No Small Substitute

The good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11, 15). There are a number of causes for worship prompted by this part of the story.

The shepherd did not deserve to die; the sheep deserved death. A dead sheep is a much smaller deal than a dead shepherd, especially this Shepherd. But it is the good Shepherd who lays down His life in their place. He did not cease to be fully God so that He might bear the full weight of our wrath. The Shepherd also took on sheep’s clothing, full humanity, because the curse was on us. The substitution was necessary to deliver the sheep from their deserved slaughter, and it was no small substitute to save their life.

When we come to remember the death of the Shepherd, we do so as those in His flock. He is the door; if we entered by Him (v.9), we’re in His flock. The cross didn’t lower the fence so that we could jump over by our works, by our confession, or by anything we could bring with us. We’re in by grace; we’re no longer out looking in.

We’re in His flock, delivered from judgment. We’re also in the Father’s hand, safe from enemies. Our salvation is certain. The Father has great care for those purchased by the Son and all His sovereignty is employed for them. The Father gave us to the Son, the Son brings us to the Father for communion and preservation.

We are not killed or destroyed. We are given life! Jesus came, He said, “that [we] may have life and have it abundantly” (v.10). He gave His life for our life. Abundant life is not for some other people, or for some other time. Abundant life is for us, for now, and forever.

There is a way to remember Christ’s death that is consistent with what He accomplished. That remembrance includes gratitude that He took our place, identification with His flock, confidence in His protection, and bounce in our step. We come to the Lord’s table as those who are thankful, participatory, bold, and alive.

Better Than a Dead One

Before the ages began, God promised eternal life. He did so out of love for His Son, and note that the gift is eternal life, because a living gift is much better than a dead one. In order for the living God to give and receive a living gift, the Son had to die for the dead. Through the death of the one, the sins of the many were justly punished. Likewise, through the resurrection of the one, many were made alive. “We were buried…with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

When we gather around the Lord’s table to remember His death, and ours in His, we are doing so as those who now live in His life. We were spiritually dead and facing eternal death. But we are no more dead than He is dead and eternal condemnation is off the table. “If Christ has not been raised, [our] faith is futile and [we] are still in our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17) and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). That would be bad.

The angel told the women who visited Jesus’ tomb, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6). That’s good news. That also means, by faith, we need not act like the dead. We ought not. If we spend all our time reminiscing on our deadness during this supper, we miss the point of His death, and may, even if unintentionally, act as if our death deserves more attention in the story. Not only that, but we may forget that God the Father does not intend to present a gift of miserable, melancholy, “we are only unworthy worms” dead people.

Because He lives we live. Because He lives we can face tomorrow. Because He lives, we eat His body and drink His blood as nourishment for New Covenant life.

The Party Ditch

There is more to the Lord’s table than confession of sin. While we ought not harbor sin, if we are keeping short accounts, confessing and repenting and believing, then there is every reason for our remembrance of Him to be a serious celebration. We take His sacrifice seriously and we take our joyous participation in His sacrifice seriously.

Consider the context of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians regarding communion in his first letter. Why did he correct them in this way (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)? Because they were coming to the table selfishly, focused on themselves and not on the entire body. They were also treating the table more like a party.

We are not in, or anywhere near, the “communion as a party” ditch. That said, we may not be in the middle of the road either. We are still focused on the wrong thing: ourselves, just as the Corinthians were. We just feel better about it because at least we’re taking our sin seriously.

When the angels watch us take the bread and the cup, what impresses them? Does anything about it make them nervous? Are they confronted with the manifold wisdom of God as they see us sitting in our isolated conviction over sin? Or are they taken back with the manifold wisdom of God as they see us–sinners against God and against each other–singing together over the forgiveness and fellowship we have with God and with each other through the gospel of grace?

The Church–Jew and Gentile, slave and freeman, male and female, hands and feet, unlovely and unlikeable–together make a point to the universe. Christ Himself “is our peace, who has made us both one” (Ephesians 2:14). He has reconciled us “to God in one body through the cross” (2:16) and in Him, “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him [we] also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:21-22).

The Lord’s table is a purifying and unifying ordinance. We should get out of the ditch, whichever one we’re in, and participate accordingly.

The Gloomy Ordinance

I am increasingly concerned with a perspective that many Christians seem to be taking toward what has become the gloomy ordinance. One post about the Lord’s supper will not be sufficient to blow away the clouds that have covered us. There needs be much said, but it doesn’t all need to be said today.

Another name for the Lord’s supper is communion. Note that the ordinance the Lord gave us was about communion, not confession.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

Yes, according to the apostle Paul, many have fallen asleep because they ate and drank unworthily. “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). If we are worshipping other gods or the true God with half-hearts, Paul gives grave warning.

But if we are beholding the glory of the Lord, worshipping by grace through faith in Christ, then when we partake of the bread and the cup in communion, we share in His body and blood and we share that with each other. When we give thanks for each element, we aren’t giving thanks because we saw and confessed every last sin. We give thanks because by His body and blood He overcame all the obstacles blocking communion. This table doesn’t require us to remember every last sin we’ve committed, it requires us to remember Him who is our Savior.

Communion is not an ordinance of dismal mourning, it is an ordinance of thoughtful rejoicing. We remember the death of Christ, and in so doing we remember that it was our sin that causes His death. But He is no longer dead and we are no longer in our sins. We rejoice in our participation with Him and with each other.

Sharing What We Got

Meals that are centered on gratitude and thanksgiving—like harvest home festivals and this Eucharistic meal—are never times for grabbing and getting your own. We not allowed to pretend that the blessing we enjoy begins with us. We must not refuse the son of David if the son of David is the one who set the table in the first place. And He has, and so we come with gratitude and a willingness to imitate the attitude that blessed us, which means a willingness to share and to overflow.

—Doug Wilson, Nabals at the Supper

Communion with God

[To the Puritans], communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our concern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience with God.

—J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 215