16. Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the emblems of the body and blood of Jesus as an expression of faith in Him, our Lord and Saviour. In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again. Preparation for the Supper includes self-examination, repentance, and confession. The Master ordained the service of foot washing to signify renewed cleansing, to express a willingness to serve one another in Christlike humility, and to unite our hearts in love. The communion service is open to all believing Christians. (1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:23-30; Matt. 26:17-30; Rev. 3:20; John 6:48-63; 13:1-17.)
My earliest childhood memories of communion services recall a somber affair. Men and women would separate for the washing of feet, after which we returned to the sanctuary. The pastor and elders sat on one side of the communion table, upon which the elements were covered with a white cloth. The deacons sat in the front pew, facing them. The deaconesses, wearing black dresses with hats and white gloves, entered silently and removed the cloth, slowly and carefully folding it like a color guard folding a flag. The pastor gave a short exhortation, then read 1 Cor. 11:23-24. An elder offered a prayer of blessing. The pastor passed the plates of bread to the elders, who passed them to the deacons, who passed them to us. When we all had a piece the pastor said, “Let us all eat together.” We did so in solemn silence. Then the pastor read 1 Cor. 11:25-26, an elder blessed the unfermented wine, and the deacons passed the trays of cups to us. We all drank together.
It was, I say, a somber occasion. It was a remembrance of the death of Jesus. It was a Good Friday experience.
What Thou, my Lord, has suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
It was, dare I say, a sort of “funeral service for Jesus.” I remember one elder in particular who invariably would get choked up as he ate and tears would come to his eyes.
Seventh-day Adventists haven’t spent much ink debating the nature of the Lord’s Supper, focusing instead on simply following Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and making sure that we fulfill all that entails: breaking of bread, sharing of the cup, and washing of feet. But two sentences leap out from the doctrinal statement as being at variance with my early experiences of how we did it:
In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.
This is to be a joyful experience, not one of funereal somberness. The Jesus whose death we proclaim has risen, is now “present to meet and strengthen His people,” and will come again. We come to his table having confessed our sins to one another, having washed each other’s feet, now to declare through our eating and drinking the good news in which we place our trust. We share here a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
I could write much on the “what” of this meal, but the question we’ve been asked to reflect on in this series is “So what? What difference does it make? How should we then live?” We don’t have far to look for ideas.
Discerning the Body
During each communion service we read from St. Paul’s narrative of the institution in 1 Cor. 11. It was not an occasion of joy that prompted the letter, but the scandal of division.
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
He recites the institution narrative, and then follows it by directly addressing those who are using the Lord’s Supper as an occasion of division:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. … Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.
What is the “body” we are to discern? Is it, as Lutherans and Catholics suggest, Christ’s human body, present sacramentally in the form of bread? That doesn’t fit the context. The issue Paul confronts is a church divided between those with food and others who hunger, between those who are getting drunk and others who are thirsty, between those who dig into what they have and others who sit by in silence with nothing. It is to these divisions Paul speaks when he warns against eating and drinking “unworthily,” without “discerning the Lord’s body”–to do so is to eat and drink as if we had only ourselves in mind.
Paul does not leave the subject of divisions at the Lord’s Supper in the next chapter, he elaborates upon it. There are, he says, many things by which we differ from one another. He has spoken already in the letter of human distinctions (Jews and Greeks, slave and free, weak and strong, male and female, well-fed and hungry); now he speaks of different gifts we have from the Holy Spirit. Despite these differences, he says, we are one body in Jesus Christ. Indeed, these differences enrich the Body.
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. … And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1 Cor 12:13, 26)
This is love (agape), about which he elaborates in 1 Cor. 13:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
To eat and drink in a worthy manner, “discerning the Lord’s body,” is to come together in love, in unity, sharing together the things of God.
“Let a man examine himself,” says Paul. When we separate for foot-washing, whom do we seek for a partner? Do we seek out our friends, those with whom we feel safe, those whose feet it is easy to wash? Perhaps we would do better to seek out those from whom we’re estranged, those who annoy us, those whose comments we dismiss in Sabbath School, those whom we would pretend not to know if we passed them on the street, those whom we would never invite into our home–and then, having washed their feet, having sat with them to partake in the Lord’s Supper, to invite them to our home as the brother or sister that they are.
An Open Table
The next point necessarily follows. If the Lord’s Supper is intended as a sign of our unity as one body of Christ, and is not to be the occasion of division, then neither can it be the occasion of exclusion. “The communion service is open to all believing Christians”–we believe baptism the only door through which any must pass. We don’t ask about someone’s Eucharistic theology, whether they are Zwinglian or Calvinist or Lutheran or even Catholic–we simply say, “Christ is present,” and he says, “Come!” We don’t ask here about personal sin or how politicians vote. Our deacons do not serve as bouncers. Everyone who hungers and thirsts is welcome.
Our practice of open communion must be taken into consideration when we discuss the ecclesiological implications of our belief that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the “remnant” of Bible prophecy. We believe we are “called out,” with a special message to proclaim before the return of Christ, but this does not translate into exclusiveness at the Lord’s Table. We affirm that “the universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ,” and we welcome to this table as brother and sister all who confess his name–even those who would not consider our church to be a “church.”
In a recent discussion of the nature of the church someone recalled the Edwin Markham verse:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle and brought him in.
Our example is that of Jesus, who broke bread with men he knew would soon run and hide; one would deny him, another would betray him. He shared his bread with all.
The Bread of Affliction
There’s a further step we need to take. It’s not enough for us to be one. It’s not enough for us to be welcoming and inclusive. We need to look beyond the walls that surround us, and catch a renewed vision of our mission.
As Jesus and his disciples sat at table, many of their words and actions were old and familiar. They gathered to celebrate Pesach, the Passover, in remembrance of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
God’s command to Moses when he established the Passover was, “You shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:15ff), but that night when they ate it in haste was not the first time they had tasted it. “Ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim,” the Seder proclaims: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” This was their daily bread while in bondage, just as unleavened bread is the staple of poor people everywhere, whether they call it matzo, tortilla or pita. Each year in the Seder Israel eats and remembers not only its own suffering, but the suffering of all who hunger, all who know the taskmaster’s whip, all who scrape together a little flour and a little water to make a simple flat piece of bread for their evening meal.
Throughout the Torah and the Prophets the experience of Israel and of all who hunger are linked, bridging Israel’s memory of its own affliction to its covenantal obligation to those who suffer:
He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
We cannot know exactly what traditional formulas were recited by Jesus and his disciples, as the Seder used today is of medieval origin, but whatever they were, to them Jesus added a new layer of meaning. This bread that brought to mind both ancient suffering in Egypt and present suffering on the other side of town, would now remind them that he had suffered as well.
“This is my body, which is broken for you.”
As we’ve already seen, Paul appealed to the image of the Body to call for unity at the Lord’s table: rich and poor, Jew and Greek, male and female, all are welcome. When we read the Gospels we see that this call is even broader still. Jesus tells us not only to welcome those who come, but to go out of our way to invite those who don’t get invited to society’s galas, to share our bread with those who hunger.
When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)
Jesus goes on to tell a story of a man who held a banquet and found that all his guests had excuses. So the man said in anger to his servant:
Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room. And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.
That’s our call–not simply to keep the light on for those who might wander by (Motel 6 does as much), but to go out and find those who hunger. Love and service go hand in hand.
In washing the feet of His disciples, Christ gave evidence that He would do any service, however humble, that would make them heirs with Him of the eternal wealth of heaven’s treasure. His disciples, in performing the same rite, pledge themselves in like manner to serve their brethren. Whenever this ordinance is rightly celebrated, the children of God are brought into a holy relationship, to help and bless each other. They covenant that the life shall be given to unselfish ministry. And this, not only for one another. Their field of labor is as wide as their Master’s was. The world is full of those who need our ministry. The poor, the helpless, the ignorant, are on every hand. Those who have communed with Christ in the upper chamber will go forth to minister as He did. (Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 651)
Early Adventists had a fervent hope in the soon return of Christ, but didn’t neglect engagement with the world. They were involved in various movements of social reform: abolitionism, health reform, temperance. They reached out in missions to the frontiers and corners of America and to the South Pacific. I think our outward vision will become more clear as we lower our eyes to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, and as we open our arms–and our hearts–to all who hunger and thirst.