Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Lord's table (11) - the Last Supper and the sacraments/ordinances

Did Jesus intend that bread and wine should be used as sacraments?* What was the reason for using these two 'emblems' and how should the church observe communion today?

* A sacrament, in the Western tradition, is often defined as an outward, visible sign that conveys an inward, spiritual grace (and to Protestants the word conveys would be understood in the sense that it is a visible symbol or reminder of invisible grace). While the Catholic and Orthodox churches believe there are seven sacraments, most Protestant churches consider there are only two, Baptism and the Eucharist (or Communion), and these are sometimes called ordinances rather than sacraments. Denominations which do not believe in sacramental theology may nevertheless refer to some ordinances as a "sacrament" in an effort to underscore their belief in the sanctity of the institution (and I have occasionally heard the word 'sacrament' used in Christadelphian meetings to refer to the 'breaking of bread', although it is uncommon).

Christadelphians, as with many Protestant groups, believe that Christians should observe the two ordinances of Baptism and Breaking of Bread as 'commandments of Christ'. The purpose of this message is to look at what Jesus intended when He said, at the last supper, "do this in remembrance of me".

The synoptists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are unanimous that the last supper was a Passover meal, and Paul provides some additional commentary (in 1 Corinthians) which confirms this. The following list shows some of the elements of the Passover meal which are referred to in the Gospels or in Paul's letter.

  1. Jesus referred to the meal as the Passover: ""I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15).
  2. Paul refers to the use of unleavened bread (1 Cor 5:7-8) as an aspect of the Passover meal with significance to Christian Communion.
  3. The 'cup of blessing' (1 Cor 10:16 KJV or 'cup of thansgiving' NIV) was the third of four cups of wine which were drank at Passover (the four cups were the cup of sanctification, the cup of wrath, the cup of blessing or redemption, and the cup of acceptance or praise). Luke specifically refers to two of these cups (Luke 22:17 and 20).
  4. Paul refers to the lamb which was a central feature of the Passover meal in his comment that "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor 5:7 NIV - the Greek word pascha strictly speaking means simply 'Passover' [so KJV et al]. It may also refer to the Passover lamb or meal and clearly has the meaning of 'lamb' here as it "has been sacrificed").
  5. Jesus used the words "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:24-25 and Luke 22:19). The purpose of the Passover was that "you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt" (Deut 16:3).
  6. The purpose of the Passover for Israel was that they might remember their deliverance from Egypt, and Jesus refers to the wine as a symbol of His "blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28) and may have been making an allusion to deliverance from sin as a connection to Passover.
For many Christians, including Christadelphians, the primary focus of Communion is on the death of Christ as an atonement for sins. This is especially so in relation to the communion 'cup' as a symbol of shed blood. However, it's important to note that the Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement, and Jesus' reference to the wine as a symbol of blood was to the "blood of the covenant". Sacrifice in confirmation of a covenant was never for atonement.

How did Jesus understand His own death?

Jesus' primary message during His ministry was about the Kingdom of God (see my earlier messages about the Gospel of the Kingdom, commencing with 'The Gospel in the Gospels'). Jesus taught that people could be set free by faith. He taught that God is forgiving and wants to give us the Kingdom. He modeled a life of dependance on God and enjoying freedom within that relationship. He never taught that atonement or reconciliation would come through His crucifixion, and although He predicted His death by execution on several occasions He never once referred to His death as the means of salvation.

There is only one saying of Jesus in the whole of the Gospels which might appear to contradict this: what's commonly called 'the ransom saying' in Mark 10:45 and Matt 20:28. "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." What did Jesus mean? The context of this saying is a dispute between the sons of Zebedee about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus called His disciples together and taught them about true greatness, culminating in this saying where He sets Himself forward as an example of selfless service and clarifies what He meant earlier about drinking from the cup he drinks and being baptised with the baptism with which He is baptised. The Greek word lyton, translated as 'ransom', was used of the price paid to free slaves and the related verb lytoo was used of deliverance in a general way. When used metaphorically it does not imply that payment is given to any individual, although the term stresses that freedom is accomplished at a great cost. When Jesus said the Son of Man came to "give his life" he is not referring solely to His death. The words immediately preceeding this - the Son of Man came to serve - reveals that He has in mind a life of service, and not simply the culmination of that life.

During the last supper Jesus referred to His blood as 'the blood of the covenant', referring to the sacrifice which sealed a covenant. He is undoubtedly referring to the blood with which Moses sealed the covenant in Exodus 24:8 and the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The words in Jeremiah refer to the community of God's people receiving God's law in their hearts and minds and is contrasted with the exodus from Egypt ("It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt"). Jesus undoubtedly had Jeremiah's words in mind at this Passover-celebration from Egypt, and Jeremiah revealed that the new covenant will be different to the old, as the new community of the covenant-people will be different from the old community. The emphasis again is on the Kingdom which Jesus is inaugurating.

For Jesus the 'last supper' was the first of a new type of Passover - a remembrance of the deliverance from the bondage of sin and the institution of the new covenant and a new community of covenant-people. The Kingdom of God had come and this meal was a foretaste of the Messianic banquet of which he had spoken so many times.

The bread and wine are symbols of His body and blood - not a dead body or the loss of blood which would extinguish a life, but His whole life given over completely in service to God. They speak of a lifetime of service in the Kingdom of God, not a few hours on the cross. The purpose of re-enacting this meal "in remembrance of me" is to recall His life-long devotion, His teachings and ethics, and His central message of the Kingdom as the community of God's people. The Eucharist, or Communion, is a celebration of thanksgiving (the word 'Eucharist' comes from the Greek eucharistia meaning 'thansgiving' which recalls the words of Luke 22:17-19 "he gave thanks". 'Eucharist' is one of the oldest Christian words for the service of communion, and was used in the Didache). It is a thanksgiving for His life of service which culminated in a supreme sacrifice, His teachings, the deliverance from sin, God's gift of salvation, the new covenant which Jesus inaugurated, and the Kingdom-community over which He is King.

The Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement for sins - there were other offerings which brought atonement, but not this one. It's purpose was to recall the blood which was painted on the doorposts of the Israelities in Egypt so that the angel of death would 'pass over' and not slay their firstborn sons. Hence it was a symbol of God's protection. So Paul's reference to Christ as "our Passover lamb" was not to His death as an atonement, but to the protection given to the people of God and their covenant-relationship with Him.

There is no suggestion, either in the Gospels or in Paul's writings, that there is any sacramental benefit from re-enacting the last supper, unless we understand it in the sense that the act of remembering keeps us connected to the source of grace. We are forgiven because of God's abundant generosity, and because of His righteousness, not because of our observance of rituals. Our forgiveness is not dependant on celebrating Communion, and does not come through it. Nor is forgiveness withheld because we might share the bread and wine with someone who is 'unworthy'. Paul emphasises that if anyone eats or drinks "in an unworthy manner" he eats and drinks judgment "on himself" (1 Cor 11:27-29). There is no hint of "guilt by association" when it comes to the Lord's table.

In my next message I want to suggest how I think Jesus intended us to "do this in remembrance" and how the church could do this today.

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