THE BREAKING OF BREAD
THE earliest Christian converts continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking; of bread and the prayers (Acts 2 :42). As the Revised Standard Version translates it, "they devoted themselves" to these things. A constant danger in the life of the Church is that Christians will not continue in the race, not devote themselves to their discipleship. The four things mentioned in the Acts as characteristic of those early days are all essential: apostolic teaching, fellowship, and prayer, no less than the breaking of bread. But it is with the breaking of bread that we are concerned in this book. What did the first Christians understand when they continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread? The answer to that question will
help us to grasp the significance of the Holy Communion for us today.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE CROSS
First, they bore witness that their faith wars centred in Christ crucified. "The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For is often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (I Cor. 11:23-26). Because so much depends upon the Cross, this Sacrament was given to be a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.
There will never be any continuance in the Christian life if
we get away from the fact of our redemption through the death of Christ. There is far more meaning in the Cross than we shall ever be able to understand. Theories of the atonement may help us to grasp little bits of the truth of this great subject. But there is a grand simplicity about the fact of redemption which we must never lose. The heart of the gospel is : "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). The basis of a Christian experience is to be able to say : "The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2 :20).
The moment a Christian begins to think he has outgrown the simple gospel, he is in a state of spiritual peril. Charles Augustus Toplady thought he detected this danger in the Methodist emphasis on holiness of life. To him it seemed that they were relying on their spiritual condition to commend them to God, and this he saw as a denial of the efficacy of the Cross alone for salvation. Subsequent generations have seen that the Wesleys were only teaching another side of the same truth. Nevertheless it was a stroke of genius--or inspiration—which made Toplady call his Rock of Ages "a living and dying prayer for the holiest believer in the world". It could certainly be a prayer for the greatest sinner to use; but Toplady wrote it to drive home the fact that, however far a Christian may progress in holiness, he still has nothing to plead but the fact of the Cross. In life and in death the holiest saint must still pray :
Nothing in my hand I bring,
This is virtually what we say when we come to the Lord's Table. We are brought again to the Cross, and casting away all trust in our own supposed goodness, we throw ourselves wholly upon what Christ has done for us. It is all made real to us in the breaking of bread. We see afresh what God has done for our salvation. Our feelings are quite unimportant. Even our faith is secondary. God's great act of redemption stands out for our acceptance.
Simply to thy cross I cling.
It is for this very reason, among others, that every Christian, like the first disciples, must continue steadfastly in the breaking of bread throughout the whole of life. When moods change and feelings fail, the objectivity of the Holy Communion remains.
FEEDING ON CHRIST
Secondly, the early Christians, by their steadfast continuance in the breaking of bread, confessed that all their spiritual sustenance was in Christ. "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matt. 26:26). The Lord's Supper puts into a very simple action the teaching which our Lord gave about himself as the Bread of Life. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand gave rise, in the account in St. John 6, to the discourse about the true bread from heaven. The climax, which made even some of his disciples depart from him, was when he spoke of the absolute necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. "For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" (John 6:55)• This Eastern and pictorial language speaks of partaking in our inmost being of the very life of Christ, as that life was poured out for us on the Cross.
Spiritual life begins at the Cross. It is there that we are reconciled to God. And the life that is given as God's free gift is nourished and strengthened by feeding upon Christ. There are of course many ways in which we feed on him. Bible reading, prayer, meditation, fellowship are all means by which we receive grace. But the connection between the language of St. John 6 and the symbolism of the Lord's Supper leads us to the belief that here is a very special way in which our spiritual life is to be nourished. Partaking of the Holy Communion reminds us that we have need of strength which only Christ can give. The benefit we receive is "the strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine" (Catechism). We feed on him in our hearts by faith.
It is essential for all who would continue in the Christian life,
not only to know the reality of reconciliation through the Cross, but also to find in Christ their sanctification and strength. It is vital to remember that sanctification is not a theory or an experience, but Christ himself. "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (i Cor. 1:30). It is when Christ really dwells in our hearts by faith that we are rooted and grounded in love, and are made strong to apprehend the love of God. (See Eph. 3: 17-19).
Precisely for the reason that at the Lord's Supper we feed on Christ in our hearts by faith, we need to continue steadfastly in the breaking of bread throughout our whole lives.
THE FELLOWSHIP MEAL
Thirdly, as they continued in the breaking of bread, they showed their one-ness in Christ. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? The bread which we break is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf" (I Cor. 10: 16-17). joint participation in the Sacrament was a visible expression of their fellowship, and a means of deepening it.
Fellowship is a word which is not only in danger of being overdone, but is also much misunderstood. It can be taken to mean little more than the friendship of people who happen to like each other and share the same interests. There is nothing particularly Christian about this. A voluntary association of people with a common purpose ought to be able to join its members together in a happy unity. Anyone who does not like the particular group, or who loses interest in the object of its existence, can easily resign without upsetting the working of the whole.
Christian fellowship is something totally different. We do not join the Church or resign from it according to our whim. We are in the Church from the moment we are in Christ. Our fellow members are not those whom we have chosen because we like them. They may be people of quite another background and with different interests. They may be of some other race and language. The one thing we all have in common—and it does not seem a very promising basis for fellowship—is that we are all sinners. But we are sinners who are willing to own up to it, and have sought and found mercy in Christ. The experience of a new birth has brought us into the Church, which is his Body.
The infinite variety of membership in the Christian Church cannot be better described than in St. Paul's metaphor of the body. "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:12, 13). Anything like jealousy or a feeling of being unwanted would be as absurd as for one member of the human body to say to another, "I have no need of you" (I Cor. 12:21).
It is this unity in diversity which the first Christians expressed as they met together for the breaking of bread. They ate of the one loaf and drank of the one cup. They were one because they were partaking together of the one Christ. The breaking of bread is never an individual matter. "I made my communion" is, to say the least, an incomplete account of what happens. It is not merely a social matter either. Communicants are something more than the aggregate of worshippers at a particular service. It is a corporate matter. The Church is showing what it really is, the Body of Christ.
That is why the ideal Communion Service is one at which the whole company of believers in a given place comes together at one time for the breaking of bread. The trend in this direction in the Church of England is to be welcomed. However necessary it may be in practice to hold a number of smaller services, or a "corporate" Communion for a section of the parish, it is not really a complete act of fellowship. Any barrier at the Lord's Table, whatever the motive or purpose, is a contradiction of New Testament principles. That is why the continuance of disunity among Christians will always be felt most acutely at the Lord's Supper.
Fourthly, as the early Christians continued steadfastly in the breaking of bread they gave expression to their sense of thankfulness. This was true to the original institution in the upper room in which our Lord took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them. Indeed thanksgiving was characteristic of the life of the infant Church. "Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people" (Acts 2:46, 47). No one can be made more aware of the benefits of Christ's passion without thankfully responding to him "in full and glad surrender".
The bread is broken because Christ's body was broken on the Cross. But we remember that the Church is also his Body. The one loaf speaks of its unity : its breaking speaks of its sacrifice. We offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, not only with our lips but in our lives. We cannot really partake of Christ crucified and risen unless we are willing to go the way of the Cross. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Those words of St. Paul are as true for the Church as they are for an individual Christian.
The breaking process is hard and costly, but Christian experience all down the centuries shows that it is the way of fruitfulness for us, as it was for our Master. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). This is the offering which God asks of us : ourselves, our souls and bodies. We have nothing worthy to offer in ourselves, but only in the name of him who made the one perfect sacrifice of himself. Yet in response to the love of God in Christ we can do no less than offer him our redeemed lives. This is our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Four things, then, were in the minds of the early Christians as they continued in the breaking of bread, and each corresponds with a term we use to describe the Sacrament. The centrality of the Cross brings to mind the word "Remembrance" which occurs particularly in the Exhortations in the Prayer Book. Feeding upon Christ links up naturally with the term "the Lord's Supper", which is used in the title of the service. Fellowship is another word for Communion, and reminds us that we very often speak of "the Holy Communion". Our offering of praise may be described as "the Eucharist", which is simply the Greek for thanksgiving. No one term can convey all the truth about the rich Banquet our Lord has provided for us.