The Lord's Supper

The Question: I [the inquirer] am dealing with a Roman Catholic that is sincerely looking for truth. She wants to know why we take the Lords supper as in remembrance and not that the bread turns to the body of Christ and that the wine does not turn to His blood. Could you be so kind as to give me a good explanation without getting too deep into theology so she will not have trouble understanding. I will appreciate if you can help me out in this.

The Response: Wow! Though I have for some time questioned the way the Lord's Supper is handled within what many refer to as the "Protestant" community, I had not made any real effort to research our practice. With your request, I am obliged to do at least a bit of research if I am to provide you an acceptable response. For this reason, your request is a blessing to me.

After reviewing a ton of material on the sacrament/ordinance we call the Lord's Supper, I am more confused than ever. From what I was able to discover, it does seem that most, if not all, professing Christian communities assign great importance to the Lord's Supper, though the observance is understood somewhat differently by groups within that community. Who has the 'correct' understanding? God help me, I cannot tell you with absolute assurance without introducing 'denominational presuppositions' -- my own, of course.

So how to answer your Catholic correspondent? The best way that I can come up with is to begin with some of my own thoughts on the subject, following up with brief statements from the theology of some of the larger denominational churches that seem to be representative of major points along the continuum that runs from 'What Lord's Supper?' to the Catholic Eucharistic Celebration. At some point during this process, I hopefully will provide what you are asking.

In the earliest days of my Christian walk, our Lord led me to study at the knee of a very special mentor. The pastor of the first Christian church I joined, after prayerfully searching for that 'first' church, was a 64-year-old Charismatic preacher who had grown up in one of the most conservative of the non-Catholic Christian churches. Like his grandfather and father before him, he became a preacher in the New Zealand branch of the Plymouth Brethren. The Plymouth Brethren is a 'non-denominational denomination,' if you will, that uses a consistent literal/grammatical/historical hermeneutic when studying/interpreting the Scriptures. In this way, they believe--and I agree--they can arrive at an understanding of the Written Revelation of God most consistent with our Lord's intentions. In this, the Brethren are like believers in the non-denominational Bible churches one might find sprinkled among the denominational churches in our cities and larger towns.

My pastor blocked out an hour or two five days a week for teaching me theology, one-on-one. He lent me books from his personal library and quizzed me on them almost daily. He also placed me in a Bible college, where I undertook a full-time course load. At his knee and in Bible college, I learned the importance of sound hermeneutics.

When reading the Scriptures, I believe it to be of prime importance to understand the messages as nearly as possible as they were received by those to whom first delivered. This means that the student of Scripture should be familiar with the history and culture of the times. Ideally, he should be familiar with the languages in which the autographs were written; if not, he should at least have recourse to linguistics tools/commentaries that will help him to grasp the nuances of each phrase. If he is an honest student, he will strive to approach each passage of Scripture as free as possible of the contaminating influence of his own presuppositions. That is not an easy thing.

When I read the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, I am mindful of the Jewish rituals involved in serving and eating the Passover meal. With an appreciation of the quite specific ritual involved in the Orthodox Jewish observance of the Passover meal, the reasons for and meanings of many of Christ's words and actions on that day become crystal clear. One might learn of these specifics by reading the Tractate Pesach, but I found it much easier to read Alfred Edersheim's wonderful exposition of the Lord's last meal in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. In three chapters, beginning with Chapter 9 in Part 2 of the work, the author explains just about every word and act in the Gospel accounts of this meal with the strict requirements of the Jewish observance.

Jesus' breaking of the loaf was a part of the ritualized eating of the Passover meal. When He passed the sop to the others, this also was a part of the ritual, as was the reserving of part of the loaf, the various cups, the washing of the hands, etc. What made all these acts remarkable was the Person performing them, the comments He made when doing them and the special circumstances surrounding them. Even the fact that no one took special note of Judas' leaving the table would have not seemed unusual to a 1st century Jew. It is when we look at a 1st century Jewish ritual from the perspective of a 2nd-, or 10th-, or 16th- or even 21st-century Gentile Christian that we 'discover' things that quite likely were not there, among them an ordinance or sacrament instituting the partaking of a 'special' communion as part of ordinary worship.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe that our Lord commanded those present with Him in particular, and all Christians by extension, to "do this in remembrance of" Him. Bear in mind that, for observant Jews, the Passover Seder is a very special occasion; a ritual meal in which the story of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt is recalled to the older members of the group and taught to the youngest members. It is a ritual of 'remembrance' celebrated within a gathering of loved ones. I believe that was what Christ meant when He told those gathered to "do this in remembrance of" Him. I believe He was telling all believers down through the ages that we are to gather with our Christian brethren to share a meal, a Lord's Supper, if you will, in which we remember Him and what He taught and did for us. I do not believe he was telling us just to take a crumb of stale bread, or tasteless wafer or bit of cracker and a tablespoonful of grape juice or cheap wine in commemoration of His atoning sacrifice in our behalf. While the practice of most Christian churches that I am aware of certainly fulfills the 'letter of the law' as relates to Christ's command, I see no real remembrance or Christian love or fellowship in sitting in a chair or pew, holding that bit of bread and that tiny cup of juice, while waiting for priest, pastor or preacher to inform us that all the crumbs and cups have been delivered. Where is the remembrance in watching as a roomful of professing Christians dutifully 'take' their wafer as though it were a pill, washing it down with a sip of grape juice.

Though it may appear disrespectful, I believe that Lord Jesus was telling those who had gathered with Him--all of whom were Jews--that from that moment forward, when they gathered to eat that special meal, that Lord's Supper, they remember not their deliverance from slavery in Egypt but, rather, their deliverance from slavery to sin and eternal condemnation by His teaching and atoning sacrifice. I believe that this remembrance may be done within a gathering of family and friends, as is the Jewish Passover Seder, or with members of a congregation gathered before or after regular worship services for the purpose of remembering and commemorating Christ's finished work on the cross, or any other place where believers might gather for that purpose. I do not believe the Lord's Supper should be viewed as just another part of the Sunday service--a part that seems for many to have no other significance than that it adds 10 or 15 minutes to the length of the service. But that is just me.

Though the Holy Spirit was present to help believers and to guide the infant church, it was not long before the doctrines of men began 'supplementing' or replacing the doctrines of our Lord. Look at Paul's 1st letter to the church at Corinth. In chapter 11, he rebukes the church for their disorder when sharing the Lord's Supper, using words that some in the church, in those earliest days and right up to today, have interpreted in a variety of ways.

In the Corinthian church, it seems that some viewed the Lord's Supper as a church activity to which everyone brought his own food and drink, some having little and some having plenty. hardly a community remembrance. By the time the Didache was written, in the latter part of the 1st-century, some in the Eastern church, apparently influenced by Judaizers, apparently were not taking the bread and wine in remembrance of our Lord and Savior but as a variant of the Jewish Passover Seder. Didache, Chap. 9.

We see nothing in the Scriptures informing that the churches planted by the Apostles and earliest evangelists were led by priests, yet it was not long before the body of elders in the various churches developed into an hierarchical system that gave rise to a sacramental priesthood that in many ways mimicked the Jewish priesthood. I don't know which came first; the 'sacraments' or the priesthood to officiate over them.

The Christian church became the Roman Catholic Church and the Lord's Supper became a 'bloodless re-presentation' of Christ's atoning sacrifice. In that Catholicism considers itself as Israel fulfilled, it is understandable, though bad theology, that it views its version of the Lord's Supper as a form of the atoning sacrifices required of Israel by Mosaic Law. Given that, it is understandable, though also bad theology, that Catholicism seems to draw on Mosaic Law to justify a priesthood with exclusive rights and powers to preside over the sacraments. There is no justification in the Scriptures for either sacraments or a sacramental priesthood in the Covenant of Grace.

The Reformation, sparked by Luther's Theses and developed by Calvin and others, retained the sacramental view of Communion, or the Lord's Supper, and also some aspects of a priestly class to administer it. It should be noted that some doctrines of the Lutheran and Reformed churches are strikingly similar to some developed by the Catholic Church.

As a general rule, Evangelical and Charismatic churches do not hold to the sacramental view of the Lord's Supper, nor do they imbue their leaders with any priestly power or authority.

So, why does Catholicism view Jesus Christ as being really and substantially present--body, blood, soul and divinity--in the elements of the Lord's Supper while Evangelical and Charismatic Christians understand the Lord's Supper as a remembrance? I believe that the issue might be boiled down to confusion over a figure of speech used by Jesus.

1. Catholicism elects to interpret John 6:22-71 literally, in particular verses 53-57; thus coming to understand that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically when He referred to Himself as the Bread that had come down from Heaven, or when He said that it is necessary to eat His flesh and drink His blood if one is to have eternal life.

2. Those churches that keep the Lord's Supper as a remembrance understand the Lord to be speaking metaphorically in these passages.

One argument that Catholicism uses to justify rejecting the references to eating flesh and drinking blood as metaphorical is that Jews of the time used such phrases in a pejorative manner. That is true, and that apparently is one of the reasons that Jesus chose those metaphors. One might recall other instances where he used symbolic language to confound His listeners. Why would He do that? He explained His reasons to His disciples in these words:

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. -- Matthew 13:10-13

Should your Catholic correspondent be seriously interested in discovering why Jesus deliberately used metaphors that would have offended or confused his listeners in Capernaum, I urge her to go to read this explanation. It will only take ten minutes or so to read.

And so, the answer to the questions can be stated in a single sentence: The distinctions between the Catholic and non-Catholic understandings of the Lord's Supper are due in large measure to the different presuppositions men brought to their interpretation of the pertinent passages in Scripture.

Another useful exploration of the subject is that of R. L. Dabney, which begins here. Dabney examines a number of points of view, including that of the Catholic Church, from a Calvinistic point of view.

Hope that helps

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