VII. Broken for You

It is through the Lord's Supper that we celebrate and actually become formed into the body of Christ. In Chapter 5 we gave attention to the matter of the "covenant," and in Chapter 6 our interest turned to what the Bible means by "body" in the covenantal context. Now we give attention to the nature of that body which is "of Christ."

If the body is a fellowship that shows forth the essential character of its head, what is the particular character that we are covenanting to display? In effect, this character of Christ is the content of the covenant, for, in the covenant, it is this which he is offering to give us and which we are pledging to live out in our communal life. What does the Supper say in this regard? "The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’" (1 Cor. 11:24).

This, from Paul, is our earliest attestation of the bread-word. There is some variation in the synoptic accounts, they being in different degrees less complete than the Pauline statement; but there is no actual disharmony among them. Depending upon what manuscripts one follows, the words "broken" or "given" may be either included or omitted here in Corinthians and in Luke. But whether or not these words are original, either or both of them obviously are in line with and contribute to the meaning of the original; they constitute no problem.

The word "remembrance" is not a rendering that does justice to the biblical concept. I have no other translation to suggest, but these all imply a relationship that involves too much of time gap, distance, separation, and absence. The biblical meaning would intend much more of contemporaneity and living fellowship: "Do this to celebrate me, to become incorporate with me, to get us together in living reality."

But more important than nailing down the wording and meaning of this bread-word is noting the manner of its delivery. All of the accounts are very consistent in stressing that Jesus broke bread and said, "This is my body." The emphasis is altogether on the breaking of the bread and not upon the eating of it. Further, with the disciples at Emmaus it was as the stranger broke bread that he was recognized as the risen Lord. And in John's account of breakfast on the seashore, the accent is upon Jesus’ giving the disciples bread and fish. Still further, there is indication (from the book of Acts) that the earliest name by which this Christian rite was known was precisely "the breaking of bread"--this long before such terms as "the Lord's Supper," "the last supper," "communion," "eucharist," or "mass" had even been dreamed of. Now I know that "breaking bread" can be used and was used as nothing more than a general term for "eating together," but the weight of the total biblical evidence leads me to suggest that much more than just the general term was involved.

What then does the "breaking" signify? Stop and think: Why break bread in the first place? If one had it in mind to eat the whole portion himself, it would make sense to bite it rather than break it. Plainly, breaking bread signifies the intention to share it, to give to others. Even more, if that bread is the symbol of oneself, the breaking signifies the intention to give of oneself to the point of sacrifice, to expend oneself in the process of sharing. And this is the idea, I believe, from which the whole significance of "This is my body" takes its source.

Jesus took bread and broke it and said, in effect, "This is my body--what I am doing in this act of breaking the loaf is a portrayal of the character of my body; this is what my life and person are all about." And it should be apparent to anyone who knows Jesus that this indeed is what his bodyhood is all about. The cup of the new covenant in my blood reinforces the motif. Calvary is the supreme expression of the body given to be broken--but it is by no means the only expression. Jesus' whole life and ministry represent a giving of himself for the breaking; Bonhoeffer's instinct was sharp and clear when he characterized Jesus as "the man for others."

And although he does not use the concept of "being broken," Paul also saw clearly that this was the character of Jesus’ bodyhood: "You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). Also, Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
and being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death--
  even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8).

And yet, if this is the meaning of the bread and the bread-word, consider how sadly (almost comically, but in the first place sadly) we have missed the point. In most commemorations of the Supper there is no breaking of the bread at all; it is pre-cut into bite-sized nibbles or stamped into neat little wafers-just that conveniently do we manage the ceremony of the shared loaf. And even in those instances where some breaking or sharing is done, it is handled as a matter of course, preliminary to the real business of eating. Look, next time, and see; the bread is passed or otherwise distributed with some degree of informality (or just plain humanness) but then, for the eating, watch the holiness come over people's faces--the glazed eyes, the slow chew, the introspective swallow.

I do not mean to be making fun. Someone who was out to make fun of the church accused it of being the place where people go to play "swallow the leader." The remark, of course, is both unkind and unfair, and yet it does have enough truth in it to make us pause and consider how far we have sold out to sacramentalism. Something tragic has taken place if Jesus intended the breaking of bread as the sign of his body and we have passed that over in favor of a sacramental eating through which, oblivious to the existential character of that body, we think to ingest its substance by quasi-physical means.

And every bit as serious as this perversion is the fact that the breaking, which clearly and definitely is a social and communal symbol of sharing, has been displaced by eating (chewing and swallowing), a very much privatized and atomized symbol of individual possession. The body of Jesus was a shared body, a body for others, and the body of Christ is a communal body, a social organism. The me-by-myself consumption of a nubbin of holy bread cannot--simply cannot-be the correct expression of what the New Testament talks about.

It would be much better to use a regular loaf of bread that is broken from person to person around a table. This separates the act of breaking from that of eating. In this method the bread is broken in a self-conscious act. If possible, each participant might simply take the broken piece and lay it on a plate, eating it later as part of a fellowship meal. When it happens as I have experienced on occasion, using loaves freshly baked by a member of the congregation, the meaning of eucharist as a thanksgiving offered up from the hands, labors, and possessions of the people comes alive, and the tearing of a warm loaf becomes a most vivid reminder of "my body broken for you."

In the breaking of bread, Christ demonstrates to us the character of his body (the body of Jesus) which was given for us. But according to our earlier discussion regarding the nature of the corporate body, the body of Christ comes into being only as the individual constituents accept that bodyhood as their own program, pledging themselves to express it through their communal life as he has done in his person's life. Does the Lord’s Supper give explicit attention to this aspect of the matter, to our response as well as to Christ's approach?

The answer to that question depends entirely upon whose version of the Lord’s Supper you have in mind. It would have to be said that the customary Supper, which consists only of the bread and cup, does not give deliberate, conscious attention to our commitment and role as the body of Christ; all of the action has to do with what Christ has done for us. But the customary mode is not the only way the Supper is celebrated in Christendom.

If our practice of the Supper is to be determined in strict accordance with the action commanded in the New Testament, then hear this: "During supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel.... After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them'" (John 13:3-5, 12-17).

Truth to tell, the command regarding feetwashing is clearer and more decisive than the command regarding the bread and cup. I am aware, however, that there are some things to be said on the other side.

  1. The foot washing is recounted only in the Gospel of John and not elsewhere;
  2. the passage stands without further support.
  3. More, the evidence concerning the practice of feet washing in the early church is scant indeed. There are references enough to make it plain that feetwashing was practiced; but under what circumstances and whether as part of the Lord's Supper, it is impossible to say.

Thus, this approach to the matter leads inevitably to a toss-up: one very definite command with little consequent evidence to undergird it. So more to the point than trying to argue this question to a conclusion is to ask a different question: How well does the feet washing fit into the Lord’s Supper, and what does it add to the bread and cup? Our purpose is to show that it fits perfectly and that it adds precisely what we have seen the logic of the case demanding but the bread and cup lacking.

Jesus’ freely taking upon himself the slave task of washing the guests’ (disciples’) feet is as vivid an expression of "my body broken for you" as is the cross itself. Indeed, it is even more pointed in its "for you" aspect; the crucifixion (the event in and of itself) does not make it readily apparent that what Jesus did is "for us"; with the feet washing, the connection is unmistakable.

And in every way the feet washing is a more graphic statement than is the breaking of bread. Consider how in the course of time the significance of the breaking of bread was lost even to the Lord's Supper; yet any reader of John 13 can immediately tell you what the feet washing signifies. The action itself is very appropriate: in order to wash another's feet one must kneel, and to kneel is to break one's upright posture, one's posture of self-containment, of being for oneself. One must now break at the knee, break at the waist, break at the neck, break at the elbow. In as clear a way as could be devised, feet washing says, "My body broken for you." The feet washing, then, harmonizes with, supports, reinforces, and even corrects the breaking of the bread. Yet it does more. Even if I am the one who breaks bread with my brother around the table, the bread-word still means "This is my [Jesus'] body broken for you." And this is how it should be. But with the feet washing the giving of the body to be broken becomes my own act.

"I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you."

The instinct of the John author is a right one; the feet washing introduces an aspect of the Lord's Supper which surely must have been present in the mind of Christ but to which the bread and cup alone simply do not give adequate expression. With the bread and cup alone, the service concludes with the participants as mere recipients of the body of Jesus. The feet washing makes them pledged and active members of the body of Christ.

The "body" which Jesus first showed forth in washing our feet and which we proceed to show forth in washing one another's feet is, of course, that of humble service, of being men for others in likeness with the man for others. Here is caught up a major element of the gospel which otherwise the Supper does not express: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor? ... Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:36-37). "For those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; ... The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters too" (1 John 4:19-21).

I know that for those who are not accustomed to washing feet as a part of the Lord’s Supper, the suggestion must sound strange and slightly grotesque. But be assured that the feeling is only a matter of what one is used to. After all, for anyone not used to the idea, talking about and going through the motions of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus must be more than slightly grotesque.

Granted, there are some people (even among the Brethren, whose Supper has always included feet washing) who demur on the grounds that the very act of baring one's own feet or of washing another’s is distasteful and impolite. Their argument is that feet washing was an accepted custom in Jesus’ day but one that is completely foreign to us. Nevertheless, it must be recalled that Jesus chose to wash the disciples' feet precisely because of the offense and scandal involved. It is true that the offense was not related to delicate feelings about bare feet; it came at a much deeper, a much more scandalous level, and one we hardly are in position to appreciate. Yes, feet were publicly washed in Jesus' day--but no one but slaves were expected to do it. Jesus washed feet as a way of demonstrating that he was willing to make himself a slave out of love for his brethren. It is certain that he did not do it for the sake of any pleasurable sensations involved. And Peter's response, "I will never let you wash my feet," indicates something of the shock he felt. Thank God feet washing is still somewhat distasteful; otherwise we would miss the point entirely.

There are a couple of different ways of handling the feet washing. Each has its advantages; perhaps someone can find a method that will catch the advantages of both. One way is to have the foot-tub and towel right at the table, the service then being performed from one person to the next around the table. In this case, seating is segregated for the entire Supper--men at the tables on the one side of the room, women on the other. The advantage of this method is that the feet washing is an integral part qf the service, taking place right at the tables.

In the second method, at the appropriate point in the service the men (usually a small group at a time rather than all at once) retire to an adjoining room and do their feet washing there, while the women go to another room to do theirs. This tends to break up the service but has the advantage of allowing families to sit together for the bread and cup and the meal.

And while we are making so bold as to suggest that unaccustomed Christians might become interested in feet-washing, we might as well go all the way. After a man has washed his brother's feet (or a woman her sister’s) the Brethren practice is for them to greet each other with the holy kiss (the kiss of peace). There is not only good biblical precedence for this but injunctions as plain and definite as that regarding feet washing itself. The command to "greet one another with the kiss of peace" is found in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Peter. The act obviously is appropriate; and again, it is all in what one is used to.

In the Lord’s Supper the bread represents the body of Jesus broken for us. The feet washing represents the body of Christ--namely ourselves--being broken for the brethren and for the world. But the breaking of bread has another important meaning, which goes beyond that of humble, self-giving service. There is the demanding, often arduous and painful, meaning; and there is a pleasant and enjoyable meaning. It is picked up in the fellowship meal (the love feast, the agape) which, we noted earlier, was first known as "the breaking of bread." And this meaning of the breaking of bread is no less vital to the Christian gospel and integral to the Lord's Supper than is the sacrificial one. A man for others--whether in the person of Jesus or that of his followers--will be "for them" not only in service but in joyous fellowship.

Whether or not one can find an explicit command in this case, it is clear that the New Testament knows nothing of a Lord's Supper without a meal and has not even a conception that the meal and the eucharist are two different things that could be separated. That separation came later, and even then for practical rather than theological reasons. Now that the practical reasons (drunkenness and public scandal) no longer obtain, it is very difficult to justify the continued omission of the meal. And if, as we have maintained, the Supper basically is a covenant meal, the dropping of the meal does not make very good sense from any point of view. No wonder the idea of "covenant" got lost in the process; it is like a wedding ceremony in which marriage never gets mentioned.

All of our suggestions regarding the cup, the bread, and the feet washing have assumed a full-fledged meal as their setting; and it is doubtful whether they can maintain their meaning outside that setting. A covenant cup, as does the pledging of a toast, naturally belongs to a meal. Although the partaking of a sacramental tidbit can stand by itself, the breaking of a loaf around a table would seem quite artificial without some other food to go with it. The feet washing, of course, is part and parcel of the mealtime--even banquet--tradition. And although it would seem to be stretching the language rather far, even the one-bite-and-one-swallow practitioners still call theirs the Lord's Supper!

In a covenant and its commemorative meal, the participants pledge themselves not only to belong to and to serve one another but also to enjoy one another. Indeed, in the meal they not only pledge to enjoy one another but go about doing it. And it should be said that the "one another" includes Christ, the covenant head, as well as the followers who constitute his body. The New Testament tradition is clear that the Supper is to be understood as a meal with Christ, not one in honor of the dear departed.

It is in the meal, then, that the fish (which we discussed earlier) takes over as the central symbol and that the emphasis shifts from the crucifixion to the resurrection. It is, of course, the resurrection that makes it possible for men today to have table fellowship with the living Lord. Most assuredly, we should be careful not to forget that it took an outpouring of his blood and a breaking of his body to win this new covenant, this joy and victory of a living Lord united with his followers as a close-knit body; but in the meal, the darkness of Good Friday is overtopped by the light of Easter.

Without the meal, the Lord's Supper tends to stop short of the resurrection; and consequently the mood usually is much too somber to qualify as a celebration of the Christian gospel. Of course, what Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:26 is true: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death...." But we must recall that he was writing in an effort to correct people who were misusing the good time aspects of the meal. Nevertheless, the Supper deserves and requires something of the flavor it gains in the account of the breakfast on the seashore in Jn. 21:7-8: "That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat...."

There has been a resurrection; the Lord is present at his table; that table does bear a fish, and it is right that those around the table enjoy their fellowship with him and their fellowship with one another in him. It is properly named "the love feast" and the church is much the poorer for having dropped it.

Regarding practical matters, my own church, the Church of the Brethren, has always had the meal but has usually eaten it in sober and holy silence. Consequently it has come across as a funeral supper. This, I am convinced, is wrong. Although, of course, the conversation ought not become trivial and careless, the meal should display the sort of true sociality that requires conversation, smiles, and even the proper kind of laughter.

As to menu, why should it not be a true meal rather than simply a symbolic one? Fish has been suggested as the main dish--and as a central symbol--but a prescribed menu of foods of particular holiness would miss the point. Most times in my experience a few people have prepared the dinner at the church; but I have also participated in love feasts which come even closer to the early church model and take on an added theological significance as well. They were potluck suppers in which the people brought dishes prepared at home. I am aware that the ritual of high church includes the "offering," in which the "host" is carried from the rear of the sanctuary, through the congregation, and up to the altar, as a sign of the people making a freewill gift (a eucharist) of the food of the Supper. But it seems to me that real people bringing real food to a real supper says it much better.

Whether we are thinking now of the body of Jesus broken for us (the breaking of the loaf), the body of Christ broken in humble service (the feet washing), or the body of Christ celebrating koinonia (the love feast), the fact that it is "the body" has the effect of bringing the people close to one another, knitting them together, uniting them in love and mutual concern. The Supper is a celebration of the church and the church, it must be said, not as a commissary but as a caravan of people whose very coming together and going together upon a common way constitutes it as church.

It is Paul, of course, who introduces the term "the body of Christ" to describe this quality of covenant fellowship; and he sees that the Supper is its sign and demonstration: "When we break the bread, is it not a means of sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body; for it is one loaf of which we all partake" (1 Cor. 10:16-17). His second sentence makes it plain that in his first sentence he does truly mean "the body of Christ" and not simply what we have been calling "the body of Jesus." Whenever, as is customary in most observances of the Supper, we allow the implication to stand that "when we break bread" (notice he does not say "eat bread") we are sharing simply on an individual, one-to-one basis along the axis between the person of each individual believer and the person of Jesus Christ, we inevitably have impoverished Paul's understanding of the Supper.

The Didache, which is perhaps the oldest Christian document preserved outside the New Testament, gives us an example of a Lord's Supper liturgy that dates very close to New Testament times themselves. There we find a prayer used at the moment of the breaking of bread. It may be based directly upon Paul's thought; in any case it carries his idea just one step farther: "As this bread that is broken was scattered upon the mountains and gathered together, and became one, so let thy church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom." In this prayer we have not only the "one loaf" of which Paul speaks, but the recognition that that loaf has to become one, as scattered grains of wheat give themselves to a common life and a common way. Although it is not often heard among us, this way of thinking is integral to the Supper. "Blest be the tie that binds... (In passing, note also in this Didache prayer the esehatological, future-pointing theme which is to be the major thrust of our last chapter.)

The idea of "one body--one loaf" is impressive; but perhaps even more impressive--going beyond metaphor--is an actual description of the thing in itself. It is taken from Acts 2: "They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

And that is what the Lord's Supper is all about (better, that is one of the things the Supper is all about). How sad it is that people can attend our observances of the Supper and never discover it!