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The Lord’s Supper: Last Supper, Family Supper, Future/Final Supper


Matthew 26:20-29      Luke 15:1-2          Exodus 24:1-11      1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Following a Sunday morning service of Holy Communion in the congregation I served for 21 years in Mississauga an 85-year old woman greeted me at the door of the church.  She smiled sweetly (and kept on smiling) as she said, “Today was communion Sunday.  I didn’t understand anything of what it was supposed to be about.  I never have.  I’ve been in church all my life, and the service means as little to me now as it did when I was a child.  I thought you’d want to know.”
Having chatted pastorally with church folk for 43 years I’ve discovered this woman isn’t alone.  Many church folk attend services of Holy Communion frequently but will admit, in appropriate contexts, that they are largely uncomprehending as to what the service means or what it is supposed to do.
For the edification of all of us this morning let’s think of the service of Holy Communion, or Lord’s Supper as it is more frequently called in Protestant orbits, in terms of Last Supper, Family Supper, and Future/Final Supper.

I (i) —   At the Last Supper Jesus poured out wine and said (no doubt solemnly), “…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins….”  Our Hebrew ancestors knew that “blood” was shorthand for “life given up sacrificially”.  Now unlike our Hebrew ancestors we are creatures of modernity; we are fastidious; we like things clean and neat, always in good taste.  Our foreparents, on the other hand, weren’t concerned with good taste at all; they were concerned with godliness; not concerned to see something aesthetically polished, but preoccupied with knowing that their sin had been pardoned.  Therefore they didn’t shrink from those vehicles of worship which they knew God had appointed, such as the sacrifice of a lamb in the temple.  In the temple mystery of atonement (“atonement” means the making “at one” of sinful people and holy God) worshippers brought their best lamb to church; the priest cut the animal’s throat, collected the blood in a basin, and threw the blood against the altar.
A well-known, popular New Testament commentator, more fastidious than he should be and with more than a streak of anti-Judaism in him (William Barclay), speaks of the repugnance of it all: odour, flies, unsightliness; the slimy, slippery, gooey, filthy mess.  He praises Jesus for having got us beyond this bloody primitivism.  Alas, he overlooks one thing: Jesus endorsed the bloody primitivism.  Whenever Jesus was in Jerusalem at Passover he worshipped at the temple too — which is to say whenever our Lord went to church in Jerusalem he showed up with his lamb under his arm.  Of course he knew something no one else knew: he knew that what the temple liturgy pointed to would soon be gathered up in his own poured-out blood, since he knew himself the lamb of God.
Repugnant?  Our Hebrew foreparents weren’t repelled by gore; they were repelled by their own depravity.  They weren’t jarred by a spectacle that lacked refinement; they were jarred by a spectacle that lacked righteousness — the spectacle of themselves in their systemic sinnership facing a Holy God who couldn’t be fooled and whose truth couldn’t be “fudged”.  Fastidiousness is the farthest thing from the mind of corrupt people whom the just judge has condemned.
I admit that the category of sin (that is, the predicament of rebellion against God and the spiritual perversity arising therefrom) isn’t a category in which people today think.  People today think instead in the categories of vice and immorality and criminality.  If a deed violates what a particular society deems good, the deed is called vice.  If the same deed violates what is regarded as the universal human good, it is called immorality.  If the same deed violates a stated law, it is called crime.  What it is called is determined entirely by the context which interprets it.  From a gospel-perspective the context which interprets us (not merely our deed) and interprets us ultimately; this context is the holy God himself.  Not only is the holy God the ultimate interpretative context; this context is also unique in its profundity. So profound is it that when we understand ourselves in it we also understand that what is interpreted now is not deed but being.  In other words the ultimate issue isn’t what we do but what we are.  Our ancient foreparents knew this.
According to apostolic testimony our Lord, at the Last Supper, poured wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”; that is, it is the one covenant of God renewed by the blood of Christ.   Why is blood attached to God’s covenant or promise never to abandon us, never to fail us, never to forsake us, never to quit on us in anger or give up on us in disgust?  Why is blood attached to God’s covenant or promise not to let anything, not even humankind’s outrageous insolence and ingratitude, loose him from his bond with us?  In short, if God wants to promise himself to us, why doesn’t he simply declare it and spare himself the expense of his Son?  Because everywhere in life where promises are made to people of perverse hearts (which is to say, everywhere in life where promises are made), the same promises can be kept only at enormous cost.  It costs nothing to make a promise, nothing to declare a promise (talk is cheap); it costs everything to keep a promise.
We promise not to forsake spouse or friend.  The promise made costs nothing; but as soon as that person provides incontrovertible grounds for giving up on him, the same promise kept costs everything.  God has promised forever to be God-for-us.  In the Garden of Eden his promise cost him nothing; but when humankind found itself in the “far country”; i.e., when God’s promise meets our rebellious hearts, his promise kept — still to be God-for-us — wraps him in anguish.
Then what mood pertains to the Last Supper aspect of our communion service?  Surely a mood of solemnity; a mood of sober reflection, of realistic self-assessment; which is to say, a mood of penitence.

(ii): — But the Last Supper isn’t the only aspect of our communion service; there is also what I have called the family supper aspect, the ordinary, everyday meals Jesus shared with people in the course of his public ministry.  The written gospels tell us on page after page that Jesus spent a great deal of time in kitchens and restaurants.  Why did he spend so much time there when he knew he had so little time for his public ministry?  Because he wanted his meal-companions to know peace with God.  In first century Palestine to eat with someone was a public declaration of amnesty; to eat with someone meant you harboured no enmity toward that person; you were plotting nothing malicious; you intended, rather, only that person’s well-being and blessing.
A sign of amnesty (supposedly) in our culture is the handshake.  When we shake with our right hand the person attached to the handshake knows that our hand holds no weapon and therefore we aren’t going to attack.  Boy Scouts and Girl Guides shake with their left hand.  In the pre-firearm days of sword and spear the left hand held one’s shield.  To shake with our left hand means we have discarded our shield; we have renounced self-protection.  What would it mean to shake hands with both hands?  It could only mean that we had foresworn both attacking someone else and defending ourselves; it could only mean, in other words, that we were giving ourselves totally to another person without condition or hesitation. Surely shaking hands with both hands is what we do, in effect, whenever we hug or embrace another human being. To hug someone, embrace someone is simply to shake hands with both hands.  Our affection, our intention, our concern, our heart’s unarticulated welcome; it’s all poured out on this other person at the same time that there is nothing held back to plot either manipulation of him or armour-plating of ourselves.  When Jesus ate with people, in first century Palestine, he embraced them — both hands.  He cherished those people and visited upon them that amnesty with God which was nothing less than their salvation.  They sponged it up with that heart-hunger which every last one of us has.
It sounds so wonderful that we can’t imagine a downside to it.  But there was.  Our Lord’s eating habits ‘did him in.’  Those he ate with loved him, while those who refused to eat with him savaged him.  We must never forget that Jesus uttered many of his parables in reply to those who faulted him for his table manners.  We must never forget that the best-loved parables — lost sheep, lost coin, lost son — Jesus spoke when those who were to savage him hissed, “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”
Nonetheless our Lord never backed down.  He knew that the provision in the cross, while sufficient to grant people access to God, wouldn’t of itself induce them to suspend their suspicion and abandon their assorted safe ‘tree perches’, like Zacchaeus.   He knew that because of the cross sinners could approach the holy One.  But would they?  Would they want to?  Only if through the holy One Incarnate they knew a welcome beyond anything they had found anywhere else.  They found such a welcome in Jesus and loved him for it.
Then why did others attack him on account of his dinner-companions?  Because he broke down all the conventions by which they, his enemies, had always ordered their lives, all the conventions by which they assigned themselves a superior place in the ‘pecking order’ and credited themselves with a superior righteousness.  It is a social convention to classify people as moral or immoral (and no one this morning is arguing the difference between moral and immoral).  It is a social convention to classify people as successful or dismissible, religious or irreligious. Social conventions have their place.  Nevertheless, when Jesus Christ appears, social conventions are exposed as less than ultimate; decidedly less than ultimate.
Jesus eats with the immoral and they know themselves cherished; he would be every bit as happy to eat with the moral too, but moral people won’t eat with him as long as he insists on eating with those who are regularly regarded as ill-behaved.  Jesus eats with the dismissible, those deemed unimportant.  He would gladly eat with the successful, the powerful, too, but they don’t want to rub shoulders with the dismissible.  He eats as well with the irreligious.  He would gladly eat with the religious too, but they can’t stomach the thought that their reward is no greater than the reward of those who have made no religious effort at all.
Social conventions are a way of ordering society.  They have their place. But when Christ the King appears they are exposed as pre-ultimate; they have now been superseded by a new order, the Kingdom of God.
Social convention and the Kingdom of God are simply not the same.  Then it’s quite plain that either we cling to the social conventions, assuming that the social order they point to is ultimate, or in the presence of Jesus Christ we look beyond social convention to “seize with both hands” (Calvin’s expression) the One who has already seized us.  Either we regard social convention as ultimate or we abandon ourselves to the rule of God exemplified in a welcome we are never going to find anywhere else.  It is not the case that Jesus exalts immorality above morality or failure above success or irreligion above religion (as some left-wing preachers try to tell us.)  It is rather the case that all such distinctions and categories and evaluations and pigeonholes are left behind as we forget them in favour of a kingdom which transcends them.
Yet we must always remember that men and women are persuaded to forget them and leave them behind, are free to forget them and leave them behind, only as they find both hands shaken, only as they know themselves embraced and want above all to hug forever the one who has first hugged them.
Jesus welcomed his dinner-companions to a new family, what Paul calls “the household and family of God.”  His family meals landed our Lord in much trouble, but he refused to give them up.  Those who joined the family and ate at its table rejoiced and exulted in their new-found exhilaration.  Not even the pouting and the sulking and the petulance of those who wouldn’t sit down with them could diminish their joy.
The mood of exultation, then, the mood of joy, is another mood we should bring to the communion service.

(iii): — There is yet another supper aspect to the Lord’s Supper, the anticipation of the Messianic Banquet.  There is a supper to come, a future supper which will also be the final supper which never ends.  The Messianic Banquet will celebrate one glorious truth: the destruction of all that opposes God’s kingdom and violates his rule and disputes his sovereignty.  Christians are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s agent in restoring a creation warped, a creation disfigured, a creation significantly disabled and frequently grotesque; a creation rendered all this through the multi-tentacled grip of evil.  At the same time, as our Jewish friends remind us, when Messiah appears he has to bring the Messianic Age with him.  Without the arrival of the Messianic Age it’s absurd to speak of the arrival of the Messiah.  In the Messianic Age swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks; war will no longer preoccupy us even as poverty, disease and exploitation no longer afflict us.
Have swords been beaten into ploughshares?  (Think of Syria and Egypt.)  Not only does war (terrorism is war by another name) rage throughout the world; at this moment there are approximately fifty civil wars raging throughout the world: fellow-citizens are slaying each other.  Have poverty, disease and injustice ceased to afflict us?
Let’s be sure to admit this much: those who dispute the sovereignty of Jesus Christ have a case.  Unquestionably they have a case.  Nevertheless Christians may and must say this much: in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the risen Messiah has brought the Kingdom with him and superimposed his Kingdom on a fallen creation.  To be sure, his Kingdom is not yet fully manifest (if it were it wouldn’t be disputable); but it arrived as the risen one himself triumphed over every principality and power, over every human sin and cosmic evil which are bent on denying their defeat and molesting whom they can with their last gasp.  In his resurrection from the dead our Lord has guaranteed the healing of the creation’s gaping wounds.
Thinking pictorially as they were trained to do, the earliest Christians depicted this God-ordained event as a feast that never ends.  The bedraggled of the world, a bedraggled world itself, will shine forth resplendently as the creation restored redounds to the glory of the God who made it, who sustained it through its afflictions, who wrested it out of the hands of the molester who warped it, and who has freed it for the blessing of his people; which people in turn will praise him everlastingly for it.  Then the mood we must bring to this aspect of Holy Communion is the mood of eager anticipation and steadfast confidence.

II: — The service of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper gathers up three distinct but related meals:
– the Last Supper, where Jesus signed in his own blood the promise of God that there will always be more mercy in God than there is sin in us;
– the everyday meals our Lord ate with those whom he gathered into his household and family as he embraced and welcomed all who craved him and his rule more than they clung to social convention;
– the messianic banquet, the final supper of the future where all that contradicts the kingdom of God will be dispersed.
The mood of the communion service should reflect all three aspects: sober penitence, unrestrained joy, confident anticipation.

Today, in our worship service, we have already tasted the Word of God in scripture and sermon.  Now we are to taste the selfsame Word in sacrament.
Our Lord Jesus invites us to his table. Soberly let us renew our repentance in the wake of his astounding mercy.  Joyfully let us embrace again him who rejoices to embrace us.  Confidently let us anticipate that glorious Day when together we behold the holy city, the New Jerusalem, the creation healed; for on that Day the former things will have passed away and there will be neither mourning nor crying nor pain any more.

Victor Shepherd

August 2013

Church of St Bride