Can you please explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? I participate in it month after month but am not sure of its significance.
Most theologians would agree that the institution of the Lord’s Supper goes back to Jesus Christ himself. In all three Synoptic Gospels we have the explicit words of Jesus recorded by the evangelists which inaugurated the practice (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). There is strong evidence to suggest that the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover meal of Jewish tradition, although some scholars have disputed this conclusion.
The oldest document regarding the practice of the Lord’s Supper is found in Paul’s first letter to Corinthians (chapter 11), where he included the narrative that was passed to him through oral tradition. In that passage, Paul also gave some specific instructions as to how the Supper should be conducted, and the proper attitude needed to participate in it. This shows that the practise of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian committee has already been in existence before the writing of the first Gospel, which was probably the Gospel by Mark.
Although Churches across the denominational divide celebrate the Lord’s Supper, there are some significant disagreements between the different traditions regarding the significance and meaning of the practice. For instance, there is a dispute about the way in which Christ is present in the elements of bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper. Some claim that at their consecration the bread and the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Others maintain that the bread and the wine only represent the body and blood of Christ.
The body of literature that has been produced by the different traditions on the theology of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is daunting. It is impossible to even begin to discuss some of the finer points of the ongoing theological debate on this subject in the limited space allotted for this essay. What I propose to do (in the remaining space) is to present, in the sketchiest outline, the meaning of the practice. It is hoped that this will help readers to grasp the significance of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the Church and the individual Christian.
The Lord’s Supper is firstly a remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our salvation. The last meal that Jesus had with his disciples before his arrest and execution marks an important point in the history of the world. It marks the point in which God will make his salvation available to his creatures through the sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of his incarnate Son.
The bread symbolises the body of Christ that was broken, and the wine symbolises the blood of Christ that was shed for the sins of humanity. The Last Supper therefore anticipates the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Lord’s Supper serves as a reminder of the deliverance from sin and death that God has brought about through the death of Jesus. In this way, the Supper’s relation with the Jewish Passover Meal is clear. Both have to do with the deliverance of the people of God.
Precisely because the Lord’s Supper celebrates the salvation that is wrought by Christ, it is not just about remembering the past. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we are also celebrating the future. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has opened up a future for us – a future with God. Thus in 1 Corinthians 11:26 Paul says that ‘whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The Lord’s Supper urges us to look back at the cross so that our vision of the future will be clear. Most rituals of the Supper include this threefold declaration: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. The Lord’s Supper unites past, present and future. The certainty of the past gives us hope for the future in the present.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not just a memorial; it is also a proclamation. Every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we are telling anew the story of God’s gift of salvation in Christ. Every time we celebrate the Supper we tell his story, the story of the one who became man for us and for our salvation. But by doing so, by telling his story, we are also telling our story, the story of the community of faith. Furthermore, by putting our faith in Jesus, Christians are caught up in his story. Our stories are now profoundly wrapped up in his. This means that his resurrection has become our resurrection, his life our life!
Finally, the Lord’s Supper also has to do with communion. That is why it is sometimes called Holy Communion. In the Lord’s Supper a twofold communion takes place: communion with Christ and communion with the Church. Put differently, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper unites Christians together in Christ. Because in eating the bread and drinking the wine, Christians participate in Christ, Paul could therefore write, ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’ (1 Cor 15:16)
But in participating in the Lord’s Supper, Christians also participate in the fellowship that is made possible by Christ. Thus the Lord’s Supper is the expression of the intrinsic unity of the members of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Paul has again put it so succinctly, ‘Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Cor 15:17).
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (April 2014).