This is the second of a series of reflections which have been stimulated by my reading Stephen Cottrell’s recently published book, On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards. As last week, I want to make clear that although as a Baptist I inevitably take a different approach to the use of the term ‘priesthood’ for the work of those who have been ordained to Christian ministry, nonetheless this latest book by the new Archbishop of Canterbury is full of helpful insights, whatever our denominational background may be.
This week I want to consider the role ministers play in presiding at the Lord’s Table. For Stephen Cottrell, “the declaration of Christ’s forgiveness; presidency of the Eucharist; and the announcement of God’s blessing…. are the gospel itself…. things of spiritual value and power that are entrusted to the person who is called and ordained to priestly ministry”.
The first point I want to make is that the New Testament says nothing about who may preside at the Lord’s Table – or indeed who may pray at the Lord’s Table. As a result, where an ordained minister is not present, Baptists have been happy to allow a ‘deacon’ or other suitably ‘authorised’ person to lead the communion. In my own case, I regularly presided at the Lord’s Table when as a student at the Northern Baptist College I was taking services all over the North of England. Later, as an ordained minister, there was no question that I would preside at the Lord’s Table whenever there was communion. Yet strange as it may seem to some, as a student training for ministry and then later as a minister, I rarely took the prayer of thanksgiving for the bread and the wine: instead, as is the custom in most Baptist churches, this prayer is normally taken be a deacon to emphasise that Christians need no priest to ‘consecrate the elements’. Historically, at least, this has been a protest prayer!
My second point is this: in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper as also in the Apostle Paul’s references to the Lord’s Supper, the prayers (and at that stage there was more than one prayer) were always prayers of thanksgiving. For instance, Mark tells us that Jesus “took a loaf of bread and after blessing it, gave it to them, and said ‘Take this is my body’. Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them” (Mark 14.22,23). The words of institution used by Paul include: “Jesus…. took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it” (1 Cor 11.24). As for the cup, Paul had previously referred to it as “the cup of blessing which we bless” (1 Cor 10.16). It is important to be aware that in Greek there is no fundamental difference in meaning between the word to ‘thank’ and the word to ‘bless’. The Greek word used for thanking God in 1 Cor 11 as also in the Gospel accounts is the word eucharisteo – from which our English word ‘Eucharist’ is derived. In other words, the Eucharist – the word that many Anglicans today like to use for the Lord’s Supper – is a service at which we give thanks to God for the bread and wine. In 1 Cor 10.16, as also in Matt 26.26; Mark 14.22; & Luke 24.30, the Greek word used for blessing is eulogeo, from which we get our English word ‘eulogy’. A eulogy literally means an occasion for speaking good words – for speaking well of a person – for praising a person’s achievements. That’s the word we use of a tribute at a funeral. It is also the word we find in 1 Cor 10. When we eat bread and drink wine, we ‘eulogise’ God, that is to say, we thank him.
My third point is related to my second. At the Lord’s Table, if we are to be true to Scripture, we don’t ask God to bless the bread and wine. Unfortunately, in the Roman Catholic Church and often in the Church of England the prayer of thanksgiving has become a prayer of ‘consecration’ in which the ‘priest’ asks God to send his Spirit and ‘bless’ the elements of bread and wine. To quote from an Anglican prayer (Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer H): “As we proclaim his death and celebrate his rising in glory, send your Holy Spirit that this bread and this wine may be to us the body and blood of your dear Son”. However, as C.F.D. Moule, a former Anglican scholar (and in my day the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge), made clear in his book, Worship in the New Testament: “An ‘epiclesis’ or invocation of the Holy Spirit upon non-personal objects is alien to the New Testament doctrine of the Holy Spirit and of persons, and is a retrograde step”.
In making these points I am not seeking to reduce “the spiritual value and power” of the Lord’s Supper. I believe, for instance, that when we “remember” Jesus’ broken body and his out-poured life, we do not just recall that Jesus died for us, but experience afresh his death for us. The past becomes present. Here there is a very real parallel with the way in which Jews celebrate the Passover as a ‘memorial meal’ (Ex 12.14), for each Jewish father (including those who lived generations and centuries after the fact) was to explain to his son that he celebrated the Passover Seder in the way he did ‘because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (m. Pesahim 10.5).
Indeed, I believe that just as on the Emmaus Road the Risen Lord Jesus was “known… in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24.32), similarly, as we today remember the death of Jesus, the past becomes present and we encounter Jesus. It is not that Jesus comes nearer to us at the Table, but that we come nearer to him. As we gather around his Table we become more conscious of his presence with us. In the words of an old communion hymn:
Here O my Lord, I see you face to face;
here faith can touch and handle things unseen;
here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace,
and all my helplessness upon you lean.
The bread and wine remain bread and wine, and yet as we focus on the Christ who died and rose for us, we feed on Christ; or in the words of John, we “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (John 6.52). This is not transubstantiation, whereby the bread & wine literally become the body and bread. No, here we have a metaphor. To quote a great German New Testament scholar, Adolf Schlatter: “What we have to do with his flesh & blood is not chew and swallow, but that we recognise in his crucified body and poured-out blood the ground of our life, that we hang our faith & hope on that body and blood and draw from there our thinking and our willing”. In this sense we have, what Stephen Cottrell calls, “rations for the journey”!