The Lord’s public teaching was now concluded. With chapter 22 Luke begins the account of the Lord’s passion. That account begins in the Gospels, as you know, with the hours the Lord spent with his disciples over the Passover meal. It was on that night that he washed his disciples’ feet and delivered his great discourse on the coming of the Holy Spirit, material that we find in the Gospel of John, but not in Luke. In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the account of that last night together focuses on the institution or the creation of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, a new form of sacrificial meal that the Lord created out of the Passover ritual as he observed it with his disciples and which he taught them to observe in remembrance of him once he was gone. As the Lord’s Supper has been ever since a principal mark of Christian identity and a chief feature of Christian worship, it is obvious why its institution is given in some detail in the Gospels.
Strictly speaking the week-long feast of unleavened bread and the Passover, a single evening meal, were separate events, but they were related to each other and occurred at the same time in the Spring and so could be spoken of as a single celebration. Together they commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.
The Gospels do not dwell on Judas. They don’t tell us why he betrayed the Lord; nor do they vilify him by going on about his treachery. Their account is the more powerful for its understatement: Judas is described simply as “of the number of the twelve.” He was an insider; one of those closest to the Lord. We know from other evidence in the Gospels that Judas was an avaricious man, so he was glad to be paid for the service he was rendering to the chief priests. He would provide the opportunity for them to arrest Jesus out of sight of the crowds.
Passover was an elaborate meal and usually was eaten in groups, something like our Thanksgiving feast. Preparations, therefore, were required.
Peter and John were from Galilee, not Jerusalem, and it was late to be making arrangements for so elaborate a feast for some thirteen men, so they naturally asked where he expected them to find a place where all this could be done. Interestingly, where the rest of the Lord’s entourage observed the celebration we are not told. Where, for example, did the Lord’s mother, who was there at the cross, eat her Passover? We do not know. We are not told.
If any of you remembers the early sermons in this series, more than a year ago now, particularly the one on the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ from Luke 2, you will be interested to remember that the term translated here “guest room” is the same term translated “inn” in Luke 2. “There was no room for them in the inn,” which of course has raised questions as to whether that is what we are being told at all. They wanted to go to a motel but they couldn’t because they were all full and there was no vacancy or whether in fact they were staying in someone’s home but not in the guest room because it was already taken.
It is possible that the Lord had made a private arrangement with the owner of the house precisely so that no one, perhaps especially Judas, would know ahead of time where to find him. The man carrying the water jar would have been easy to spot because usually women did that. All of this ensured that Jesus would not be seized until he was ready to be seized. the time was right. There were still things that had to be done.
The Lord had been looking forward to this. It was for him a significant moment. But what they were doing in eating the feast pointed to still greater things. That first Lord’s Supper was the anticipation of things to come.
The Lord’s time with his disciples was now at its end, though, of course, they did not know this at the time. So the Lord was looking forward to the time when they would all be together again in the kingdom of God. But that time lay in the distant future.
We have here the first of two cups mentioned, the other in v. 20. The customary way of explaining this — though it has to be said that our knowledge of the Jewish Passover as it was celebrated in Jesus’ day is not sufficient for us to be sure of this — is that this cup is the first or second of the four cups or four drinks that were part of the Passover ritual and that the cup that the Lord transformed into the cup of the Lord’s Supper was the third or fourth of those Passover cups. In this way, this cup in v. 17 is part of the Passover meal and by mentioning it Luke indicates that it was at this point, in the heart of the Passover ritual, that the Lord transformed or converted the Passover into the Lord’s Supper, taking only the bread and one cup from the old supper into the new.
The taking, breaking, and distributing of bread was a familiar part of the Passover ritual. What was utterly unprecedented was the Lord’s remark that the bread he was holding in his hand was his body, given for them, words that, as you know, would cause unending controversy in the church. Someone has said that those simple words are the most controversial statement in the Bible! “Given for you,” of course, looks to the cross and the Lord’s sacrificial death for his people which, unbeknownst to his disciples, would occur the next day.
Again, the “pouring out” anticipates the Lord’s death on the cross. And by this death God’s covenant, his relationship with his people would be established.
There has been a long debate about whether or not Judas was present through the Passover meal and so during the first Lord’s Supper, Matthew and Mark making it less clear than it seems to be here in Luke. Again the point is made that the enormity of Judas’ betrayal stems from the close fellowship he had enjoyed with Jesus.
The fact that all was happening according to a divinely written script does not mean that Judas was not responsible for his actions. But Judas seems to have disguised his intentions well insofar as the other disciples did not immediately gather that Judas would be the traitor.
The Lord’s Supper, the ritual meal that originated at that final Passover meal the Lord shared with his disciples, is, along with baptism, the primary liturgical expression of the Christian faith; in much the same way that prayer to Allah offered on one’s face in the direction of Mecca is the primary liturgical expression of Islam. If you see someone doing that, you know that person is a Muslim. If you see someone being baptized or someone participating in the Lord’s Supper, you know that person is a Christian.
The Lord’s Supper incorporates, indeed compresses so much of our faith in a single ceremony: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the sins of his people; our dependence upon him for our salvation, our anticipation of his coming again, our fellowship with one another in the church, and, something we are inclined to forget, our future life in heaven as a genuinely human life, a life of eating and drinking then as now. There is even more here than might at first meet the eye. Bread and wine are the food and drink of this supper, not meat as was the case with the Passover. Neither bread nor wine occurs naturally. Each must be created by human action. Animals eat, but no animal except man is a cook. Bread and wine require a great deal of ingenuity, of learning, of creativity, and, indeed, of what might be called science in order to make. Both of these foods are the products of culture. Indeed, as many have pointed out, there is an entire doctrine of culture — of human creativity, of the proper use of the natural world, of productive work, of experience handed on from generation to generation, and so on presupposed in the Lord’s Supper.
Much of this is utterly uncontroversial. Every Christian knows that the Supper looks back to the cross, looks forward to the Lord’s coming again and that it is an act of faith in Jesus present with us at this moment. In the Lord’s Supper we offer our thanks for and practice our faith in a our redemption already accomplished and in the Lord Jesus present with us to keep us until the day of final victory.
But at that point the agreement ends. There are of course the great historical controversies that have swirled around the Lord’s Supper: the question of the Lord’s presence in the Supper — is he personally present when his people partake of this Supper and, if so, how is he present –; the question of the relationship of the elements themselves, the bread and wine, to the Lord’s own resurrection body — what did Jesus mean when he said of the bread in his hand, “This is my body” –; and the question of what is the Supper meant to achieve when observed — does it serve to take away our sins as a repetition of the Lord’s first sacrifice on the cross, does it, on the other hand, merely remind us what happened long ago (a theory of the Supper that one contemporary Reformed scholar dismissively described as “God’s flannel graph”), or does it communicate God’s grace to us in some other way?
All of these issues have for long years been bones of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants or between Protestants themselves, entire churches taking their origin from the various answers given. There are today both Lutherans and Presbyterians in some large part because different Reformers in the 16th century answered these questions in different ways.
But nowadays the situation is complicated by other factors. There are few of us who any longer worry about arcane theories of how the bread actually becomes the physical body of Jesus. Even Roman Catholic theologians have begun to wonder out loud about their doctrine of transubstantiation and I suspect fewer and fewer Catholics in the pews take that doctrine seriously. Similarly few Christians today will go to the mat arguing about precisely how the Lord Jesus is present in the sacrament, whether physically as the Catholics and Lutherans believe or by the Holy Spirit as the Reformed claim.
Fewer and fewer Christians seem to care much about these questions. There are certainly fewer conversations, still less arguments about them. When was the last time you had an argument about one of those issues? Our questions in the early 21st century tend to be of a more practical nature, though, perhaps, no less significant in their implications. For example, while in some seeker-friendly churches the Lord’s Supper is a rarity, and in some other evangelical churches it is never observed in Sunday worship — only in some special service reserved for serious Christians — in still other churches the Lord’s Supper is observed every Lord’s Day. Nowadays in our Presbyterian Church in America one finds all of this. There are some of our churches that still today follow the traditional practice of Reformed churches and observe the Lord’s Supper infrequently, perhaps four times a year, as was universally our custom in my boyhood. In previous centuries the Supper might have been observed but once or twice a year. Many of our churches observe the Supper once a month. But now there are many congregations that observe the Supper every Lord’s Day. For them it has become as regular a part of the Sunday service as the hymns, prayers, offering, and sermon. In the past the Roman Catholic service was always a Lord’s Supper service, though they referred to it as the Eucharist or the mass. The sermon figured little or not at all in their service. In the Presbyterian service, on the contrary, the sermon was the center and the Supper was only rarely observed. In Lutheran and Methodist and at least some Anglican services, there long was and is today both sermon and Supper.
So, nowadays, many Presbyterians, including us here at Faith, have abandoned our longstanding tradition and have joined the Lutherans and the Methodists and the Episcopalians in having Sunday services that invariably incorporate the Lord’s Supper and a significant sermon. It is a huge change in Presbyterian practice, you will appreciate how enormous a change when you consider that a generation ago and then all the way back to the beginning of the Presbyterian church, you would not find a church that does what we do each Sunday. But only some of us have made that change. It is a change, however, that once made cannot help but alter the way people think about the Lord’s Supper.
Whether hard thinking about the Supper has led to these changes in practice or whether our thinking has even yet caught up with these changes in practice is a fair question. It cannot be said that the every-Sunday Lord’s Supper of many PCA churches came about as a result of a careful rethinking of the doctrine of the Supper in the teaching of Holy Scripture and in the history of the church. In fact, it is unclear to me what led us to a more frequent observance of the Supper in the PCA. It seems to me that different churches changed their practice for different reasons which is sometimes the way the Lord works. He puts an idea in the heads of a great many people, practices change and only later do they come to understand why they should be doing what they are doing. That question will be the subject of someone’s doctoral dissertation years from now. Why in the mid and later 21st century so many Presbyterian churches begin first to abandon quarterly communion for monthly communion and then to abandon monthly communion for every Sunday communion? But practice often shapes doctrine and so perhaps it will be in this case as well. We may pray that our changes in practice may eventually lead to such a reexamination and a deeper appreciation of the Supper: what it is, how it works, and what we are to hope and expect from the observing of the Supper. Such a reexamination might well lead us again to a more uniform practice of every Sunday communion.
For the fact of the matter was and is that an infrequent Lord’s Supper was not the practice of early Christianity and has never been the practice of most of Christendom. Our long-standing Presbyterian practice was an outlier. And if we are correct that we were wrong to observe the Lord’s Supper so infrequently, it would be right for us to ask why we did so for so long. What did we think about the Supper that inclined us to practice it as little as we did? It is certainly right for us to observe the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. That’s clear both from the NT and from the history of the early church. John Calvin certainly thought that the Lord’s Supper should be a part of every Christian’s worship on the Lord’s Day. And observing it every Lord’s Day as we do, we cannot help but think about the Supper in new ways. No doubt you have found yourself doing so here Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day whether or not you have articulated your new understanding to yourself. And not just because we take it every Sunday, but because we now come forward to receive the elements, we drink wine and not only grape juice, and so on.
For example, one of the things we should notice, if we have not, is that great emphasis falls in the Bible on the Lord’s Supper as a ritual that Christians perform together. We find that emphasis in Paul’s teaching about the Supper in 1 Corinthians, but we find it already here at the beginning. The Lord didn’t establish this ritual to be observed by Christians privately. All the pronouns (“you,” “yourselves,” “them”) in this account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, are plural. So far as we know, all the Lord’s Suppers of the apostolic church were observed by groups of Christians. They were, as it were, family meals. Much of historic Presbyterian practice tended to obscure the corporate and communal aspect of the Supper and privatize and individualize it. One of the reasons we no longer commune in silence, as we once did, is to highlight this communal element, as, of course, it is wonderfully highlighted when the congregation stands and comes forward to receive the elements. Nothing so privatized the Presbyterian Lord’s Supper as sitting silently in the pew for long minutes while the elements were distributed, each worshipper alone, his eyes closed, shutting out everyone who is around him or her, each worshipper along with his or her own thoughts. Nothing is more obvious now than that we are doing this together, that it is as surely something we do, as it is something that I do.
Indeed, the Supper, at the deep level at which rituals influence and shape our thinking, our convictions, and our aspirations is an instrument to draw us together in the church of God. Here we are all one, a family at table, and here the conviction is formed and deepened, Lord’s Supper by Lord’s Supper, that if we do not live as one we are not being faithful to what we do at the table of the Lord. This, you remember, is the great lesson the Apostle Paul draws from the practice of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians. What is more, the Lord’s Supper, as Jesus indicated at its institution, is a foretaste of the greater feast at the end of history, when he comes again. We are reminded every time we come to the table that those around us are making the same journey that we are, that they are not only at present but forever brothers and sisters to cherish.
Another thing we notice, taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as we now do, is that in the Lord’s Supper people do something. That was always true, of course, but, as I can testify having grown up in the Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian way of the Lord’s Supper emphasized thought far more than action. You notice this, of course, here in the foundation of the Supper. The Lord acted himself in the first place. He not only took the break but broke it and gave it to his disciples. He poured the wine. But having given his disciples the bread and the wine he told them to eat and drink, though that is here in Luke somewhat subtly stated. “Do this in remembrance of me,” however, certainly means “take and eat the bread, take and drink the wine, in remembrance of me.” We do read here “…after they had eaten he took the cup.”
When I was growing up the eating and drinking were understated and the real action of the Supper was the private communion the worshipper had with God while sitting silently in the pew either waiting for the elements to arrive or waiting for the remainder of the congregation to be served. But Jesus didn’t tell us to think something in the remembrance of him, or pray something in the remembrance of him, or meditate on something in remembrance of him, he told us to do something in remembrance of him, but to do something in remembrance of him. So now we go to the front to eat and to drink. That is our Lord’s Supper. It is a meal, after all, and meals are to be eaten and drunk.
There is something profoundly important about a meal. It is no accident that from the beginning the Lord embodied his gospel and nourished his people’s faith in him through meals: the Passover which was a meal eaten at home by an extended family, meals first in the tabernacle and then in the temple, and finally the meal of the Lord’s Supper. A meal is, of course, in its most basic function the ingestion of food and drink, the nourishment which we need to survive. So to express our faith in terms of eating and drinking was to indicate in a particularly obvious way how essential to life is what Christ did for us on the cross, as essential as food is to the life of our bodies. But a meal, as we all know, especially a festal meal, a feast as the Passover was, has always been in human life an experience of fellowship, of unity, of conviviality, of pleasure, and of celebration. We love to eat and drink and we love to do it together. We eat at weddings and at funerals because of the power of a meal to unite us in shared experience and because good food and drink increases pleasure or helps to assuage pain. Indeed, isn’t it the case that there is almost nothing that suggests genuine loneliness to us so much as the thought of someone eating alone on Thanksgiving or on Christmas.
We were made for one another, for loving relationships, and we express and experience those relationships profoundly around a table loaded with good food. At the Lord’s Supper we are eating a meal. Not a meal in the ordinary sense, of course, a sacred meal, a symbolic meal, but a meal nonetheless. The bread is there because bread in that ancient world was the sustenance of life, the quintessential food. Indeed, sometimes in the Bible “bread” stands for food in general. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Wine is in the Lord’s Supper for a different reason. The wine is there because it is a feast, and wine is the drink of celebrations; it was then and is now. As today we celebrate a wedding with champagne (or, in really fancy weddings, iced tea!), so in those days they drank wine on special occasions. It was not the ordinary drink of ordinary people; it was too expensive to drink all the time. The Lord’s Supper as a meal is the practice of the joy of our salvation and the wine is there to remind us of that!
I could go on and on. But some questions still remain in our minds about how the Supper works, what good we actually get from it, and so on. We are looking, as we always are, for bang for buck. We want to know what we’re getting in return for what we do in church. That isn’t only with regard to the Lord’s Supper, of course. We want an obvious return for the sermon. If we don’t find the sermon life-changing, we at least want it to be inspiring, or, if not inspiring, instructive in some important way, and, if not instructive, at least entertaining. Actually, were we to stop and think about it, we want the same from the music we sing and hear in church — we want it to be uplifting for its beauty or emotion — from the prayers we pray, we want them to become for us that “earnest and familiar talking with God” that John Knox said prayer was to be. Indeed, we want every part of the service to be a power, an influence in our lives, a power for good.
It isn’t always obviously so, of course. We are not always moved, we are not perhaps even usually changed in some obvious way for the better by what transpires in church. But we believe that we are the better for it, even if we cannot always tell precisely how. So much of what we do in church, so much of what our children grow up doing, is more like the surf pounding away at the rough edges of our stony hearts until they are worn smooth. Deep in our hearts a fundamental understanding of God and of ourselves and of the world is introduced, deepened, and preserved by Christian worship, by the rituals we observe together and which are the more influential because we observe them together in a crowd of like-minded people. More than any of us realizes, we believe as we do, we respond to events as we do, we aspire to what we aspire to, we approve of what we approve and disapprove of what we disapprove because of the deep structure of understanding and conviction that Lord’s Day worship has formed in us, not exclusively Lord’s Day worship, of course, there is the nurture we received at home, our own study of the Word of God, and our experience of walking with the Lord, but more than any of you think by the influences of the Lord’s Day and the worship of God’s house Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day.
And part of that, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, are the subtle but powerful influences of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord does not really explain this here and it would take an examination of a great deal of biblical material to develop this, from the sacrificial ritual of the ancient epoch through the practice of the Supper in apostolic Christianity, but everything is commended to us here, everything is practiced here, we practice our Christian faith and are renewed in that faith by observing this meal week after week. More and more we become those who eat from this table.
Here Jesus tells us to do this in remembrance of him. The Lord’s Supper is an occasion for taking to heart once more what Jesus did to save us from our sins, what he suffered, and how he conquered. To observe the Lord’s Supper rightly is to lift our hearts to Jesus Christ once again and, in the lovely Anglican phrase, “to feed on him in [our] hearts by faith.” And, of course, whenever we renew our faith in Jesus the virtue of his life, death, and resurrection is communicated to us afresh. As Calvin dramatically put it, “his life passes over into ours (vita sua in nos transeat).” [Cited in Letham, Union with Christ, 112] This is what Paul meant when he said that in the eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper we participate in the body and blood of Jesus, his sacrificial death for us, and the salvation that comes from it, past, present, and future.
But we remember Paul also telling us that this Supper is a thanksgiving, that is the meaning of the Greek word Eucharist which Paul uses to describe the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians. In our participation we honor the one who loved us and gave himself for us. He also taught that in the Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death. It is a public witness to our faith and a sharing of it with others. The Lord’s Supper is all of that and more but what is obvious here in Luke 22 is that the Lord Jesus was establishing a ritual for his church to use. That meal he served to his disciples is the meal we enjoy every Sunday. That supper is clearly our supper. It is for us as it was for them! “Do this,” he said.
After his resurrection and before his ascension, the Lord Jesus appeared a number of times to his disciples at meals. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized him only when he prayed and broke bread before them. Then he met the disciples later that first Easter evening in the Upper Room and he ate fish with them. Other meals are mentioned including a resurrection picnic on the beach of the Sea of Galilee reported in the Gospel of John. Without a doubt the disciples connected their experience of eating with the risen Christ with their continued participation in the Lord’s Supper. He was present with them, but now by the Holy Spirit. He continued to be the host that he had been at the first Lord’s Supper, but now his presence was known by faith, not by sight. He had told them that he would be with them always, the meal was named “the Lord’s Supper” by the apostles themselves, he had hosted the first such supper, and, in general, what he had done for and with his disciples while among them in the flesh, he promised to continue to do among them by the Spirit.
So imagine yourselves there that long ago night; even better, imagine yourselves there fully understanding and appreciating what was to come the next day and the following Sunday morning and why it was to come. Imagine him breaking the bread and pouring the wine and then handing it to us in turns. Perhaps some questions would still remain in your mind as to the modus operandi of this ritual. But you would not doubt, you could not doubt, that as you took the bread from his hand and ate it, as you took the cup from his hand and drank it, because he gave it to you, because he said it was his body and his blood, because he mentioned that he would not share this meal until he could share it with us in the kingdom of God, and because this food renewed his fellowship with us as his people, I say, you would not, you could not doubt that you would always be better off, you would always get a great gift, and you would always become your truest self when eating this sacred food taken from that hand.
Remember Thee, and all Thy pains,
And all Thy love to me?
Yes, while a breath, a pulse remains,
I will remember Thee.