It is one of the most holy sacraments of the Church yet one Gospel writer mentions it not. You may have celebrated this ritual last Sunday. Matthew, Mark and Luke present it in detail. Paul, the Apostle, condemned the church at Corinth for the unruly manner in which it observed this most sacred memorial.
But the Apostle whom Jesus loved, the man who rested his head in the bosom of our Lord at that Passover feast, did not say one word about the Eucharist, or Communion.
We should not consider this to be an oversight as John omits a measure of Synoptic detail. There are no parables in John’s record. Jesus speaks allegorically as when he says, I am the vine … (John 15:1-8); but this is a Hebraism rather than a parable. The religious leaders understood what he meant which is why they sought to kill him.
John does not mention the temptation of Christ. Neither does he include the Transfiguration, Sermon on the Mount — nor even the Lord’s Prayer.
But how could he not include what has become an institutionalized ritual? Do the elements become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, or are they only symbolic? Catholics and Protestants disagree.
Well, John does not overlook at the last Passover that Judas was sent away to carry out his treachery. When Jesus dipped the bread, Satan entered the betrayer’s heart, and our Lord said to him, What you do, do quickly (John 13:27).
The Gospel of John was the last to be written. The Apostle may have seen or heard of the Synoptics, but his testimony was penned in the style of first person reflective. That is, it was written by one who was an eyewitness to historical events — a record of the ministry of Jesus Christ.
At the Passover, Matthew, Mark and Luke focus on the breaking of bread while John discusses the washing of feet.
Washing of feet? Where are the details of the Lord’s Supper? Why does John ignore what the Church has been debating for 2000 years?
J. Vernon McGee suggested that division in the church was the reason John passed over the elements of Communion. It really has become a contentious ritual. When do we celebrate it? How often should we observe it? Will I get sick and die if I take it unworthily?
Unworthily, what does that even mean?
Jesus commanded that as often as you drink the cup, do so in remembrance of me (1 Corinthians 11:25). Of course, he was speaking of the cup of Passover — and Pesach is celebrated once a year. How often do we take Communion?
There was a gymnasium church in my neighborhood — you know, the non-denominational type that meets in a school auditorium — and their Communion service was, well, short on grace. They had the standard thimble cups of grape juice, and plates full of cracker crumbs arrayed on a table in front of the pastor’s lectern. There were no servers so I had to walk down a steep aisle, in the dark, to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Because of my vision impairment it was quite challenging. Instead of contemplating the Lord’s sacrifice I was nervously praying, “Please, Lord … don’t let me fall.”
This is what the Church has done to Communion. It has become a vain ritual. There is no meaningful connection to the annual Passover feast. Jesus celebrated Pesach, and I imagine he intended that his church use that occasion to memorialize him. Whether the Church does so worthily I’ll leave you to consider.
To simply say, “Thank you Lord, come and get it,” — well, I did not revisit that gymnasium church. What really struck me is that I have never partook of a Communion service where there were no servers.
And that is why, suggests Dr. McGee, that John reflected on the peripheral meaning of the Lord’s Supper — and that is … service.
As they sat around that Passover table, the Apostles pondering who among them was the betrayer — even Peter coaxing John to find out the name of the guilty one — Jesus girded himself in a towel and began to wash their feet.
Remember what I told you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ (John 15:20)
The Apostles still believed that they were going to reign with Christ from the restored House of David. James and John lobbied to sit at his side upon the royal throne (Mark 10:37). In that same chapter of Mark, Peter observed that the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. The unwritten subtext was, what’s in it for us? Whereupon Jesus replied that all who follow him will receive many times more — even eternal life; but he put an emphasis on servitude by saying the first will be last, and the last, first (Mark 10:31).
Jesus was demonstrating a servant’s heart. This was John’s old-age reflection of that first Communion where Christ came as a suffering servant — an example to his disciples of how we should live our lives.
Instead, we get embroiled in debates about transubstantiation — how the elements of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Jesus.
No, said John.
Communion with Christ is not a ritual, but a relationship. How do we live our lives in a manner worthy of our Lord? YHWH hated festivals and sacrifice — and rituals. The blood flowed daily from Solomon’s temple yet the people continued in their sin.
Peter, not understanding a servant’s heart, protested the Lord’s washing of his feet. To which the Lord answered, If I do not wash you, you have no part with me (John 13:5-9).
Imagine if we only had the Gospel of John. The Eucharist would be unknown, Communion would not be a divisive rite of the Church, and Passover would not have become a great feast of cracker crumbs and grape juice. Instead, the pastor would wash the feet of his parishioners; and you can be sure that no one — certainly not the preacher — would argue that it be done with any regularity, or frequency.
John, however, does not overlook the relevance of the body and blood of Christ. Turn back a few chapters to the feeding of the 5,000 where Jesus relates the manna from heaven as his own body — the bread of life. At the end of chapter 6 many disciples, not understanding, simply walked away.
Jesus declared that he was the bread of life — not like the manna which the fathers ate, but are now dead — but whoever eats his flesh will live (John 6:48-51).
This is a hard thing for your Jewish brothers to understand.
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:52-56).
We have, then, the theology of Communion removed from the Passover, and revealed in context during the earthly ministry of Christ specifically at the feeding of the 5,000.
It was a masterful piece of writing, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that we not turn the elements of the Eucharist into symbols of idolatry, and that we recognize the spiritual significance of Christ’s sacrifice.
As we examine our hearts to partake of the body and blood of Christ may we do so with a clearer understanding of what it means to be a disciple and servant of our Lord. The Apostles did not understand, and Jesus asked if they would also leave. Peter simply replied, “Where would we go?” (John 6:68-69)
I’ve never had a pastor wash my feet. Certainly, with the number of fundamental churches I’m surprised that it hasn’t become a tradition, but don’t expect that it will be added to the Communion service — ever.
As we near the season of Passover (April 10 – April 18) may we be mindful of its relevance to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ — that Communion, instituted at the Jewish feast, is an everlasting memorial to our Lord and Savior.
Many Christians know only the tradition of Easter (April 16), and are not taught that Jesus Christ arose on the Feast of Firstfruits — a Jewish holiday following Pesach.
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