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Posted on Thu 9 April 2020

Why the Last Supper?

Bishop Michael has recorded a message for Maundy Thursday. A transcript is below and it can be viewed by clicking this link: 

The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist: this central and characteristic meal in Christian worship is known by so many names and yet they all, in one way or another, point back to the well acknowledged reality that Jesus had a last meal with his closest followers. This was a meal, moreover, that was full of rich symbolism for the tragic events that were to follow. These events are of crucial importance to the Christian story and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper serves to remind us of them and to make them present for us so that we can partake of all the benefits which they have procured for us.

So what was Jesus doing? There has been much debate amongst scholars as to whether this was a Passover meal in the usual sense or a Khaburah meal amongst friends on the eve of a great festival or, perhaps, a Passover-like meal during which Jesus deliberately used Passover symbolism to draw attention to his own person and work.

His sayings and actions with regard to the Temple are also relevant here: he had clearly prophesied its destruction (Mk 13:1,2, Matt 24:1,2, Lk 21:5,6) and had identified himself as the true Temple which his enemies would also try and destroy but which he would rebuild (John2:19-22). There is a hint of this in Mark also where the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial give a distorted account of what Jesus had said).

But what does it mean to be the Temple of Yahweh? It is surely the place where his name and glory dwell(1 Kgs8:10-21). It is, moreover, where sacrifices are offered to him both for the people as a whole and on behalf of individuals. The Temple was also where the Passover lambs were slain.At the Supper, Jesus is drawing all of these functions of the Temple to himself.At his trial, in response to the High Priest’s question, he utters the great I Am and goes on to speak of himself as the divine Son of Man who is to be seated at the right hand of Majesty(Mk14:62). At the Supper, however, it is more appropriate to speak of himself as summing up and fulfilling the whole of the Temple’s sacrificial system: he is, indeed, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world(John1:29). Not only is he the true lamb of this new Passover, his body is also the bread which is eaten at this time and which signifies a new and universal redemption to be won by his unique self offering.His blood, similarly, ushers in a new covenant wider than that brought about by Moses(Ex24:8). As the Letter to the Hebrews points out, there is now no need for the Temple and its sacrifices because they have been fulfilled and transcended in this one act of self sacrifice provided by God of his only son because sinful and rebellious humanity could not provide such a sacrifice itself (Heb chs7-11).

So what are we doing when we come to the Supper of the Lord? We are, indeed, remembering God’s great saving acts in the passion and death of Jesus, sealed and vindicated by his rising again from the dead.But like the Passover of old, in this Passover also we are not just remembering a past event. We are making it present to ourselves and are participating in this liberation just as the Israelites did at the time of their hurried departure from Egypt.

Participation, proclamation and fellowship are key terms that St Paul uses in the earliest accounts we have of the institution and practice of the Eucharist: “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1Cor10:16). And because we participate in Christ, we also have fellowship one with another because we are members of his body, the Church.

People sometimes think that this sacrament is meant only for Christians and it is true that we have to receive it by faith and with serious intent and preparation.It is, however, also a missionary ordinance not just in the sense that we are prepared for Mission when we take part in it but by its very nature it proclaims the Lord’s death, as the way of salvation for all (1 Cor 11:26).

At times of persecution, it was, perhaps, understandable that the early Christians restricted access to it lest it be profaned or misunderstood but we should have confidence to let the outsider see what Christian worship is all about and so be edified and convinced by it (1Cor14:13-23).

Today, we celebrate the institution of a meal which, with the Word Of God, is at the very root of our lives together. Because of the Covid emergency we may not be able to gather physically to partake of this great feast but we may be able to do so remotely and make our spiritual communion with the one whose suffering gives us life and to experience something of the fellowship with our brothers and sisters which this life makes possible.

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