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Names for the Lord’s Supper: The Breaking of the Bread
March 1, 2017
Today begins the season of Lent. Lent is a time traditionally devoted to pondering the Passion of our Lord, His suffering and death. What marks this time of contemplation is setting aside time to consider our need for repentance and our need for the Gospel. We do not live on bread alone but by the very Word of God. While many people go about their daily lives during this time of year as if it is no different, we the people of God are encouraged to take time to consider the blessings of the immeasurable sacrifice of Christ for the sin of the world. And that is why we are here.
If we devote time out of each week to hear God’s Word and ponder the Passion of our Lord, we do so in the frame of mind of humility. There is nothing we can do extra for God to gain grace. We already have all grace from Him in His Son. We are the Baptized people of God. In this Sacrament were buried with Christ in His death and raised with Christ in His resurrection. If the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the means by which the Holy Spirit brings us into the Holy Christian Church then it is through the Sacrament of the Altar that the Holy Sprit sustains us in the Church. Whereas our Lord brings us into Himself in Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper He brings Himself into us.
This Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, is a rich feast of grace, mercy, and peace. It is the sacrifice of Christ delivered to us personally in bread and wine. The forgiveness He won on the cross is granted to us here in this Meal. The Lord’s Supper is so rich in blessings that it has come to be known by many names. The Lord’s Supper is central to the life of the Church and yet the Church down through the ages has not come to settle on one name for this Sacrament because there is no one name that can fully embrace the richness of it. Because there is so much to the Lord’s Supper we are blessed to ponder this gift by examining what it is through each of its names.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread. And when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat. This is My body, which is given for you.” He also took the cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My blood, shed for you, for your forgiveness.”
With these words and this action our Lord instituted His Holy Supper. He gave it to us as a meal to partake of often so that we may receive exactly what He said He gives in it: His body and His blood, for us, for our forgiveness. The first time we see the apostles and the first Christians celebrating this Meal is in the book of Acts. There it is referred to as the Breaking of the Bread. This refers to the action of Jesus in taking the loaf of bread that was used in the Passover Meal and breaking it and giving it to His disciples.
Once Jesus rose from the grave He was with His apostles for forty days. But then He ascended into heaven. In ten days the apostles were all present when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They were granted ability to speak in many languages. This was the day of Pentecost and it got the Church off the ground, since Jesus had told them to stay in Jerusalem until He sent the Holy Spirit.
Now that He had, we are told in Acts 2:42, these first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The early Christian Church was gathered around Word and Sacrament. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the very Word of God proclaimed, as Jesus Himself had ordained these men to do. And they devoted themselves as well to the very Holy Supper their Lord had instituted, which they were referring to as the Breaking of the Bread.
The evangelist Luke wrote this account of the early Church, which we know of as the book of Acts. It is really a continuation of his account of the life of Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection—the Gospel According to Luke.
What does Luke tell us about the connection between Christ’s life, and particularly His suffering, death, and resurrection, and the life of the Church? In Luke 22 he says, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’” Then He told them what to do and where to prepare it and they did. But as we see from what Jesus did in the meal He was the one who had prepared it because He was bringing about something new. Luke says, “And when the hour came, He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’”
He is about to go to the cross, the very Passion we ponder during Lent; the very crux of the Gospel we need day after day. His earnest desire to celebrate the Passover with them is in this connection and forever bound up in His suffering and death. Luke says, “And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.’”
He then of course was arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified, His body given over on the cross for the sin of the world. This very body given over on the cross was now to be given to His dear saints in the bread of His Holy Supper.
If Luke has made this connection here, he makes it abundantly clear when he goes on to speak of what Jesus did after He died and rose from the grave. As His body was buried, the women who went on Sunday morning to embalm His body found something else. And that was nothing. His body was no longer there. He rose from the dead, so His body was no longer lifeless. He would once again walk among those women, and the apostles, and His other followers.
And yet, not quite. Or more to the point, not for long. He rose from the grave but He wasn’t going to be hanging out anymore on earth. He would ascend into heaven. He would send the Holy Spirit. And He would come to His people in the Holy Meal He had instituted, the Breaking of the Bread.
How Luke makes this abundantly clear is by a peculiar account of an interaction between Jesus and two of His followers on a road to a town called Emmaus. These two disciples were distraught and perplexed. Jesus was supposed to have been the one. But then He died. But then, even more strange, the women said His body was no longer in the tomb. What would they do now?
It turns out, their question was answered because Jesus showed up. He started walking with them; however, they didn’t recognize Him. He chastised them because they did not believe what the Scriptures had said about the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He walked them through the Old Testament, showing them everything in them concerning Himself. They were blind to who He was but they were stirred by what He was saying so they asked Him to come home with them.
He did, and as the meal began He did something reminiscent of His celebrating the Passover with His apostles. In chapter 24 Luke says that “He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him. And He vanished from their sight.” By giving them bread which He broke He was showing them how He would now be made known to His people, how He would dine with them and commune with them. He gave them the bread and then vanished. In forty days He would no longer be walking and talking with His people, He would be giving Himself to them in bread and wine.
Luke then tells what those two disciples did. “They rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
No wonder the first Christians devoted themselves to the Breaking of the Bread. No wonder they saw this Meal as the very essence of their Lord’s coming to them and making Himself known to them. No wonder this was now at the heart of who they were as the Christian Church, the people of God, devoting themselves to this meal in which their Lord gave to them His body and His blood, delivering to them His forgiveness. Luke goes on to say in Acts chapter 20, that each week on the first day of the week these first Christians gathered for the Breaking of the Bread.
This was now who they were. They were Christians, celebrating the Christ who was indeed the one. The one who had come in the flesh to suffer and die. And who now came in the flesh often in the Breaking of the Bread. Might they have wished He were still around? Perhaps. But they knew He was with them because He told them that this is how He was now coming to them, in this Sacrament, in this Meal, in the Breaking of the Bread.
Two thousand years later, there is no difference. As they did, so do we devote ourselves to Word and Sacrament. To the Gospel and the Breaking of the Bread. As the Baptized people of God who have been incorporated into Christ, we partake of the Breaking of the Bread in which our Lord incorporates Himself into us. This we devote ourselves to until that day when we will see Him face to face in eternal glory. Amen.
Pastor Paul L. Willweber
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, San Diego, California