In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we also easily settle for some superficial meaning and significance, although truer ones are equally obvious. In a sentence, the Lord’s Supper is usually thought to represent Christ’s death and, secondarily, our life or salvation on account of that. Closer to fact is the statement that it represents OUR death (in and with Christ), and his life now, in us.
If the Lord’s Supper represents primarily or only the death of Christ on the cross, it is almost superfluous, like a photo of a person who is very much alive and right beside us. For one thing, we have the written Word with its detailed description of Christ’s death and its significance for us. In addition to that we are surrounded by countless duplicates of the cross on which Christ gave his life, which is certainly more apt a reminder than a bit of food and drink, which connection has to carefully explained or be meaningless to the uninitiate. (A picture should be self-evident to any viewer, and not have to be entitled or described in order to be “intelligible”, as in the case of a bunch of purple triangles with the label “Nude descending staircase.” The fact that it takes far longer to read an explanation of the Lord’s Supper than it does to celebrate it makes one wonder as to whether our explanation is the correct one.) The cross on which the Lord was “lifted up” has literally been lifted up around the world and in every age since his crucifixion; who can escape its testimony in the civilized world? It is exposed to the public far more than the Lord’s Supper ever is, which is more of a testimony to oneself and fellow-Christians than to the unsaved.
And if Christ’s death is the prominent truth depicted in the Lord’s Supper, its celebration is of doubtful timeliness at, say, Christmas time, one of the most favorite times for its observance. Good Friday or Maunday Thursday is appropriate, but a birthday anniversary is a bit incongruous for a death-memorial observance.
A sacrament, after all, is not designed merely to portray objective fact, but to communicate understanding and to elicit the observer’s participant’s involvement. (Here is where the cross, as a symbol, just because of its very familiarity, has lost much usefulness, can even be counterproductive. Perhaps an Old Testament comparison would be the brass serpent, a very-real type of Calvary (see John 3:15) which at one time was a God-given means of healing, but later became an an idol through whose veneration people lost their souls. At one time the cross around a person’s necks was a reminder to the wearer rather than an attractive form of jewelry. Also with a thousand other forms and uses, including acres of markers over the graves of blatant atheists and profane military people.)
As in the case of baptism (for the two sacraments reinforce one another by having points of similarity as well as difference in typology), the Lord’s Supper is intended to denote and to assure ourselves of our personal participation in Christ’s death. That is to say, not just the indisputable fact that an historical Christ, the perfect God-man, once died, (who is so stupid as to challenge that?) nor even that he died in my place (which we believe better on some days than others), but that when he died I died, with him and in him (much like I was in Adam and creation from the very beginning; God added no new molecules or genes to creation after his “rest” on the “seventh day”). The Lord’s Supper is a picture of Gal 2:20, Romans 6:3,4; Col. 2:20; 3:3.
“As often as you do this,” said Paul in I Cor. 11, “you do show (demonstrate, exhibit) Christ’s death until he returns.” What he means is that we exhibit, by our participation in that memorial meal, Christ’s death in us. This is even clearer when he says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which I am crucified to the world and to me.” To the same Galatians he also writes categorically that Christ had been displayed before them as crucified. Paul did not mean that he drew any pictures or had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but that he, though very much alive physically, was a walking demonstration of death to self, death in Christ. It will come as a surprise to most Christians that the Bible talks more about the Christian’s crucifixion (in the number of times it uses the word) than of Christ’s, who himself repeatedly said that unless we take up our cross and follow him (to Calvary, symbolically) we cannot be his disciple. That congregation of Christians was inspired which put the letters S E L F on the cross at the back of their pulpit. This was no offense; we do that by adorning it with jewels and drapes, even finishing finely the crude, splintery log that the original tree must have been. The cross is incomplete, has not performed its saving purpose, until each of us is nailed upon it.