(This article was originally published in Worship Leader’s Sept 2010 issue. Subscribe today for more great articles like this one.)
Meals bring out the stories in us. Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted us to celebrate him when we take the bread and the cup. Eating together makes stories more vivid and real. As Paul put it, in the simple actions of breaking and eating bread, and pouring and drinking wine or juice, we proclaim Christ as powerfully as any sermon Billy Graham ever preached.
I wonder if it isn’t time for pastors and worship leaders to reflect more deeply about why and how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. One way to reclaim the power of the Lord’s Supper is to reconnect it to the biblical story that it so powerfully embodies and proclaims. While I’m sure there are more, I have found at least seven references within the Lord’s Supper to other key motifs or moments of the biblical drama. Each one represents a unique “slant” on the Lord’s Supper that opens up the possibilities for planning and leading celebrations with a different thematic focus.
Motif 1: Passover (Exodus 12)
Thematic focus: God provides protection and liberation for his people.
Jesus took a familiar, annual meal and infused it with new meaning, namely, connecting his sacrificial death with the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When Jesus referred to his blood for them, the disciples recalled the blood of the lambs painted on the doorposts of the Israelite homes. Jesus was now their Passover lamb, sacrificed for them and their freedom.
Motif 2: Covenant (Exodus 24)
Thematic focus: God has bound himself to us, and we will bind ourselves to him through Christ.
When Jesus referred to the cup of the “new covenant in my blood,” the disciples would have also recalled the event at Mt. Sinai when God ratified his covenant with Israel by having Moses sprinkle blood on the people, following the reading of the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:8-9).
Motif 3: The Last Supper (Mt 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-26; Lk 22:7-23)
Thematic focus: Jesus offered himself in obedience to the Father as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
These familiar accounts of the Last Supper begin with a disturbing revelation: one of the disciples will betray Jesus. With the chattering of his disciples in his ears and his imminent death firmly in view, Jesus places himself at the focal point of God’s story of salvation. Co-opting the Passover liturgy, Jesus announces that a new Passover is dawning. “This is my body … this is my blood.” He is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us. From this violent sacrificial act will come peace with God, inaugurating a new covenant “in my blood” (Jer 31:31). All things are about to be made new.
Motif 4: The Fellowship of the Disciples (Jn 13-17)
Thematic focus: Jesus is both the example and the basis of discipleship; through his Spirit we are united to him and to one another.
John’s gospel allows us to see the events of the upper room from the disciples’ perspective. They begin with Jesus demonstrating servanthood to them by washing their feet, and ends with him praying for them and for “those who will believe in me through their message.” (Jn 17:20) In-between are Jesus’ tough and tender final words for his friends. He deals with their doubts (14:8-14); assures them of the coming of the Holy Spirit (14:15-30, 16:5-16); reminds them that they must remain vitally connected to him in love for one another (15:1-17); encourages them to stand strong in the face of opposition (15:18-16:4); gives them hope (16:17-33); and prays for their unity (17:1-25).
Motif 5: Communion (Jn 6:25-71)
Thematic focus: Jesus is our life.
John 6 opens with Jesus feeding five thousand on the shore of Galilee. His popularity is at its height, yet Jesus sees what’s going on: “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:26-27). “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
Motif 6: Community (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 10-12; Jude 12)
Thematic focus: Jesus makes us one people at his table; his unity counts for more than race, class, gender, and any other social or cultural barrier.
From the earliest days of the church, Christians have “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). But it did not take long for the fellowship to break down along lines of ethnicity, economic status, and social class. Paul reminds the Corinthian church that their unruly behavior at the Lord’s Supper compromises their unity in Christ. Paul also underscores the meal as a participation (koinonia) in Christ’s body and blood; we are connected to Christ and therefore to one another as one body in Christ.
Motif 7: Celebration (Rev 19:6-9)
Thematic focus: Rejoice in the victory of God over sin and death, and in the full and complete union of Christ and his bride, the Church.
The early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and the consummation of creation (1 Cor 11:26). John’s vision of the last things includes the climactic union of Christ and his bride, the Church. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7).
Robb Redman is the founding Dean of the College of Theology, South University and a contributing editor to Worship Leader.