IX. Until He Comes

The Lord's Supper is a meal celebrating a covenant. However, a covenant is not a point event but a continuing process. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a relationship among those who are on the way; and that way has a starting, a going, and an arrival. The covenant, then, includes phases of the past, the present, and the future.

A covenant is not a wedding but a marriage--and those are two quite different concepts. A wedding is a point event; it happens and is over and done with. My wedding took place on July 9, 1955. But don't ask me when my marriage took place; it is too early to say. It is on the way. Three children and many other things have given it considerable promise; but if it should end in separation (which I have no intention that it shall), then in a very real sense this does not indicate simply that a good marriage came to a sad end but that the marriage itself failed to come off.

Now the wedding was a very important event. It put the marriage into motion, set the nature of the relationship, and defined to whom I was married and to whom not. Marriages need weddings--preferably of a deliberate, public sort--but a wedding and a marriage are not the same thing.

Just so, what happened at Sinai was not, in and of itself, God's covenant with Israel; and what happened in the death of Christ was not, in and of itself, the new covenant in his blood. Of course, throughout their way together, covenant partners will want continually to recall the event of sealing that set them upon that way--just as husband and wife need to support and invigorate their marriage by recalling their wedding vows.

We have seen that the Lord's Supper includes a good deal of symbolism pointing us back to the event that inaugurated the covenant of the body of Christ. In fact, our study makes it apparent that, under the erosions of church history, while the Supper was being distorted and truncated, it was these backward-pointing elements that remained strong--to the point that the Supper has become little more than a commemoration of an event of the past. But because that past is intended to connect with the living present, it ought never be forgotten that the resurrection is as essential a part of the new covenant inaugural as is the crucifixion. Without the resurrection, the cross would have marked the end as well as the beginning of the covenant--the groom murdered on his wedding day. The original celebrations of the Supper recognized the importance of the resurrection; it is not as clear that our modern celebrations do.

The Supper does point back; but, properly performed, it is just as essentially a celebration, an attestation, and a demonstration of the covenant operational in the present reality of the body of Christ. The love feast, we have seen, shows forth the life of the body and the body alive. The feet washing shows it on the job, active in mission. This contemporary, alive, actual, with us and for us, here-and-now aspect of the covenant is basic to the gospel and originally was basic to the Supper. Whether or not any group chooses to adopt the meal and the feet washing, the church needs to work mightily at reclaiming the emphasis. My own opinion is that it cannot be done in any solid and lasting way without the help of those rites (although it certainly does not follow that possession of the rites guarantees the emphasis); but that is just one man&rsquouo;s opinion.

Yet, even if the celebration of "the body present" were regained, this would not make the Supper an adequate statement of what it was intended to state. It would still lack an essential dimension, that of the future. And it may well be that this is the most basic of the three. The covenant exists for those who are on the way; it is what brings and holds them together for the going on the way; it is the map that charts the way. And that way has an end, a goal, a destination. The covenant itself is end-state oriented; that is to say, it has in mind a particular consummation, it is interested in bringing its "body" into optimum arrangement, into the state of affairs which is conceived as its goal. Covenant is commitment; and commitment is itself future-directed, a promise to stick with it, to hang in there, until the designated end is accomplished. The idea of covenant and the metaphor of a caravan fit together very nicely.

With a covenant (as with a caravan) the future dimension, the end-state vision, is actually determinative for both the setting out (the past dimension) and the "How are we doing now?" (the present dimension). Thus the sealing of the new covenant was done with its end already in view, was set up in such a way as to point it toward its end. And thus the New Testament presents the Jesus in whose blood the covenant was sealed as being also the Jesus whose coming again will accomplish that end-state which is the kingdom of God; and his first function is the means to the second.

Just so, in answering the "How are we doing?" question, the covenant meal which is the Lord's Supper is not so much concerned about whether people are having a good time as about the progress they are making toward the kingdom. Yes, certainly the Supper is a celebration of the fact that we are the body of Christ and that in him we even now are enjoying some precious accomplishments in that regard. Nevertheless, the overall achievement is still very partial at best.

Consider, if you will, whatever group from whatever church gathered around whatever table in whatever way, it is yet plainly true that this group is not fully committed to being the body of Christ--indeed, no one person there is fully committed. And although the feet washing is a pledge of service, neither the group nor anyone in it is fully practicing the life for others. And although the meal is a convivium (feast) of Christian koinonia, the partakers still bring with them alienation, disharmony, and brokenness.

The strongest evidence that what we celebrate is, to this point, only the partial and imperfect body of Christ is the fact that the celebration includes only some people and not all. That it includes only some in the sense that some celebrations are closed to Christians who do not qualify according to the standards of the celebrators--this is a scandal. That it includes only some in the sense that many men have not yet chosen to be part of the body of Christ--this is the tragedy of the race.

The body of Christ is not fully the body of Christ until it incorporates not only that body which is the church but that body which is mankind. The body of Christ is not fully the body of Christ until mankind as such has attained to "mature manhood measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ." The body of Christ is fully the body of Christ only in the kingdom of God.

What we celebrate in the Supper, then, is true progress upon the way--and we dare not deny it. There is a body of Christ; we can be part of it; and we and the world are different because of it. But the celebration cannot stop there. What we are is significant only in the light of what we are in the way of becoming. What we celebrate is the presentiment of our humanity, the beginning to be now what we and all men shall be then. And thus our celebration is not simply the enjoyment of what we, as Christians, have been given in Christ, but is, as it were, an actual step toward the life God has in store for all men. Yes, in the Supper we do recall the death and resurrection that has put us upon this way. Yes, in the Supper we do enjoy and give thanks for the present privilege of caravaning in his train. But even more, in the Supper we portray for ourselves the likeness of that body which is our destination-and thus, in the portrayal, advance the journey itself.

The above may sound suspiciously like the theology of hope. Let me allay such suspicions: This is the theology of hope. However, it is not my own theological predilection that injects it into the Supper; the New Testament authors (and undoubtedly Jesus himself) were there first. If you are surprised to learn of the centrality of this motif, it only goes to show how completely we have managed to pervert the Supper; it is written into the New Testament passages as plain as day. In each particular account, at least something of an eschatological perspective gets imparted. Along with the cup-word, Mark has Jesus say, "Very truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mk. 14:25). Matthew enlarges the saying a bit: "... until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Mt. 26:29). Paul catches up the emphasis in a little different way with his comment: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). However, it is Luke who--in what is probably accurate tradition--portrays the theme in its full scope: "When the hour came, he took his place at table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.... You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and [as per the literal translation we proposed earlier] I am covenanting a covenant with you according as my Father covenanted a kingdom to me; you shall eat and drink at my table in my kingdom’ "(Lk. 22:14-18, 28-29).

Very clearly, the concept here is that the Supper is a preliminary, a presentiment of a greater feast to come. The present supper will be interrupted; Jesus' death and his going to the Father must intervene. Nevertheless, the meal itself is a promise and guarantee that it will be resumed and consummated in the kingdom. The covenant of the body of Christ is God's promise that the Lord’s Supper shall continue until it becomes the great banquet of the kingdom. From far back within Old Testament tradition, the age to come, the consummation of the kingly rule of God, had been pictured as a great feast enjoyed together by God and his people. Indeed, it may well be that the Revelator has in mind a projection of the Lord's Supper when he speaks of "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9). In any case, it is certain that the Lord’s Supper is to be seen as something open-ended, a pointer toward something greater yet to come, a presentiment that the way of the covenant leads to a destination.

There can be no doubt that an eschatological perspective is strongly engrained in the New Testament accounts of the Supper; but is there any element of the Supper which in and of itself is an eschatological symbol? Of course, the Supper as a whole, being a presentiment of the banquet of the kingdom, is an eschatological symbol; and this significance could be picked up in the way we explain the Supper and in the liturgy which accompanies its observance. But we do seem to have run through all the actions of the Supper without discovering one that is specifically and inescapably forward-pointing in its effect. Yet there is a consideration which merits attention.

In the account of the Last Supper, the early manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke present several variant readings and different arrangements that make recovery of the original confusing indeed. However, the evidence indicates that the confusion should not be attributed to Luke but to later editors who assumed that he was confused and so took steps to straighten him out--thus compounding the confusion.

Mark and Matthew have Jesus, "during supper," first break bread and then take the cup and speak the words regarding the new covenant in his blood. Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus begin with a cup and a saying which does not mention either the new covenant or his blood but speaks of the supper's eschatological completion, and then break bread, and finally (in the long version of the passage) "after supper" take a cup and speak of the new covenant in his blood. The best explanation of the Lukan variant is that Luke or his sources had knowledge of two cups used in the Lord's Supper. The short version of the passage, then, represents later editors' efforts to prune back the text to make it conform to the one-cup tradition of Mark and Matthew.

However, there is a consideration which would suggest that although he may have the two cups in the wrong order, Luke came closer to the truth than did Mark and Matthew. The consideration has to do with Jewish Passover custom. During the Passover meal a number of cups were passed, but two were of particular significance. The cup which opened the meal could be called the "theme" cup; it was the occasion for recollecting what Passover is all about. The second significant cup was the final one; it was the cue for the recitation of the line from Psalm 118:26, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD." This use indicates clearly that Jewish tradition understood the saying in a messianic, future-pointing, eschatological sense. It is not quoted in the New Testament Supper accounts, but it is quoted elsewhere in the New Testament (Mt. 21:9, and Mt. 23:39, and parallels). It is abundantly evident that the early church applied the words to Jesus and to his expected coming at the end of the age. Indeed, Paul's remark about proclaiming "the death of the Lord, until he comes" could be a reminiscence of the Psalm 118 text.

In any case, once we are aware of how much eschatological notice is in the Supper accounts themselves, the more likely it seems that the Lukan hint is correct--the primitive Supper (as the Jewish Passover) included a final cup designed to conclude the service (better, break off the service) in a way that left it open-ended, incomplete, forward-looking, and eschatologically expectant. Indeed, under this assumption, the cup-word of Matthew and Mark ("This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom") in its two sentences very plausibly could be seen as the conflation of an opening theme cup and a closing eschatological cup into a single, dual-saying cup.

In order to preserve and enhance the two ideas which are clearly inherent within the Supper, whether they were celebrated by one cup or two, our order of worship will go with Luke and use two cups. The final cup--which makes explicit the "presentiment" aspect of the Supper as a whole--could focus upon Jesus’ words, "until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." It could focus upon the Psalm 118 line: "Blessed is the one who comes." It could focus upon the Pauline "until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). And it could-and there is evidence that it did-focus upon one other phrase.

The phrase is an Aramaic prayer, Marana tha, meaning "Our Lord, come!" That it is in Aramaic indicates its primitiveness; it must date back to the earliest years, to the time before the church had moved out into a Greek-speaking milieu. That Paul (1 Cor. 16:22) quotes it in Aramaic even though he is writing in Greek and to a Greek-speaking congregation is an indication of the sanctity and high regard in which Christians held and transmitted this prayer. The Didache (that earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament) indicates that at the time of that writing the Marana tha prayer was used in the Lord's Supper; and some scholars believe that even the Pauline 1 Corinthians occurrence shows signs of having come from a eucharistic liturgy. The prayer is encountered once again (this time in Greek rather than in Aramaic) at the conclusion of the book of Revelation. The setting is not the Supper; but, as in 1 Corinthians, it is an envoi, an "until then"--which, we suggest, is also its proper setting in the Supper.

In some ways, Marana tha is, for the final cup, a focus superior to any of the other phrases we suggested; it can encompass more meaning. Although it seems not to have been the primary interpretation of the words, they could be taken to mean, "Our Lord has come! He has been here, has lived among us, has given his life on our behalf." And it is this "having come" that makes possible and is one focus of our Supper celebration.

More directly the words render the meaning, "Our Lord, come now! Be present as the leader-lord who, at this very moment, in this very convivium, is active and powerful in our midst."

Finally, in their most direct and essential significance, the words say, "Our Lord, come! Bring us from these presentiments into the full reality of the kingdom: hasten the day when our faith shall be made sight. O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear."

With the Marana tha cup, then, the entire Supper opens out into the three-dimensional glory which rightly belongs to it. To close (no, break off) the service with this cup gives it the open end, the momentum, the impulse toward the future which is the distinctive feature of the Christian faith and the caravan church's raison d’être. And to include this cup makes the Supper a celebration truly worth celebrating.

Celebrate "life"? "Our humanity"? "The infinite possibilities of human existence"? Poppycock! Look about you at those things and look with the eyes of all people of all stations and conditions. What is there to celebrate? Or look to see what those things show any real prospect of becoming. What is there to celebrate?

So what is there to celebrate? There is to celebrate the fact that through Jesus Christ God has offered to men a covenant by which they can become incorporate as the body of Christ and thus be put upon the way to achieving the humanity (the social humanity) for which they were created. There is to celebrate the fact that as the body of Christ we even now--and particularly in the celebration itself--are experiencing presentiments of this humanity. And above all, there is to celebrate the fact that this covenant and these presentiments constitute God's guarantee that he will bring mankind through to its intended completion. The word "celebration" came into the language for express use with the Supper; what other experience is there within the life of man that offers better cause?