Communion with Christ: Is It Caused or Signified by the Lord’s Supper? (Part 3 of 5)

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:

  1. Communion with Israel: Learning from the Passover How to Celebrate the Lord’s Supper and Learning from the Jews How to Serve God
  2. Communion with Christ Crucified and Risen: Public Joy Based on Christ’s Death
  3. Communion among Christ’s Guests: The Honor of Those Despised
  4. The Witness of John 6: Christ – the One and Only Sacrament

In the first chapter, “Communion with Israel”, Barth argues for essential continuity between the Jewish Passover and the Christian “Lord’s Supper”.  He focuses mainly on the so-called institution texts in the Synoptic Gospels, in effect, to view the Lord’s Supper through the lens of the Passover.

In the second chapter, Barth shifts his focus to the Pauline letter of First Corinthians, with emphasis on 10:16-17 and 11:26 as pre-eminent verses for understanding the significance of the Supper.

How does Paul speak of the Supper?  Three ways: 

  1. apparently well-known liturgical formulas (10:16 and 11:23b-25);
  2. interpretive verses to clarify the sense of the liturgy (10:17 and 11:26);
  3. urgent exhortation to learn lessons from Israel’s worship (10:18).

A basic point with which Paul begin is to assert that Paul does not present a systematic doctrine.  He draws upon biblical principles to help the Corinthians practically.  The Corinthians to which he writes are characterized by Barth as “high-church sacramentalists” (to use more modern terminology) – (1) confident of their possession of the Spirit for security and freedom from condemnation; (2) viewing their abundance of speaking in tongues as proof of spirituality; (3) somewhat of an “anything goes” mentality (e.g. “everything is permitted”).  This “anything goes” approach manifested itself in a carelessness toward other members of the body, especially the poor (11:17-22).  Paul is uncompromising in his condemnation of this flagrant attitude toward believers.  Barth provides his own interpretive paraphrase of 10:1-12, the latter portion of which is illustrative of his view: “Sacrament is not an alternative to ethics, but ethics is essential to it.  Unless you stand firm amid temptations  and God protects you anew every day, your security is self-deceptive, a sheer fiction, though it may be founded upon your faith in salvation by the sacraments.”  In other words, God calls the Corinthians to undivided allegiance that issues forth into exclusive communion with Christ.

Barth goes into an extended treatment of 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 to try to ascertain what is meant by “exclusive communion” with Christ.

He provides a literal translation of 10:16-18:

16a: The cup of praise over which we say grace – is it not communion with the blood of Christ?

16b: The bread that we break – is it not communion with the body of Christ?

17a: One is the bread!

17b: (Therefore) we who are many are one body,

17c: for all of us partake in one bread.

18: Look at the earthly Israel: are not those eating sacrificial meat in communion with the altar? 

His principal exegetical conclusions:

  • “Body” refers to the sacrificed Christ in 16b, but it also refers to the church in 17b
  • It is possible that 17a and 17b are pre-Pauline, for which Paul provides commentary in 17c; here, “bread” would refer to Christ in 17a and to the communion loaf in 17c

Barth also attempts to answer what is meant by “communion” in 10:16. For him, the question is: does the Lord’s Supper participation effectively bring about communion between God and the church?  Or is it “significative and proclamatory” of an existing relationship?  He contrasts Paul’s strong language in 10:20 with Israel’s experience.  1 Cor 10:20 states: “Definitely I will not that you become partners of the demons” by participation in sacrifices to idols.  Thus, it appears that participating in idol sacrifices causes one to “become” communicants with demons.  However, the communion tradition of the Jews was not “created” by altar service.  Communion with God came through election, birth, etc., i.e. everything that preceded the altar service.

Barth does not see 10:16-17 as conclusive for his point of view, but he does attempt to understand the Eucharist as an experience that has meaning because of a pre-existing relationship between the church and Christ.

Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 11:26

The text reads:

a: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,

b: you proclaim the Lord’s death,

c: until he comes. 

Barth argues that the entire verse constitutes the words of Christ.

  • every other Lord’s Supper institution word-group of Christ’s has an eschatological element
  • there is free movement from first-person to third-person in Christ’s words concerning himself in other Scriptures

Moreover, he views 11:26 as central to understanding “communion” in 10:16:

  • the Supper is an occasion for the proclamation of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sinners
  • “it is neither the mystery of the mass or the church nor the special authority of priests that is celebrated”
  • the proclamation is effected when bread is broken and the cup is shared

Thus, this is the essence of the koinonia of the Supper:

  • it is something done, performed
  • thanks is given as a community for the gift of Christ
  • strength is imparted among the saints through mutual love
  • a signal is given to the entire world that redemption extends to the whole world; the number of the redeemed is not yet complete

On the topic of “Real Presence”:  Barth finds this term to be redundant.  Presence is presence.  The implication of advocates of “real presence” is that spiritual presence by itself is not true presence.

Barth on the Lord’s Supper as a community meal: “Confessions such as ‘I believe that Christ has died and was raised’ are no good unless they are undergirded and verified by the sharing, serving, and loving that are exercised and demonstrated at the Lord’s table.”

Barth in summary:

“Eating bread that is and remains bread and drinking wine that is and remains plain wine – these material, bodily, palpable actions are not too little, too trite, too contemptible, to serve a magnificent purpose.  Whoever follows Christ’s example and shares bread with a neighbor, whoever acknowledges that the only way to enter the promised glory is through much suffering, proclaims the death of the Lord and demonstrates living and true communion with Christ.”

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