Sometimes my children surprise me by their answers to questions. They did yesterday. It started in Sunday-school. The lesson was about the Last Supper – the farewell meal the Lord Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was arrested. Towards the end of the meal, Jesus broke a loaf of bread into pieces. He explained to his disciples that the bread was a picture of his body which would be broken. And then he gave the broken bread to his disciples and told them to eat it. He poured out a cup of wine and explained to them that it was a picture of his blood which would be poured out. He told them all to drink from the cup in turn. And then he told them that they must repeat this part of the meal again and again. He was going to leave them. But they must meet together, share bread and wine, and remember him.
And ever since then, Jesus’s followers have been following that instruction. Christians meet together and share a simple meal of bread and wine. Every time we do so, we remember that Jesus’s body was broken on the cross at Calvary. We remember that Jesus’s blood was poured out when he died. And we don’t just remember. We actually eat the bread and drink the wine, and we rejoice in the fact that his body was broken and his blood was poured out for us. Jesus’s death was the sacrifice which bought forgiveness and everlasting life for us. So as we eat and drink, we claim for ourselves the benefits which he won for us. We consume the bread and wine, but we renew our trust in the sacrifice of Jesus.
Lots of strange ideas and superstitions have grown up around this simple meal. The Roman Catholic church calls it the Mass and teaches that the bread and wine actually turn into flesh and blood! They think that there have to be complicated rituals surrounding the meal and that only a “priest” can do them. Many people, both Roman Catholics and others, have the strange idea that eating the meal automatically brings God’s blessing to people – even if those people have no personal faith in Jesus Christ. So chaplains go round hospital wards and offer the bread and wine to anyone who’ll take it. And lots of people will accept it in the hope that somehow it will do them good though they’ve no idea what it’s supposed to mean.
Different churches give the meal different names. In the Church of England it may be called the Eucharist. In some churches it’s the Communion Service. In Strict Baptist churches it was often just labelled the Ordinance. In the New Testament, it is sometimes called the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table. Or simplest of all, we read that believers ‘broke bread’. In this church we use all those three Bible phrases as shorthand for this simple meal at which Jesus’s followers share bread and wine.
Well, in Sunday-school yesterday, our David – seven years old – was asked a question by his teacher, ‘How often do we have the Lord’s Supper in this church?’.
‘Twice a year,’ answered David confidently.
Gulp. My own son doesn’t know that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper almost every week. On most Wednesday evenings the members of the church meet and eat this simple meal. We sit in a circle round a table. There’s a loaf of bread on the table and a cup of wine. Someone thanks God for the bread, breaks it into pieces, and we pass it around the circle. And then when we’ve all been served, we eat together. Someone thanks God for the wine. We pass the cup from one person to the next and we all drink from it. And together we remember Jesus. We remember the dreadful death that he died on the cross. And we claim the benefits of his sacrifice for ourselves.
A private gathering
Why doesn’t David know that we do this on Wednesday evenings? Simple. He isn’t there. He’s at home in bed when we’re breaking bread together. He knows about the two or three occasions in the year when we hold this meal on a Sunday afternoon. He’s been present and watched us eat and drink then. But he’s never been there on a Wednesday evening.
Nor has my daughter Vicky. “I didn’t know either,” she said to us over lunch yesterday. Nor has my son John. Somehow I had always assumed they knew what we did in our Wednesday evening meetings. I was mistaken.
I guess a lot of people who have contact with the church – not just the children – are unaware that we hold the Lord’s Supper in our midweek meeting. We rarely announce it. It’s not on the church notice-board. And it’s not usually mentioned in the church bulletin in the list of regular activities.
Most churches hold the Lord’s Supper on Sundays. It’s included in one of the main Sunday services and all the people who come to the service are expected to take part. We’ve chosen not to do that. Instead we hold it at a meeting which only the members of the church regularly attend. And we don’t announce it publicly.
Why not? Wouldn’t it be good to have as many people as possible present? Why do we hold this supper in such a private way?
The answer is simple. The New Testament teaches that it should be private. It should be a private meal shared by the members of the church. The members of a church form a family and this is their family meal. There may occasionally be guests present, but the meal is held so that the family can share it together.
Every year, Jewish people held a festival which they called the Passover. Some parts of the festival were public events. But the most important part of the festival was held in private homes. Each family would hold a special meal behind closed doors. The head of the family – usually the father – would act as Master of Ceremonies.
The Last Supper was a Passover meal. And Jesus made sure it was private. He held it in a secret location: an upstairs room in a house in Jerusalem. He kept the address secret (Mark 14:12-16). And the only people who were invited were his twelve closest friends – his twelve apostles (Mark 14:17).
Jesus could have invited his relatives (his mother Mary and his brothers were staying in Jerusalem at the time). But he didn’t. He had many followers living in or near Jerusalem – people like Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Bartimaeus. He could have invited them. But he didn’t. Even the other people in the house weren’t invited. The meal was just for Jesus and the twelve: the people who had promised to go with him wherever he went, who had committed themselves to sharing his life totally. They had become his real family, closer to him than his natural brothers and sisters, or even his mother Mary. And they were the people with whom he shared this meal.
We believe it’s right to follow that example. Every Christian should love every other Christian for Jesus’s sake. But the members of a church have a special relationship with each other, just as Jesus did with the twelve. When I became a member of this church, I made solemn promises to all the other church members. And they made the same promises to me. We promised we would meet as often as possible. We promised to pray for one another. We promised that we would always be there for one another. We promised that we would share our joys and our sorrows with one another. We promised to support each other practically and when necessary financially. Church members are linked together as a family. Just as Jesus and the twelve became a close-knit family, we want to be a family together. And just as Jesus sat down with the family of the twelve privately for the Last Supper, so we come together privately at the Lord’s Supper, with Jesus as our family head.
Of course, any normal family will sometimes have guests present at the family meal. And in the same way, if someone who is not a church member wants to be present at the Lord’s Supper we’re very glad to welcome him or her. But he or she will be there as a guest rather than as a family member. In most cases we would ask a visitor to watch and listen, rather than actually taking part in the meal. On the occasions when we have held the Lord’s Supper on a Sunday and David, Vicky or John have been present, we’ve been glad that they could observe. But they have not shared in the meal. They are members of my family, but they are not yet members of the family of the church. And until then, the meal is not for them.
The first church
Jesus’s apostles understood very clearly that the Lord’s Supper was not for everyone. The twelve apostles became the founders of the first church in the world – the church in Jerusalem. (One of the twelve, Judas Iscariot had turned his back on Jesus and was replaced by Matthias – Acts 1:23-26 – so there were still twelve). On the Day of Pentecost, they preached the gospel for the first time to the crowds in Jerusalem. Peter’s words especially were like a sword piercing the hearts of the people:
‘This Jesus.. you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men… God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ!’ (Acts 2:23, 36). Many people in the crowd cried out in agony of mind, ‘Brothers what shall we do’ (vs 37). And Peter told them. ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…’ (vs 38).
And wonderfully, many of them did exactly that. They repented, and were baptized. They allowed the apostles to baptize them – dip them in water – as a sign that they were looking to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. ‘Those who received his (Peter’s) words were baptized and there were added that day about three thousand souls’ (vs 41). Three thousand people believed Peter’s message, obeyed it, and were baptised. And then they were added to the church.
What did that mean in practice? It meant that they committed themselves totally to the church, its life and its work. ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers… all who believed were together and had every thing in common’ (vss 42-44). The people who were added to the church dedicated themselves to four things: (1) listening to the apostles’ teaching (2) sharing everything (that’s what fellowship means) (3) breaking bread – the Lord’s Supper (4) praying together. They thought of themselves as one great family. They even went to the length of ‘selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need’ (vs 45).
So who were the people who were ‘breaking bread’? They were people who had received the message; who had been baptised as a sign of faith in Christ; who had been added to the church; who were devoted to the life of the church; who were totally committed to their fellow church members. The Lord’s Supper wasn’t for everybody. It was for them.
And where was the Lord’s Supper held? ‘And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts…’ vs 46). The church held other meetings in the temple – a public venue. But they held the Lord’s Supper in homes. That’s where they broke bread. Because they knew it had to be private. It was only for the members of the church family.
Again, we’re trying to follow their example. This church is a lot smaller than the first church in Jerusalem. But we aim to follow the same pattern. We preach the gospel. Those who receive the message are baptised. Then they are added to the church. Then they devote themselves to their fellow church members and to the life of the church – including the Lord’s Supper.
One loaf, one body
Of course, it wasn’t only the church in Jerusalem which followed that pattern. As other churches were planted across Asia and Europe, they all followed suit. When Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, he took it for granted that the only people who would be sharing in the Lord’s Supper there would be people who had received the message, been baptised, and been added to the church. He was shocked by some of the things that were allowed to happen when that church held the Lord’s Supper and he made that plain when he wrote. But how did he start his teaching about the Lord’s Supper? ‘When you come together as a church…’ (1 Corinthians 11:18). At the Lord’s Supper believers came together as a church. The members of the church gathered to break bread.
Paul used an even more wonderful picture than a family to describe the church. He described it as a body. ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12:27). A church is supposed to be a single body in which every member is linked to the other members and works with them, with Jesus Christ uniting them all. The members of the church should be as closely linked to one another as the parts of a human body are linked together.
And the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be a demonstration of that unity. Paul wrote this, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless (ie the cup of wine that we drink at the Lord’s Supper), is it not a participation (a sharing together) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break (ie the loaf that we eat at the Lord’s Supper), is it not a participation (a sharing together) in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10: 16-17). In the Lord’s Supper, everyone who takes part shares a single loaf as a sign that together they are one body. So only those who are part of the church-body should eat from that one loaf.
Are you a member of the church? Are you committed to your fellow church-members? Are you determined to work together with them as closely as the parts of your body work together? Then you should show it by sharing a single cup and eating a single loaf with them at the Lord’s Supper. By eating and drinking together, we’re all saying, ‘we’re one body; we belong together; we’re not going to let anything come between us’.
But to share in the one cup and the one loaf if you’re not determined to operate as part of the church-body is dishonest and dangerous. Paul warned that ‘anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body eats and drinks judgement on himself’ (1 Corinthians 11:29).
‘What an exclusive church! They obviously don’t want people to join them. They prefer to keep people at arm’s length!’ Yes, to some people it seems like that. But it’s not true. In fact, it’s the opposite of the truth. We want every single person who comes through our doors to become part of the church. We certainly don’t want anyone to stay on the fringes, unable to join us at the family meal. Far from being exclusive, we want you all in the family!
To become part of the family you must receive the message – God’s message, the message we find in the Bible. You must confess that you are a sinner. You must repent. You must turn to Jesus Christ – the only one who can bring you forgiveness. You must be baptised as the sign that you are trusting yourself to him. And then you must be added to the church – to the family. And you must start living as a member of the family: learning with us, sharing with us, praying with us, working with us. We’d love to have you! It brings us huge joy when new members are added to the family. And how glad we’ll be when you join us at the family meal!
Please talk to one of the pastors of the church if you’re not sure about any of this. If you want to be part of the family – first God’s family, and then the family of the church – we’d be so happy to help you across the threshold.