The Last Supper
The Lord’s Supper is one of the common features of most forms of Christianity, even though it is not always practiced in exactly the same way. You’ll find the story of its origin in all four gospels: Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-39; and John 13:1-17:26. Jesus and his disciples eat a simple meal together – their last before his crucifixion. He breaks bread and says, “This is my body,” and together they eat. He sips from a cup of wine, and says, “this is my blood,” and together they drink. The disciples share in the symbols of his imminent sacrifice, and together accept the redemption that comes from following Jesus – even if they don’t realize the full symbolic weight of what they’re doing.
As he breaks the bread and drinks the wine with his disciples, Jesus says “do this in remembrance of me,” and his disciples listened. The early Christians celebrated communion together by eating together around a table, and partaking of bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. Today, the commemoration of the Last Supper, called the “Eucharist,” or “thanksgiving,” is the most sacred of the Catholic sacraments. Catholics believe in “transubstantiation” – at a certain point during the rite, the bread and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Other denominations, such as Anglicans, believe that Communion is symbolic, but they still celebrate it as the center of their services. Every week, the priest blesses the bread and wine, and members come up one at a time to take communion. In most evangelical denominations, the communion service happens less often, and involves drinking individual cups of grape juice and eating small crackers or pieces of unleavened bread. If you’ve ever celebrated communion at an Adventist church, this is probably the communion that you’ve experienced.
Communion at Adventist churches is fairly unique, however, in that it involves two parts: the Lord’s Supper, and foot-washing. Before the members of the congregation eat the bread and drink the grape juice, they take time to wash each other’s feet in the “Ordinance of Humility” – a gesture of service imitating Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). The action emphasizes the twofold nature of the law: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Theologian Karl Barth writes that “Holy Communion is offered to all, as surely as the living Jesus Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but belong together as brothers and sisters, all of us poor sinners, all of us rich through his mercy.”
Is there a right way to celebrate communion? How does communion bring us together? How does it separate us? Is communion limited to a specific ritual at a certain time, or is communion something that you can take with you into the world?
- Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper during the festival of Passover, which you can read about in Exodus 12. How are the two events symbolically connected?
- Have you participated in the Adventist tradition of communion? How is it different (in seriousness, symbolism, and/or practice) from the Catholic sacrament? From the Bible story? What do you like about it? What do you dislike?
- What do you think of the moment when Peter asks Jesus to wash all of him (John 13:9)? What is he asking for? Why does Jesus reject him?
- How much humility is there in washing someone’s feet? The feet of a friend? A stranger? Someone rejected by society? Is there more or less humility in washing someone’s feet who also washes yours?
- The symbol of wine for Jesus’ blood has been divisive among Christians depending on their views of alcohol. Some Christians believe that using pure grape juice represents the purity of Christ’s blood as a sacrifice, while others believe that the bitterness of the alcohol in wine represents the bitterness and pain of his death. Which point of view do you sympathize with more? How does that line up with your views / the Bible’s views on alcohol? See this video for more on the topic of alcohol.
- In Matthew 26:27-28, Jesus mentions that his blood is “of the New Covenant” - which was originally mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Read through that Jeremiah passage: what does it tell us about the kind of Covenant Jesus will be making through his death?
- 1 Corinthians 11 is an important chapter relating to communion. In many churches, it is often the passage that is read before the taking of the Lord’s Supper. There is an interesting line in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 about eating the Lord’s supper in an “unworthy” way. While the context of the passage seems to be about people hoarding food or not waiting for others to arrive and share in the meal (see 11:33-34), this passage has been cause for different concerns and practices among Christians. One important concern that has arisen for some denominations is whether or not to allow non-members to participate in the Lord’s Supper. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has very strict limitations on who can receive communion - usually only Roman Catholic believers, and sometimes Eastern Orthodox Christians, and very seldomly some select Protestants. Conversely, the Methodist tradition often has an “open” Communion table, permitting even visitors to participate. Some churches do not allow a person to receive communion unless they have already been baptized.
- What do you think that today’s passages from the gospels and 1 Corinthians can add to this discussion? What seem like the natural implications of the passage? What seems to be in harmony with the ethos of Jesus?