Studies in Worship
No. 50 Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons March, 1997
Showing the Lord’s Death
by Peter J. Leithart
How does the Lord’s Supper proclaim the death of Jesus until He comes? (1 Corinthians 11:26). Historically, liturgists have attempted to locate some act in the rite of the Supper that corresponds to the death of Jesus: the fraction (breaking of bread), or the fact that bread and wine are separated, have been suggested. I find these efforts strained. It is impossible to make a meal look like a death by crucifixion. More seriously, these efforts assume, as Paul H. Jones puts it, that the “root metaphor” of the eucharist is the “tomb” not the “table” (Jones, Christ’s Eucharistic Presence [New York: Peter Lang, 1994]), an assumption that has led to all manner of bizarre eucharistic legends and practices. For the early church, by contrast, the Supper was not a wake but a joyful celebration of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death by His death and resurrection.
Yet Paul says that the Supper proclaims the Lord’s death. How? I think we can answer that question only if we step back a bit. Too much eucharistic theology is done through a “zoom lens,” focusing only on the “elements” of bread and wine and their effect on the individual believer (Jones makes this point repeatedly; see also my article “The Ways Things Really Ought To Be: Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture,” Westminster Theological Journal, forthcoming). Think of the debates about the Supper that have occupied theologians: Do the bread and wine change into the body and blood of Jesus? Is breaking bread and pouring wine in any sense a sacrifice? What kind of grace does the believer receive in the Supper and how does it differ from the grace received through the Word?
All these questions arise from a theology worked out as if the Supper took place without any church present – which is unsurprising, since throughout much of the middle ages, the vast majority of masses in the West were performed privately by priests. But Protestants have no reason to accept that medieval setting for eucharistic theology. The Eucharist is a community meal, and the community and our eating and drinking together, as much as the elements of bread and the actions performed on them, needs to be taken into account in our theology. We should reflect on the Supper as it appears through a “wide-angle” lens.
Once we have broken free of the limitations of the zoom lens, there is no reason to assume that we proclaim the Lord’s death by doing something with the elements. Possibly it is the communal meal as a whole, the fact that we eat together and the way we do it, that “proclaims the Lord’s death.” In fact, I believe there are good reasons for thinking that this is the case. It is particularly noteworthy that the “eating and drinking” is what proclaims the Lord’s death (v. 26) – not the fraction, or the pouring of wine, or the words of institution, but the common meal.
How does the eating and drinking proclaim the Lord’s death? We get a clue from Paul’s striking charge in 11:20 that when the Corinthians come together it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. Their meal is not the Supper because there are factions within the church and because each is acting selfishly. The difference between the Lord’s Supper and the corrupted meal of the Corinthians does not have to do with any difference in the ritual actions, the elements used, or the words spoken. The difference between eating the Lord’s Supper and corrupting it lies in the way people behave toward one another, both at the meal itself and in daily life. It is not going too far to suggest that, for Paul, the Corinthian meals, since they are not the Lord’s Supper, do not proclaim the Lord’s death. Whatever words are said and whatever actions are performed, the Corinthians did not truly show forth the death of Christ in their communal meals. The Lord’s death is proclaimed only when the Supper is celebrated rightly, that is, when the participants are living in unity and peace and when each is treating others as better than himself.
This conclusion is supported by a consideration of the meaning of sacrifice and of the eucharist as a sacrificial meal. Any mention of sacrifice in connection with the Supper raises the spectre of Roman Catholicism. I cannot engage in a full discussion of that doctrine here, but let me say that I do not endorse the Roman Catholic view: It does, as the Reformers observed, undermine the finality of the historical sacrifice of Christ, and, by concentrating on what the priest does at the altar, it participates fully in the errors of the “zoom lens” approach to the Supper. This does not mean, however, that the Supper is in no sense a sacrificial meal. Like the sacrificial meals of the Old Testament, it involves feeding on a substitutionary victim; the bread and wine are called “body and blood,” terminology that carries sacrificial connotations; the Supper is the Christian Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), and the Passover was clearly a sacrificial meal.
Recognizing a sacrificial dimension in the Supper has precedent in Reformed theology. Pierre du Moulin, a French Reformed pastor, enumerated in 1635 the “particular reasons for calling the Eucharist a sacrifice”: “I. Because this sacrament was instituted to proclaim the Lord’s death until He come … .Hence the Eucharist may be called a sacrifice, since it represents the sacrifice of the Lord’s death. According to the principle that signs and representations ordinarily take the name of that which they signify. II. It may be said that in the Eucharist we offer Jesus Christ to God, insofar as we ask God to receive on our behalf the sacrifice of His death. III. The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the divine benefits and especially for the benefit of our redemption through Jesus Christ. “ Du Moulin distinguished propitiatory sacrifices from sacrifices of thanksgiving and, though he said that in a certain sense the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice (since it commemorates a propitiation), insisted that strictly speaking it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. “Thus the Eucharist may be a sacrament insofar as by it God gives us and conveys His grace, and a sacrifice insofar as we o er Him our praise and thanksgiving” (Quoted in Max Thurian, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, II, pp. 87-88).
If we take a “wide angle” view of the eucharist, the sacrificial character of the meal is further clarified. Augustine wrote about sacrifice in Book 9 of the City of God in a way that fits with what Hebrews says about the sacrifice of Jesus, which did away with the sacrifices of goats and bulls. True sacrifice, Augustine says, is not the killing and burning of an animal on an altar; that is just a symbolic sacrifice. True sacrifice is and has always been self-sacrifice: mercy, seeking the good of one’s neighbor, treating others as better than oneself, self-giving for the sake of others. Similarly, according to Hebrews 10, the animal sacrifices of the old order did not take away sin; instead what takes away sin is the true sacrifice that the animal sacrifices merely symbolized, the sacrifice of complete submission to the will of God, the sacrifice of the “open ear” (cf. Psalm 40), which takes the form of self-offering for the sake of the Bride.
Thus, when the church manifests a genuine unity and love in a communal covenantal meal, she is ritually manifesting the significance of the death of Christ: living in peace, submitting to one another in humility and love, sharing with one another, submitting to the will of God by loving each other as oneself. In this way we proclaim the meaning of the Lord’s death, the supreme act of self-giving for the brethren. And this is why the failure to discern the body – the failure to live in unity within the body – is such a damnable perversion of the Supper. A rite performed by a church where rivalry and strife reign does not proclaim the Lord’s death. It may involve eating and drinking, but it is not the Lord’s Supper.
Not Like Grape Juice
by Mark McConnell
Biblical Horizons reader Mark McConnell contributes the following for our consideration:
I have my own pet theory about the importance of wine in communion, and it has implications for the abuser of alcohol and even the alcohol addict.
Is the cup that we share really the same thing as the cup that ruins a life? The communion wine is a cup of blessing, not a curse. I don’t think it can be an accident that wine, which is symbolic of our salvation when it is given in communion, is also symbolic of judgment, confusion, and ruin.
Surely part of what is symbolized in the communion elements is the reconciliation of the whole creation, through Christ. Grain and fruit were created in Genesis 1:29 as the food that was given to Adam in the beginning, and as such they are suitable to stand for man’s own physical life, and also of creation as God’s gift to him and as subject to his dominion.The grain and the fruit, bread and wine, the earth and what is in it, are given to us again in a changed form because of Christ. He mediates a new dominion, through His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
Go through the Bible with a concordance and look up all the references to wine and strong drink. Take note of how differently wine is considered within the covenant as compared to outside. Notice that the ethics of wine use is not based on a “how much” kind of measurement. Rather, the difference between a good and a bad use of wine are more often in terms of sacred/profane, careful/indulgent, joyful/foolish, Godward/selfish, spiritual/lustful, and the like. In a sense, although the wine in the drunkard’s glass is made of the same stuff as what is in the communion cup, they are not the same thing at all. One is a cup of judgment, the other a cup of blessing. They are the opposites of each another.
I suggest that the alcoholic can be invited to partake of a cup of blessing without fear that it will ruin him. It is transformed for him, because he is in Christ. Further, if it would appall him to make himself drunk on the cup of the new covenant, won’t this help him to have a transformed view of wine in other contexts as well?
I know people who are addicted to alcohol. I invite those people to exchange one cup for another, death for life. I should be horrified to add to their misery by any advice that I might give to them. But: God has chosen this symbol purposely – knowing full well in advance what a disaster it can be apart from the covenant.
He could have chosen something else.
Something that would not be simultaneously associated with sin and the curse.
Something like grape juice.
An Alphabetical Psalm
set by James B. Jordan
When we read an alphabetical psalm in English, we miss the fact that each verse begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I have found one way to get around this, which is for the leader to announce something relevant about each letter before reading his half of the verse.
For instance, in Psalm 145, which I provide in an uncopyrighted translation here, the leader would begin by saying: “Psalm 145. A praise-psalm of David. [pause] `Aleph is for exaltation: I will exalt You, My God, the King.” The congregation would respond with the second half of the verse, as always. In this case, the first word in the verse begins with the letter `aleph, and that word means “I will exalt.”
The second verse begins with the letter beth, which in this case is not part of a word but a prepositional particle indicating “in.” The introductory line spoken by the leader points to this meaning. And so forth.
Feel free to reproduce the psalm on the next page and use it in worship, and see how it works for you.
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A Praise-psalm of David.
‘Aleph is for exaltation:
I will exalt You, My God, the King,
And I will praise Your name everlastingly and forever.
Beth indicates context:
In every day I will praise You,
And I will extol Your name everlastingly and forever.
Gimel is for great:
Great is Yahweh, and He is praised greatly,
And His greatness no one can fathom.
Daleth is for generation:
One generation to another will commend Your works,
And Your mighty acts they will tell.
He is for splendor:
The splendor of Your glorious majesty,
And the deeds of Your wonders I shall contemplate.
Vav is for and:
And the power of Your awesome works they will tell,
And Your great deed I shall proclaim.
Zayin is for memory:
The memory of Your abundant goodness they will celebrate,
And of Your righteousness they will sing.
Heth is for grace:
Gracious and compassionate is Yahweh,
Slow of anger and rich in lovingkindness.
Teth is for goodness:
Good is Yahweh to all,
And His compassions are upon all of His works.
Yodh indicates the future:
They will praise You, Yahweh – all You have made,
And Your beloved ones will extol You.
Kaph is for glory:
The glory of Your kingdom they will tell,
And of Your might they will speak.
Lamedh indicates purpose:
To make known to the sons of man His mighty acts,
And the glory of His kingdom’s splendor.
Mem is for kingdom:
Your kingdom is a kingdom of all ages,
And Your dominion is in every generation and all generations.
Nun indicates a participle:
Faithful is Yahweh to all His promises,
And loving toward all His works.
Samekh is for upholding:
An Upholder is Yahweh for all those who fall,
And a Lifter of all those bowed down.
`Ayin is for eyes:
The eyes of all look to You,
And You are giving them their food in due season.
Pe is for opening:
Opened is Your hand,
And satisfying for every living thing its desire.
Tsaddeh is for righteousness:
Righteous is Yahweh in all of His ways,
And loving toward all His works.
Qoph is for nearness:
Near is Yahweh to all those calling on Him,
To all who call on Him in truth.
Resh is for desire:
The desire of those fearing Him He fulfills.
And their cry He hears, and He saves them.
Shin is for watching:
Yahweh is watching over all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy.
Tav indicates a gerund:
The praise of Yahweh my mouth will speak,
And let every creature praise His holy name everlastingly and forever.