Coming to the Table: Reflections on the Lord's Supper
Why do Christians include, as a crucial and regular part of their worship, a meal? Why do we celebrate the Lord’s Table? We can answer this question by considering some of the Scriptural passages which tell us about this meal, along with some of the names that have been attached to it.
First of all, when we come to the Table, we remember the sacrifice of Christ. This is a Memorial meal, eaten in remembrance of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us. As Paul reminds us, when Jesus had given thanks for the bread, “he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” (1 Cor. 11:24-25).
The meal originally had deep historical roots in the story of Israel, particularly in the history of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. God had given them a meal, too, a meal called the Passover, which would be celebrated annually as they remembered how God had passed over their sins. When Jesus instituted the meal Christians now celebrate, he was actually eating his last Passover meal with his disciples. Paul makes the connection, when he says that Christ is “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7). Just as Passover was a meal of remembrance for Israel, pointing them back to God’s saving work on their behalf, so the Lord’s Table is a memorial meal for believers today, reminding us of what God has done, once and for all, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to save us from our sins.
Secondly, when we come to the Table, we celebrate our unity and give thanks to the Lord for his grace. In another passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation 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” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Moreover, when we come to the Table, we do so giving thanks for Christ's sacrifice. This is why we sometimes call this meal the “Eucharist.” But it is thanksgiving that we offer together as one body. We don’t take the elements alone, but together. And when we do, we affirm and celebrate our oneness: that we belong to the Lord and to one another. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
This passage from 1 Corinthians also suggests a third truth about this meal. When we come to the Table, we enjoy a special fellowship with Christ. The word Paul uses is koinonia, translated in the ESV as “participation”: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” This is why we sometimes refer to the Table as Communion, or as a Sacrament.
What we mean is this: at the Table, we partake of Christ in a special way. It is not that we eat and drink his actual body and blood. Nor is it true that Jesus is physically present with us. The idea, rather, is that Christ manifests his real spiritual presence to us in a unique way, when we take the cup and the bread by faith. This is how we have “communion” with him. And in so doing, we give him thanks for his perfect and finished sacrifice for us and he bestows on us his sanctifying, hope-giving grace.