Jesus is a master communicator. He is known for, among other things, his clever and concise story explanations for complex things. He would regularly draw out the inner workings of his listeners’ hearts—even exposing areas of which we ourselves were previously unaware—with accessible, yet provocative, parables about everyday life. With this young Galilean, you didn’t need to be an elite theologian or have a PhD in eschatology to get a taste of the kingdom of God. Jesus would explain it in down to earth, blue collar terms that resonated with his disciples and took root in their hearts. This talent for simple and effective communication is especially seen in Jesus' use of food and drink to convey the core of the Gospel—namely, that he is the Bread of Life.
After miraculously feeding a crowd of over five thousand people, Jesus explained to them that he was the “true bread from heaven” sent to satisfy their hunger and to give them life (John 6:32-33). He likened himself to the mysterious manna that God provided to the Israelites in the wilderness, and he claimed they would need to feast on his flesh and drink his blood if they wanted to live. This bizarre declaration wasn't any less jarring in Aramaic. There’s no linguistic nuance or cultural filter that makes his sentiment any more palatable. Jesus’ apparent invitation—no, insistence—that his followers cannibalize him was received as both disgusting and insane. Many of them left over this sermon. Even the Twelve were shaken but ultimately had “nowhere else to go.”
Later in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus repeated this earlier controversial sentiment. He retooled the Passover meal, that was first enacted on the eve of the Exodus, in order to celebrate and declare an even greater deliverance. The Lord's Supper is one of two rituals that Jesus personally instituted among his followers (interestingly, his diverse body can rarely agree on the meaning or mechanics of either of these two rituals. In many cases, we've allowed practices that were originally designed to unite us to instead divide us). There are quite a few indicators that throughout the 1st Century Church the regular celebration of the Lord's Supper became the main event when the people of God would gather.
Breadcrumbs Leading to Jesus
Bread (a staple food item that represents basic sustenance in most cultures) is an essential element of human life that comes from outside of us. Like oxygen, we need it to survive, yet we can’t produce it ourselves from within.
God has designed human beings with an internal mechanism that reminds us of our need for this external sustenance. Dirt, rocks, sticks and such won't do. Only food will satisfy our hunger.
However, the bread won’t benefit us until we consume it. And it won't force itself down our throats and into our stomachs. We must decide if we will eat or not. In fact, we might have quite a bit of observable knowledge about bread and the human digestive system, but it's the one who partakes—even if they know nothing of how it works—that actually benefits from bread (and, in the end, has a greater sort of knowledge about bread).
Once we eat the bread, our body begins to metabolize it. The bread essentially becomes a part of us. It nourishes us and fuels our body from within. It gives us life.
And lastly, the bread is destroyed in the eating. We can't have our bread and eat it too. The bread simply won't survive its encounter with us if all these other things are going to happen.
Everything we've just considered about bread is of course obvious. The benefits of eating and drinking are intuitively understood, even by very small children, and, as previously stated, can be experienced apart from knowing how it all works. This is exactly the point. This is why it becomes a powerful, easily repeatable, and readily accessible picture of what Jesus has done, and is doing, in those who call him “King.”
Pass the Bread
In many cultures, breaking bread together is a very intimate communal activity. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we preach the Gospel to our brothers and sisters, to ourselves, and to not-yet-believers who are looking on. As the Apostle Paul says, we “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In this way, it’s both a declaration and an invitation—a family meal with much room still at the table.
It's not uncommon for the person officiating the celebration of the Lord's Supper, after they've explained its significance, to instruct not-yet-believers in attendance to let the elements pass them by. These uninitiated folks are usually told to come find someone after if they want to hear more about the Gospel. I think this common church practice misses the purpose of what's actually happening in the ritual. The Gospel is being proclaimed. That's the point of it all. If someone in attendance suddenly believes the Gospel message that we're collectively celebrating and declaring, even if they didn't believe only seconds before, they should be invited to respond by partaking (if you're from a tradition that would require baptism first, very well. I'd agree that baptism is the prescribed first response to the Gospel and the other ritual commanded by Christ. But make baptism readily available, and resume the family meal only after it's done). You don't present a Meal, describe how incredible it is, and then quickly whip the plate away from your dinner guest.
Our reluctance to let just anyone participate in the Lord's Supper is I think rooted in Paul's stern warning to those who would partake in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27). If you look at the context, though, Paul was addressing a church that was making a mockery of the sacred ritual with their hypocrisy (he wasn't forbidding the newcomer who has yet to procure their PhD in soteriology). On the one hand the church at Corinth was declaring their faith in Jesus' Gospel by participating in the meal, but on the other hand they were completely contradicting the implications of the Gospel by excluding people who were running late to the gathering or weren't able to afford the fixings and so on. Basically, they turned what was meant as a unifying family meal into a free-for-all exhibition of human selfishness and divisive prejudice. As Jesus pointed out with his story about the unforgiving servant, we can't receive forgiveness from God and then withhold forgiveness from others. That's not how his Gospel works. Freely extending forgiveness is just one example of how a truly transformed person will naturally live in Gospel truth. Anytime we partake of the Lord's Supper while actively denying through our rebellion the Gospel that the meal illustrates, we're “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). We're essentially making a statement that we don't in practice believe. We're taking his name in vain and trampling on his spilt blood. So we ought to “examine” ourselves before we eat and drink of the meal (1 Corinthians 11:28). Anyone who finds that they don't actually believe the Gospel (regardless of whether or not they say they do) should refrain from participating in the Lord's Supper. If we find that we do believe but are currently out of step with Jesus' Gospel then we must first acknowledge our inconsistencies and realign ourselves with our King. And whether we're responding to the Gospel declaration for the first time or for the ten-thousandth time, those who have been born of God will respond with repentance and then partake with gratitude.
Fortunately for us once-rebels, Jesus offers himself to all. His words of life are for anyone “with ears to hear,” and he invites everyone who is “hungry” and “thirsty” to be satisfied in him. He's given us a simple yet profound demonstration of his good news, something we can be reminded of often (since we typically eat at least three meals a day) and something we can in turn share with those who will be hearing it for the first time as we welcome them to our table. Jesus truly is the Bread of Life. Eat up!
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” —John 6:51