Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

95 Theses, #52-56: Five Meanings of the Lord's Supper

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction
 (Painting: "The Last Supper," by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1852-1929)
 
52.) The Lord's Supper as Remembrance - Christ’s last hours with his disciples involved a series of interconnected acts of love—the self-abasing service of washing their feet, the fellowship of a meal shared with them, the giving of his “new command” to love one another, and the prayer offered over them and all believers. But the one part of that evening which was later seen as a truly defining moment for all subsequent Christian practice was the institution of the Eucharist (also called Communion or the Lord's Supper). As part of the meal, Christ gave his disciples bread and wine as representations of his body and blood, and commanded them to re-enact this new Passover as a central ritual of the Kingdom-life. This act has at least five meanings elucidated by Scripture. First, it is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ himself proclaimed, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The Eucharist brings the people of God back to contemplation of the mysteries of redemption and of a re-acceptance of the grace of God made manifest in those mysteries.

53.) The Lord's Supper as Precapitulation* - The Eucharist is also a precapitulation of the ultimate restoration of all things. Christ declares during the celebration of the Lord's Supper, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18), and Revelation prophesies that one of the elements of Christ's Second Coming will be “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9).  Thus the Eucharist directs us toward a hopeful attitude, a future-focused, celebratory perspective to balance alongside the past-focused, mournful perspective of remembrance. (* Yes, I know that "precapitulation" is not really a word--not yet, anyway. But it ought to be. What we do in the Eucharist is stronger than a mere "foreshadowing" of the Messianic feast at the Last Day: it is an active participation in that future event which is realized by faith here and now; hence, precapitulation.)

54.) The Lord's Supper as a Symbol of Unity - When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, it was a communal event. And when Paul explains it in 1 Cor. 11, his teaching comes in the context of a broader discussion about church unity. Some scholars have posited that when Paul says "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (v.29), his reference to "the body of the Lord" might refer more to the church as the Body of Christ than to the bread of the Eucharist itself. Indeed, the very issue for which Paul is rebuking the Corinthians is for using the Lord's Supper in a way that emphasizes the divisions in the Body rather than its unity (vv.17-22). Thus, since the church is itself "the Body of Christ," the Eucharist symbolizes the unity of the church and is taken as an act of “communion” with one another.

55.) The Lord's Supper as Mystical Feeding - The Eucharist also reminds us of the necessity of feeding our souls on Christ himself. Jesus seems to teach about this meaning when he says, "I am the living bread...If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6:51, cf. vv. 35, 53-58). We are called to feast on the reality of God-made-flesh, which we encounter in Scripture, fellowship, prayer, and in the immanent presence of God in all creation. Thus the Eucharist is also an act of “communion” with Christ, of symbolically representing what is already true in reality, the mystical union of his natures with our own. 

56.)  The Lord's Supper as Thanksgiving - Finally, it is important to note that in each of the accounts of the Last Supper, it is recorded that Jesus "gave thanks" (1 Cor. 11:24; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17,19; Matt. 26:26-27). The name "Eucharist" itself means "thanksgiving." When we come to the table of the Lord's Supper, we come not just mourning the sins of humanity that led Christ to the cross, but pouring out the joy of thankful hearts for the grace of God revealed to us in his Son.

Next installment: The Eucharist and Sacramentalism

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