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Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Greatest Thing Since Broken Bread

Whether out of innocent curiosity, out of serious concern for precise biblical exegesis, or out of obsessive hyper-typologizing tendencies, theologian after theologian has looked at verses like Genesis 14:18 ("And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High"), and wondered whether the reference to bread and wine should be understood sacramentally--that is, whether they should be understood as shadows of Jesus' institution of the Lord's Supper, or whether they should be understood as simple statements about the standard culinary fare of the day.

Passages like Acts 2:42-46 and 20:7 raise the same kind of question because the Lord's Supper has at that point already been instituted and the earliest post-Pentecost church is often mentioned "breaking bread" together. Is this Holy Communion? Or is it just dinner?

I would be lying if I said I knew that answer definitively here.

However, I want to say this definitively: to make very much out of this question is precisely to miss the divine genius of the Table (and of the Font). In fact, it's to forget that God not only freely created all things and condescended to personally relate with His creation, but in Christ even took on flesh and died for man as a man in order to take man from mortality and depravity to holiness and eternal life.

It is God's character to take the ordinary, the old, the weak, and the fading away, and to make it extraordinary, new, strong, and to endow it with everlasting significance. And because we ourselves are weak and tend to fade away, even after having been decisively and irrevocably given new life in Christ, God saw fit to condescend even further to help us. Not only do we have the verbal message about Jesus' death and resurrection for sinners preached and spoken to us regularly, but we have been given visible and tangible signs and seals of His saving work and our participation in it (and in Him) by faith. We have simple water, which becomes for us either an overwhelming sea of judgment or, through faith, a sprinkling with or immersion in Spirit-wrought cleansing and incorporation into Christ. Additionally, we have a simple meal of bread and wine which either signifies and seals to us our own fate of death if we partake in an unworthy manner, or becomes to us our weekly spiritual nourishment and renewal in faith-union with Christ.

Because Christ has joined Himself to His sacraments, He is really there. I did not say His body is in the elements. I said He is joined to the sacraments--to the flowing of the water and to the eating and drinking. By the Holy Spirit, just as believers are already united to Christ, they experience and practice union and communion with the whole Christ (His own humanity and divinity being united forever) in the sacraments, and every time they eat and drink at the Table outwardly in faith, inwardly they feed on Christ's body and blood and the benefits of His saving work in their souls.

The New Testament sacraments of baptism and communion are not magic, which Rome and some others effectively make them out to be. But they do have real redemptive power, which some who overreact against Rome and others tend to deny. And they have real power because Christ has real power. And Christ has taken up the choicest weapons for a cosmic warfare designed to put the glory of His grace on display in weaklings like us: not cosmic laser beams or fireballs from heaven (well, the fire part's for the grand finale), but rather mere water, bread, and wine.

The precise nature of sacramental efficacy, the "Real Presence of Christ," and requirements for participation could, should, and are being debated continuously between Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed folk, Baptists, and others, sometimes more graciously than at other times, and sometimes with greater clarity and mutual understanding than at other times. But my main point here is just that there's no clear reason your dinner tomorrow night is necessarily any less a "foreshadowing" or "shadowing" of Holy Communion than Melchizedek's gift of bread and wine. I suppose I could be wrong about Genesis 14:18, and please don't hear me saying that the Lord's Table itself isn't obviously more holy or consecrated or special than your daily meat and potatoes. I'm just saying that to me, Communion is actually all the more powerful, beautiful, and genius of a thing if Melchizedek was just dishing up leftovers from a family banquet the night before without any prophetic thoughts running through his mind at all.

Are verses like Genesis 14:18 meant for Christians to look back upon with Eucharistic eyes, or are they just mentioning routine, mundane luncheons in passing?



Praise God for His coming down and His lifting up, and for His redemptive, re-creative power and grace.

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