorically in some fashion. Just how metaphorically they understand Him depends on how great is their separation from the Catholic church. Episcopalians represent somewhat of an exception here as they generally share the Catholic view. Lutherans, the next closest kin to the Catholic church, teach that while the elements do not undergo any kind of a metaphysical change, nonetheless, the real presence of Christ is all around the elements as they are being consumed such that worshipers really do commune with Him in a special way. Presbyterians bridge the gap between these traditions and Baptists. They hold that while there is important symbolism in the whole affair, worshipers experience the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements. All of these traditions refer to the Holy Communion as a sacrament. This means that it offers us something sacred, or holy. By preserving this tradition, worshipers receive something from God they could not otherwise gain for themselves.
Baptists, following generally in the Anabaptist tradition, hold a symbolic view. We refer to the Lord’s Supper as an ordinance. It was something ordained by Jesus for His followers to have a powerful symbol to remember what He did for us on the cross. There is nothing technically significant about the elements themselves (and indeed I’ve used things like jelly donuts to celebrate the Lord’s Supper before), because the meal itself is not anything sacred, but instead is a powerful and symbolic reminder of what Jesus did for us.
Now, talking through all of that is theologically significant. It is worthwhile to understand what various other traditions believe about this important part of the church’s ritual such that we can at least hold them with respect even where we disagree with one another. Being able to disagree on nonessential matters (although debates here can get a bit more tense since some traditions, like Catholicism, do hold that there are salvific implications to the answers we come to) without losing sight of our common family connection in Christ is important. In the context of the event itself here, though, none of this was on the minds of the disciples. It didn’t merit even the most fleeting thought.
For the disciples, they were still reeling from Jesus’ announcement of His impending betrayal. They could hardly get their minds around any of the things Jesus was saying to them. This, though, would have captured their attention. The reason was Jesus was taking a ritual they all knew intimately well and declaring it to mean something totally different than they had ever known. Perhaps the best illustration I’ve ever heard of how this would have struck the disciples in the moment is that this would have been like a preacher getting up on Christmas morning (which will be a Sunday next year) and saying that instead of celebrating Jesus this year, we are going to use this as an occasion to celebrate me and my birthday. What Jesus said and did here would have been shocking on that level of blasphemy to them. The only reason they didn’t all get up and immediately leave the room was that their heads were still spinning from the betrayal announcement and also they were used to Jesus saying weird things that should have been offensive.
Even more for us, though, is the fact that we must not miss what is most important here. Getting all caught up in debates over whether Jesus was being literal or not can drift over into exercises in missing the point. The point was that Jesus was about to sacrifice Himself to pay the price for our sins. Whether the bread and wine (or juice for Baptists!) undergoes any kind of change, in just over 12 hours, Jesus’ body was going to literally be sacrificed on a cross as the unblemished lamb who would serve as a justification before God on behalf of the rest of the world. His blood would be the means by which a new covenant with God was going to be made. This new covenant would be rooted in life – eternal life for all who are willing to accept the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice and the reality of His ensuing resurrection from the dead. Amid all the other discussions and debates, this is the thing we cannot miss. Jesus died for you and for me. We can have life when we live through Him. That’s what matters most. If we are united on that point, we are united indeed.