This exhortation, given by Brother Michael Owen (UK) at the Adelaide Combined Weekend (October 18), was enjoyed by the 1200 brethren and sisters attending. Under the weekend theme of “Learning from the Master – Building Christ-Centred Ecclesias” the exhortation highlighted the significance of our remembrance of our Lord which, by its very repetition Sunday by Sunday, may lose its vitality and motivational impact. We commend Brother Michael’s thoughts as a refreshing reminder of what it means to gather with our Lord at the table he has prepared.

How do we view Christ?

When we think of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, do we envisage the baby in his mother’s arms, or the child of 12 discussing with the learned men in the Temple, or the young man in the carpenter’s shop? Do we think of the 30 year old descending into the waters of baptism, or the man who contends with Satan in the wilderness, or the figure striding with his disciples across the hillsides of Galilee, responding to the crowds who came to him for help, or standing in the courtyard of the Temple, teaching and disputing with the Scribes?

Do we see the man who reached out to touch a leper, or blessing little children whose hopeful mothers looked on, smiling their pleasure, or comforting a grieving widow, or having his feet anointed with the tears and perfume of a sinner? Do we see him talking to the tax-gatherers, or the companion of the family in Bethany, or the man of prayer alone on the hillside, or the one who sleeps in the stern of the boat on Galilee?

Or do we think of the majestic figure standing before Pilate, or the one who staggers on the road to Calvary, who endures the contradiction of sinners against himself, or the lifeless body, taken down from the cross and laid in the rich man’s tomb?

All of these images and more speak to us of the Son of Man, of the one who was tempted in all points like ourselves, yet without sin – the teacher, the healer, the Master, the friend.

Of course we could try to tease out the genetic make-up of his body, to draw out the significance of being “born of a woman, born under the law …”, to understand that “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin” (Heb 2:11 moff). As we do so we shall come to see how essential it was that the Lord Jesus Christ should share our nature and the body that is of its essence: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14 nasb).

A body prepared

It was in this body, in this very nature, that the one made strong would overcome the selfish impulses of the flesh; only by being of us by his natural inheritance could he represent us, enabling us to share the victory that was his. It was in this body that he would bear our sins, be bruised for our iniquities, be led like a sheep to the slaughter, that through the suffering of the cross he might perfect the work that his Father had sent him to do: “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col 1:21,22).

So when Jesus said “This is my body” he was speaking of his very life, of what had begun in the womb of Mary, had been born in a stable, had grown up in the premises of a carpenter and had travelled the hills and valleys of Palestine, teaching by word and example the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He was speaking of the life that he gave to achieve the victory over sin.

He might well have been thinking of the psalm alluded to in Hebrews, where the writer speaks of the body “prepared” (10:5). The reference takes us back to the psalm in which David’s experience becomes an anticipation of the Lord’s: “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hastthou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart” (Psa 40:6; Heb 10:6–8).

The words “mine ears thou hast digged” may refer to the practice of boring through the ears of a slave who chose voluntarily to serve his master (Exod 21:6). Or it may be a reference to the ear that is ever open to the Word of God: “Morning by morning He awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious” (Isa 50:4,5).

Either way, we see how the inspired writer to the Hebrews is showing that ‘the body’ of Jesus is a body of willing service, based on his ready response to the will of his Father.

Celebrating the Passover

Of course, from his childhood, Jesus had been “about (his) Father’s business”. Because he was “of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord” he understood only too well what the Scriptures said of him. He knew the significance of the seed of the woman and the serpent power, placarded upon a pole on the wilderness journey. He understood the import of Isaac bearing the wood, as he went with his father to the place of sacrifice, where God declared that He would provide the lamb of His choice.

He understood the reason for the slaying of the unblemished lamb at the time of the Passover in Egypt, of the shared meal, eaten with bitter herbs. He knew that the animals sacrificed under the rituals of the Law were but types of the sacrifice that would deal with sin, once and for all. He knew that David the beloved had been inspired by his Father to write many psalms that he alone could fulfil, not least Psalm 22 that detailed the manner of his death. He felt the power of the words of Isaiah that spoke of the one who would bear our iniquities and be led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53).

And as the hour drew nearer, when he directed his disciples to prepare the upper room that he might celebrate the Passover (Matt 26:18), he knew that he would be fulfilling every word that was spoken of him, that he would be making something new from the types that anticipated his purpose. There were few who shared his understanding of this destiny, though he had tried many times to make his disciples grasp that he must suffer and die. How grateful he must have been when Mary of Bethany showed her understanding and devotion, as she lavished upon him her precious fragrance, pouring perfume upon his body in preparation for the burial that would follow his death (Mark 14:8).

We may wonder why Jesus was so eager in his desire to eat this Passover before his suffering (Luke 22:15)? We find an important reason in John 13. He wanted to show his disciples “the full extent of his love” (v1), to manifest the glory of his Father in a way that would challenge their own ideas of personal glory. John describes how he rose from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After pouring water into a bowl, he began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded (v4–5). He then explained the import of what he had done – he had demonstrated that his lordship was about loving submission, about meeting the needs of others (v12–16).

Immediately afterwards he reached out in a gesture of love to the one who would betray him, offering him the sop – the piece of bread dipped in the Passover sauce. Judas could stay no longer and went out into the night. No doubt the bread was from the same loaf that Jesus now used to inaugurate the ceremony we refer to as the breaking of bread. Like Judas, we too may eat condemnation to ourselves when we taste of the goodness of the Lord and turn away into the night to betray him. Or we can receive what he gives and let it be the very staff of our lives.

Left now with the remaining eleven disciples, the Lord took the bread, blessed it and shared it with them: “This is my body, given for you.” Of course Jesus had used bread before in his ministry in a dramatic demonstration of his all-sufficiency. He had fed the 5000 and the 4000, the first a largely Jewish congregation, perhaps the five loaves speaking to them of their need of grace, the second a largely Gentile congregation, seven loaves speaking of the completion of God’s provision for all nations.

John 6 brings out the deep significance of this great sign, starting with the offering of the loaves by the small boy, introduced to Jesus by Andrew. Later Jesus drew on the significance of the manna in the wilderness and spoke of our need to eat the bread whose origin is heavenly, which can sustain to eternal life (John 6:48–58).

So the “body given for you” is eloquent of the very person of Jesus, the life that was the expression of God’s mercy and grace, the “body” that was prepared, delighting to do the will of his heavenly Father.

A fellowship meal

The Feeding of the 5000 also speaks of participation. It was the boy’s offering, miraculously multiplied by the Lord to feed thousands of people. They were sat down in ranks by 50 (Luke 9:14), indicating that the Lord provides in an orderly way. Each group of 50 had to await its turn; within the group of 50, the loaves had to be shared and passed around.

So the sharing of the bread at the Last Supper, like the Passover, was a fellowship meal. The offerings of the Law spoke eloquently of the wages of sin and the need of forgiveness; they spoke of the all-consuming dedication required by those who are zealous to do God’s will; they spoke of peace, of making both one, of the sharing of fellowship between God and man. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ was all of these and we are reminded that in his death is the final conquest of sin, which we are invited to share. It requires our participation in his zealous service; our sharing with him at the table he has prepared.

Paul writes of the reconciliation achieved through his body and of that body being one: “he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:14–16). “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6 esv). “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (v7).

Paul goes on to remind us that the gifts of God are to be used to build up the body of Christ, the ecclesia. Each has a part to play and each must present his body too as “a living sacrifice”. The message is one of mutual submission, not of self-assertion.

Paul had received from the Lord explicit instructions for the acceptable partaking of the Lord’s Supper. After detailing them he focuses on the rite: “The Lord Jesus … took bread: when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup … saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:23–26). This reminds us that the breaking of bread is also a memorial feast, a re-enactment of the Lord’s sacrifice. We partake of ‘the emblems’ as a way of associating ourselves with the Lord in his death and resurrection: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [Grk koinonia – fellowship] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). ‘Fellowshipping his sufferings’ means that “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts”; in Christ, the believer is risen to “newness of life” (Gal 5:24; Rom 6:4) At the heart of the atonement is the crucifixion of the flesh, about forgetting self and remembering how Christ came to minister to the needs of others.

Meeting the Lord

Sometimes we feel discouraged by confusions in the brotherhood. Sometimes we are all too well aware of the possibility that we ourselves may be crucifying the Son of God afresh. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes our faith grows dim and we cannot see the way ahead. Sometimes we forget that the one who gave his life also rose again to be a sympathetic high priest, an advocate at our side through every trial, a companion on the road.

In Luke 24:13–15 we are introduced to the couple walking on the road to Emmaus. It was good that they talked together. They needed to understand that the death of Christ was a necessity in God’s plan of salvation; that the giving of his body was the final triumph over sin, the victory needed to save us from sin and death and make possible the gift of eternal life (v25–27). So engaging was the Lord’s company, though they still did not know who he was, that later they could speak of their hearts ‘burning within them’ as he talked with them by the way, as he opened to them the Scriptures (v28–29). If we talk together of the things of God, seeking to understand and to find meaning in our troubled lives, the Lord will draw near to us. If we listen to his words, the Scriptures will be opened up to us and our hearts will burn within us with love and zeal forthe things of God. If we invite him into our homes, into our ecclesias, though the day is far spent and the night is upon us, we shall want to share whatever we have with him. Will there be things that we wished we did not have? Will the atmosphere at the table be one of loving fellowship, of grateful hearts? Will we remember, as we see the marks in his hands as he breaks the bread and gives it to us, that we are members of his body, that we are brought together by his sacrifice?

When their eyes were opened and they recognised that it was indeed the Lord, he vanished out of their sight (v31). It is as though the very moment of recognition is the moment when he seems to be no more there. But although the Lord may not be present physically, we can be sure he can be with us in every situation, in times of sadness and stress, as well as times of joy and triumph (Rom 8:35–39). He had known that in the world his disciples would have tribulation. But as we remember the gift of his life, we remember his words: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“This is my body, given for you.” As we partake of the bread, we share in his sacrifice and his triumph; we are united together in one body of love.