What is the Eucharist? The Tradition of Communion from the Lord's Supper

What is the Eucharist? The Tradition of Communion from the Lord's Supper

The Eucharist, Last Supper & Communion

Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper is a sanctioned ceremony of Jesus’ Last Supper with his apostles when he presented them bread saying, “This is my body,” and wine saying, “This is my blood.” The account of the establishment of the Eucharist by Jesus on the evening preceding his Crucifixion is described in four books of the New Testament (Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:17–20; and I Corinthians 11:23–25). The letters of the Apostle Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament explain that early Christians believed that this tradition carried a command to maintain the ceremony as a celebration in this life of the blessings of the feast that was to occur in Heaven, the Kingdom of God.

Significance of the Eucharist

The richness and importance of the Lord's Supper in Christianity are conveyed by the various names given to it. It has been called both a sacrament and an ordinance of Christ. In terms of its origin in history, it is called "the Last Supper"; as an act of thanksgiving by the church, it is called the Eucharist (from Gk. eucharistein/eulogein) and the Eucharistic Assembly (synaxis); from its Jewish-Christian origins, it is the Breaking of Bread and the Memorial of the Lord's passion and resurrection; in patristic development, it is the Holy Sacrifice because it mysteriously makes present the one, unique sacrifice of Christ and includes the church's offering; also it is the Holy and Divine Liturgy because the whole worship of the church finds its center in the celebration of this Sacred Mystery. Within the liturgy it is called the bread of angels and bread from heaven and the medicine of immortality. It is also Holy Communion since it is union with Christ. Finally, since the liturgy ends with the sending forth (Latin missio) of the faithful to fulfill God's will in their lives, it is called "the Mass."

The Eucharist in Scripture

The New Testament both describes its institution by the Lord Jesus and refers to its actual implementation and celebration by the church. Further, the New Testament sets the context for the institution of the Last Supper by an emphasis on table fellowship. Jesus was both the guest at (Luke 5:29-32, 7:36-50) and the host at meals during his ministry (Mark 2:15). Further, the feeding miracles of Jesus (Mark 6:31-44, 8:1-11 ) point not only to shared fellowship but also to the future "messianic banquet" (see Isa 25:6-12). Jesus spoke of meals and joyous banquets in his parables (e.g., Matt 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). Further, according to Luke, the disciples "ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:41; cf. Luke 14:30).

Theology of the Lord's Supper (Eucharist)

The key theological elements of the Lord's Supper as it was celebrated in the early church are: (1) the proclamation of the death of Jesus through "memorial" and "remembrance" and a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; (2) the inauguration of the new covenant in the sacrificial blood of Jesus; (3) the participation and fellowship in Christ unto the Father, and with one another in Christ; (4) the experiencing the firstfruit of the joy of the eschatological kingdom of God; (5) the presence of the Spirit of the Father to vivify; and (6) the presence of faith, which is faithful and obedient, in the hearts of believers.

Purpose of the Lord’s Supper: A Proclamation of the Gospel

Transcribed from the video above, Mike Bullmore discusses the purpose of the Lord's Supper:

The purposes of the Lord's Supper, without question the primary reference of the Lord's Supper, is to the death of our Lord. You have, we hold in our hands, these precious symbols. Broken bread, symbolizing the body given; Christ's body, His real body given for us. And the cup, representing His shed blood. 

So clearly the reference, the primary reference, is to the death of Christ and Paul in the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the Lord's Supper, 1 Corinthians 11, gives very practical counsel about how to do this, what this should like in the church, but also speaks about the purposes of the Lord's Supper. So the primary purpose is this proclamation. Do this in remembrance of me and as often as you do it, you proclaim the Lord's death. So the primary purpose of the Lord's Supper is really a proclamation again, of the gospel, not so much to unbelievers as it is, what a wonderful opportunity when we gather together as believers, to preach the gospel to ourselves. 

Not only this proclamation of Christ's death but there's also this anticipatory purpose of the Lord's Supper. Remember He said, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes, picking up what Jesus said at the Last Supper. I'm not going to eat this again until I eat it again in the Kingdom of Heaven. And so we're looking back to Christ's death but also looking forward in anticipation to what Christ's death purchased for us; this promise of life in God's presence. 

And then a piece that I think we cannot forget, so yes proclamation, anticipation, but in the present, this is not so much in 1 Corinthians 11 as it is in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about communion; participation with the Lord. And so there is this present communion, not in some unusually mysterious way. It is a communion of fellowship with Christ, with God in Christ, an experience of what Christ purchased for us; this close family table fellowship with God and Himself. 

That's the primary reference I think of the Lord's Supper. Paul does add one other piece which I think is important in 1 Corinthians 10. This reference to our unity. Is there not one bread that you take? Speaking of the unity of the body and so not only does it function to point us again to Christ's death, but it points us to the unity of what Christ's death purchased; the body of Christ. We eat together. So these are the purposes of the Lord's Supper.

 

Adapted from "the lord's supper" in the baker's evangelical dictionary of biblical theology.


Originally published May 24, 2010.