Category Archives: communion

Christ – The One and Only Sacrament (Part 5 of 5)

I have written on the previous three occasions of Markus Barth’s thoughts on the Lord’s Supper: its Jewish connection, its joyful fellowship centered on the sacrificial death of Christ, and its relevance to social ethics in the life of the church.  The final chapter of his Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper takes a look at perhaps the strongest biblical text for sacramentalism, John 6:26-58; sacramentalism being understood simply as a strong attribution of spiritual efficacy to the consumption of bread and wine.

John 6:26-34     Jesus’ discourse on working for food that does not perish

John 6:35-51a   Jesus’ affirmation of himself as the substance and the giver of the bread of life

John 6:51b-58   Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood

He begins by setting forth three areas where John appears to diverge from the perspective on the Lord’s Supper that the rest of the New Testament has:

  1. John is thought to most vividly emphasize the conflict between Jesus and the Jews.  While the Synoptics embrace Christ as the Jewish fulfillment (e.g. linkage of Lord’s Supper and Passover), Jesus attacks the Jews in the strongest language found in the Gospels , e.g. “You are of your father, the devil!”
  2. John is thought to create a different impression of the Lord’s Supper than 1 Corinthians 10-11.  For Paul, it’s a communal proclamation of the Lord’s death that should manifest a concern for the poor among the church. However, John 6 seems to indicate that individual consumption of bread and wine brings individual salvation.
  3. For John, the criterion of the faith in Christ that the rest of the New Testament announces seems to be faith in the sacramental meal.  One cannot have the former without embracing the latter.

To begin to assess John 6, Barth distinguishes four schools of thought on the chapter as it relates to the Lord’s Supper: Continue reading Christ – The One and Only Sacrament (Part 5 of 5)

The Lord’s Supper is an Ethical Act (Part 4 of 5)

I have shown over the past two posts that the Lord’s Supper has continuity with the Jewish Passover and it is an enjoyment of fellowship which finds its source in the historical, sacrificial death of Jesus.  Now New Testament scholar Markus Barth addresses the question: What does ethics have to do with the Lord’s Supper?  In my Christian life, I have viewed the Lord’s Supper from such an individualistic focus that I failed to appreciate how it relates to Christian behavior, especially within the community.  I would like to share some summary bullet points from the third chapter of his work on the Lord’s Supper, Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper.  The text in focus is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Continue reading The Lord’s Supper is an Ethical Act (Part 4 of 5)

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

The Unity Between the Jewish Passover and the Lord’s Supper (Part 2 of 5)

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. Continue reading The Unity Between the Jewish Passover and the Lord’s Supper (Part 2 of 5)

Markus Barth on the Lord’s Supper (Part 1 of 5)

I made reference in a previous post to Markus Barth’s collection entitled Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper: Communion with Israel, with Christ, and Among the Guests.  Taken from lectures given in 1986 at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, this work is a treatment of the theological significance of the Lord’s Supper.  I have not seen a review of this book online and think that it would be worthwhile to present a review of Barth’s study, made available for those who have interest in this topic.

Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper consists of a four-part analysis: three chapters on the subject of communion and a final chapter evaluating the relationship of John 6 to 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 his introduction, Barth provides four examples of how the Lord’s Supper observance over the years has been corrupted to some degree:

  1. The overshadowing of the meal by “a somber and depressing mood”
  2. The lack of clarity and persuasiveness in language describing the Supper (e.g. sacrament, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, etc.)
  3. The exploitation of the doctrine and observance of communion for the purpose of excommunication
  4. Church divisions brought on by controversies concerning the Supper

I’ll begin in the next post to discuss how Barth understands the relationship between the Jewish Passover and the Lord’s Supper.  In my view, the value of this study is that Barth develops his thoughts with a clear, exegetical approach.  His treatment combines attention  paid to the Scriptures with a desire to be a practical help for the church in its observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed as a Meal?

In his highly thought-provoking, reproduction of lectures on the Lord’s Supper (Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper), theologian Markus Barth made this insightful comment:

A language has been fabricated for describing the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, a language that is certainly learned, deep, mysterious, but hardly clear and persuasive.  The Bible itself does not speak of sacrament, transsubstantiation, consubstantiation, transfunctionalization, transsignification, or symbol (a sign that shows what it effects and effects what it shows)…The Supper has been wrapped in a smokescreen of very difficult language.

The cumbersome language has to do with the strange and curious questions that have been asked about the Lord’s Supper.  One who asks a wrong question is most likely to get a wrong answer.

This last quoted sentence is pregnant with meaning.  I have been on a quest to ask some very basic questions concerning the Lord’s Supper.  The most basic question is this: is the Lord’s Supper a meal or not?  Scholar I. Howard Marshall asserted the following: “The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is a meal. The appropriate setting for the sacrament is a table…To describe the central piece of furniture as an altar is completely unjustified in terms of the New Testament understanding of the meal.”

I have come to the same conclusion as Marshall.  However, the central challenge to this conclusion from the perspective of many is the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.  Matthew Henry’s view is typical: “They [the Corinthian assembly] were to eat for hunger and pleasure only at home, and not to change the holy supper to a common feast.”

So, what do you think?  Is the Lord’s Supper to be maintained as a meal?  Or is it best to see it in the established manner (a sole liturgical function with bread and cup alone)?

For those who are interested, here is a brief verse-by-verse commentary on this passage. Continue reading Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed as a Meal?

Interpreting “Lord’s Supper” Texts: More There Than Meets the Eye

Alan Streett kicks off his work Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century with the following questions:

What actually took place when a first-century church gathered to eat the Lord’s Supper?  Did its members, like their twenty-first century counterparts, take a bite of bread and a sip of wine, in memory of their Lord?  In recent times, scholars have taken a fresh look at how and why the early church met around the Lord’s Table.

I have been on a personal quest to understand the central biblical ideas behind the Lord’s Supper and to analyze the manner in which the vast majority of churches in my own time and place have participated in the Supper.

It seems like everywhere I turn, I come upon texts which stop me cold in my tracks, calling me to question my hidden assumptions and my open presuppositions.

The “breaking bread” texts in Acts 20 and Acts 27 are the latest to do so. Continue reading Interpreting “Lord’s Supper” Texts: More There Than Meets the Eye

Lord’s Supper: Ancient and Modern Practice

When we come to the Acts of the Apostles (thought to be written by Luke), we read in 2:42 that the new church devoted herself to “the breaking of the bread.”  The definite article before “breaking” most likely indicates that this was a practice well-known to the early church.  Yet something interesting happens: four verses later, in verse 46, we see a somewhat parallel text:

verse 42

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching

verse 46

And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple,

verse 42:

and fellowship, in the breaking of bread

verse 46:

and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart,

verse 42:

and the prayers.

verse 47:

praising God

Some commentators have drawn a distinction between “the breaking of the bread” in verse 42 and “breaking bread” in verse 46.  Arguing that the verse 42 reference is probably liturgical Communion, they distinguish it from the verse 46 reference to common meals in the home.  But this distinction cannot stand.  It is unlikely that discussion of breaking bread would have wholly different referents within a span of only four verses.  The most natural interpretation is that verses 46 and 47 explain verse 42.  Again, verse 42 is not liturgical; it is a snapshot of life for the church.

What can be concluded from our treatment of the passage?

1.  The fellowship of “the breaking of the bread” at the Last Supper was the pattern of the gathering of the church as she collectively remembered her Lord and enjoyed his abiding presence among them.

2. The well-known “breaking of bread” in the early church occurred in homes as they made remembrance of Jesus part of their common meals together.  There is no indication at this point that the “Lord’s Supper” was understood to be a cultic act performed in what we now call “corporate worship”.

How great a distance is there between the modern practice of the Lord’s Supper and its ancient beginnings?

The Formation of Community through Broken Bread

Maybe it’s the primitivist side of me, but I have had this drive in me for many years to understand the practice of the New Testament-era church.  I grew up in a church that aimed to do church “the way the early church did it.”  An ironic exercise is to see how various groups of this sort start from the same place (the idea of “restoration”) and then end up in a variety of practices.  Maybe the variety speaks to how much we don’t know about the early church.  Maybe we’re looking for perspicacity about the wrong issues.

Case in point: The Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist.

The church in which I grew up was a split-off from the Church of England.  The main modifications they made to the Eucharist was: (1) to separate it from the preaching of the Word by dedicating a meeting uniquely to it, and (2) to strip the meeting of its clergy-dominated components (there was no longer any clergy to officiate the meeting).  However, when it was all said and done, I would still ask, “Is this truly the way the Lord’s Supper was observed in those ancient church days?”  I got to the point where I wasn’t so sure.

What do we really know about the early church practice of the Lord’s Supper? Continue reading The Formation of Community through Broken Bread

Don’t Neglect the Communion Service! Spiritual Benefit Awaits You

In the church in which I grew up (which observed Communion weekly), one of the elders would give his own special paraphrase to Paul on Communion: “The Scripture says that as often, not as seldom, as you do this, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes!”  All kidding aside, I’d like to challenge you with this post to take every opportunity you are given to participate in the Communion service with your church.  Why?

Two reasons: (1) It’s how Jesus wants to be thanked for his work of redemption on your behalf, and (2) it will bring you great spiritual benefit that you cannot get elsewhere in the same way.

(1) Thanksgiving is the central response on the part of the participant as Jesus is remembered: As we, through symbol, call to remembrance our great deliverance through Christ, we are driven to give thanks.  Throughout the key texts concerning the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians), the giving of thanks by Jesus during the Last Supper is repeatedly depicted.  He calls for remembrance and thanksgiving to be conjoined during the observance.  Indeed, Psalm 6:5 associates thanksgiving with remembrance: “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: In Sheol who shall give thee thanks?”  Joyful thanksgiving should permeate the worship that occurs during Communion.  Moreover, the designation of the observance as “the Eucharist” by much of the Church is thoroughly fitting in describing our action in the meal.

(2) What is the central benefit for the believer as he remembers and thanks the Lord in the Lord’s Supper?  The central benefit is communion with Jesus the Christ who has been crucified.  In the participatory experience of the Lord’s Supper, the believer enjoys a fullness of connection with the crucified Christ of which the apostles often write.  The Scriptures in 1 Cor 10:16-17 state that the cup is communion with the blood of Christ and the bread, communion with the body of Christ.  There is no hint of material change of the elements during the Lord’s Supper, for the Supper is a proclamation of the Lord’s death (1 Cor 11:26), a past event in history that is unrepeatable.  However, the bread and cup are more than mere “signs” of fellowship, for Paul bases his admonition against participation in pagan sacrificial rites on the reality of the fellowship enjoyed in the Lord’s Supper.  In other words, since we affirm and enjoy actual fellowship with Christ the Lord in the Supper, we are dividing our loyalty between Christ and idols when simultaneously participating in idolatrous feasts.  In the Supper, we celebrate the benefits of his sacrifice that we enjoy, we also re-affirm our baptismal appeal for a clear conscience (1 Pet 3:21), the commitment to share in His sufferings, and our desire for the power of His resurrection life to be at work within us (Phil 3:10).

While there is the deepest fellowship available in the Supper, participation in the Supper does not bring about a relationship of communion with Christ that is automatic.  It is the spiritual enjoyment by faith through material “signs” of a fellowship that is pre-existing for the believer.  In coming to the Table, we come as those who have already been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:9).  We have already put on Christ through baptism (Gal 3:27).  Overall, the designation of this meal as “Holy Communion” by the Church is supported through strong Scriptural attestation.

I would love to know of any testimonies from readers of their experience of communion with God in partaking in this service.  What spiritual benefits do you enjoy in your participation?