“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” Luke 22:19
“What this bread and wine we bring?” asks Herbie O’Driscoll’s hymn, and answers the question, “Food for God’s people”. What might those words mean for us? When we sing the words, “food for God’s people”, what do we mean?
The word Jesus uses when he shares this food is “remembrance.” It is the word emphasised in Saint Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 11, where it is used of both the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Remembrance is about much more than a memorial, it is about making something real in our own time. Remembrance of the events of the 20th Century in Irish history can be a very controversial subject because we realize that remembrance is not just about the past, it is about the present as well; similarly, the remembrance of Jesus is not just a memorial of events twenty centuries ago, it is about our response to Jesus in the here and now.
Remembrance makes the sacrifice of Jesus real for us. Very early in Jesus’ ministry there is teaching about what that sacrifice will mean. In Saint John Chapter 1 Verse 36, John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The lamb sacrificed at Passover time recalled God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus was to be one who would set his people free. Saint Paul tells us that it is this sacrifice that makes us one with God, we read in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 3 Verses 24-25 that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Sharing the “food for God’s people”, sharing the Lord’s Supper calls us to a remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ and a remembrance of the benefits we receive through that sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews Chapter 2 Verse 17 says that Jesus has made “atonement” for our sins, that, through what Jesus has done, the division between God and ourselves has been broken down. Ephesians Chapter 1 Verse 7, describes what this sacrifice achieves, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace”. We are forgiven, we are freed, we have new life with God, in this world and the next – those are the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice; benefits recalled each time we share the Lord’s Supper.
What we bring as the “food for God’s people” has not changed. The Church of Ireland has been strict in its interpretation of what is meant by “bread” and “wine”. Canon 13.5 says, “The bread to be used in the service shall be such as is usually eaten, of the best quality that can conveniently be procured” and the instructions for the service stipulate the use of wine, but would the Supper not be valid if other elements were used? There are stories of rice and water being used in prisoner of war camps during the Second World War, because nothing else was available, would Jesus not have regarded that as genuine remembrance of him? Visiting a remote village in the Philippines in 2001 with a Presbyterian colleague, there was a request that we have a Communion service? But what was there to use? There were forty people in the congregation and we shared three rice cakes and rum from a china cup? Was that not a valid remembrance of the Lord?
What this bread and wine we bring? What does it become for us? The answer comes from the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, in Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verse 19-20, we read, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”.
What Jesus meant by his words became the source of century upon century of debate, disagreement, and, frequently, open conflict. The Anglican catechism says we receive the body and blood, “Only after a heavenly and, spiritual manner; and the means whereby they are taken and received is Faith”. But even that answer is open to many interpretations and the best answer seems to lie in the words of John Donne, who wrote,
“He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it”
John Donne’s answer about the Lord’s Supper was that the bread and wine became whatever Jesus said they were. We are confronted with a mystery, Horatius Bonar, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland expressed that sense of mystery in one of the most popular of Communion hymns, “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face, here faith can touch and handle things unseen.”
But why bring this bread and wine? Why share the food for God’s people? Jesus commands his disciples to break the bread and share the cup in remembrance of him, to make his presence something real; Saint Paul writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 11 Verse 26, that breaking the bread and drinking the cup were proclaiming the Gospel, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. The first Christians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, met for the breaking of bread.
Because of the way that history unfolded, because of our rejection of medieval doctrines, the Church of Ireland has regarded a monthly celebration of the Lord’s Supper as sufficient. When the Methodist tradition was beginning, John and Charles Wesley regarded weekly attendance at the Lord’s Supper as important – as the Church of Ireland and Methodist traditions merge, we have much to learn from the discipline of the Wesleys.
“What this bread and wine we bring? Food for God’s people”, but sharing that food requires something of us. The Catechism says that those coming to share the bread and wine have a duty “To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, stedfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men”. “Examine yourselves”, says Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 11 Verse 28, “and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup”. If we believe the bread and wine to be outward signs of God’s grace; if we take grace seriously, we do not make it something cheap. We come to the Lord’s Supper with repentance, with belief, and with love in our hearts.