The Lord’s Supper

I wrote this on Sunday as I got myself ready to lead the Lord’s Supper at our local church.

I’m leading the Lord’s Supper this morning at church.

In the Lord’s Supper, Christians traditionally remember the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. So it functions as a visible reminder of the gospel itself—that, if we trust in the Lord Jesus and his death for our sins, then we are welcomed into fellowship with him and with each other. Rightly understood (which means that it needs to be explained each time it’s done), the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel that Christians believe.

We have a reasonable amount of freedom at our church in how we can choose to speak about the symbolic meal we’re sharing. This morning, I’ve decided to quote from Luke 15:1-2

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

It occurs to me (and not for the first time) that the traditional Anglican understanding that unbelievers should be excluded from eating and drinking is quite wrong. If the gospel is being proclaimed, then we ought to be inviting unbelievers to take part in what we are doing (without insisting that that they must). This would seem to me to be truer to the example of the Lord Jesus, who welcomed all guilty sinners to the table, despite the complaints of the religious.

It’s only a symbolic meal, and so I’m unlikely to go to the stake for this understanding of the Lord’s Supper. But given that the gospel is open to all—especially those who don’t yet know God—it seems to me that we could do far better in matching up symbol and reality, and extending the invitation to ‘eat and drink’ to all, not just the insiders.

I also wouldn’t mind if we actually had a full meal, in line with the biblical tradition.

Come to think of it, those regular dinners we used to have when we ordered in pizza after church, and invited absolutely anyone who wanted to come to share, and then we prayed, and then we reminded each other in our conversations about what we had learned about the gospel during church, seems (at least, to this leader of the Lord’s Supper) a far better example of how eating and drinking in memory of Christ should look.

13 thoughts on “The Lord’s Supper

  1. I think having a full meal seems more consistent to the Biblical description of Lord’s Supper, somewhat like what you have described in your last paragraph.

    But I am not so certain about the idea of extending the invitation to participate in the Lord’s Supper to unbelievers (incidentally, I come from a denomination that has the same tradition on the issue). On one hand, I agree with what you said here. Seeing how Jesus dealt with sinners, and also as the Lord’s Supper being a symbolic proclamation of the Gospel, it seems we actually should invite the unbelievers to participate. But, I think there’s more to think through about the Lord’s Supper.

    Firstly, I am not sure if the meals Jesus shared with sinners were the same as when Jesus explicitly told His disciples about the Lord’s Supper. Having fellowship with and not becoming segregated from sinners (but not all sinners to be sure, since Paul tells us to not even associate with a certain kinds of sinners, and Jesus also did not associate with all types of sinners all the time) is, I think, important and what Christians should be doing. But I think we should be careful when/if we extend the invitation to all, because the Gospel must be displayed clearly even as to discern and divide the hearts of men just like when we preach the Gospel with our mouths.

    To illustrate this, I can think of baptism. Just like a man who was baptised without proper understanding of the Gospel may go on living in a false assurance of salvation, relying on the fact that he is baptised, rather than on the work of Christ, unbelievers who come to share in the Lord’s Supper may go on living in their unbelief having a wrong sense and view of salvation, thinking that they are saved because they participate in church’s sacraments.

    This confusion may not have set in the lives and faith of early Christians, because when they did get baptised, and shared in Lord’s Supper, they did so in the face of a real and visible persecution. The threat and danger that they’d have to face as a result of joining the Christian sect was clearly seen by a potential believer. So people who did not have the real conviction, wouldn’t have risked it. But in this society where tolerance and relativism has deeply affected people’s minds, when we let unbelievers to participate in the Lord’s Supper, they may simply take it as an insurance for their ticket to heaven, and not because they are compelled and captivated by our Redeemer.

    Of course, one may say that, we run this risk all the time. I think we do too. Whenever we meet at church, whenever we participate in ministry, we are running the risk of giving others and ourselves a false sense of security about salvation. But there are different degrees of the risk (as far as human responsibility goes under God’s sovereignty), and the ministers and preachers of churches and ministries will have to gauge this risk carefully before making any drastic changes.

  2. Ahhh.
    Intriguing, Gordon.
    I hear people making a big fuss about unbelievers joining in, but none about us eating and drinking and not discerning the Lord’s Body when people lead at the Lord’s Table.

    The warnings in 1 Corinthians would seem to be directed at believers, but they don’t usually get a run, but we always tell people that unbelievers are unwelcome.

    What about Christians who are not forgiving others, living like unbelievers, etc? Should they get a mention?

  3. I may be reading what you’ve written the wrong way, Gordo, but I can’t quite reconcile it with the parable that Jesus tells in the verses following verses 1-2 of chapter 15, in which I would think implies that these tax collectors and sinners have repented in their drawing mear to him. Can they proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26) if they do not trust in its’ power to save?

    There’s nothing wrong with the invitation per se, but for them to accept that invitation, there is one vital step that needs to be made that means that the unbeliever now believes and can see the symbolism of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine, and giving the due thanks and gratitude to God for his sacrifice.

    Regarding full meals though, I wholeheartedly agree – it’s great informal fellowship and witness, even if it may be an overleading of fat, salt and sugar…

  4. Interesting.

    I’d always placed that reference from Luke 15 more alongside Luke 19 than Luke 22: the last supper in Luke 22 is disciples only – and it flows out of the passover celebrations where only members of the household took part; an outsider had to be circumcised first.  Isn’t there a substantive difference between embracing sinners (ala Luke 19) and a covenant meal with deep symbolic significance that sits between the passover and the marriage supper of the lamb?

    Likewise the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11 is a church event – it takes place when his church gathers (1 Co 11:18,20).  Can someone who does not acknowledge the Lord to eat the Lord’s supper?

    Thirdly there’s also the question of judgement – again in 1 Co 11.  Is it possible for unbelievers to examine themselves and eat and drink in a worthy manner? Isn’t it just an invitation for them to eat and drink judgement?

  5. Jesus offered the Supper to Judas, knowing what Judas would do. The Supper is the sign and the seal of the covenant that is offered to all.
    I personally prefer a big meal!

  6. Hi Gordo,

    For my two cents worth, I think that my biggest issue is actually 1Cor 10 and the idea of participation (1Cor 10:14-22).  I know that Paul is talking to Christians but he is also speaking of what is essentially going on in the meal.  The meal is the sign that we participate in Christ in such a way that we belong to him and because we belong to him we belong to each other.  Given that I think that that (way too many that’s there) happens theologically through repenting and trusting in Jesus I don’t want to confuse the issue by saying – “whoever you are, come and eat with us.”

    We used the Lord’s supper at an evangelistic night at church one night at the end of the night to say – “we Christians eat together as a sign that we belong to Christ and to each other.  Hopefully tonight you have understood a bit more about what it means to belong to Jesus.  If you want to signify that you belong to Jesus then eat and drink with us but if that’s not where you are at, then don’t.”  Happy to hear people’s comments.


  7. Given the eating and drinking is a proclamation of the gospel aren’t you asking for a response from everyone to remember his death and participate? There will be outsiders who can’t because they don’t remember Jesus death in this way (and here I think remembering means more than you suggest Gordo). You are asking all to hear the gospel proclamation repent and believe & join in. The Lords Supper is a wonderful opportunity for repentance – so I think I’d be happy with what Grimmo suggests – have done the same myself.

  8. Gordon,

    I would humbly submit that the way a Bible believing, Protestant church celbrates the Lord’s Supper should never be one based on tradition – “Christians traditionally remember the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins”, but must be on the basis of Christ’s final passover with the disciples, and the instruction that Paul delivered to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 11v23-29.
    If we truly seek to obey the Lord and have His word as our highest authority then the warning issued in 1 Cor 11v28,29 would cause us not to invite unbelievers to partake. To do so is not “quite wrong”, but is to ensure we are not inviting them to eat & drink judgement on themselves. (As David highlighted in his comment)
    The gospel message confronts us with the reality of our being dead in sin, and the wonderful news that God Himself has taken the punishment I deserved to give me new life. The invitation to come to Christ is extended freely, however the scripture does not explain the Lord’s Supper’s prime purpose as an invitation, but as a celebration/rememberance for believers.
    If on hearing the gospel an unbeliever repents and can take the bread & wine in a manner that is not unworthy (ESV 1 Cor 11v27), then there should be nothing stopping them from joining, as Grimmo & Michael have noted.
    If I have misread your article please forgive me.

  9. Don and others, the link between the Passover and the last supper is clear (the last supper was a Passover supper!); the subsequent link to the supper of the Lord being celebrated in 1 Corinthians 11 less so, although Paul certainly appeals to the Passover that Jesus celebrated with his disciples to establish the principles for the Corinthian dinners.

    Did the Corinthians think of themselves as celebrating a substitute Passover?  1 Corinthians 11 is silent on the question of what the Corinthians actually thought themselves to be doing. Possibly they owed more, originally speaking, to pagan eat-fests that Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 10.

    <b>Paul</b>, the point about participation is a strong one, but not straightforwardly solved by current Anglican practice, I think (and other denominations will have their own versions of Anglican difficulties).

    For starters, it’s not the eating and drinking <i>as such</i> that does the damage in Corinth, but whether the eating and drinking symbolizes allegiance to devils. In our current way of doing the Lord’s supper, eating and drinking symbolizes allegiance to the Lord Jesus, yes—but no more so than singing hymns together, saying creeds, or saying ‘amen’ to prayers—all of which we invite people to do without warning them about the possibility of damnation if they sing something they don’t believe.

    Perhaps with our eating and drinking together, we should be clear that we are expressing Christian fellowship (as with all our other church activities), and allow people to self-exclude. Presumably, in the way that sinners and tax-collectors in Jesus’ day would have avoided eating with him if they couldn’t abide his presence, unless (like Judas) they really were courting disaster by pretending a non-existent friendship. In which case, the Lord knows their heart and that will be discipline enough.

  10. I could have this all wrong so please feel free to correct.

    Isn’t the ‘unworthy manner’ in 1 Cor 11:27 possibly referring to the act of going ahead and eating without feeding the poorer ones in the gathering who had no food. And also to some who were getting drunk. Those who had nothing were being humiliated. 
    Evidence of rightly remembering the death of Jesus would have led to different behaviour amongst them. They were not to come to just fill their stomachs.

    I am suggesting the emphasis was on brothers and sisters in Christ being unified and not divided, and not humiliating the poorer brother. It was not about exclusion of a non believer who happened to turn up. It was all about giving the believers a rebuke – they were making a mockery of the meal by not being thoughtful for each other. They were being told to take a long hard look at themselves.

  11. Gordon, two posits on the Lord’s Supper:

    1. It is more than a symbolic meal, it is sacramental.  It mediates the sacred.  By participating in the meal we encounter the Mystery of the Christ event.

    2. Opening the Lord’s Table to all is the symbolic gesture reflective that grace is available to all, just as Jesus ‘ate with sinners’.

    Is it up to us to say who can and can’t experience the Mystery of the Divine presence through this holy sacrement?  Are we in fact just being neo-Pharasaic to set limits to God’s grace?


  12. Hi Gordon

    Yes, I’m for both full meals & welcoming enquirers. Not that I’ve convinced everyone at church!

    I’ve heard comments about ‘eating judgement’ applied to unbelievers. But I have never heard similar worries about inviting unbelievers to hear God’s word preached. Surely that is even more dangerous than participating in a symbolic/sacramental meal. It is an extremely dangerous matter to invite someone to an evangelistic event – for some attendees willingly continue in famine instead of feast on God’s word (thinking of Amos 8:11).

    But we also know that the gospel word is God’s power to save – so we long for our friends to join us. I think the meal works in a similar way, ‘Come and join us as you discover-meet Jesus.’

    And practically, if you have a real meal (we have quarterly church lunches which I always say are our Lord’s suppers) how can you exclude someone? To do so may well end up again in the disparity problem of 1 Corinthians 11.

  13. My understanding is that anyone is free to take part in the Lord’s Supper. However, because it is a visual representation of the gospel, the Lord’s Supper carries with it the judgment of the gospel. So if a non-Christian does not add faith to their participation, then the negative promises of the gospel apply to them – I guess no more so than when we preach the gospel, but in a real way nontheless. So as those administering the sacrament, I would think we have an earnest responsibility before God to spell out the consequences of participating in a gospel-defined event without faith in Christ. If we do that right, which non-Christian would want to partake?

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