Essay / Theology

The Life in the Blood

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

When I was a boy one of my favorite songs was Power in the Blood:

There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r

In the blood of the Lamb;

There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder working pow’r

In the precious blood of the Lamb.

How true this is! Every Sunday, Holy Communion brings me to a reflection on this truth. This Western Easter where we must powerlessly watch a good woman die is a good time to remember the message of the Gospels. Life is stronger than death. The Blood of Christ is stronger than the power and wisdom of Greece and Rome.

All of this is spelled out for us in the Gospels. Recently, someone asked me about the different accounts of the Eucharist in the four Gospels. The Christian is presented with four different accounts of the Lord’s Supper in Sacred Scripture. These accounts vary in detail and emphasis.

In order to form a correct understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, it is vital to determine the nature of the instituting event. What happened at the first presentation of the Body and Blood of our Lord? The three synoptic gospels are fairly consistent in their presentation of the material. John presents a somewhat different picture. The gospel of Matthew, by tradition the first, presents a short version of the Eucharist event. He lacks some of the detail found in Mark, which is unusual since the shortest gospel is usually the most sparing of detail. (Most contemporary Bible scholars view it, and not Matthew, as the first of the canonical gospels to be completed.) Mark, for example, notes that the person providing the place for the Supper was carrying a water pitcher (14:13). He also notes that the “upper room” was a guest room in the house of the host (14: 14-15). In the fast paced gospel, these details are quite significant. Mark is trying to help his mostly Roman audience to visualize Jerusalem and the details of the feast. It might be compared to explaining the outcome of a football game to an enthusiast as opposed to explaining it to the novice.

The writer of the first gospel, Matthew, if the tradition is to be trusted, is speaking to a Hebrew audience. He has placed the life and ministry of Jesus in the context of fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy throughout the gospel. He is careful to stress the Jewish context of Passover in his gospel, pointing at that it began on the first evening of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. He does not mention the slain Passover lamb, assuming his Hebrew reader will understand what is happening at this point in the liturgical calendar. Both Matthew and Mark are careful to remove Judas from the scene before the establishment of the Eucharist. This is the feast of the “New Covenant.” Jesus uses this phrase in both Matthew 26: 27-29, Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20. For Matthew, it has a special significance. In a text almost void of detail, he is careful to get these liturgical words right. Jesus Christ is establishing a new relationship with humanity. (This does not mean He has abandoned the Covenant people, the Jews!) This meal, this covenant, is symbolically restricted to the people of that community. There is, therefore, continuity with the older religion in the continuation of the “covenant” language and discontinuity in the direction to which this liturgy points. In Matthew’s writing, Jesus is not merely the new Moses, He is also the very manna and drink on which the Christian pilgrim survives.

This treatment of Judas is in marked contrast to that of the other synoptic, Luke. There the scene with Judas is placed after the Supper, though there is no chronologically significant connecting word (e.g. afterwards, then) in the text to connect the two stories. It is possible that Luke is not, at this point, concerned with chronological detail, though this is unusual for this writer (e.g. Luke 2:1).Why does Luke (and perhaps also John) allow Judas to stay in the room for the Supper? Or, at the very least, why do both author’s allow the appearance that this is so? This is a difficult question, but one potential answer might be found in the different goals of the authors. Matthew is placing Christ in the context of Hebrew culture and religion. As the Messiah, Jesus must demonstrate the wisdom and foresight predicted of Him by the Hebrew Testament. Mark is trying to picture Jesus for a Roman audience. To allow the man who would betray Him to stay in the room, would be to mark Jesus as a fool or a coward to such an audience. Their accounts are chronological, because of the demands of their readers and themes.

Luke is concerned to stress the universal nature and appeal of the message of Jesus Christ. It reaches out to all, and only “fails” when the object of Love rejects it. The compassion and promise of Christ’s teaching are made all the more evident when placed on display first and then contrasted with the betrayal of Judas. The work of the Holy Spirit, which must be given first place, is contrasted with the work of Satan (whom Luke will not even mention by name) in the life of Judas. Judas is never said to actually leave the room in Luke. He is left as a sort of theological untouchable. Even his motions are not worthy of mention, compared to the central sanctity of the “Passover who must be killed” (22:7). Both Luke and John do not claim chronological precision in this portion of their works. They have, in my opinion, arranged the various traditions of the Supper in a manner to best take into account their respective messages.

Despite these differences in historical detail, the synoptic accounts are remarkably similar in their description of the Supper itself. In all three cases, the bread comes before the wine. Luke has a “first cup” that comes before the bread (20:17), but this is not the “blood of the new covenant” (20:20) that forms the basis of the feast. Though the wording is slightly different in Luke, most significant is his use of the phrase “in remembrance of Me,” all three gospels attribute almost identical language to Jesus in His celebration of the Supper. In all three synoptics, the Bread is broken after thanks or blessing is made for it (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:23, Luke 22:19). Likewise the Cup is offered to all and is followed by a blessing. (Luke omits this prayer.)

Could there be any more clear expression of the importance both the Holy Spirit and the early Church placed on right worship? “History” and full detail regarding the scene that established the Lord’s Supper are not as important to the gospel writers as the theological implications found in the liturgical actions of our Lord. Each synoptic writer brings his Spirit inspired memory and theological understanding to the account. Contrary to the expectations of many moderns, the focus is on the worship and work of the Church. The thematic harmony is actually quite remarkable. Why a “first” cup in Luke? It is not satisfying to simply note, as do several sources, that “several cups were offered during the Passover meal.” Why does Luke note this particular detail? It is not what one expect in a gospel with such universal appeal.

This cup will be (verse 17) divided amongst the apostles. The reader has his attention drawn back to the eleven. Luke has Peter and John (22:8) sent to prepare the Supper. This too draws attention to the chief of the apostles. Luke, I believe, is stressing the special and foundational role of the Apostles in the Church. He is tying this unique role directly to the heart of the liturgical life of the Church. The first cup is given to the apostles to divide equally amongst them. The special anointing belongs to all of them, not just to a single apostle such as Peter. Church government and liturgy go hand in hand. The first cup, the never repeated cup, is given to the Apostles and the work of the Church is built on that foundation.

What is the value of the “remembering” that takes place in Luke 22:19? Christ uses a term for memory with a long philosophical history. We celebrate communion in recollection of Christ. Luke is the only one to draw Christ’s use of the word recollection to our attention. It is a word first significantly used by Plato in his Meno to describe the recollection that takes place when one recalls the Truth found only in the eternal world of the Forms. While Luke is no Platonist, this does seem significant. Memory for an ancient is a mysterious and profound thing. It is experiential and not just propositional (though it is certainly that as well). Communion is a cognitive re-experiencing of a thing already known in the life of a Christian through the experience of his salvation.

Whatever else it may mean, and sadly this divides traditional Christians, it is a symbolic recollection that has real power. The Christian who has experienced the unity and mystery of the Faith in his salvation within the fellowship of the church is able to enter into and recall that process again. Such a Christian is able to become part of the eternal Now that Boethius writes of in his Consolation of Philosophy. The Lord’s Supper is now and ever shall be talking place to change all things and bring them back to right relationship with God. This is not an unnatural moment, as some Latin theology suggests, but the right and natural order of the cosmos, slowly being restored by the work of Christ.

John is unique in that it does not give the liturgical language of the Supper. In fact, the gospel does not even describe the supper. John dismisses the entire affair in a single verse at 13:2. As the last gospel to be written at the very close of the Apostolic Age, John places the liturgy in the context of Jesus’ teaching and prayers for the Apostles, the Church, and the World. This might seem odd in the light of the earlier gospels with their stress on liturgy. The synoptics, however, tie the Jesus of history to the liturgy. They place the events of the Passover and Holy Thursday into the life of the Church and the Apostolic government. The gospel of John, on the other hand, ties the liturgy to theology and the life of prayer (which cannot really be pulled apart.)

John actually spends by far the longest time on the events of the evening of Holy Thursday. What, however, is the theology of those events? In the discussion of the vine (15: 1-17), Christ points to the essential unity of the Church formed out of the matrix of His Supper. This is given even more powerful emphasis in the Apostolic and Church prayers (17: 1-26). The Holy Spirit (15: 26, 16: 5- 15) will be the helper of the Christian in making the way to the Father (14:1) clear. The Holy Trinity is, thus, most clearly expressed. It is not accident that this pivotal doctrine should be taught right after the Feast. It is at this point, when the Church has just been made one at the common table, that the unity and personhood of the members of the Trinity can best be seen. John is, therefore, the ultimate pattern for theological study in the life of a faithful churchman.

The gospels have presented us with four different accounts of the Supper. They are in essential agreement. Where they differ, we have seen that the differences are due, not to error, but to the different needs of the various gospel writers. There is one message: the Supper ties history and theology together. It is the meeting place of God and man. It is the experiential reminder to all Christians that there is wonderworking power in the blood of the lamb.

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