Just a supper, but what a supper!

Luke 22:7-23 The Lord’s Supper was about covenant relationships. Have we lost that?

The last supper has to be the most famous meal of all time, and no doubt the most influential. Painters have tried to capture the scene again and again. But what do they see in it? What’s so special about the last supper? Well Jesus did something that would have been quite shocking for any Jew of his day. He took the traditional Passover meal that was eaten in memory of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and told his disciples to start eating it in memory of him. That’s right. As the leader at the table that night he broke the unleavened bread and gave it out to his disciples saying “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” He also took the traditional Cup of Redemption and passed it around the table saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” We might say that he only did it with the bread and wine, but the bread and wine represented the whole meal. And the first Christians understood that because they continued to break bread together as part of a full meal in their homes (Acts 2:46). Does this mean we should be breaking bread as part of a full meal today? ♦ Well, I am beginning to wonder about that myself. Firstly, can we really call it the Lord’s Supper if it isn’t a supper? Secondly, can we call it communion if it isn’t communal? Communion is supposed to be about relationship – with God and each other. It’s about being joined together as we receive the life of Christ. But before we go further, let’s describe the scene at this supper of all suppers.
Renaissance paintings don’t capture it very well. Usually they portray Jesus and his disciples sitting in a long line in upright chairs. In Jesus’ time they would have reclined on floor cushions all the way around a low table. The table would have had a number of pots and plates containing the traditional Passover specialities – roast lamb, herbs (probably celery or lettuce), dips of salt or vinegar, a pile of unleavened bread and four communal cups of red wine.
A father figure sat at the head of the table and led the proceedings – in this case it was Jesus, and everyone sat around the table in order from oldest to youngest. I imagine James or Peter would have been the oldest and John the youngest. We certainly know that John was sitting next to Jesus and at one point lent against him to ask a confidential question (John 13:23-25). Though the meal was ceremonial, the atmosphere would have been relaxed and intimate. These men knew each other well and Passover was a joyful celebration of what God had done for the Jewish people.
Passover meals have a set procedure. The procedure and the items on the table have developed somewhat since Jesus’ time. But in his day the procedure would have been something like this –

  1. A cup of wine was blessed with a prayer and passed around. This first cup later became known as the Cup of Blessing. Luke 22:17 says ‘After taking the cup, he (Jesus) gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”’
  2. Celery or lettuce was dipped in vinegar or salt and shared out. It was intentionally bitter.
  3. The youngest then asks why they eat bitter herbs, unleavened bread and roast lamb on this night when they usually eat normal herbs, bread and different meats on other nights.
  4. In reply the leader retells Israel’s history from Abraham to Moses and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. He points out that the bitter herbs are eaten to remember their slavery in Egypt, the bread without leaven is eaten to remember that they now had to live without the trappings of Egypt, and the roast lamb is eaten to remember the lamb’s blood that was put on their doorposts to protect their houses from death when the Lord struck the Egyptians.
    After the resurrection the disciples would have seen why Jesus applied all this to himself. He was the lamb whose blood delivered all believers from the bitter slavery of sin. He lived a life without sin and then offered it like bread without leaven to all who would receive it.
  5. They then sang Psalms 113-114 which contains the Exodus story.
  6. A second cup of wine was blessed and passed around. This cup is drunk in memory of God’s deliverance. It later became known as the Cup of Deliverance.
  7. The lamb, bread and some vegetables are then shared out. The leader blesses the unleavened bread and breaks it and shares it out. This is when Jesus would have said “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  It’s pertinent that both the lamb and the bread are eaten together; Jesus would have seen both as representing his body and life that he was now offering to all.
  8. After the meal was finished a third cup of wine was blessed and passed around. This cup was drunk to remember God’s redemption and later became known as the Cup of Redemption. We know that God redeemed Israel by the blood of the Passover lambs and it’s quite possible that this cup of red wine was seen as a symbol of that blood. And it is at this point that Jesus said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
  9. They then sang Psalms 114-118. This is quite a long section of singing; about the length of 4 to 5 modern congregational songs. The singing is mentioned in Matthew 26:30.
  10. A fourth and final cup of wine was blessed and passed around. This cup was drunk to celebrate God’s coming kingdom and became known as the Cup of Celebration. This was probably the moment that Jesus said to his disciples “I confer on you a kingdom,just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30).

It’s obvious that Jesus saw the entire Passover meal as something that pointed to himself – he was “the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The lamb, the bread, the wine and the bitter herbs were all about him. And when Jews ate a meal together, especially a religious meal, it was a sign of oneness and of covenant fellowship. This comes out very strongly when Jesus said concerning Judas “the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table” (Luke 22:21). Sharing a meal with a betrayer was a contradiction. But when we look at the other disciples in the room that night we can sense the intimacy that Jesus had established between them and himself. John lent against Jesus to ask him a question. You don’t do that with someone unless you feel you know them quite well.
Now we need to ask a question here. Do our congregational communion times lack the relational aspect that we see at the Last Supper? I thinking most pastors would admit that the communal aspect of communion has been lost. And it is lost because the Lord’s Supper is no longer a supper.
But accommodating a full meal in a congregational setting isn’t easy. In fact this may have been part of the struggle at Corinth. When a hundred or more people bring food and wine to church it’s easy for some to get left out and for some to drink too much. It’s much easier to do meals in homes as a small group like the Jerusalem believers did, and I would recommend this. But some churches have tried to maintain the idea of covenant relationships by breaking bread in multiple small groups on Sunday mornings. In this format people can discover each other and pray for each other. But there may be other ways of doing it that may fit better with the style of your church. My point is that the communal aspect of communion needs to be recovered. So why not give it a go. If you are a pastor, try breaking bread in groups or tell your home group leaders that they are free to break bread in homes. If you have any helpful ideas or have seen other good ways of breaking bread feel free to express them in the comment section below.

Other Illustrations used: Just a game, but what a game| Last Supper paintings

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