Markus Barth, the author of the book Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper: Communion with Israel, with Christ, and Among the Guests, was the son of renowned theologian Karl Barth and a fine New Testament scholar himself. He had keen interest in the topic of the Lord’s Supper and wrote and spoke of it: including The Last Supper (1945) and a series of lectures in 1986 at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he had served as professor of New Testament for ten years.
I appreciate Markus Barth because of his commitment to the work of exegesis. As did his father, he had courage to approach the Scriptures in a fresh manner, while maintaining respect for their authority. It is this fresh approach applied to the Lord’s Supper that caught my attention a couple of years ago. It is also what has led me to post a review of Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper at this time.
The title of the book suggests that the significance of the Lord’s Supper has been lost to some degree. Thus, Barth returns to the Bible for a bold look at this ceremony of the church to reconnect with its intended meaning.
Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper consists of a four-part analysis: three chapters on the subject of the Communion and a final chapter evaluating the relationship of John 6 with sacramental theology.
The chapter titles are as follows:
- Communion with Israel: Learning from the Passover How to Celebrate the Lord’s Supper and Learning from the Jews How to Serve God
- Communion with Christ Crucified and Risen: Public Joy Based on Christ’s Death
- Communion among Christ’s Guests: The Honor of Those Despised
- The Witness of John 6: Christ – the One and Only Sacrament
Communion with Israel: Learning from the Passover How to Celebrate the Lord’s Supper and Learning from the Jews How to Serve God
Barth begins by looking at the history of the Passover. He sees in it not a “timeless principle, prescription, or doctrine that excludes growth, development, and an eventual completion.” Rather, he emphasizes the evolution of the rite through the history of the Jewish people, acknowledging the times in which it has apparently gone unobserved, the changes in theological emphasis (e.g. atonement) and the details of its observance (location, participants, thematic emphases, etc.).
The author next moves to highlight essential elements of the Passover:
- He describes a primary feature of Passover as “remembrance” – “a memorial to a unique, complete, and perfect act of God”. Neither a mere mental/emotional recollection of a event nor an inherently redemptive ceremony, the Passover memorializes a historical event.
- The key question during the Passover remembrance is asked by children: “What do you mean by this service?” The focus is not on the “what” of the festival. It is focused on its significance.
- There have been multiple liturgical elements in the Passover observance: the sacrifice and the meal, the meal being a consequence of the sacrifice. According to Deuteronomy, the Passover lamb is to be killed at the temple, in the presence of a priest. However, the meal is a home-based observance, with no need of a priest. The movement is from “altar” to “table”.
- Passover is a communal event, not carrying only personal emphases. The significance of the deliverance-commemorating ceremony is a multifaceted deliverance: political, social, juridical, and personal (i.e. from sin).
Thereupon, Barth moves explicitly to develop the theme of the Lord’s Supper in view of Passover:
- He notes that the three synoptic Gospels affirm Jesus’ last meal as a Passover meal.
- The famous words of Jesus, “This is…” answer the question of significance of the rite, not the “what” of the elements of bread and wine. Jesus’ body and blood were replacing the function of the meat and blood of the Passover lamb. It is now Christ alone who is the final sacrifice, acceptable to God.
- Contra a major strand of theological Christian heritage, the emphasis is not sacramental: Jesus is not both “giver” and “gift” through the elements of bread and wine.
- The sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper is countered by three questionable assumptions:
- That which is given is physical bread and the person of Christ simultaneously
- This interpretation relies on interpreting the institution texts through John 6 alone, when another interpretation of John 6 is more likely (to be covered in the last chapter)
- The emphasis on the body and blood of Christ suggests a reference to his death, an historical event, not seeing the Lord’s Supper as a redemptive event in itself
- The Lord’s Supper points to his death as a sacrifice for the benefit of others, with “sacrifice” having a unique biblical sense, without the pagan notion of paying off a deity or the trivializing sense of “sacrifice” as something any human can do.
- The biblical emphasis of the Lord’s Supper is that of a joyful festival, as is Passover. It is not to have the mood of a funeral service. The emphasis is not on the individual to the neglect of the corporate. The focus is covenantal, which takes into account both individual forgiveness and the greater sense of God’s renewed relationship to his people.
- Commonalities between Passover and Lord’s Supper:
- Covenantal emphasis
- No clerical “mediation and manipulation”
- Differences between Passover and Lord’s Supper:
- Passover location: Jerusalem; Lord’s Supper location: all over the world
- Passover frequency: once a year; Lord’s Supper frequency: as often as the church assembles
Barth’s major conclusions:
- There is a clear and abiding unity between Israel and the church
- Liturgical consequences of the relationship between Passover and the Lord’s Supper:
- the replacement of altar-like structures with tables at which people sit
- the participation of children
- the combination of the liturgical act with a real meal (the agape meal)
- joyful celebration
- elimination of clerical dominance over the Lord’s Supper
- intercommunion beyond the body of the local church
My take on this: Fundamentally, one is struck by how different these notions are from the liturgical approaches to the Lord’s Supper manifested through much of church history. Some of you who read this may even be disturbed by these ideas. Hopefully, at the very least, they will prompt you to more deeply investigate what the Scriptures actually convey about this central feature of church life.