On the Lord’s Supper in Time of Sickness and Plague
On the Lord’s Supper in Time of Sickness and Plague
by William Klock
When you walked into the church this morning I’m sure you noticed that the Lord’s Table looks different. Instead of the coloured burse and veil covering the chalice and paten, there’s a big brass container. For those who may not be familiar with this sort of thing, it holds individual glasses of wine. We’ve decided to make a temporary change in how we share in the Lord’s Supper. The local public health unit is advising that we could be living with the Health Ministry’s guidelines for worship for at least another year. This change isn’t ideal. It alters the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper and that’s not a good thing, but it is permissible on a temporary basis. Bp. Sutton warned me that most the REC went to these individual glasses during the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago and that it took 70-80 years to get rid of them. So we’re going here cautiously.
In light of that, today, I’d like to talk about the Lord Supper, what it is, how it works, the importance of the symbolism involved. In terms of thinking about how the Lord’s Supper works,
Christian thinking has become encrusted with different ideas, some biblical and some not, so let’s start with something surprising similar that I think we can all understand. It’s another ritual: the birthday party. Birthdays are full of symbolism, just like the Lord’s Supper. We invite our family and friends, we may dress up or wear funny hats, we decorate the house, we bring gifts for the birthday boy or girl, and most important, we have a cake covered with candles. Someone lights the candles—ideally the number of candles corresponds to how old the person is—and then he or she makes a wish and blows them out. And everyone sings “Happy Birthday”. Even if the party is simple and only has some of the elements, we’d all recognise it for what it is. And what is it? Are we merely celebrating the fact that our friend has made another trip around the sun? No. It’s more than a celebration of another year. It’s a celebration of our friend’s birth. It looks back to the past. For some of the big milestones we may even drag out the baby pictures. But it also looks to the future with hope. We sing “Happy Birthday” and then follow it up with “…and many moooore” and the birthday boy or girl makes a wish. Here’s the key I want you to think about: The birthday party celebrates today, but while it does that, it also looks back to the past, draws it into the present, and looks hopefully to the future.
Now, let’s think about another party. This one’s in the Bible, in the Old Testament, and it takes the form of a feast or a meal—or a supper (see where I’m going with this?). In Exodus we read about the Passover and how the Lord told his people that it wasn’t a one-time event, but something that was to observed every year in perpetuity. And so if we were to visit a family in the time of Samuel or the time of King Hezekiah…or if we were to visit the family of Joseph and Mary at the time of Passover, we would find them eating this meal that they had eaten with their parents, and their parents with their parents, and so on all the way back to that night before Israel left Egypt. Everyone who was circumcised, everyone who bore God’s covenant sign was summoned by the Lord to be part of this meal right from the beginning and down through the generations. Families gathered in their homes and the father or grandfather would recall those events of long ago: How God’s people had been slaves in Egypt and how the Lord had rescued them, brought them through the Red Sea, given them his law, and eventually led them to the promised land.
At one point in the meal, the youngest boy chimes in as part of the liturgy—what the Jews call the Haggadah: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And Father or Grandfather would respond with the ancient words of the liturgy that “this is the night when our God, the Holy One, blessed be he, came down to Egypt and rescued us from the Egyptians.”
You or I, not being familiar with what’s going on might say, “But this isn’t the night. That night was over three thousand years ago.” And they might explain to you that, yes, it is. It’s not about them as individuals. It’s about them as the covenant people of God, united through the ages by his promises and by faith in his faithfulness. Everyone who bears the covenant sign of circumcision is part of that people, just as everyone who takes part in this meal is part of that people. And everything they do in this meal points to this reality. The little boy asks more questions: Why are we eating unleavened bread? Why are we eating these bitter herbs? Why do we recline instead of sitting at the table? Why do we eat this roasted meat? And Father explains—again this is all part of the liturgy—that the unleavened bread reminds them of the haste with which the Lord led them out of Egypt. There was no time for bread to rise. The bitter herbs remind them that in Egypt they were slaves. To recline at the table is the posture of free people. Slaves stood. And this reminds them of the Lord’s deliverance. And the roasted meat recalls the Passover lamb eaten that night, it recalls the burnt sacrifices made in the temple, and it recalls the blood painted on the doorposts of our houses.
The lamb and the blood were especially important. The Lord’s people were already marked out by their circumcision, but the blood painted on the doorposts served as a sign to distinguish the Israelites from the Egyptians when the Lord swept through the land, taking the lives of all the firstborn. The Passover served to distinguish the people of God from all other people. The elements of the meal served to remind the people what it meant to be God’s people: They were once slaves, but the Lord had delivered them and made them his own, and he had given them his promises for the future—a promise of a Messiah who would set all to rights—for whom they continued to live in hope. And so the meal not only marked out a people for deliverance from Egypt, it continued to mark out a people who would be delivered one day by the Messiah, a people to be delivered into the life of the age to come. This is how this night hundreds or even thousands of years after those events could still be that night. Through this meal, given by the Lord, his people were not only set apart from all others, but united across the generations in his promises.
Now, we come to the meal that you and I share each week. I hope you’ve started see the connections and I hope you’ve started to see how it works. We gather together as the people whom the Lord has made his own through baptism, we hear the Scriptures read and recall the history of God and his people. And then we come to his Table where the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are recalled, where we hear again the words of Jesus, spoken in the upper room in the last Passover meal he celebrated with his disciples, and we eat bread and drink wine. What’s going on? How does the Lord’s Supper work? What’s the significance of the symbols and images involved? I hope you’re beginning to see that now.
Still, we may have to clear away some clutter to see it clearly. I’ve spoken about the Passover and what it did and what it meant, because that’s where we have to start if we’re going to understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about. Just as Jesus created a new people of God, a new Israel, with roots firmly planted in the old, but now centred on himself, Jesus also took the Passover, put himself at the centre of it, and gave this new people a new meal. Passover is the key, but over the years Christians have often lost that focus. Many of the Church Fathers turned to Greek philosophy—particularly the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato—to explain things, instead of looking back to the Old Testament and to the Judaism of Jesus’ day. By the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas had worked out a whole theology rooted in these Greek ideas. And the focus of the Lord’s Supper became centred, not on participation in the meal, but on a transformation believed to happen in the bread and wine during the blessing or what became known as the “prayer of consecration”. Outwardly the bread and wine were still bread and wine, but inwardly, their essence was transformed into the essence of the body and blood of Jesus. This led to all sorts of abuses of the Lord’s Supper. People took to worshipping the bread, believing it to literally be Jesus. The congregation was excluded from the Supper and, when they did receive, the wine was withheld from them. Individual wafers were introduced—called “hosts”, because they were believed to “host” the literal body of Jesus after being consecrated.
But it went further. These pagan philosophical ideas led to very different understanding of ministry and ordination. The idea developed that ordination was mostly about the bishop—in succession from the apostles themselves through the laying on of hands—imparting a spiritual gift to the new priest so that he could effect this mystical change when celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Both the Lord’s Supper and the ministry of the clergy were twisted into something far different from what we see in the New Testament.
The Reformers saw this and worked to rectify it, but they didn’t agree on everything. Martin Luther made some significant reforms, but for him, even if the bread and wine didn’t literally change, it was still about the real presence of Jesus in, with, and under the elements. John Calvin, on the other hand, had a greater sense of what I’ve been talking about. He was still focused on the idea of Jesus’ presence in the Lord’s Supper, but was right to understand that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t work through a change in the bread and wine, but through our participation in it. He argued that Jesus isn’t brought down to the Table, but that as we participate we are lifted up to experience the heavenly feast. Others in the Reformed camp, like Ulrich Zwingli, argued that the bread and wine were simply symbols and the meal was strictly a memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The English Reformers steered a course between Luther and Calvin. The Articles of Religion allowed for a range of belief on the Lord’s Supper, sort of with Luther’s ideas as a guard on one side and Calvin’s on the other. Down through the centuries Anglicans have bounced back and forth between the two. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that the ideas rejected at the Reformation were brought back into Anglicanism by the Oxford Movement and some Anglicans bounced over the wall and out of bounds. Our Reformed Episcopal Church was formed in response to that trend, which is why our Declaration of Principles, reaffirming the Articles of Religion, denies very clearly “That the Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a presence in the elements of Bread and Wine.”
You see, if we look back to the roots of the Lord’s Supper in the Passover and if we look at what Jesus did in the upper room, we can see that this simply isn’t how the Lord’s Supper works. Jesus didn’t give his disciples a new sacramentology when he handed them the Passover bread and wine. There was nothing about the Passover that needed explanation by Aristotle or Plato and the same goes for the Lord’s Supper. As the Passover worked by participation—by eating the meal—so the does the Lord’s Supper. Jesus simply took the bread and the wine of the Passover meal and said, “This is me. This is my body and this is my blood which are about to be given for you.” The disciples would never have read some Aristotelian change in the essence of the bread and wine into that statement and neither should we. Matt Colvin, in the book he published last year, makes the case that the portion of bread that Jesus used was a bit that was traditionally reserved to represent the coming Messiah. He makes a very good case, which highlights just what Jesus was doing. Every year the people of God ate this meal in which the symbolism of its elements recalled to them their deliverance, affirmed their status as God’s covenant people, and caused them to look forward to the day when he would usher in the age to come. And, as he took the bread and wine and identified them with himself and the sacrifice he was about to make, Jesus was saying, “The day you’ve longed and hoped for has come. The Passover is fulfilled this day. I’m about to lead you into a new Exodus and to create a new people. From now on, the bread and the wine will recall to you not your deliverance as slaves from Egypt, but that you are the new Israel delivered from the slavery of sin and death.”
Just as the Passover recalled and brought into the present the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, just as the Passover made each new generation participants in the Exodus, just as it united them with those who first took part in those events, in the Lord’s Supper, as we recall the death and resurrection of Jesus and eat the bread and drink the wine he’s given us, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. As the blood of the lamb was painted on the homes of Israel, marking them out as the people of God, sparing them from judgement, and giving them a hope of life in the promised land, so our participation in the Lord’s Supper marks us out as the new Israel, as God’s people apart from all others, to be spared his judgement, and living in hope of the age to come. Think of the acclamation we make during the Supper: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Both the past, when Jesus set us free from sin and death, and the future, where all are set to rights, are brought together with the present, with today, here at the Table.
St. Paul sums this up and covers a lot of points all at once in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. His concern was Christians who might be enticed back to idolatry, not necessarily through actual worship in the temples, but by eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. The pagans believed that eating these meals in the temples was a means of identifying with the pagan gods. Paul says, “Don’t do that! Why? Because you are united with Jesus now.” And as evidence he points to the Lord’s Supper. Look at verses 16 and 17:
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.
The Supper joins us with Jesus in his death and resurrection, not through some kind of “real presence” (however that’s defined), but as with Passover, as we participate in the events of our deliverance from sin and death. But, too, the Supper also unites us to each other in Jesus. Paul stresses the significance of the one loaf of bread and the one cup of wine from which we all share. They bring us back to Jesus, the one who died and rose for us, but they also unite us into a single body.
And that brings us back to where we started, with this funny tray of individual wine-fill glasses on the Table. Can you see why observing the Lord’s Supper this way is less than ideal? The same goes for individual wafers. We share in one bread—in the one Jesus—not our personal Jesuses. And just so with the cup. This is why we use a single loaf of bread and a single chalice. This is why the Reformers fought against the use of wafers in their day. The first edition of the Prayer Book stressed that the bread was to be round and unleavened and sufficiently large so that it could be broken in pieces for everyone present. A few years later, the second edition changed the rubric and called the sort of bread that was commonly eaten at ordinary meals, but of the best and purest flour. Archbishop Cranmer understood that it was important that the bread look like the bread people are used to eating. Whether it was leavened or unleavened was a matter of indifference. The point is that Lord’s Supper is a meal. Yes, it’s a ritualise meal, but it’s still a meal. Using weird bread that doesn’t look like the bread people ordinarily eat undermines that and leads to superstition.
Now, that said, while it’s not ideal to change the symbolism of the Supper, doing so doesn’t change what the meal is. It might lead us astray in what we think about it, but the Lord’s Supper remains the Lord’s Supper. This is why I’ve preached on this today. I want to be sure that there’s no misunderstanding that results from this temporary change.
The other option in our current situation is what we’ve been doing: observing the Lord’s Supper sub una—under one kind. I’ve fielded a few questions about this. Some churches have continued to include wine in the Supper, but have reserved it for the minister. I think that’s unwise and leads us back to the errors of the Middle Ages. If the people don’t get it, the priest shouldn’t get it either. This is the same reason that I don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper when I’m alone or with my family on holiday and away from a church. I think it’s wrong to deny you the privilege of the sacrament by my absence, but then take advantage of it myself. That’s not right. No, Jesus envisioned situations in which wine would not be available. In ancient Israel, wine was for special occasions. Ordinary people didn’t usually have it available—not for a weekly observance like the Lord’s Supper. The poor and slaves certainly didn’t. In our liturgy we read Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as they are recorded by St. Paul. He says to take and eat the bread in remembrance of him, but when he instructs the disciples to take and to drink the cup, he adds the words “as often as you do this”. It’s a little clearer in Paul’s Greek what’s going on here, but what’s happening is that Jesus is putting a qualifier on the wine and not the bread, recognising that wine may not always be available. “Eat the bread in remembrance of me and, as often as you are able, drink the wine in remembrance of me also.” Again, while observing the Lord’s Supper without wine is certainly less than ideal, Jesus foresaw such a situation and doing it that way is, I think, better than the minister drinking the wine while denying it to the people.
Now, lastly, another issue these last months for many: What happens when we can’t gather together physically? Some have asked why we haven’t livestreamed our service. The easy answer is that we don’t have the equipment or internet connection to do so. But there’s more to it than that. It’s hard to fault churches for making mistakes on this point, because we’re all in territory that’s new to us, but I also think this is why it’s important to have an understanding of the Lord’s Supper and an understanding of just what the Church is in advance, before we’re under the sort of pressure we’ve been under to come up with solutions. I’ve seen churches livestreaming their Communion services and inviting people to go to the kitchen for bread and wine and so that the minister can consecrating them over the TV or Internet connection. Others have consecrated bread and/or wine in advance and distributed them to church members to have while watching the livestream. Increasingly, as churches are becoming accustomed to this, the services aren’t even livestreamed anymore; they’re put together in advance and then released Sunday morning. At that point, it seems to me that we’ve been reduced an illusion of gathering. More recently I’ve seen one minister perform what he called a “pantomimed Communion” on his livestream. No bread or wine, just saying the words and going through the motions, then pretending to hand the bread and the cup through the computer screen. In many cases, a minister and one or two others eat the Lord’s Supper and simply invite others to watch from a distance over the Internet.
Brothers and Sisters, none of these things is the Lord’s Supper. The emphasis on either consecrating elements through the screen or distributing preconsecrated elements in advance totally misses the point of the Supper. It doesn’t work through the blessing of the bread and wine. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine, he wasn’t doing so to change them. He was giving thanks for them as any good Jew would have done at any meal, including the Passover. In our terms, he was “saying grace” before they ate. No, the Lord’s Supper “works” through the participation, through the eating as the Lord’s people gather together to share them. That means, first, that you actually need real bread (and hopefully wine). Jesus was clear, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55). But, second, it also means that we have to gathered together physically. Consider that when it came to the Passover, the Lord’s instructions specifically said that everyone had to be under the same roof. Cousin Saul can’t participate in the family Passover via Zoom. He has to find another household to join if he’s away from home. These meals work by participation and participation requires physical presence and real food. What goes for Passover in this case goes for the Lord’s Supper. Modern Christians have been increasingly buying into a sort of Gnosticism that downplays the physical and the material and puts all the stress on the spiritual and it’s because of that that we’re reach a point where we think that virtual gatherings or a pantomimed meal are actual substitutes for the real thing. They’re not. Brothers and Sisters, virtual meetups can have their place when we’re unable to meet together physically, but I fear we’ve forgotten that they are not adequate substitutes for gathering in person as God’s people. The very name used for the Church in the New Testament, ekklesia, on the one had translates a Hebrew word meaning to be “called out”—we are the people called out of the nations by God—but it’s also a word that means “assembly”. The ekklesia cannot be the ekklesia without physically assembling together. One pastor I know introduces his pre-recorded livestream every week joyfully shouting, “Welcome to church!” A virtual gathering to watch a prerecorded sing-along and sermon might be the best some can do right now, but it’s not “church”. That’s not what ekklesia means. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a temporary break from physical gatherings if necessity demands as has been the case for many churches these last few months, but as we seek to accommodate the current crisis, it’s important we not undermine who and what we are as the people of God, as the Church.
So that’s it. I don’t have a neat gospel application this morning, but I think it’s important that I address some of what’s been going on these past months and what we’re doing as we move forward, at least in terms of the Lord’s Supper. When the times comes to receive the bread and wine I’ll give some more instructions as to how we’ll do that with these individual glass, but for now, let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for the meal you have given us. It teaches us what you’ve done for us in your death and resurrection. It teaches us what you have made us as your people. It marks us out from the rest of the world. And it gives us hope for the day when you will finish what you have started. I pray that you would give us a greater appreciation for your Supper and wisdom and understanding to get it right as we participate in it in these difficult days. Amen.
 The Lost Supper (Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress, 2019).