My sermon from this morning, in which I attempt to explain the meaning of Lord’s Supper and its connection with being ordained as a priest in the Church of England. You can watch it here.
On Friday evening, in Sunderland Minster, I was ordained as a priest. And one immediate difference that makes is that now I’m allowed to take a communion service. So Matt and I thought we’d have a break from our series in Luke’s Gospel, and have a one-off sermon about Holy Communion, otherwise known as the Lord’s Supper.
What is the Lord’s Supper? What does it mean? Why do we do it? And what does that have to do with being ordained as a priest? These questions might well be on our mind now, in this coronavirus pandemic. We had a few months in which we were not able to share the Lord’s Supper together. And even now it is still far from normal.
We’re going to look for some answers to those questions, mainly from the first reading, from 1 Corinthians chapter 11. And I want to focus on two phrases from that: ‘the Lord’s Supper’, and ‘the Lord’s death’. First, then,
The Lord’s Supper
And that’s mentioned in verse 20:
So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat (all quotations are from the NIV)
Now, we’ll come back to the problems in Corinth later on. But just note what it’s called: ‘the Lord’s supper’.
There are not many ritual actions that Jesus commanded his followers to perform. In fact, there are only two. The first is baptism, which is the way in which we are visibly united to Christ and received into the church. That’s the first ritual action. And the second is the Lord’s Supper. Or we could just say, the Lord’s Dinner. It’s a meal! If baptism is about coming into the church family, then the Lord’s Supper is the special family meal of the church. And it’s a meal in which Jesus is present, by the Holy Spirit.
Now, we’re probably not having many big family meals at the moment. But they’re really significant occasions. Think of a special birthday, or an anniversary, a big celebration. Or think of a wedding reception, that coming together of two different families. It’s a celebration that marks and strengthens the bonds of love within a family.
And that’s what the Lord’s Supper is: it’s a celebration that marks and strengthens the bonds of love within the church family: the bonds of love between us, and the bonds of love between us and Jesus.
Now, what does this mean in practice?
Three quick thoughts.
First, we need to remember that the Lord’s Supper is a meal. On the night before he died, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and said, ‘Take, eat’. Then he took a cup of wine and said, ‘Drink this’. Jesus simply commanded us to give thanks to God, then to eat some ordinary bread, and drink some ordinary wine, and that’s it! But we’ve added so many extra traditions to that. Some of these traditions are helpful, because they focus our attention on the meal itself. But some of our traditions can be in danger of getting in the way. We need to remember that the Lord’s Supper is a meal.
Second, we need to remember that it’s a meal that we share together. Have a look at verse 20: ‘when you come together’. It can feel like an individual thing. We queue up in a line, and we each have our personal, individual spiritual encounter with Jesus. But the Lord’s Supper is a meal that we share together. We’ll come back to that later.
And, third, we need to remember that it’s a meal, and that means it’s a celebration. Jesus could have given us a ritual that involves fasting. He could have said the church should come together, put on sackcloth, put ashes on our head, and have a time of mourning. But he didn’t. He said we should eat bread and drink wine.
In Psalm 104, we read that ‘[The Lord] makes … wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts’ (14-15). Jesus gave us a ritual to perform that should sustain us, and make us glad. That’s what bread and wine are for!
Now, there is a place in the Christian life for fasting. There is a place for lament, not least in a time like this. We should never pretend that everything is wonderful. But even in our darkest times, we still have something to celebrate. And that’s why we share the Lord’s Supper.
But what are we celebrating in the Lord’s Supper? That brings us to the second phrase from the reading:
The Lord’s Death
Have a look at verse 26:
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
When Jesus gave his disciples the bread, he didn’t just say, ‘Take, eat’. He said, in verse 24, ‘This is my body, which is for you’. And when he gave them the wine, he didn’t just say, ‘Drink this’. He said, in verse 25, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’.
Now, just think about it: where is your blood? Hopefully your blood is inside your body! So, what does it mean if your have your body in one place, and your blood in another place? It means you have died! So the very symbol of having body and blood separate means we are thinking about Jesus’ death.
Now, remember what bread and wine mean: ‘[The Lord] makes … wine that gladdens human hearts, … and bread that sustains their hearts.’ It means that Jesus’ death sustains us, and makes us glad.
Now, just think about that for a moment. It’s really weird, isn’t it? Which other person in history do you commemorate and say, because that person died, that sustains me, and makes me glad? How can we celebrate Jesus’ death?! But that’s the heart of Christianity! Jesus died, and his death gives us life.
It talks here about ‘the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood’. And elsewhere it talks about Jesus’ blood being the ‘blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ [Mt 26:28]. A covenant is a relationship. The basic idea is that the relationship between God and humanity has been broken, because we’ve sinned, we’ve turned away from God. And if God is the source of life, that means we’re heading towards death, eternal death. But the good news is that God sent his Son into the world to die in our place, so that our relationship with God can be restored: so that we can receive forgiveness of our sins, and so that there can be a new covenant, a new relationship between God and humanity.
And by eating and drinking, we express our dependence on Jesus: that we rely on him to give us new life, with God as our Father. And as we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper, God sustains us and makes us glad, through the death of Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord. Just as bread and wine give nourishment to the body, so we are nourished spiritually when we eat the bread and drink the wine. That’s what happens in the Lord’s Supper.
And as we share this meal, we’re reminded, each one of us, that Jesus died for me. And as we share this meal together, I’m reminded that Jesus died for you, and you’re reminded that Jesus died for me, and for each one of us.
And that’s what they had forgotten in Corinth. Have a look at verses 20-22:
So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
As they ate and drank, they were just thinking about themselves. But in the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death. We proclaim that Jesus gave his life for the sake of others. And if that’s how God has loved us, that’s how we should love one another. We heard that many times over the summer, as we were looking at 1 John, the first letter of John.
Verses 33 and 34:
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
That’s the Lord’s Supper. But what does this have to do with being a priest?
There’s nothing in the Bible about this, by the way. Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us who should lead a communion service. So we’re going to have a bit of a history lesson.
But let’s be clear about something first of all. Once somebody is ordained, there are three words that can describe who they are. And those words are: deacon, priest, and bishop. So I’ve been a deacon for just over a year, and now I’m a priest. That’s who I am. But there are lots of words that describe the job an ordained person might do. So my job is that I’m the curate. I’ve been the curate for just over a year, I’m still the curate now, and I’ll keep being the curate for another couple of years or so. That’s my job. Matt is also a priest, but he has a different job: his job is that he’s the vicar.
Are you with me so far?
So, what is a priest?
Here we need a bit of history. Because our English word ‘priest’ has two different meanings.
The word itself, the word ‘priest’, comes from the Latin word ‘presbyter’, and a similar Greek word, which means ‘elder’. So a priest is simply an elder. And that’s what we mean in the Church of England when we describe someone as a ‘priest’.
In the time of Jesus, the Jews were scattered all over the place, and they would gather together in synagogues, to read the Scriptures and to pray. And the people who had oversight of the synagogues were known as ‘elders’. So when Christians started meeting together, they took the same model. They had local congregations, local churches, and the people who had oversight of the churches were known as ‘elders’. And how would they exercise this oversight? By the Bible, which is God’s word to us. So that’s why priests need to be people who study the Bible, and who teach the Bible.
So when the church had their special family meal, the Lord’s Supper, who would be in charge of that? The obvious answer is, it would be the elders. So that’s why today the elders, the presbyters, the priests, are the ones who lead when we share the Lord’s Supper together. And that’s it: it’s just a matter of good order, that the people who look after the church family also look after the church’s special family meal. So it’s not really necessary to have a priest in order to have the Lord’s Supper. But it just seems to be a good idea, and has done since the earliest days of the church.
Now, I said the word ‘priest’ has two different meanings. And the second meaning is this: a ‘priest’ is someone who serves in a temple as a mediator between the people and whichever god is being worshipped in that temple. And that’s what the word ‘priest’ means when we find it in the Bible. (It’s very confusing!) In particular, a priest will offer sacrifices to that god, normally animal sacrifices.
So how did the word ‘priest’ end up with those two meanings? How did it end up meaning ‘an elder’, and ‘somebody who offers sacrifices’? Well, quite early on in the history of the church, people started to think the Lord’s Supper was a bit like a sacrifice. And you can understand why. The Lord’s Supper is about the Lord’s death, and Jesus died as a sacrifice. He is the ‘Lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. So people started to think that the priest, the presbyter, the elder, was like somebody in a temple offering a sacrifice. And that’s how the English word ‘priest’ ended up with those two different meanings.
After time, people started to think that the bread in the Lord’s Supper actually became the body of Jesus, and the wine actually became the blood of Jesus.
Now, when Jesus says, ‘This is my body’, to me it seems quite obvious that he means, ‘This represents my body’. That’s quite a normal thing to say. Let me give an example. If I’m giving you directions, and I hold a book and say, ‘This is Asda, and here’s the car park and here’s the roundabout’, I’m not saying the book is Asda! The book doesn’t change into Asda when I say those words. No, what I mean is, ‘This book represents Asda,’ and if you want to get home you need to go that way. And it’s the same when Jesus says, ‘This is my body’. He means, ‘This represents my body’.
But people started to think that when a priest says over the bread, ‘This is my body’, it actually turns into the body of Jesus. And all sorts of superstitions developed around that.
Fast forward to the sixteenth century, and we have the Reformation. And the churches of the Reformation, such as the Church of England, said ‘no’ to those ideas. The priest is not somebody in a temple offering a sacrifice. The priest is simply a church minister, somebody who leads the congregation in their worship, and leads the congregation when they share the Lord’s Supper. And that was the main point of disagreement between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, in the nineteenth century some people in the Church of England said, we want to be more like the Roman Catholic Church. And they brought back in those ideas, about the bread becoming the body of Jesus, and the wine becoming the blood of Jesus.
And you’ll find different points of view within the Church of England today, even within Spennymoor! And even though we might disagree about these things, I want to emphasise that we can still be friends, and we can still share the Lord’s Supper together. Because, in a sense, it doesn’t matter what you think is happening in the Lord’s Supper, as long as you actually do it. Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. And that’s the important thing.
End of history lesson!
The Lord’s Supper, then, is the special family meal of the church. And it’s all about the Lord’s death. So, when you go up to receive, remember that. Remember that Jesus died for you. And as you see other people receiving, remember that Jesus died for them too.
Because of Jesus’ death, we have life. And that’s what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.