Evangelicals need to thicken our theology of the Lord’s Supper, first by drawing more of the Bible into the discussion of the Supper, and second by drawing more of the Supper into discussion of the Supper.
Even a fine recent treatment of Reformed sacramental theology, Todd Billings’s Remembrance, Communion, and Hope, is still too thin on both counts. Billings does discuss the key New Testament passages—the institution narratives, Jesus’ resurrection meals, 1 Corinthians 10-11—and makes passing references to Passover and other Old Testament passages, meals, and festivals. But the richness of Old Testament theology still feels lacking. Billings observes that Paul sees manna as a type of the church’s covenant meal, but he doesn’t follow up the clue. If manna is a type, might there be others?
Many examine the Supper through a “zoom lens,” focusing narrowly on the most disputed point in historic debates—the metaphysics of the bread and wine. Much to his credit, Billings pulls back the camera to give us a wider view. In several “congregational snapshots,” he reminds us that the Supper involves peoplegathered to say and do, eat and drink. He rightly shows that a theology of the Supper must be integrated with the theology of the church.
But we need an even wider angle. Communion bread doesn’t fall from heaven. Wine doesn’t come tricklin’ down the rock. As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, the bread and wine are “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” Bread and wine represent nature transformed into culture by human action. A thick theology of the Supper needs to broaden beyond the theology of the church into a theology of culture. So, I offer a suggestive, not definitive, picture of what a thicker theology of the Supper might look like—a pencil drawing, not a portrait.
Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Mass
First, a word about terminology. Different Christian traditions assign different names to the Lord’s Supper—Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Mass. Each spotlights a facet of this liturgical event. Calling it a “Supper” reminds us that we eat and drink; it’s “Communion” because our eating and drinking deepen our fellowship with the Lord Jesus in the Spirit; it’s “Eucharist” (from Greek eucharisto, “give thanks”) because we thank our Father for the gift of his Son, and we eat and drink in gratitude.
Because of its association with Catholic errors, many Protestants resist describing the meal as a “Mass.” But the word captures an important dimension of the meal. Mass is, apparently, a contraction of the dismissal of the Latin Mass, which ends with ite, missa est – “Go, you are sent.” Calling the Supper a “Mass” reminds us of the rhythm of the church’s life: We gather so that we can be dispersed; we eat and drink so that we may be satisfied and sent. To put it in contemporary idiom, “Mass” highlights the missional force of the Supper.
Bread of God
Food is a central theme in the Bible. As the Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, God created man a hungry being and invited him to eat “every seed-bearing plant … and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen 1:29). It’s notable that the menu comes immediately after the command to fill, rule, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). We need food in order to rule, but the text points in the other direction: We rule so we can eat; we subdue the earth in order to enjoy its fruits. Food is more than fuel. Food is for feasting.
God placed two fruit trees in the garden he planted in the east of Eden. G. K. Beale, James B. Jordan, L. Michael Morales, and others have pointed out that the garden was the original sanctuary, the designated place where the Creator would meet with the man and woman. From the very beginning, God met with human beings over a meal.
Adam broke our Edenic table communion with God by eating the wrong fruit, but Jesus comes as Last Adam to restore communion. He eats and drinks with prostitutes and sinners and finally gives his body and blood for the life of the world. On the tree of the cross, he becomes life-giving fruit. Communion will be consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb. From Eden to new Jerusalem, food and word are the media of our fellowship with God.
Bread was the staple of ancient Israel’s diet, common as dirt. Yet long before Jesus took bread and gave thanks, bread was more than bread. In the wilderness, Israel ate the bread of angels (Ps. 78:25). Priests offered cakes and loaves on the altar (Lev. 2), and animal offerings are described as the “bread of God” (Lev. 21:6, 8, 17, 21–22 in KJV, ESV and others). The tabernacle and temple were partial restorations of Edenic table fellowship. The Lord consumed his bread in fire, while Israel ate, drank, and rejoiced before him.
Some Christians call the Lord’s table an “altar.” Others vehemently argue that altars are for sacrifice and that sacrifices ended with the final sacrifice of Jesus. Both sides misunderstand altars. Altars are tables (see Ezek. 41:22), where priests serve bread to God and where God graciously shares his bread with his people. Once we recognize this, we can see that worship has always taken place at an altar-table—from Abel to Abraham to the tabernacle to the temple to Jesus to the church to the consummation. In Scripture, worship without food, a temple without a table, is unthinkable.
Sacrifice, in short, was a food rite. When an ancient Israelite brought a bull or a goat to the altar, he was bringing “bread” to the Lord’s table. The Lord received his food as smoke, a soothing aroma. At times, priests ate portions of a sacrificial animal, and sometimes non-priestly Israelites received their own slab of meat. Sacrifice includes killing, but the slaughter culminates in communion. Ancient worshipers slaughtered animals to feast with God and one another. So too in the new covenant: Jesus sacrifices himself to his Father as the bread of God, and then gives himself to us as spiritual food.
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Source: Christianity Today