The day before he was crucified, Jesus had his last supper with his disciples. He broke bread and handed out wine, telling them to do this from now on as a memorial to him. Ever since, the church has celebrated the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, often also called Eucharist (“Thanksgiving”).
Eating and drinking is an intimate activity. What you eat becomes part of you. In a literal way, “you are what you eat”. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus does not just feed us with bread and wine; he feeds us with himself. In fact, just so we don’t think this is just an abstract, spiritual idea, Jesus said that he feeds us with… his own flesh and blood. That may sound strange, and when Jesus preached this to the crowds in John 6, they were offended by the very idea; but the Lord doubled down on it when he said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. … This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (6:53)
Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. We don’t do that literally, do we? One answer is: Of course not, and we can’t because Jesus’ body is not even on earth any more. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss this statement as purely a figure of speech. In the Lord’s Supper we do eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood in a real way, in the way of a sacrament. The Bible uses the profound language of communion or participation. Paul says in 1 Cor. 10: the bread is the communion/participation with the body of Christ, and the cup is the communion/participation with his blood.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we eat and drink Jesus. We have communion with his flesh and blood. We are united with his body, and his body becomes part of us. What does that mean for us and our lives?
Eating and drinking Jesus
1. His righteousness becomes ours
2. His Spirit becomes ours
3. His life becomes ours
His righteousness becomes ours
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he broke bread and said: “This is my body which is broken for you.” The broken bread and poured-out wine are references to Jesus’ broken body and his shed blood. The Lord’s Supper therefore points us to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That is why the catechism asks, in q&a 75: How does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal to you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts? The answer is that the sacrament is a personal sign and guarantee, that his body was offered for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. When I eat the broken bread and drink the poured-out wine, I participate in the sacrifice of Jesus.
What does that mean practically? When Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, he was the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world, as John the Baptist had already prophesied. If through the sacrament I participate in that sacrifice, then I can be sure that my sin is carried away. In the words of q&a 76, to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his shed blood means first of all to accept with a believing heart all the suffering and the death of Christ, and so receive forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
In his life and death, Jesus embodied the perfect righteousness of God. If through the sacrament I share in his life and death, then his righteousness is also mine. Even though I have committed sins, they no longer count, and I am right with God. The Lord’s Supper reminds me of this wonderful truth. Every time I participate in it, by eating the bread and drinking the wine, I may make it my own in faith: yes, this is true for me. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving that to me.
His Spirit becomes ours
According to q&a 76, the Lord’s Supper also means to be united more and more to his sacred body. How do we become united with the body of Jesus? Well, Jesus’ body is not only sacramentally present in the broken bread, but his sacred body is also represented on earth in the Christian church. The church is the physical presence of Jesus on earth, his hands and feet, called to do his work. We are his body. The catechism points us to what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 12, shortly after he discussed the Lord’s Supper: We were all baptised by one Spirit to form one body, and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13); “Now you are the body of Christ” (v. 27).
Here we also learn that it is the Holy Spirit who connects us to Jesus’ body by making us living members of his church. How does he do that? By giving us faith, because faith makes us one with Jesus Christ, and therefore also forges a profound bond of unity with each other.
The catechism says beautifully that we are united to Christ’s body through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us. Do you see how profound this is? When Jesus ministered on earth, he was accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who sustained him and gave him power to do great miracles. We read about this in John 3:34: “The one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.” The very same Spirit who was given to Jesus Christ was poured out on the Christian church on Pentecost Day, and fills every Christian believer.
The Lord’s Supper underscores this. As we have communion with the body of Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit of Christ. Body and spirit belong together; the Lord’s Supper proclaims the unity we have with Jesus in body and in Spirit.
That Spirit is also what binds the church together. Because of the Holy Spirit, the church can truly be the body of Jesus on earth. As I participate in the Lord’s Supper, regularly feeding on the body and blood of Christ, the Holy Spirit takes more and more hold of my life, uniting me not only with the Lord himself but also with all other members of his church.
This shows that the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal. Even when our elders bring the bread and wine to our shut-ins, they partake at the same time we do, participating as much as is possible through the live stream with the celebration of the church. The Supper was instituted by Christ for his worldwide church, to be celebrated whenever believers gather together for worship. As we become one with him through his Spirit, we become one with each other because of that same Spirit.
His life becomes ours
If the righteousness of Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus become ours, we also share more and more in his heavenly life. Jesus emphasized this in John 6, where he talked about “living forever” and “eternal life”. Just as bread and drink sustain the earthly life of our bodies, eating and drinking Jesus sustains our heavenly life. In the words of q&a 75 of the catechism, he himself nourishes and refreshes my soul to eternal life with his crucified body and shed blood.
When Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross, he died—but when the Father accepted his sacrifice, he also raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ body is now a glorified body, as our Lord sits on the throne in heaven at the right hand of the Father. In the Lord’s Supper we also have communion/fellowship with the glorified body of Jesus. The eternal life he has, is also ours.
The Lord’s Supper shows this too. The heavenly life of Jesus is applied to earthly people like you and me. The sacrament shows that it is on earth as it is in heaven.
Although Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, says q&a 76, yet we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. This is a deliberate quote from Genesis 2, which speaks of the close union between Adam and Eve; this is marriage language, to show how closely united we are with our Lord. (Next time we will delve into the idea that the Lord’s Supper is indeed a wedding banquet.) Jesus and his faithful believers live one and the same life. They forever live and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.
This has much practical importance. If we are so closely united with Jesus that his Spirit is our Spirit and his life is our life, then our thoughts, words, and deeds will align with his thoughts, words, and deeds. The more we eat and drink Jesus, the more we become like him, reflecting the image of God in holy attitudes, acts of love, and good works. In fact, if you participate in the Lord’s Supper but there is no fruit of the Spirit in your life, you must ask yourself if you have truly eaten Christ’s broken body and drunk his shed blood. Have you really received him with a believing heart? Have you taken hold of the sacrifice of his body, as the only foundation of your life? If you don’t allow Jesus to become part of you, so that you become more like him, your participation in the sacrament is no more than an empty ritual.
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper speak about our unity with Jesus Christ. In baptism, the emphasis of the new identity we have, as we have been buried with Christ into his death and raised up into a new life. In the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis is on the ongoing nourishment and growth, as Jesus’ Spirit and life become more and more part of us.
Jesus shocked his listeners by saying it so vividly: You must eat my flesh and drink my blood. But we realise that it cannot be any less than this, because our only hope is that we become more and more like Jesus, that we become one with him. Then his righteousness, his Spirit, and his life are ours. Then we have eternal life within us, based on his faithfulness and love.
- What must we do, according to Jesus in John 6, to have eternal life?
- What is the basic meaning of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?
- What is the special meaning of eating broken bread and drinking poured out blood?
- What does it mean that Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours?
- What does it mean that his Spirit becomes ours?
- What will our life when we are nourished and refreshed by the body and blood of Jesus?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Exodus 16. In light of this, what did Jesus mean when he said: “I am the bread that came down from heaven?”|
|Tuesday||Deuteronomy 8. What was the lesson the Israelites had to learn in the wilderness, and were never to forget?|
|Wednesday||John 6:1-15. Jesus satisfied the hunger of the crowds. Is there a deeper meaning in this sign?|
|Thursday||John 6:25-52. Did the Jews really not understand what Jesus said?|
|Friday||John 6:53-70. What is so offensive about Jesus’ message here?|
|Saturday||1 Corinthians 10:14-22. What does Paul say about consecrated food in general? How does that apply to the consecrated food of the Lord’s Supper?|