17 April, 2024

What Is the Lord’s Supper? Exploring Unity, Renewal, and Remembrance

by | 1 April, 2024 | 3 comments

By Rowlie Hutton 

What is the Lord’s Supper? On a Thursday night, Jesus was celebrating a Passover meal with his disciples when he shocked them by explaining how the fruit of the vine and unleavened bread of Passover were actually pointing to his own sacrificial death, which would take place the next day. Jesus told them to continue remembering him through the bread and fruit of the vine. 

Here’s the event as retold by the apostle Paul: 

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 (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). 

After Jesus rose from the dead and the church began, the church regularly gathered to remember Jesus in this way. 

The Lord’s Supper goes by additional names. For example, it is also called Communion, since 1 Corinthians 10:16 calls it a “the communion of the blood of Christ” (King James Version). It is also called the Eucharist, from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” 

So, what actually happens when churches gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Answers vary. Some assert that the elements change into the actual body and blood of Christ (known as transubstantiation) through the instrumentation of a priest; others claim it’s merely a symbolic ceremony to help us remember Jesus’ sacrifice.  

I want to suggest that the Lord’s Supper is a weekly experience of church unity, covenant renewal, and mutual remembrance.  

SOUTH OF THE BORDER? 

I was born and raised “south of the border”—the Canadian border. My grandfather homesteaded right along Montana’s border with Canada in the early 1900s, the same land my brother and his wife farm today. 

My wife, Suzette, was born and raised in Nebraska. Each time my parents would visit, Suzie would have some amazing, homemade concoction coming out of the oven—muffins, biscuits, homemade rolls, etc. One day my mom commented about all the fresh baked goods, to which my dad responded, “Well, she is from down south.” 

Depends on your frame of reference. 

Referring to everything south of the Canadian border as “down south” reminds me of an unfortunate tendency among many Christians when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. I’ll try to add some context. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that, at the Mass, the elements (bread and fruit of the vine) undergo a fundamental change and become the actual body and blood of Jesus. As I’ve mentioned, this is a doctrine known as transubstantiation

Sometimes, we who are not Roman Catholic can spend our theological energy articulating what we don’t believe (i.e., we don’t believe in transubstantiation), and because of this, we must believe in the “default” other option: the Lord’s Supper must be nothing more than a symbol to help us remember something Jesus did for us. We buy into the idea that anything below the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation is simply “down south.” 

Yet Nebraska isn’t the same as Mississippi. I want to suggest that, if we want a biblical view of the Lord’s Supper, we will see in it something more than just a symbolic way to help us remember something Jesus did. Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 doesn’t leave us that option. Let’s explore three phrases Paul uses in that chapter to describe the Lord’s Supper, and we’ll discover that the Lord’s Supper is a far richer experience than we might have imagined. 

1. “THIS IS MY BODY” (v. 24). 

Does it seem like the Lord’s Supper is mainly an activity between you and Jesus? Let’s think again. The Lord’s Supper is a call to unity, uniting vastly different people at one table. We get a major clue of this facet of the Lord’s Supper from Paul’s use of the word body

First, Paul narrates the original Lord’s Supper, when Jesus told his disciples, “This is my body, which is for you. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Paul then speaks of how we need to partake of the bread and cup in a worthy manner, and he connects this with “discerning the body of Christ”: 

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). 

Jesus was referring to the bread when he said, “This is my body.” Yet what was Paul referring to when he said we needed to “discern the body”? There are good reasons to think that, here, Paul was referring to the church itself as the “body of Christ.” Consider how this metaphor for the church is used throughout 1 Corinthians. For example, 

  • “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). 
  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). 
  • “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). 

Division was a clear problem in the Corinthian church. Early in the letter, Paul appealed to them that “there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The context of Paul’s discussing the Lord’s Supper was their disunity: “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Then, after telling them to “discern the body of Christ,” Paul shared with them practical ways to do so: 

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment (1 Corinthians 11:33-34). 

I agree with John Mark Hicks when he wrote in Enter the Water, Come to the Table: Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the Bible’s Story of New Creation, “To eat in an ‘unworthy manner,’ in this context, is to eat in a divisive manner.” He went on to say, “There may be many ways in which to eat the supper unworthily, but the specific unworthiness in 1 Corinthians 11 is a communal problem, not an individual one. The church eats worthily when it eats as a united community embodying the values for which Christ died” (pp. 96-96). 

I have known people who would never miss the Lord’s Supper, yet they can’t get along with the person sitting in the pew across the auditorium. They will join together in condemning a nonessential but they won’t share a table at the potluck. Preachers admonish the congregation to have a “vertical relationship with God, while enjoying a horizontal relationship with one another.” And then they get into chest-thumping contests with other preachers. The world may not recognize Jesus as Lord—but they do recognize disunity when they see it. 

The Lord’s Supper is so much richer than a me-and-Jesus activity. The Lord’s Supper is an experience of Christian unity, bringing us together, whatever our differences, to dine at the same table. Because of our participation in the body and blood of Christ, “we, who are many, are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17). 

2. “THE NEW COVENANT IN MY BLOOD” (v. 25). 

It’s easy to think of “covenant” as an Old Testament thing. Isn’t that what God entered with Abraham and what he ratified with the nation of Israel after the Exodus? Yet covenant is God’s method of dealing with mankind throughout both Old and New Testaments. Testament, after all, is another word for covenant.” (For an in-depth study on covenant, I recommend Chuck McCoy’s teaching shared at truthcat.com.) 

Two principles of covenant we ought to emphasize when we are talking about the Lord’s Supper are the “blood of the covenant” and the attitude in which one enters into a covenant with God.  

It’s worth noting, for example, that whenever a biblical covenant was entered into, it was necessary for each party to touch blood (see Hebrews 9:16-22). As for having the proper attitude, the Hebrew conception was that of loyal covenant love (Hebrew: hesed), of keeping the covenant so the other party benefits. 

In the same way, throughout the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is clearly tied to the blood of Christ (Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 10:16), and the reader is challenged to partake in such a way as to demonstrate loyal covenant love (e.g., see Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 to partake in a worthy manner). 

In fact, the Lord’s Supper isn’t merely connected to Christ’s blood; it’s described as “a participation in the blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16). As we partake in what Jesus called “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25), we participate in his body and blood. We are not passive observers to the covenant; rather, we are active participants. 

The Greek word for “participation” is koinonia, which often is translated as “fellowship.” Most readers understand the need for koininia, for deep fellowship, within the church. Yet we need to remember that we are created for deep fellowship with both our fellow Christians and God: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship [koinonia] with us. And our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). 

Paul challenges us that the bread and the cup are a koinonia in the blood and body of Christ. 

This suggests something far more significant is taking place than what Ulrich Zwingli described when translating “this is my body/blood” as merely “stands for,” “signifies,” or “represents.” (Zwingli is also the theological ancestor of those who remove forgiveness of sins from baptism.) The language surrounding the Lord’s Supper suggests not only Jesus’ presence but also our participation in his body and blood. 

Again, let me tap the brakes on transubstantiation: I do not follow the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that says it turns into the actual blood and body of Christ. It is not the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus at the table; it is the living Jesus that provides nourishment. As Hicks put it in Enter the Water, Come to the Table, the Lord’s Supper is “the experience of active communion with the living Christ” (p. 114). 

Thus, the Lord’s Supper does not merely “represent the blood and body” of Christ, as we so often hear during the morning assembly. It is a participation—a koinonia—in the blood and body of Christ. In the same way, baptism does not merely represent the death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is a joining, a participating, in his death, burial, and resurrection. Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are a means of participating in Jesus. In Between Two Trees: Our Transformation from Death to Life, Shane Wood writes, 

Each Sunday, Christians come to a table ostensibly served with bread and juice, but in reality are served the body and blood of Christ. . . . Thus, by dining with Christ and ingesting Christ, Christians become Jesus to the world. Or as Paul says it, “Now you are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27) (pp. 162-163). 

The Old Testament shows us that, while entering the covenant was necessary, there were also ceremonies for remaining in the covenant. For example, Numbers 9:13 stipulates that, when those who are able to attend the Passover choose not to, “they must be cut off from their people.” To quote Mont Smith (from What the Bible Says About Covenant), “The terms of the pardon are not the terms of the covenant.” With Old Testament imagery as the biblical background for the apostles’ teaching, it makes sense to see baptism as the normative time and place in which a person enters the new covenant and the Lord’s Supper as a covenant-renewal ceremony. For it is at the table that we participate in and maintain fellowship (koininia) with Jesus—and with each other. 

3. “IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME” (vv. 24-25). 

When we think of Jesus’ words “in remembrance of me” to partake in the Lord’s Supper, we tend to think only in terms of us remembering Jesus. Yet, given the covenantal context, “in remembrance” likely goes both ways. At the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus—as we ask him to remember us, his covenant people. Consider a couple examples in which God remembers his people as a part of the covenant: 

When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the Lord your God and rescued from your enemies. Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed festivals and New Moon feasts—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God (Numbers 10:9-10, emphasis mine). 

“Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Genesis 9:16, emphasis mine). 

From these contexts, we see that to remember means to bring someone to mind—and then act on that person’s behalf. In response, we make the changes necessary in our lives in order to bring honor to the One we are remembering. 

Next time you take the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Jesus, remember that remembrance goes both ways—and what good news that is! 

MAKING THE LORD’S SUPPER A PRIORITY 

It follows that, as the Lord’s Supper is such a high priority in the New Testament, it ought to be a high priority in our churches. Perhaps your church could give it a higher priority by its placement in the service. Perhaps your church could encourage a more meaningful and less hurried Communion time by giving it more space and encouraging more engagement. Perhaps, if you are someone who introduces the Communion time at your church, you could put some more intentionality into your “Communion meditations.” (For help on this, see the article “Thoughts on Giving a Communion Meditation”) 

Even if your church is doing well at making the Lord’s Supper a priority, many people in today’s culture of busyness miss the church service from time to time, or they watch from home when unable to attend in person. How can your church encourage their people to prioritize the Lord’s Supper, even when they miss church attendance for whatever reason? 

Travel plans, sporting events, illness, and other reasons often keep people from attending the Sunday morning assembly. Given this reality, I encourage churches to call upon the dads to be ready to lead their families in taking Communion together. Give them Scriptures to read and instruct them to prioritize the Lord’s Supper with their families. 

Use resources you already have available. When the church emails reminders about the sermon topic and title, encourage people to have grape juice and bread ready so that they can take the Lord’s Supper during the livestream. My home congregation has prepared a slide that is visible before the livestream that reminds viewers to be prepared for Communion. 

Jesus desires to dine with us, and there is no richer way than by participating in his body and blood at the Lord’s Supper each week. As Revelation 3:20 says, 

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20). 

This article first appeared at RENEW.org. 

Rowlie Hutton serves as vice president and relationship manager with The Solomon Foundation. He has held ministries in Montana, North and South Dakota, and Omaha, Neb. 

3 Comments

  1. David Fincher

    Thank you Rowlie for your thorough overview and clear explanation of the Lord’s Supper. I’m so glad to be part of a church that emphasizes the place of communion in the worship service, in the body of Christ, and in our own hearts.

  2. Loren C Roberts

    Amen. I see many in my church preparing themselves for communion in prayer.
    However do others really know what the Lord’s Supper is?

    The Lord’s Supper would be a wonderful teaching opportunity as a sermon topic.

  3. Gene Andrews

    In response to the question you raise, “Does it seem like the Lord’s Supper is mainly an activity between you and Jesus?”, I would add that many see the Lord’s Supper as their personal time with God. But the 1 Corinthians 11 pasage seems to describe it as a corporate time with the Lord. It is a fellowship meal, so why should we not commune (communicate) with one another during this time instead of always demanding total silence so each individual can have their own personal time with God.

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