Many scholars note the importance of Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life. An entire, long chapter of the Gospel of John, interrupted by a few versus about water, is devoted to the theme of bread. The lectionary readings could have included a portion of the teaching and skipped the rest. Rather, it breaks the teaching up into 4 readings and allows us 4 Sundays to grapple with what Jesus means when He says, “I am the Bread of Life.”
It seems that the writer of the Gospel of John may have recorded so much of the Bread teaching because the community to which it was written was struggling to understand what it means to take the Eucharist. This is what the Bible says about taking the Eucharist.
1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26 reads: 23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
An account of the words Jesus spoke at the last supper are also given in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are some variances. The words that are the same in all Gospel accounts is that Jesus “Blessed, broke, and gave” the bread. In all accounts, Jesus gives his Disciples the command to take it.
Among the Christian faith traditions there are many beliefs about how often we should take the bread and what it means to eat the bread. I thought we’d have a little theology lesson today about what different traditions do and believe about the Lord’s Supper. I will not name which denominations do or believe what but offer this information as something for you to reflect on. Let’s answer a couple of common questions about the Lord’s Supper.
First is what we call the place where we have the bread and juice. It is typically called the Table of our Lord. It is a Table to which Jesus invites us to dine at like His Disciples were invited to His Last Supper.
Second is what we call the bread and the juice or wine. Some denominations say their minister celebrates a sacrament while others say their minister administers an ordinance. These distinctions can also apply to baptism, ordination, marriage, and other acts of the Church. A sacrament is an action that confers grace. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. That means that something mysterious happens so that the person actually receives grace in the moment of eating the bread and taking the cup. An ordinance is an action that is believed to be something the Lord commanded to be done. Such as the Lord commanded that we eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Him or the Lord said to repent and be baptized. An ordinance is not believed to grant any special grace but is a reminder of the grace we have already received.
Third is the how often. Some believe that taking Communion is such a special act that it should only be done once a year. Some believe that it should be a part of the regular worship service and is taken once a month. Others, like us, think it is so important that we should do it every week. I have taken it twice in one day on the occasion that there is a special service on a Sunday afternoon like an ordination, or a funeral or wedding service that includes the Lord’s Supper.
Fourth is who serves at the Table. In many Christian traditions, only an ordained ministers may serve the meal. That is because what they believe happens at the Table. They think only an ordained minister may celebrate the sacrament. It is however very different in the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples believe both Elders and ministers may administer the Lord’s Supper. In the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Elders were chosen to administer the Lord’s Supper; there wasn’t always a preacher to come preach to the Disciples congregations; but, every congregation had Elders so they could have communion every week. There are some congregations in Kentucky that won’t allow their minister to preside at the Table thinking it is the responsibility of the Elders.
Fifth is what we call the meal. We’ve all heard it called the Eucharist, communion, and the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist is a sacrament. That is to say that those who believe the bread and wine are a sacrament call the meal the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance; so, we call it the Lord’s Supper. What the meal is called is directly related to what the church calls the bread and wine.
Now, here’s the real substance of the debate. Do we call it a mass or is it a memorial service? What’s the difference?
Some churches call their service a mass. A service may include a sermon and other things, but the mass is specifically the Eucharist meal. The mass has multiple elements. The element of the mass which is most specific to our theology lesson is the Sacrifice of the Mass. In a mass, it is believed that the sacrifice of Christ is executed again; in other words, Christ is sacrificed over again each time the mass is celebrated.
As the sacrifice is mysteriously done, the bread and wine change. The bread actually becomes Christ’s body as He is sacrificed and the wine actually becomes Christ’s blood as the Eucharist sacrifice is made. The bread and wine look like bread and wine and still taste like bread and wine but mysteriously they are Christ’s body and blood. How all this happens is a mystery and a matter of faith that it happens. In this belief, the body of Christ is actually physically present in the elements ingested. This belief is called transubstantiation. There is a nuance called consubstantiation but I won’t get into splitting hairs.
Other traditions call the meal a memorial rather than a mass. In a memorial meal, the bread and wine are simply bread and wine which are symbolic of Christ’s bread and blood. The meal is eaten in memory of Christ’s death. Those that observe a memorial meal believe that Christ’s sacrifice was done once for all and Christ’s sacrifice cannot be repeated. The bread and wine are elements that remain bread and wine. While the other camp believes Christ is present as the elements, this group believes Christ is present at the Table just as Christ is present everywhere.
Finally is the question of juice or wine. Honestly, I don’t know! I don’t think there is any deep theological reflection about wine versus juice. I think it’s really a matter of trying to serve wine because that’s what Christ served while we agree juice is fine because it is still a grape-based drink that we don’t have lock up to prevent underage consumption.
That’s a lot of information. I can easily say that it oversimplifies 2,000 years of theological reflection, debate, and practice. I hope you’ll reflect on this information this week and think about what it is you believe about the Lord’s Supper.
Historically, the Disciples of Christ believe the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance to be practiced every week which can be served by anyone as it is a memorial of Jesus’ death and a reminder of the grace of the cross and the ever-present Lord. I suspect some of you believe that. I also suspect some of you believe differently. We welcome all to the Table, no matter what they believe, as long as they believe in the Lord – that’s what is great about being a Disciple.
 Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22