Worship and Ceremony, Part II: The Lord’s Supper

This is the second installment of a two-part article. Click HERE to read Part I.

The fourth perspective on ceremony is that of the action of the Lord’s Supper. As we noted before, the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper preceded its interpretation. Jesus did not at that point give an explanation of it. He just said to do it. A truly Christian philosophy must take this into account. Knowing and doing are equally important. Each is the context for the other, and each is under submission to the Word.

A faith-commitment to the Word comes before both understanding and obedience. It is sometimes naively thought that the Word is addressed first of all to the understanding, but a moment’s reflection will show that this is not so. Frequently in Scripture God tells people to do something without explaining in context what it means. For instance, in Leviticus 12 there are a number of rules for the separation of women after childbirth. In context, however, no explanation is given for these rules. Examples could be multiplied, and of course, right before us is the example of the Lord’s Supper.

Apart from faith, obedience is nothing but “works of the Law,” and stands condemned. Apart from faith, knowledge is nothing but vain imaginings. We must have faithful works, and faithful understandings. Each leads to and reinforces the other. Obedience yields understanding, and vice versa. Knowing and doing form the foci of the ellipse of worship. The most concentrated form of the “knowing” side is the actual reading of the Scripture, done by an officiant whose voice stands for Christ’s. The most concentrated form of the “doing” side is the action of the eucharist, performed by the hands and voice of the officiant as Christ’s representative.

The secondary stage of these things is performed by the church, which has been called and privileged to assist Christ. The preacher takes the Word from Christ and in the sermon makes applications from it, “distributing” it to today’s situation. The servants of the church take the bread and wine from the hands of Christ and pass them out to the people.

When the church falls into doing without saying, as in the Middle Ages in both East and West, then false teaching arises, and false understandings of the “doing” part. Then, there is feedback of error into the “doing” itself. As we know, the “doing” came to be seen as magical, and then people were afraid to do the sacrament, rejecting the cup and forbidding their children to come.1

Similarly, when the church falls into teaching without doing, as in protestantism, then false activities arise, with feedback into the teaching itself. Some of the false activities that have arisen because of the protestant failure to practice weekly communion are:

(a) extreme negative sabbatarianism, which fails to see the Lord’s Day as a celebration at God’s house and table;
(b) the altar call ritual, in which unfed hungry saints seek relief in other actions;
(c) pentecostalism, because the weekly miracle of Christ’s special presence is not maintained;
(d) extreme negative views of worship that reject all kinds of worship actions commanded in the Bible (such as kneeling, dancing, processions, etc.).

But then comes the feedback into the area of doctrine, and in protestantism the failure to keep the sacrament equal to the reading of the Word in worship has led to the doctrine that faith and works are separate and opposed one to another. The failure to “do” has led straight to antinominianism.

Well, then, what is this action? It is what Jesus did, and commands us to do. Originally it was a nine-fold action. Jesus –

This reduces to a five-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking down and restructuring, sharing, and consuming.2 Notice that there is in this no “setting apart of the elements from common use,” as if man had such a power. Nor (surprisingly) is there any invocation of the Holy Spirit. These things are not necessarily wrong, but they are not the essence of the rite.

A comparison of the steps in this rite with Genesis chapter 1 is most revealing. As we read that chapter, we see God repeatedly take hold of His creation, break it down and restructure it, and then distribute it to various kingdoms of creatures. We also see God evaluate His work (“And God saw that it was good”) and enjoy it (resting on the seventh day). There are five steps here, to which man, as a creature would add a sixth: the giving of thanks to God.

In this action there is a world-view. Man the priest is called upon to take hold of the creation. He is not, however, to do like Adam, and take hold of it autonomously; he is to give thanks. Having done so, he is to work with the creation, breaking it, restructuring it, and then sharing it with others through giving or trading. At various stages, he will evaluate what he and others have done. Finally, he is to consume or enjoy it.

This is the Christian worldview, and it also proclaims the death of Christ. Because of human sin, it was necessary for God to lay hold on man, break and restructure him, and send him back into the world. Only thus could God give man a positive evaluation and enjoy him in common sabbath rest. This Christ accomplished for us. Even though not a bone in His body was broken, yet He experienced the curse of the covenant, which is to be ripped in half and devoured by the lower creation. As in all the Old Testament sacrifices, His blood was separated from His flesh.3 Thus, the bread is broken. Similarly, before Jesus gave the cup to us, He drank it Himself, and this is explained as His death: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Accordingly, while the eucharist does not re-crucify Christ, nor extend the action of His death, it does “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).

This proclamation is not only to men, but also to God. The covenant memorials were given by God for man to use to remind Him to keep the covenant. It is not as if God forgets and must be reminded, but that for man’s own good God requires us to remind Him. The proclamation is made to men, but unless men add their “amen,” thus returning the proclamation to God, the proclamation is not salvific. This amen-proclamation to God is almost certainly what is in view in 1 Cor. 11:26.4 Thus, the rainbow was established not first and foremost to remind us of the covenant, but to remind God (Gen. 9:12-16). Similarly, when God gave His covenant Name to Israel, it was a memorial Name, and we see Moses citing God’s Name to Him as he argues that God should keep the covenant and not destroy the people (cp. Ex. 32:9-14; Num. 14:11-19; Ex. 34:5-7; and Ex. 3:13-15). The incense offered under the Old Covenant is called a memorial, to remind God (Lev. 2:1-3; 24:5-9; Gen. 8:21). The names of the tribes of Israel were engraved on Aaron’s vestments, so that when he entered the sanctuary God would be reminded of the covenant (Ex. 28:29). Compare also Acts 10:4-5,31-32. Thus, we pray “in Jesus’ Name,” reminding God of the death of our Savior, and asking Him to keep His promises because Christ has died in our stead. Similarly, the eucharistic memorial is done before the throne and eyes of God, for Hili1 to see, to remind Him of the death of Christ, and to argue blessings from Him.5 God has established the eucharistic memorial as the preeminent means of arguing covenant blessings from Him. The importance of weekly communion should be obvious from this.

Worship is a response to truth, not a technique to manipulate God. Thus, God gives us truth in the verbal proclamation, and we respond with the verbal amen of prayer. The same thing happens in the eucharist. As we noted above, citing Schmemann, God gives man certain food to eat, denying him other food. Setting this special food before us is God’s proclamation to us of the covenant. Eating the food given by God is our re-proclamation to Him, our memorialization of the covenant. It is important to see this. We remind God of the covenant not in the act of holding up the “consecrated elements,” or even in the prayer of thanksgiving. Though these things are not wrong in themselves, it is the doing of the rite itself, culminating in the act of eating, that is the reminder to God. When God hears us take His word and amen it back to Him in prayer, He is reminded to keep the covenant. When God sees us take the body and blood of His Son and amen it by eating it, He is reminded to keep the covenant. The heart of the eucharistic action, thus, is not some act of “consecrating the elements,” but the act of eating itself.

The eucharistic action is not a silent ritual. Jesus spoke while He performed it. There is a prayer of thanksgiving to be offered. Indeed, the act itself “proclaims” something. The action does, however, precede understanding. Just as Adam needed to eat of the Tree of Life before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so the Christian needs to come humbly before Christ and do what He says and eat of His gift before he begins to try to understand this great mystery. The failure of the Western churches is seen precisely at this point. By requiring knowledge before communion, the church cut its children off from the Table, and also initiated a series of schisms over eucharistic doctrine. If we are to have reformation, we must reject this residuum of gnosticism and return to an understanding that the act of the eucharist precedes the interpretation of it. An understanding of “eucharistic prevenience” will result not only in the restoration of paedocommunion to the church, but also can form the foundation for a true catholicity of practice and an end to “closed communion.”

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This post comes from his work, “The Sociology of the Church.” 

References   [ + ]

1. One of the finest discussions of this process of corruption can be found in Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, trans. by Asheleigh E. Moorhouse (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1966).
2. See Dix, op. cit., chapter 4. Dix is noted for his discussion of the “four-fold” action. He does not see breaking as a separate act, but simply as necessary for the act of sharing.
3. This is why the bread is eaten, and then the wine drunk, as two separate actions.
4. Leon Morris asserts that katangello in 1 Cor. 11:26 can only refer to the proclamation of the gospel to men. See The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), p. 162. While I am reluctant to differ with so eminent a scholar, Morris’s assertions at this point betray the weakness of leaning too heavily on word studies to do theology. By itself, katangello means “show, proclaim.” We have to look at context or theology to determine to whom the proclamation is being made. In the light of the Biblical theology of covenant and covenant memorials, it surely stands to reason that the proclamation is both to God and to men, but primarily to God. Since the world is not present in the sanctuary when the Supper is held, it is hard to see how an evangelistic proclamation can be in view in any event.
5. This was the position of the French Reformers, and of the early church. Max Thurian has summarized it well in writing that “the Eucharist is the liturgical presentation by the Church of the sacrifice to the Father. This liturgical presentation is the action that recalls to God the Father the unique sacrifice of His Son, which is eternally actual, and implores Him by this sacrifice to grant mercies and blessings to His people.” See Thurian, The Mystery of the Eucharist: An Ecumenical Approach, trans. by Emily Chisholm (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 23. See also Louis Douyer, Eucharist (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), which in its entirety is a discussion of this theme. Douyer shows that the structure of Jewish prayer was always to remind God of what He had already done in creation and redemption, and then to ask Him to complete His work by rebuilding Jerusalem. This also became the structure of Eucharistic prayer in the early church. It is implied in 1 Cor. 11:26, in that we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes;” that is, we remind God of the finished work of Christ, and petition Him to complete His work by bringing creation to consummation. Also see Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 237ff. My use of the work of Thurian, Douyer, and Jeremias should not be taken as an endorsement of every aspect of their overall theological positions.