The Lord’s Supper: N. T. Wright’s The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion

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imagesBack in 1999, N.T. (Tom) Wright wrote The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion. The book is scheduled for re-release in expanded form September 2015. It’s an excellent book written at a level suitable for study in a new member’s class. Appropriately, it’s in two parts, the first part for those who have no prior knowledge of the Eucharist. The second part answers questions that are common among Protestants without getting into technical, verse-by-verse exegesis.

While you won’t find extensive textual exegetical analysis, you will find brilliant insights into the Lord’s Supper and its meaning. Wright takes the time to discuss the practicalities of how the Eucharist should be celebrated.

The study would be excellent for a small group or Bible class, especially if combined with John Mark Hicks’ groundbreaking Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper. The two books approach the subject from different angles, and the combination would enrich anyone’s understanding of the Eucharist immensely. All Christians of all denominations would find their participation in communion transformed if they were to read both books, and both are written at a level suitable for study in the Bible class or small group.

Part I presents the Lord’s Supper through a series of stories, beginning with an imagined birthday party attended by an alien. That’s a surprising beginning for such a book, but it gives Wright the opportunity to explain why we hold such parties, and what they mean to people, without having to first unwind two millennia of theological encrustations.

Why do we do all this? Different traditions grow up in different countries, but there seems to be a universal desire to make things special. It’s built into us. It’s just the way we are. It goes back to some of the oldest stories about the human race: about people who know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to celebrate the good things of life, and made to do all this to the glory of their maker. The person who wrote the book of Genesis would not have needed to ask, like our Martian friend, why we were having a birthday party. It would have made a whole lot of sense.

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, (London: SPCK, 2014), 7.

Wright next describes a Jewish Passover (Pesach) celebration.

At one point a little boy, the younger brother of the girl who let you in, pipes up (he seems to be reading, or perhaps his mother is prompting him):
‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’
‘Because,’ says his father, reading still from his text, ‘this is the night when our God, the Holy One, blessed be he, came down to Egypt and rescued us from the Egyptians …’
‘But it isn’t,’ you whisper to your friend. ‘All that happened a long time ago.’
‘Yes it is,’ the girl whispers back. ‘This is the same night. It’s like a birthday party. And we are the same people. We are the people of Israel, the people God loved and chose and promised to rescue. We are the people who came out of Egypt.’
‘But … but … not you, surely?’ you ask. ‘It must have been your great-great-great-great-grandparents, with quite a few more “greats”.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she replies. ‘But that’s not the point. We are not just us, if you see what I mean. We are part of them, part of the whole of God’s people, God’s family. We are the same family that came out of Egypt. We are the same family that are having this meal in every Jewish home, everywhere in the world, tonight. This meal makes us all one.’

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, (London: SPCK, 2014), 10–11.

He then tells the story of the Last Supper as it might have been perceived by one of Jesus’ disciples.

‘Drink this, all of you: this is my blood of the new covenant. It is shed for you, and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.’

Time to fall through the floor. This was … too much. His blood? Everybody knows Jews don’t drink blood. And—new covenant? Sins forgiven? Everybody knew, of course, that the prophets had promised that God would eventually make a new covenant with Israel, his people, like when he had brought them out of Egypt. Everybody knew that that would be when he finally forgave Israel’s sins once and for all, redeeming them from all their troubles, giving them freedom. Yes, that was what Passover was pointing forward to. But somehow the future seemed to have arrived in the present, and there you were, sleepy with food and wine, quite unready for it. And how on earth could all this have anything to do with Jesus’ … blood?

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, (London: SPCK, 2014), 16–17.

Wright builds on an idea I’m seeing more and more in the commentaries. The Jewish concept of the Passover is not just that they remember the events of the distant past, although it’s certainly that, but it’s also that they are, for a moment, one with their ancestors who crossed the Red Sea. One of the central purposes of the Passover celebration is to remind the participants that the Israelites who were freed from slavery — redeemed — by God are “us.” And for Christians, the disciples who sat in the upper room with Jesus and shared in that meal are us. We are also the disciples of Jesus, and regardless of time and space, we were there when the new covenant was inaugurated, eating and drinking at the table with our Lord. Jesus died for our sins. Our sins were hung on that cross even though some of us had not yet been born.

The key word is “remembrance.”

That doesn’t just mean ‘remembering’ Jesus and his death. We do not simply recall the events of Calvary with our minds and hearts in faith and love and awe—though we should certainly do that every time we come to Jesus’ table. It means that somehow Jesus is present; that his one-off death is made contemporary with us. The unique past event rushes forward to accompany us on our journey.

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, (London: SPCK, 2014), 55–56.

This is an idea central to Wright’s understanding of communion. Something happens beyond mere memory.

All of this is summed up in a brilliant little sentence in 1 Corinthians 11:26. ‘Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,’ says Paul, ‘you announce the Lord’s death until he comes.’ The present moment (‘whenever’) somehow holds together the one-off past event (‘the Lord’s death’) and the great future when God’s world will be remade under Jesus’ loving rule (‘until he comes’). Past and future come rushing together into the present, pouring an ocean of meaning into the little bottle of ‘now’.

Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion, (London: SPCK, 2014), 49–51.

I’m going to suggest another way of looking at it that doesn’t contradict Wright in the least. In fact, it’s suggested by his work in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, where he shows that the narrative of all of scripture can be seen in terms of the joining of heaven and earth. The Holy of Holies was understood by the Jews as a place where heaven and earth came together, so much so that God himself dwelt within the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and Temple, being simultaneously in heaven and on earth in that very special place. When Jesus was transfigured, a hole was torn in the fabric separating heaven and earth. And when Jesus returns, Rev 21-22 tells us that heaven itself will descend and be united with the earth so that God will dwell among men. No longer will there be a divide been God and his children.

When we take the Lord’s Supper, not only are we rushed into the future marriage feast of the Lamb and the bride, and back to the Last Supper with the disciples, Jesus declared,

(Mat 26:28 ESV) 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

“Blood of the covenant” is a reference to the covenant making ceremony between God and Israel in Exo 24 —

(Exo 24:8-11 ESV)  8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”  9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,  10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.  11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

The sealing of the covenant with a meal between God and the leaders of the people was another moment when heaven and earth converged — more precisely, when God ripped open the wall between the two.

God lives in heaven, which is outside of created space-time, as the physicists like to say. Time is part of the created universe. God therefore lives outside of time — at least, time as we experience it. And so it only makes sense that anytime we are drawn into the presence of Jesus — who lives in heaven — that the ordinary rules of time and space might be suspended, that the Eucharist might in some sense join us with the leaders of Israel at Mt. Sinai, the disciples of Jesus in the upper room, the early church hiding in their homes and eating a love-feast and Lord’s Supper huddled together, hiding from Roman persecution, even in Nepal with the Christians mourning their lost, the Anabaptists fleeing death at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation, and countless other Christian communities all over the world gathered, gathering, and yet to gather on the first day in remembrance of Jesus.

Christians have fought for years over the “real presence” of Jesus in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. But Jesus is present with us when we assemble.

(Mat 18:20 ESV)  20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

(Mat 28:20b ESV) “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It’s just that he’s not found in the bread and the wine — he’s present because God, for a moment, opens the wall between heaven and earth, and as we partake, we partake with Jesus — and if we’re there, then so is every Christian from every age and every place.

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