From the standpoint of an outside observer the Lord’s Supper is something very strange, even disturbing. For this very reason, no outside observer was allowed in the early church. What would they think with all the talk of eating someone’s body and drinking his blood? What they did think was that Christians were killing and eating children. It became a rallying cry for persecution of Christians. That wasn’t what was happening, of course.
The command to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is very clear in the New Testament. Only one group dismisses it as a command only for the first century (Salvation Army). But why are we to do this unusual thing? There is a strong temptation to dumb it down. But for me, the dumbed down answer is not satisfying.
Let’s take a look at how Jesus’ initiated this practice. He is with his disciples and celebrating the Passover. The Passover had existed since the time of Moses. Nominally, it was remembering the final plague and the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Still, I would argue that the choice of plague and means of celebrating the remembrance of it are more complicated than simply getting people out of Egypt. It has an embedded prophecy in it. Much like Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son (Genesis 22). The prophecy is about a future sacrifice for sin that will allow God to “pass over” sin forever.
Here is Matthew’s account:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.Matthew 26:26-29 (ESV)
In this quote Jesus explains that his body and blood are the sacrifice for sin. This was the covenant God was planning and foretelling all along. The sacrifice of animals didn’t really do anything other than show repentance and obedience to a command. The practice was only prophetic. In God’s laws sinners had to die unless somebody fulfilled the Law for them. Jesus would become the “anti-Adam”. Adam’s sin propagated throughout the human species via genetics. Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t have that means of propagation, but it could be one-for-all if we could be “connected” to Jesus.
Paul refers back to this event:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 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.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.1 Corinthians 11:23-29 (ESV)
It is easy to latch onto the phrase “Do this..in remembrance of me”, and make the Lord’s Supper into something only about remembering Jesus. While remembering and “proclaiming” are a part of it, if this were the sole function then even symbolically eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood is a bizarre and offensive way of going about it.
I think that we do this near cannibalistic thing because we need to. I can remember Jesus in hundreds of ways. I can proclaim his death as my hope for salvation in hundreds more. But because I need to remain connected to Jesus’ literal body, so I am asked to do this strange thing. I take in the actual body and blood of Christ.
This claim raises many reasoned complaints. How can Jesus’ physical attributes be in so many places? The same way Jesus could feed 5000 with a lunch portion. I don’t taste flesh and blood? And I am glad of that. Jesus doesn’t share how it is there, but I don’t know what is possible for the Son of God. I think it foolish to say “impossible”.
There is another passage that seems to be speaking of this strange practice. People balk at saying that this is about the Lord’s Supper. But all other explanations fail. I would say that it is not just about the Lord’s Supper. It is Jesus speaking in John 6:
53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.John 6:52-66 (ESV)
No other place in scripture suggests that the Lord’s Supper is necessary for salvation. This seems to. But it actually is saying that being and remaining to part of Christ’s body is necessary. That starts with our baptism into Christ and continues (“abides” in verse 56) through partaking in Christ’s body and blood, delivered in a supernatural way.
The idea was so mind blowing and offensive that many of Jesus’ disciples left him. Jesus did not run after them and say that he was speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He wasn’t.
The Lord’s Supper is about our preservation in the body of Christ and consequently in our salvation. Many questions still can be asked. This is something way beyond our culture or our understanding of the physical world. Jesus would say to us, “Blessed is he or she who is not offended because of me”.