First of all, this is not a theological treatise. It’s a meditation. I’ve tried to think through (i.e. meditate) on what Scripture teaches regarding the Supper. Hopefully, then, this is a biblical and informed meditation. But, again, it’s not nearly as thorough as I would like, given the medium and the time I have to work on it.
At any rate, here’s what I’ve concluded so far:
The Lord’s Supper, discussed in 1 Corinthians 10-11, the Gospels, etc, stands at a crucial point in redemptive history. It looks back to the Passover (Ex 12), and looks forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19). It is a somewhat penultimate Gospel reality, a function of the already-not yet tension of the New Testament. It is truly Supper with our Lord, by his Spirit. Yet not fully Supper, not like we see in Revelation. It both satisfies and arouses our desire for intimate communion with our Lord.
A verse which has helped me to understand the nature of the supper is 1 Corinthians 10:16:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
I see three crucial things here. The text contains more than these three elements, of course, but I think as it relates to what we experience when we partake of the Supper, these are helpful categories.
1. What does “participation” here mean?
It’s the famous Greek word “koinonia”, which is often translated “fellowship”. In this verse it is translated as “participation” (ESV), “sharing” (NASB and others), and “communion” (KJV). One lexicon calls it “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement.” Basically it is a deeply inter-personal idea, conveying a deep relationship. In 2 Corinthians where Paul speaks of sexual sin, he asks the question, “what [koinonia] does light have with darkness” (meaning, a believer and unbeliever being bound together, and, I think, especially sexually).
So here’s my take: “koinonia” relates to deep personal relationships, even those involving sex. And Paul says that is the nature of our relationship to the “body” and “blood” of the Lord, when we eat of the Supper. It is a deep, personal, intimate communion with the saving work and person of our Lord. We are in him and he is in us. The Spirit ministers him to us, we commune with him and participate in his benefits.
So what do we participate in? The blood of the Lord and the body of the Lord.
2. The second important thing is the blood of the Lord. What does this mean? Well, I think it echoes back to the Passover, when the Israelites smeared lamb’s blood on their door posts. Exodus 12:13:
The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
Christians, like their forerunners, stand under the Lamb’s blood, but the Lamb who was a perfect sacrifice. Who gushed blood that could actually cover sins, something animal blood could never do (see Hebrews).
And Paul says we deeply commune with the blood of this Lamb when we partake of the Supper. As the priests who ate the sacrifices, as 1 Corinthians 10:18 says, partook of the altar. We partake of Christ.
3. Third, then, is the “body of Christ.” Paul made this famous when used it for an analogy for the church, especially in 1 Corinthians 12, just a couple chapters ahead. But what does this signify, if anything, more than the church? Paul somewhat shocks us here, in verse 17 of chapter 10:
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
He argues, from the one bread (literally, “loaf”) of the Supper for the unity of the one body (i.e. church) of Christ. So, the body in our key verse (10:16), cannot be simply “the church.” It must relate to the actual body of Christ, signified in the “loaf”. The body which bore our sin on the tree. The body God raised from the dead. We somehow participate in that body. Now, I think to say that the body of Christ is somehow “ubiquitous” (or “everywhere”) when God’s people eat the bread, is just silly. But I think there must be an element of mystery here. How do we partake of the body. Surely, it means that we partake in the benefits, and we eat the bread as a symbol. But, remember, Paul says we “participate” in that body, deeply and intimately.
And that brings me to a (probably hasty) conclusion.
I think Calvin had it right. He said that in the Lord’s Supper Christ is present to us in a real, special way, by his Spirit.
I think we commune with our Lord in a special and real way when we eat the bread and drink the cup.
Calvin said, in that moment, we are drawn up into the heavenlies. I think that he was probably close to correct — I think during communion we can experience the full measure of our salvation in a way we don’t experience it in the day-in day-out of life.
I think it’s a foretaste of the fullness of our inheritance — the riches of God lavished upon us in Christ, which we will experience in the eternal ages to come.