Cobwebs on the Communion table?

A pastoral reflection on the timeless message of the Lord's Supper.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

Cobwebs on our cover is an artist's creation. But can they move from fiction to reality? They can, and that is one of the persistent dangers of religious experience. When time and tradition erode the primary meaning of a spiritual symbol, when rite replaces reality, when shadows brush aside substance, when routine creates its own relic, cobwebs take over. Such a danger is particularly potent in symbols that touch relationships and challenge lifestyle.

The Communion table is one such symbol. Observe its creation. Watch its place in the apostolic church. Read the interpretation given by the Holy Spirit to the Corinthian church. You can't escape noticing the crucial role it has in understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. The command "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:24, 25)* carries with it a corollary of purpose: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (verse 26). The celebration of the Lord's Supper is in itself a proclamation: that God's redemptive activity is so unique that neither the dust of tradition nor the cobweb of life's preoccupations may be allowed to turn it into a mythology or a ritual relic. As Barclay so pointedly remarks, "The Lord's Supper is the permanent dramatic pronouncement of the unchanging divine action in Jesus Christ."1

Thus the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine are faith's perpetual symbol to proclaim the reality of the cross until He comes. The moment the death of Jesus ceases to be central to the faith and proclamation of the Christian, the moment the cross ceases to define the Christian life, relationship, and hope---at that moment the cobwebs take over.

To prevent that moment from happening in the life of an individual or a congregation is the responsibility of proclamation at and about the Lord's table. Come then, let the table of the Lord continue to proclaim the Lord's death as God's gracious pro vision for our redemption, relationship, and restoration.

The Lord's Supper and redemption

Jesus founded the Lord's Supper in the context of the Passover feast. The Passover setting underscores human impotence on the one hand and God's gracious activity on the other. It was impossible for Israel to free itself from bondage. Liberation came from God as a gift of His love and grace, and this is the lesson Israel was to teach its children from generation to generation. When Jewish children asked the meaning of the Passover meal, their parents' answer was a confession of the dynamic of God's grace: "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses" (Ex. 12:27). Just as the liberation of Israel was so rooted in history by a redeeming act of God, so is the liberation of humanity grounded in the historic event of the cross. Indeed, Jesus is our "paschal lamb" (1 Cor. 5:7), and His Last Supper is "a proclaiming act wherein the community in faith gives expression to the glorious and decisive significance of the death of Christ."2

Not to lose the reality of the cross in theology or proclamation or personal experience is one reason for the command "Do this in remembrance of me." The Supper is a re minder that "on the night when he was betrayed" (1 Cor. 11:23), on the night He was taken to Pilate and the priests, on the night before He was crucified, Jesus gave a solemn mes sage to His disciples that they need to remember that the bread and the wine are symbols of His body about to be broken and His blood about to be shed for the remission of sins (see Matt. 26:28). The broken body and the shed blood were not acts of a martyr suffering and dying for the vindication of his life or faith. Jesus was not a Lincoln dying for the preservation of a people and a concept; He was not a Gandhi dying for the emergence of a nation. Jesus was God's redemptive activity for the problem of sin. Lest we forget that, Jesus ordained the Lord's Supper and commanded that it be kept until He returns. Any indifference or negligence on this account is reprehensible, as Berkouwer rightly warns: "The slightest neglect of the Supper must therefore be condemned, for therein the community of believers loses its connection with the past (the death of Christ) as well as its outlook on the fulfillment."3

Jesus' assertion that His blood was to be "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28) is crucial for the experience and appreciation of salvation. For one thing, it speaks about sin. Sin is real. Sin is costly. Sin's grip is so immense and deadly that forgiveness of sin and freedom from its power and guilt are impossible without the "precious blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:19). This truth about sin needs to be said again and again because we live in a world that denies the reality of sin or re mains indifferent to it. Vivekananda, the Hindu philosopher, once said that "it is a sin to call a man a sinner. It is a standing libel on human nature."4 That may well be the view of many today from the materialist who defines life's occupation in terms of possession to the philosophic humanist who captures life's pursuit in terms of self-fulfillment. But not at the table of the Lord. There we are confronted with the diabolical nature of sin, which can be confronted only by that blood "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28).

Further, participation in the Lord's Supper is a confession that Jesus died for our sins, and that with out His death there could be no forgiveness. The bread and the cup re mind us that "in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us" (Eph. 1:7, 8). We are also reminded that it is our sins that drove Jesus to the cross. As Paul states, "while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly;" and "while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:6, 8). There is no escape from pro claiming the "once for all" (see Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 10:10) sacrificial and substitutionary nature of the death of Jesus. We are not saved by Christ the good man, by Christ the God-man, by Christ the great teacher, or by Christ the impeccable example. We are saved by Christ of the cross: "Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He de serves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. 'With his stripes we are healed.' "5 Any doctrine or practice or profession that diminishes or detracts from the centrality of the cross cannot come from the One who said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this ... in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:25).

The Lord's Supper and relationships

The second proclamation at and around the table is directly related to the redemption experience. The cross of Jesus brought about not only the forgiveness and redemption of sinners but also the reconciliation of sinners. Through Christ God "has reconciled us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). As sinners we were at rebel lion with God. Our thoughts were not His thoughts. Our actions were in opposition to His will. We were prodigals running away from home. We were under God's condemnation. But "while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:10).

The vertical reconciliation makes possible the horizontal. In bridging the void between God and humanity, and in effecting reconciliation between the two by destroying the enmity of sin, Christ has created a new relationship in which the spirit of slavery yields to the spirit of freedom. Paul argues that all who have experienced that transition have be come children of God (see Rom. 8:13- 15). Thus the cross gives birth to a new family, with its members reconciled to God and reconciled with each other.

It is the vision of this reconciled family that must dominate the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I say must because that is the Master's ideal and command and our weakness and goal. In the midst of denial and betrayal, in the midst of open debate and selfish ambitions as to who should be the greatest, in the midst of disciples who were not prepared for the cross, Jesus established the table of fellowship. Sharing a meal is in itself a powerful Eastern symbol of togetherness, family, and unity. The Master took this symbol and gave it a spiritual force by making it represent the reconciling mission for which He bore the cross.

Reconciled relationship and a united fellowship are the most visible demonstration of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Cullmann passionately points out, "The community assembled for the Lord's Supper be comes ... the community of those who have been crucified and have risen with Christ, i.e., the community of those who have received the 'remission of sins.' " 6 The early church understood this clearly when they celebrated the bread and the wine in their fellowship meetings: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). The Jew and the Gentile, the male and the female, the free and the slave, came together in one Spirit, worshiping the Lord at the table. And there they discovered the family of God.

"Because there is one bread," Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). We need not see any mystic insight in this passage. Participation in the bread and the wine does not perform the miracle of unity. But if what the bread and the wine symbolize i.e., the death of Jesus for our sins becomes our passionate preoccupation in thought and act, in living and relating, in work and worship, in reaching in and reaching out, then the oneness of the Communion will indeed become a reality. For it is through the cross that the "dividing wall of hostility" comes tumbling down and that we are no longer strangers and sojourners, but . . . fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Eph. 2:14, 19).

In the absence of reconciliation, and to the extent we contribute to disunity in the body of Christ, what efficacy is there in coming to the Lord's table? Indeed, such a coming is nothing less than blasphemy. "Let a man examine himself," says the apostle, "and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:28, 29). Doesn't such self-examination before coming to the Lord's table include not only our relation to God but also our relation to the body of Christ, which is His people? To cherish sin in our hearts while taking part in the emblems is not cheating God, but cheating our selves from the redemptive grace and forgiving power of God. To sit at the Lord's table and at the same time discriminate against another human being because of color, caste, race, gender, or whatever is to desecrate the meaning of fellowship that the table represents. Estranged relationship is Satan's anthem of doubt on the power of the gospel to reconcile. And adherence to religious rite with out yielding to its inner meaning is Satan's prescription to soothe a guilty conscience.

The inner meaning is to remember that the table is no one's private property. Nor is it the property of a denomination. It is the table of the Lord. Those who sit at that table are the guests of the Lord. And no guest has the right to discriminate against another. Instead, guests must examine only themselves as to their relationship with the Lord and with each other. Let all who accept the Lord come before the table.

Paul's call to self-examination does not imply that the unready should stay away from the table, but rather that they should retrace their path to the "night when He was betrayed." Life placed in relationship to that night cannot remain neutral: while Judas must go, Peter can weep and come back.

Jesus Himself provided an opportunity for self-examination by washing the disciples' feet. In taking the towel, Jesus introduced a new dynamic to human structure and relations: fulfillment comes not from power but service; leadership derives its authority not from position but servanthood; transformation begins not with the throne but with the cross. To live is to die. And so Jesus commanded: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an ex ample" (John 13:14, 15).

"Be like Me," Jesus seems to be saying; "serve like Me; love like Me; live like Me." It is not enough to take the title of deacon or elder or pastor or bishop or president. Take the towel instead, and then the bread and the wine. The order is important. With out the self-denial involved in taking up the towel, there could be no Sup per. Without becoming a servant, there could be no ministry. Without being a reconciler, there could be no discipleship.

When that kind of self-scrutiny takes hold of us, we will be ready to absorb the true meaning of the words of the Lord: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:54-56).

These words recorded by John may not be parallel to the words of the Lord's Supper about eating the bread and drinking the wine, but together they speak of an intimate relation ship that defines discipleship. The characterization is neither mythical nor mystical, but existential, affecting the lifestyle of Christians here and now, setting an unalterable standard for discipleship. "To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ is to receive Him as a personal Saviour, believing that He forgives our sins, and that we are complete in Him.. . .

What food is to the body, Christ must be to the soul. Food cannot benefit us unless we eat it, unless it becomes apart of our being. So Christ is of no value to us if we do not know Him as a personal Saviour. A theoretical knowledge will do us no good. We must feed upon Him, receive Him into the heart, so that His life becomes our life. His love, His grace, must be assimilated."7

Such an absolute appropriation of Jesus in our lives, symbolically ex pressed in the bread and the wine, leads us to affirm that we are His and He is ours until He comes.

The Lord's Supper and restoration

As He concluded the Supper, Jesus made a vow: "I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29). The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26).

Both these statements give to the Lord's Supper an eschatological thrust. As Jeremias notes, "Through the appropriation of the forgiveness of sins the disciples become the re deemed community of the end-time."8 This community of faith must ever be conscious of living and witnessing in the interval between the historical event of the cross and the eschatological coming of the Lord. With an experience firmly rooted in the cross and the cross alone, the community anticipates the return of Christ, who "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28).

Between the rooting and the ultimate restoration stands the link: the Lord's Supper. The Supper thus links history, existence, and hope by constantly pointing to us the One who was, who is, and who is to come. This One came in time and space, and died on a day in history for us. This One lives as the risen Lord and has promised to dwell with us. This One has also promised (and John places the promise as one of the last Passover sayings), "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:1-3).

The table of the Lord is a re minder that history has meaning and life has hope. To proclaim Jesus as that hope, as the Lord who saves, sanctifies, unifies, and is coming soon to take us home, is the reason we gather at the Lord's Supper. As long as we do that, cobwebs have no chance at the Communion table.

*All Scripture passages are from the Revised Standard Version.

1. William Barclay, The Lord's Supper (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), p. 113.

2. G. C. Berkouwer, The Sacraments (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), p. 193.

3. Ibid., p. 192.

4. Swami Vivekananda, Speeches and Writings, 3rd ed. (Madras, India: G. A. Natesan, n.d.), p. 39.

5. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 25.

6. Oscar Cullmann and F. J. Leenhardt, Essays on the Lord's Supper (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958), p. 20.

7. White, p. 389.

8. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1966, 1990), p. 236.


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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

January 1994

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