During the Protestant Reformation, many of the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church were questioned or rejected. In many cases this was a good thing, but occasionally the pendulum swung too far.
A case in point is the attitude toward sacraments (the Catholic Church recognises seven whilst Protestant churches recognise only baptism and breaking bread). In Catholic thought there is a great deal of mysticism (the bread literally becomes the body of Christ, for example) and partaking in a sacrament confers the grace of God (regardless of the faith or attitude of the participant).
In general, the Protestant Church has moved toward these sacraments being largely viewed as symbolic and memorial only. In the process a sense of the supernatural element has (in practical terms at least) been lost by many.
Around 1500 BC, a nation that had been enslaved for centuries, yearning for the day when they would be free, were busy preparing to walk into that promised freedom. They had witnessed a series of miraculous events as their God had demonstrated His power over the co-called gods of their oppressors. In obedience to the instructions of their God, and to protect themselves from one final terrifying display of His power, they prepared themselves and their homes in the prescribed manner.
That evening an angel passed over Egypt, killing each first-born son, but the sons of Israel were saved because their faith, which lived itself out in obedience, kept them safe. The next day, the were granted freedom: they were no longer slaves but were a nation belonging to their God.
So what were these instructions?
Among other things a perfect, spotless lamb was to be killed an its blood daubed on the doorpost. This lamb would then be consumed as part of a special meal which would also include unleavened bread and wine.
They were instructed to repeat this meal every year thereafter to remember what God had done: death had passed over them and they had been freed from bondage. There was also to be a looking forward: to a day when one greater than Moses would come to deliver his people (Deut 18:15-19).
To this day Jewish people still celebrate Passover in a manner that has gone largely unchanged in millennia. There is the lamb, the unleavened bread and much ceremony and symbolism that represents that past deliverance and the future promise.
And so it was that 1500 years after that first Passover meal, a young Jewish man gathered together with a few friends for one final Passover meal before he was to be arrested and executed. He took the bread and the wine that formed part of the meal. Luke’s gospel tells us:
These words seem strange to us at first, but when we view it within the context of the whole of scripture the words are both understandable and beautiful.
John knew that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the deliverer that Israel had been looking forward to. He knew also that the Passover had a much deeper significance than merely remembering the past. It was a shadow, or type, of a greater Spiritual reality. Just as Israel had been delivered from death and slavery to Egypt, the Messiah would deliver His people from death and slavery to sin. Everything about the Passover celebration was a picture pointing us to Christ.
So it was, that on that night, Jesus could rightly say, in effect, I am the Passover lamb. The blood to be shed is mine, the body to be broken is mine. The sacrifice to remove sin is me. So from now on, when you come together, take the bread and wine and remember me. Remember your deliverance. But again don’t only look back in remembrance but look forward in hope for I am coming again.
In order to gain a deeper insight, it is worth looking at some of the words used in connection with this meal, each of which reveals a different facet of its beautiful meaning:
Sacrament: Most Protestant denominations recognise two sacraments: baptism and breaking bread. A sacrament is a ‘religious symbol of mysterious and sacred significance’ or ‘a visible sign of an inward grace’. Whilst Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that partaking in the sacrament imparts grace, as Protestants we would rather say that this sacrament is a symbol, ad recognition, of divine grace. Yet it is more than a mere memorial. There is a deep spiritual significance to it and partaking of it, in faith, can certainly position us for real blessing.
Covenant Meal: In ancient cultures, a covenant was sealed by the shedding of blood and (often) the sharing of a meal. There would often also be the exchange of gifts. Jesus used this meal to announce the New Covenant. His blood would be shed, the meal would be shared and the exchange that took place was our sinfulness being exchanged for His righteousness.
The Lord’s Supper: This description emphasises that Jesus Himself instituted this practice and it is His command that we should do this ‘whenever we meet’. Interestingly, this event is one of only a few that is mentioned by all four gospel writers (Matt 26:26-9; mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; John 13:1-17:6) as well as by Paul in 1 Cor 11:24-26.
Breaking Bread: This is a common description on the New Testament (for examples Acts 2:42), though this phrase can speak of eating together more generally. In biblical culture eating together was a deeply significant thing. There was a bond that was forged over meals. Indeed, the celebration of the Lord’s supper in the early church was usually part of a wider ‘love feast’.
Communion: This emphasises the fellowship, and unity of God’s people. Whilst partaking is deeply personal, it is never private.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, warns against breaking bread in an ‘unworthy manner’ or ‘without discerning the body’. Indeed, that is why some had fallen ill or died – as God’s judgement fell. Many had forgotten that partaking in such a holy moment in a selfish, self-centred manner directly opposes the purposes of God in reconciling us to Himself and to each other (1 Cor 10:16-17).
Eucharist: A derivative from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning ‘thanksgiving’ (found in Luke 22:18-19). This is a word not often used in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, but is an accurate and useful description, nonetheless. It reminds us that whilst in many ways breaking bread should be a sober moment as we contemplate the terrible cost of our deliverance, it is also something of a celebration and looking forward to the future promises of Christ.
Let us encourage one another not to simply ‘go through the motions’ but to approach the breaking of bread with faith and expectation: that God will presence Himself amongst us, reveal Himself to us more deeply, give us a deeper revelation of the cross, His love and our covenant relationship, and bind us together closer to Him and to each other.
I believe we need to practice the breaking of bread more often and we need to raise our levels of faith and expectation when we do so. We need to swing the pendulum back a little and, whilst avoiding superstition and unbiblical beliefs, allow for an element of the supernatural, of mystery, to permeate our theology and practice of breaking bread.