Our Prayer Book calls it The Lord’s Supper because that is Paul’s way of referring to it (1 Corinthians 11:20). Our only window into the activity and meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is First Corinthians chapters 10 and 11.
By his words Paul meant ‘the evening meal that belongs to the Lord’. Clearly it was a Lord-centred dinner since Paul also speaks of ‘the cup of the Lord’ and ‘the table of the Lord’ (10:21; 11:27).
It was ‘from the Lord…on the night he was betrayed’ that Paul ‘received’ the directive that in turn he ‘handed over’ to the Corinthians as to what was to be done and said at ‘the dinner of the Lord’’ (11:23). What the Lord Jesus did and said at the Last Supper was to be done and said at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth.
The Lord’s action in ‘taking’ the bread ‘giving thanks’ for it, ‘breaking’ it and ‘saying “this is my body [broken] for you; do this to remember me” was repeated in Corinth, initially by Paul and ever since by local leaders when the whole church gathered. Then followed the ‘taking’ of the wine-cup and the ‘saying’ of the words, “[this is] the cup of the new covenant in my blood, do this…to remember me’. And the point of these actions, words and eating together was to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’ (11:26).
It is crystal clear, therefore, that this activity was Lord-instituted, Lord-centred and was to be Lord-honouring. But it was precisely in this latter detail that the Corinthians failed. The focal formulaic repetition of Jesus’ Last Supper words occurred at the assembled church’s dinner. Here, however, the ‘haves’ ate and drank (to excess) not waiting for the poor who were left hungry (11:21-22, 33-34). The sad divisions of the world along socio-economic lines were on display in the church of God, where men and women were meant to be equals in salvation as they reflected on Jesus’ death for them. Paul chided them that their assembling was ‘not for the better but the worse’ and that what they ate and drank was not ‘the dinner that belongs to the Lord’ (11:17, 19).
It is clear from First Corinthians that the meal occurred when the various smaller house gatherings around Corinth periodically ‘assembled together’ ‘in one place’ ‘as church’ (11:18, 20). This was in the house of Gaius…host of the whole church’ in the city of Corinth (Romans 16:23). Later in the letter it appears that prophesying, teaching and tongues speaking also occurred at these periodic meetings of ‘the whole church’ in Corinth (14:23). It is a reasonable inference that an evening meal was eaten at those occasions when the believers of the city assembled at one place as the church of God in Corinth.
Some today argue that the ‘dinner that belongs to the Lord’ belongs only to a meal-time setting. The consistency of references to ‘coming together’ ‘as the whole church’ ‘in one place’ in the formulaic Last Supper repetition section of the letter (11:17,18,20,32) and in the prophesying, teaching and tongues speaking section of the letter (14:12, 23) imply that all plenary meetings in Corinth were evening meal-time meetings. It appears that whenever the ‘whole church’ met they met to eat and that Jesus’ Last Supper words were repeated and that prophesying etc. also occurred.
Practical concerns today dictate that we do not meet for preaching and prayer in houses but in halls (‘churches’) and the same practicalities determine that we participate in the formulaic repetition of the Last Supper in halls (‘churches’) rather than in houses. But these are not matters of principle but of practicality. The day may come when Christians have to abandon their halls (‘churches’) for house-based meetings, as in Paul’s day.
The Anglican Church of Australia grounds its theology of the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Common Prayer and the XXXIX Articles of Religion. Here the Lord’s Supper (with baptism) is called ‘an effectual sign of grace’ (XXV).
It is a ‘sign’ of the gospel whose ‘message’ is identical with the message of the gospel. The gospel ‘word’ tells us of Christ’s death for us and the gospel ‘sign’ tells us the same message. The ‘word’ explains the ‘sign’ and the ‘sign’ makes ‘visible’ the word.
It is an ‘effectual sign’ only when I look through it to the word of promise of the gospel. Attitude is everything, that is, attitude of trust in God and determination to turn away from sins. ‘Effectual’ does not mean that eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper bring me some benefit objectively as if the bread and wine were like medicine that helps me get better regardless.
In other words, the Lord’s Supper is the gospel, that is, the gospel in multi-media form. It tells us by what we see (loaf broken, cup outpoured), what we hear (Jesus’ very own words at the Last Supper) and what we eat together that in his death the Lord Jesus loved us and gave himself in violent death for our forgiveness before God.
Accordingly, when the Articles refer (as they often do) to the Word and the Sacraments they are not speaking of the Sacraments as distinct from or over against the Word. Rather we are to understand that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the Word as a visible, audible and edible sign.
Here Jesus’ idiom is derived from the Passover Meal where the families of the people of God gathered annually to remember to as to re-live and re-enter God’s gracious deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. It was as if they were back there. So too in the Lord’s Supper it is as if we were back there at Golgotha seeing our Saviour on the cross and looking up to him as the Lamb of God taking away our sins. That is the intent of Jesus’ words ‘do this in memory of me’ (in Greek, anamnesis). This is like looking at a wedding photo, but is such a way that I am re-living and actively re-visiting that wonderful occasion. I look at the photograph is as if I am present at the wedding.
Speaking personally, I am a convinced low churchman in the puritan tradition but I have a high view of ‘the dinner that belongs to the Lord’. That is to say, I have Archbishop Cranmer’s view which is also John Calvin’s view. I have a high view of the meal because I have a high view of the gospel that tells me that my Lord loves me and gave himself for me.
We may face some changes in the administration of the Lord’s Supper here in Sydney. I plead that those who lead at the Lord’s table will do so mindful that this is an occasion of great meaning to many evangelical Christians in the diocese of Sydney. It appears that some who lead do so in an off hand way, unsure, embarrassed or even resentful they are called upon to officiate. This is not a plea for false reverence or contrived religiosity but for simple and dignified leadership.
Some appear to be saying, ‘I have the gospel in the Bible and I don’t ultimately need the Lord’s Supper’. It was the Lord, however, who said, ‘This do…’ My plea is: let us ‘do this’ in the manner and spirit implied in our Prayer Book and Articles.