Paul Beasley-Murray. Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral: 21 Nov 2021
1 Cor 10:16-17: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
The sad reality is that the Lord’s Table far from being a means of unity has become a symbol of disunity. In the Roman Catholic Church members of other Christian denominations are not allowed to eat the bread – they may only come forward for a blessing. Anglicans kindly welcome other Christians to their table – but do not recognize the validity of the communion services presided over by those of us who have not been episcopally ordained. What’s more, our communion practices are so different – some use real bread, while others do not; some use real wine, while others do not; some sit at the Table, some stand around the Table; some celebrate communion every Sunday, others once a quarter or even once a year; some welcome children to the Table, others bar children from the Table.
Disunity around the Lord’s Table goes right back to the earliest days of the Christian church. At Corinth, for instance, far from cementing fellowship, the Lord’s Supper became socially divisive – with wealthier members of the congregation tucking in and forgetting about the poorer members, whose work schedules meant that they had to turn up late.
“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11.20-22b)
To understand what was happening we have to appreciate the arrangement of rooms in as typical Roman villa. There was the triclinium (or ‘dining room’) which covered an area of about 24 x 18 feet. This room was furnished with couches at which normally some nine or ten guests would recline. Beyond was the slightly smaller atrium (or courtyard), normally 20 x 16 feet in size, which without couches could accommodate a further 35 less favoured guests – many would have been servants or younger relatives of the esteemed guests, and they would have had either to sit or stand in what amounted to an over-flow’ room.
But the abuse was not just related to the seating arrangements. The food for less favoured guests was probably very different from the food served to the VIPs.
Pliny the Younger, for instance, describes his experience as guest of a man who boasted of the ‘elegant economy’ of his hospitality:
“The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories, not with the idea of giving his guests the opportunity of choosing, bot to make it impossible for them to refuse what they were given. One lot was intended for himself and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” 
In the church or churches to which the Letter of Jude things were little better: there what the NRSV calls ‘love feasts’ (GNB “fellowship meals”) had degenerated into “shameless carousing” (GNB Jude 12). According to the NRSV, they were feasting ‘without fear’ – or as we might say, ‘without reverence or awe’.
Robert Harvey & Philip Downey comment: “They had no sense of the activity of the love feast as an act of worship, fellowship and remembrance, but treated the event as a mere banquet”. Not surprisingly because of these abuses the meal element disappeared – so that today all we are left with is bread and wine.
So with this introduction, let us turn to the Scriptures and see what we can learn about the Lord’s Supper.
THE LORD’S SUPPER HAS ITS ROOTS IN A MEAL
The term ‘Lord’s Supper’ (deipnon kuriakon) used by Paul in 1 Cor 11.20, denotes a proper meal. For us today ‘supper’ is a light meal – it can even be just cheese and biscuits. However, the Greek word translated supper denotes the main meal of the day: like the English word ‘dinner’ it usually refers to an evening meal – but the emphasis is not so much on the timing as on the importance of the meal. In that sense it is like the way in which we talk about a ‘Christmas dinner’ or a Sunday dinner’ which are normally held at lunch-time.
The roots of the Lord’s Supper are in the Jewish Passover. Mark tells us that: “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make preparation for you to eat the Passover’”. We read that Jesus gave instructions, telling his disciples to follow “a man carrying a jar of water” who would lead them to “a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” The disciples left, went to the city and found everything just as Jesus had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal” (Mark 14.12-16).
To understand the Lord’s Supper we therefore need to look more closely at the way in which the Passover was celebrated and see how it relates to the Lord’s Supper.
THE PASSOVER RITUAL
A: The Preliminary Course
- i) Cup 1: the ‘Kiddush’ cup (the cup of ‘consecration’) over which a blessing said & thanks given to God for the feast. This was probably Luke’s ‘first’ cup: see Luke 22.16 “Then Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God and said: ‘Take this & share it among yourselves. I tell you that from now on I will not drink this wine until the Kingdom of God comes”
- ii) Hors d’oeuvre: a preliminary dish, consisting of green herbs, bitter herbs & a sauce made of fruit purée: see Ex 12.8
iii) The main course was served, but not eaten: the 2nd cup put in its place, but not drunk
- The Passover Liturgy
- i) The Passover ‘haggadah’ (‘proclamation’). The youngest person present would ask: “Why is this night different from other nights? For on all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only unleavened bread. On all other nights we eat any kind of herbs, but on this night only bitter herbs. On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night only roasted”. This formed the cue for the head of the family to say: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26.5) and beginning with Abraham he would tell the story down to the deliverance of the Passover. See 1 Cor 11.26: “Every time you eat this bread & drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”
- ii) The Hallel (‘Praise God’) Part I = Psalms 113 & 114
iii) Cup 2: the ‘Haggadah’ cup (the cup of ‘proclamation’).
- The Main Meal
- i) Grace spoken over the unleavened bread “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who brings forth fruit from the earth. Blessed are you who has sanctified us with your commandment and commanded us to eat unleavened bread.” See Mk 14.22: “While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples”.
- ii) The Main Meal: Passover Lamb, unleavened bread & bitter herbs
iii) Grace spoken over Cup 3: the cup of ‘Blessing’ Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine”. See 1 Cor 10.16: “The cup of blessing which we bless”; also 11.25: “After the supper”.
- The Conclusion
- i) The Hallel (‘Praise God’) Part II = Psalms 115-118. See Mark 14.26:“Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives”.
- ii) Cup 4: the ‘Hallel’ cup for which praise given
Notice there were four ‘cups of obligation’ there were four separate occasions when a cup of wine was passed round in silence & a solemn sip was taken. The ‘cup of blessing’ over which Jesus added his words of interpretation was the 3rd cup. Luke refers to Jesus making a vow of abstinence over another cup, which was almost certainly the first cup. (Lk 24.17, 18)
Secondly, notice that the meal was not eaten until after there had been a solemn recitation of the events leading up to the first Passover and of how God had freed his people from slavery (the Passover ‘haggadah’). Similarly, when the first Christians gathered to break bread & to drink wine they would have recited the story of how God in Christ had set his people free. This is what is behind Paul’s words, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11.26). It is not the eating & drinking which proclaim, but the actual telling of the story of our salvation. If, we are to continue to “proclaim the Lord’s death” in this context, then this means that the Lord’s Supper must always presuppose the preaching of the word. This doesn’t necessarily mean a long sermon. It could be just a five-minute exposition. But exposition there must be. Word and sacrament always go together.
Thirdly, notice that there were two separate ‘graces’ spoken by Jesus over the bread & then spoken over the ‘cup of blessing’. Now that the ‘meal’ element of the Lord’s Supper has fallen away, there is much to be said for just one prayer of thanksgiving.
Fourthly, notice that there was a good deal of singing. Immediately after the ‘sermon’, the ‘haggadah’, two Psalms were sung – then after the meal a further four psalms were sung. There is a place for joyful celebration as we remember the victory that God has gained for us in Christ.
AT THE LORD’S SUPPER WE DO FOUR THINGS
- We give thanks to God for Jesus
Paul writes of how “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it (1 Cor 11.23,24). Jesus gave thanks, we give thanks. The Greek word for thanking God in 1 Cor 11 as also in the Gospel accounts is eucharisteo – from which our English word ‘Eucharist’ is derived. When we eat bread and wine we thank God.
In 1 Cor 10 Paul uses a different word for thanking God. There when he speaks of “the cup of blessing that we bless”, he uses the Greek word eulogeo, from which we get our 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 here in 1 Cor 10. When we eat bread and drink wine, we ‘eulogise’ God. At the Lord’s Table we don’t ask God to bless the bread and wine – rather we bless God for the bread and wine.
However, in the Roman Catholic Church and often in the Church of England the prayer of thanksgiving has become a prayer of consecration.
[ See, Prayer H in Common Worship: “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”. This is why only a priest may say the great Prayer of Thanksgiving.
But this idea has no roots in the Scriptures!
- We remember Jesus’ broken body and poured out life
Jesus as he broke the bread said; “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11.24). As he took the cup, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11.25)
To remember Jesus means more than recalling that Jesus died for us. Rather we are called to experience afresh his death for us. Here there is a very real parallel with the way in which Jews celebrate the Passover as a ‘memorial meal’ (Ex 12.14). To quote Ciampa & Rosner, “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)”.  In the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’ Yes, we were there. As we ‘remember’ that Jesus died for us, we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross and see him there suffering for us.
I would argue that it is in this sense alone that we can talk of the ‘real presence’. The late Ralph Martin put it this way. “’In remembrance of me’ is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified & living Christ in such a way that He is present in all the fulness and reality of his saving power”. Hence we can sing the words penned by the 19th century Free Church minister, Horatius Bonar: “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”.
- WE FOCUS ON THE RISEN LORD JESUS
Only in 1 Corinthians 11 do we have the expression, ‘The Lord’s Supper’ (1 Cor 11.20).
The word translated ‘The Lord’s’ is an adjective in the underlying Greek: kuriakos, which could be translated as ‘imperial’, an adjective which derives from the English word ‘Emperor’, and a reminder that Caesar, the Roman Emperor, was acknowledged – and in many places worshipped -as kurios. In a Jewish context Kurios is also the Greek term for the divine name, for God himself. Although there are occasions when it can simply be translated as ‘sir’, kurios in the NT is above all the word used for the risen and ascended Lord: so in the Christ-hymn of Phil 2.6-11 kurios is “the name above every name” which God gave to Jesus when he “highly exalted him”. I find it significant that in J.B. Phillip’s translation of 1 Cor 11.20 the emphasis is on the adjective: the Lord’s Supper.
This Greek adjective is found in one other place in the New Testament: viz. Rev 1.10: John was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day”. Again, the emphasis is on the adjective: It was on the first day of the week that God raised Jesus from the dead. “The Lord’s day is the day set apart in celebration of the accession of Jesus the Lord to the throne of God” GRB-M).
In other words, unlike the memorial meals common in Greece and Rome, at which the death of a past loved one was remembered, the Lord’s Supper focuses not just on the Christ of Calvary, but also on the Risen Lord of Easter Day.
To celebrate the Supper of the Lord involves a multiple focus on Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is a meal eaten:
- at the invitation of the Lord: – he is both ‘the host’ and the ‘sustenance’. He it is who invites all those who love him and desire to follow him to ‘come, eat, and drink’.
- under the authority of the Lord: here at the Table we reaffirm our baptismal vows to die to self and to live for Jesus
- in memory of the Lord: we remember the Lord’s death and the love that took him to Calvary
- in the presence of the Lord: as we remember we found ourselves encountering the risen Lord
- in celebration of the risen and returning Lord: we look forward to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
- WE EXPERIENCE MULTI-DIMENSIONAL COMMUNION
Although Paul talked of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ (1 Cor 11.20), he also spoke of ‘communion’. This comes out clearly in the Authorised Version of 1 Cor 10.16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ.”.
The underlying Greek word translated as ‘communion’ is ‘koinonia’ variously translated in today’s modern versions as ‘fellowship’ (Revised New Jerusalem Bible),’participation’ (NIV), and ’sharing’ (GNB; NRSV; REB). Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase, The Message: “When we drink the cup of blessing, aren’t we taking into ourselves the blood, the very life, of Christ? And isn’t it the same with the loaf of bread we break and eat? Don’t we take into ourselves the body, the very life, of Christ?”
The emphasis here is first and foremost on a ‘communion’ with God himself as we share afresh in the death of Jesus.
In the words of Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner in their monumental commentary, over against the ‘fellowship meals’ where pagan gods/idols were honoured, Paul stresses that at the Lord’s Table fellowship (‘communion’) is “with the deity as well. Through our fellowship with Christ we participate in the benefits of his sacrifice, which serves to establish or renew our covenantal relationship with God himself.” Let’s be clear. The Lord’s Supper is no mere memorial meal in which we coldly confess our faith. Here, as we remember Jesus, we receive again the benefits won from his death, and in so doing we encounter God afresh. We ‘commune’ with him.
At the same time, we ‘commune’ with one another as we ‘share’ in the body of Christ. Although here the body of Christ is Jesus himself, the very word ‘sharing’ (koinonia) reminds us of the body of Christ, the church. Indeed, the term koinonia is a synonym for the church, and can be translated as ‘fellowship. It is this aspect which Paul goes on to highlight: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10.17).
Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an intensely personal experience – but it is also a corporate experience. Despite our many differences in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, marital status, and social class, we are one because of Jesus. This is what Holy Communion involves.
But we cannot limit our communion to the fellowship we experience with one another in Cathedra; It is a fellowship which goes beyond the local church and crosses every culture. As we drink wine and break bread we are united with our brothers and sisters the world over – and not just those whose way of being church is like ours, but also with those whose way of being church is very different. Latin American Catholics, Egyptian Copts, African Pentecostals, Indian Anglicans, and Greek and Russian Orthodox and even British Baptists – all Christians, all one in Christ.
Amazingly communion also crosses the boundaries of time. Around the Table we join in worship not just with ‘the church militant’, but with ‘the church triumphant’. In the words of Heb 12.22-24: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus…”. Who are “the spirits of the righteous who are made perfect”? The language here picks up the language used earlier of those who have put their trust in Christ (Heb 10.4) and who are described as “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12.1). In other words, as we come to the Table we experience ‘the communion of saints’. We are united with all those who have died in Christ, including loved ones who have gone before. To quote James Stewart, a Scottish preacher of a past generation: “it is as if they were holding Christ’s right hand, and you his left”.
- How do you thank God for Jesus? Do you find reflecting on a hymn or a verse of Scripture a helpful way of deepening your sense of gratitude? What tends to go through your mind?
- How do you remember Jesus? Does remembering for you always lead to a fresh encounter with Jesus?
- To what extent for you is the Lord’s Supper a celebration of the risen Lord?
- Do we over-individualise the Lord’s Supper? How aware are you of the multi-dimensional nature of communion?
 See Anthony Thiselton 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2006) 187.
 Pliny the Younger, Letters 2.6
 2 Peter & Jude (IVP Nottingham 2009) 208.
 Roy E. Ciampa & Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Apollos, Nottingham 2010) 551.