This article was originally published in 1990.
(The essay that follows concerns a rather touchy subject: how the Lord’s Supper is to be done. I am not writing to insult or offend, but to challenge. To that end I have not “held back” but have “gone ahead” and said what I think needs to be said — for your consideration.)
There is only one ritual commanded in the New Testament for routine use in the Church: the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. I believe that Satan does not want the Church to do the rite of the Lord’s Supper, and has expended tremendous energy to prevent our doing it the way Jesus said to do it.
It is interesting to consider all the rites and ceremonies of the Old Covenant, all the details, all the variations, all the specific and complicated things that had to be kept in mind — and contrast this with the extraordinary simplicity of what our Lord commanded us to do. He told us to come over to His house on Sunday and bring along some bread and wine, and have dinner with Him. He prescribed an extremely simple ritual of thanksgiving to go along with this dinner.
But do the churches do these things? Let’s see. First of all, Jesus said to bring wine. How many churches use wine today? The American evangelicals have decided to give wine over to the devil, instead of claiming it for Christ. As a result, they use grape juice. Jesus, however, used (alcoholic) wine. He turned water into wine as the first manifestation of His Kingdom. He ate and drank with publicans and sinners, and was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard — which shows what He was drinking (Matt. 11:19). He prescribed just this kind of liquid for His meal.
But do we do what He said? Usually not. And this is nothing new. For centuries the Western Catholic Church (“Roman” Catholicism) rejected the cup altogether. It has only been since the Second Vatican Council that Catholics have been able to drink wine in communion.
Well, what about bread? Suppose my wife phoned me at work and said, “Jim, would you go by the store and get some bread on your way home?” Now, let’s say I bought some saltines instead. My guess is that she would be unhappy. She would say, “Jim, that’s not bread; those are saltines. Don’t you know the difference between bread and saltines?” Or suppose I brought some pressed-out wafers home?
I think we know what bread is. I do. Don’t you? Bread is bread. If we believe in using unleavened bread, it should still be unleavened bread and not crackers or wafers.
Amazing, isn’t it? Jesus asks us to do two simple things, and century after century the Church comes up with weird substitutes. Why is this? Why can’t we just do what Jesus said to do? As I reflect upon this, it seems to me that the reason has to be that there is real grace in the Lord’s Supper, and that Satan fears that grace. Thus, Satan has persuaded people not to do what Jesus said to do.
We can go on with this. Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants, are very concerned to do in worship only what the Bible teaches. Now, let me lay down a challenge for you. Search the Scriptures and see if you can find anywhere in the New Testament where we are commanded to sing psalms in worship. Don’t run to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, because these verses are speaking of using the psalms in daily life. Try and find any command to use the psalms in worship. You won’t find one. Now, I believe in using the psalms pervasively in worship, but I think we have to use some analogous reasoning on the basis of fundamental Kingdom principles in order to demonstrate that the psalms are to be used.
Let me use another illustration. Can you find anywhere in the New Testament a command to have a sermon in worship? Try and find one. Now again, I believe that we should have a sermon in worship, but again there is no explicit command about it.
Now consider 1 Corinthians 11. Paul says that when the Church comes together she is to have the Lord’s Supper. This is plain as day. While we don’t have any explicit command to have a sermon, we do have an explicit command to have the Lord’s Supper. Paul expects the Lord’s Supper to be held when the Church gathers — every week. Do we do it?
Shall I go on? Where does the New Testament say that our children, if baptized, are to be excluded? Nowhere. Jesus rebuked the disciples for excluding children from Him. The Church did allow children at the Table for a thousand years, but the laity began to exclude children once the doctrine of transsubstantiation came into the Church. They were afraid children would drop a crumb of bread or spill a drop of wine, and so the children were excluded — and adults excluded themselves from the wine, and crumb-free pressed wafers were substituted for bread.
What posture were Jesus and the disciples in when they ate? Were they kneeling or standing? No, they were reclining in the normal, relaxed eating position of the day. Is there any indication anywhere in Scripture that God wants us to assume an unrelaxed and unnatural eating posture for the Lord’s Supper? No. In fact, Anglican theologian Gregory Dix agrees that kneeling for communion has no foundation, and that the Puritans were right to argue for sitting. (See the discussion in Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy [Seabury Press, 1945], p. 13.) If there are no chairs, the natural alternative is standing, which the early church used — they stood for the whole service.
So, the Bible indicates weekly communion, and we don’t do it. The Bible indicates that baptized children are welcome, and we don’t do it. The Bible says to eat in a normal way, and we don’t do it. The Bible says to use bread, and we don’t do it. The Bible says to use wine, and we don’t do it. Churches that do some things right, do other things wrong.
To this point, however, we’ve only talked about the elements and persons involved at the Table. Now we need to discuss the rite itself.
What did Jesus do? He took bread into His hand. He gave thanks for it. He broke it and passed it out. As He passed it out He said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” After they had eaten the bread, Jesus took a cup of wine into His hand. He gave thanks for it — notice: a second prayer. Then He passed it to them, and in the act of passing said, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins.”
This is how Matthew 26:26-28 records it. Mark 14:22-25 records the Last Supper the same way, as does Luke 21:19-20. Luke is very explicit that it was only after they had eaten the bread that Jesus took the cup and gave thanks for it.
Now the really weird thing is that very early in the history of the Church the rite that Jesus prescribed was condensed. The minister would take both bread and wine and give thanks for them simultaneously. Then the bread and wine would be served, sometimes together. (See the discussion in Dix, chapter 4.)
Is this legitimate? I believe it is not, and that it represents a sad corruption of what Jesus said to do. The proof is found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. First Paul says, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you.” Notice Paul’s stress on tradition here. The branches of the Church that insist on using only one prayer and on serving bread and wine together like to point to tradition to back up their practice. They say, with Dix, that from the earliest times it was done this way. But notice that Paul’s statement confronts this head-on. Paul says that the rite was received from Jesus and is being passed on to them by him. In other words, there is a right way to do this rite, and Paul is telling them what it is.
Paul says that Jesus took bread and gave thanks. He does not say to “set apart the elements from common use.” He does not say to “invoke the Holy Spirit upon the elements.” He knows nothing of any “consecration of the elements.” There is no act of consecration of bread and wine. This means that there is no change in the status of the bread and wine. Just as God gives us life when we eat dead meat and vegetables — food that will rot if we don’t eat it — so He gives us New Kingdom Life when we eat bread and wine in the liturgy. By refusing to consecrate the bread and wine, we affirm that the grace of the sacrament comes from the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.
Some would point to 1 Timothy 4:5, which says that food is set apart by the Word of God and by prayer. All right, but this is speaking of ordinary daily food. Asking the blessing before we eat at church is no different from asking the blessing before we eat at home. There is no other “setting apart” involved.
What Paul says Jesus did, and we should do, is simply give thanks. “Lord, we thank You for this bread, and we ask Your blessing. Amen.” That’s the bottom line. I believe we can expand on it, but we must not depart from that fundamental idea.
Paul says Jesus broke the bread and called it His body. He gave it to them and they ate it. Notice that there is no time-gap between the prayer, the re-naming, and the distribution. If we take the bread and give thanks, and then put it back on the table and do other things for ten minutes or so, it raises the question: What is the status of this bread? We’ve already answered this by seeing that there is no change in the bread. It is only in the act of eating the bread that we receive Christ. This is called receptionism and it is the Biblical and Reformed view. All the same, by doing the rite the right way, and passing out the bread immediately after giving thanks, we prevent the rise of superstition.
Then Paul says, “In the same way the cup also, after supper.” More literally, “after eating.” In other words, Paul makes it plain that it was only when they were finished eating the bread that Jesus took the cup and gave thanks for it. Luke 22:14-20 indicates that at the beginning of the Last Supper Jesus gave thanks for the wine of the meal, and then He gave thanks for the bread of the meal, calling it His body. After the meal was over, He took another cup of wine, gave thanks for it, and called it His blood. This says to me that if we have the Lord’s Supper in connection with an Agape (“Love Feast,” covered-dish meal) at the church, the sacramental bread should be eaten during the meal, and the sacramental wine after it. I hope to write more on this in a later essay. My point here is that these are clearly two separate actions.
Paul is passing down the tradition. He makes it plain that there are to be two prayers, not one. He makes it plain that eating the bread and drinking the wine are two separate acts. He makes it plain that we are not to condense the rite, but we are to follow what our Lord did. The bread is to be eaten, and the residue returned to the Table or even taken out, before the minister picks up the cup.
Clearly the tradition of the Church errs at this point. If the rite is done properly, it is impossible to dip a wafer into the cup. (This is called “intinction.”) It is impossible to spoon out a bit of bread and dip it into wine and put it into the mouth of the recipient — as some Eastern churches do. Moreover, it is impossible to have “tables” or small groups of people come forward and get bread and wine, while others wait their turn.
No, the Bible is clear: Everyone in the room is to be served bread, and when this is finished, then everyone is to be served wine.
Why don’t we do this? Why are there so many departures from the simple rite prescribed by Jesus and given by tradition through Paul? I believe, again, that Satan just does not want the Church to do it the right way.
Now, what does Satan fear? He fears the death of Christ.
The rite of the Lord’s Supper does not show forth the life or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It shows forth His death “until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Since the Lord’s Supper is a covenant memorial, it is primarily God that we are showing Christ’s death to. The Lord’s Supper is not an evangelistic event; we are not showing anything to unbelievers. Nor is it first and foremost a means to remind ourselves. No, primarily it is a way of “pleading the promises” to the Father. As God said to Noah concerning the rainbow, “I will see it, and I will remember.” It’s nice when we see the rainbow too, but the main thing is that God sees it.
The action of the Lord’s Supper is to remind God of Jesus’ death. Jesus is not re-sacrificed in the action of the Lord’s Supper, nor is the action of His once-for-all sacrifice somehow “extended through time” in the Supper. Rather, the action of the Lord’s Supper (“do this”) dramatizes His sacrifice before the all-seeing eyes of the Father.
In all the sacrifices, the body of the animal was to be cut up, and all the blood drained off. The rituals of Leviticus are most specific: The blood was never offered with the flesh. The blood was sprinkled on or before the various altars, or daubed on the horns of the altars, or poured out at the base. In a separate action, the flesh was burned on the altar. In ordinary slaughter, too, the people were required to pour out the blood, and not leave it mixed with the flesh (Dt. 12:24).
The killing of the animal always involved some degree of separation, of “breaking the bread.” In the sacrifices of Leviticus this involved cutting it into pieces (Lev. 1:6-9). More graphically, the dream-sacrifice offered by Abram in Genesis 15 involved actually splitting the animals in half. Birds were beheaded (Lev. 1:15).
It is fairly obvious that Jesus’ breaking of the loaf images the breaking of the sacrifice into two or more pieces. It is also obvious that partaking of the bread and wine, the body and blood, in two separate actions is absolutely essential to the rite of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper presents Christ’s death to the Father. When we eat of it, it communicates His death to us. Thus, it enables us to die more and more to sin and live more and more on the other side of death. Satan fears an army of already-dead Christians, who are learning week by week to die. People who are already dead cannot be stopped.
The Bible tells us that Jesus, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Thus, the Lord’s Supper is a joyous, not a morbid event. The Church Fathers actually forbade any kneeling or fasting on Sunday, to preserve the day as one of joy (Canon 20 of the Council of Nicaea; Canon 90 of the Quinisext Council). (I believe kneeling is permissible for the confession of sins, but for the rest of worship we should stand or sit.) What we rejoice in, however, is the death of Christ, given to us, that enables us to live as martyrs and to suffer for His name. Satan does not want Christians who are able and willing to suffer, and who count it a privilege to do so.
The anaphora is the prayer of thanksgiving before the Lord’s Supper. The basic history of the development, and various aberrations, of this prayer is given in Louis Bouyer’s Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (English translation: Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968). It is interesting that Catholic Bouyer praises the Calvinists and Puritans for being the first to rediscover the true ancient traditions in the area of the anaphora (pp. 419ff.).
As we have seen, however, the tradition is to have one prayer of thanksgiving before the Lord’s Supper, and not to have two separate prayers. One of the finest of these prayers is the one composed by Luther Reed, based on ancient and Reformed sources, and found in the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal of the Lutheran Church in America. I have no objection to using this prayer or some other like it, but not as the thanksgiving before the meal. Rather, it should be considered as part of the general thanksgiving preliminaries to the Lord’s Supper, along with the Preface, Sanctus, and so forth.
Because of this, the officiant should not take the bread and wine into his hands, or break the bread, during this prayer. This should be done later, during the communion itself.
After the prayers preliminary to the communion are finished, traditionally with the singing of the Agnus Dei, the congregation should sit down to eat. Then the minister should pick up one of the loaves of bread, or in a small church the one loaf, and simply give thanks for it as at a meal. Then he should break it and begin the distribution.
After the congregation has finished eating the bread, the minister should pick up a tray of little cups, or take a representative chalice, and again give thanks for it as for a meal. Then he should begin the distribution of it.
The prayers should be short and simple. I suggest something like this:
Father of mercies, thank You for the gift of this bread, which we confess provides us with the body of Your Son Jesus Christ. We ask You to enable us to eat of it in faith, and to be made more fully members of His heavenly body, through Christ our Lord. Father of mercies, thank You for the gift of this wine, which we confess provides us with the blood of Your Son our Savior. We ask You to enable us to drink of it in faith, and to be conformed more and more to the image of His death, through Christ our Lord.
Obviously, these can be varied from week to week.
In a large church, I suggest that the elders already be standing next to small tables in various places in the room and balcony. When the minister takes his loaf and offers the prayer, the elders should take theirs in hand also. After the prayer, the elders can say Amen; or if a set prayer is used, the elders can say it aloud with the minister. When the minister breaks the bread, they should break theirs. Similarly with the wine.
Having broken the bread, the minister should address the congregation with the words Paul places into tradition for us to receive — not slavishly, but in an appropriate way: “This is Christ’s body, given for you. Do this [or, Eat this] as a memorial of Him.” Similarly, “This cup is the new covenant in Christ’s blood. Do this [or, Drink this] as a memorial of Him.”
I am not a revolutionary, and I don’t believe Christians should cause a ruckus in their churches over the issues I am discussing here.. Also, I don’t believe God is sitting up in heaven ticking off every error we make in our churches and keeping score against us. I believe He often counts the will for the deed.
At the same time, God has told us what to do in the Lord’s Supper, which is the only routine ritual we have, and surely He will be pleased when we start doing it His way.
The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. We have seen that the Bible is completely clear about how to do the rite of the Lord’s Supper, and that it is simple. For some reason, the Church continually departs from this simple rite. There has to be some reason for this. I believe it is because Satan fears it. And if Satan fears it, that is all the more reason to start doing it the right way.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This post was originally found at Biblical Horizons.
Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 1
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