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Tasting the Future

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Luke 22.14-18.

For most of my Christian life (55 years!) the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, Holy Communion, Mass (cross out whichever you are unhappy with) has been something of an enigma for me. Coming from the evangelical tradition to which I still belong, I cannot take on board the idea of transubstantiation — the idea that, at the consecration, the substance (the underlying reality) of the bread and wine changes and becomes the Body and Blood of Christ while the accidents (the outward appearances) remain unchanged; but nor have I been able to derive much spiritual satisfaction from regarding the bread and wine as mere mementos (“Do this in rememberance of me”). I can remember the death of Jesus without having to eat a wafer and drink a sip of wine, so why make such a big thing of Holy Communion?

I found the answer quite recently in the writings of Bishop Tom Wright (see “Surprised by Hope” in Dining Out) and part of it already lay in this morning’s verses from Luke’s gospel. It is that, in the Eucharist, God’s future is coming to meet us in the present. We participate now in the Messianic banquet of the world to come when Jesus again drinks of the fruit of the vine with all his people. Those are my words; here are Dr Wright’s …

“What happens in the Eucharist is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this future dimension is brought sharply into play. We break this bread to share in the body of Christ; we do it in remembrance of him; we become for a moment the disciples sitting around the table at the Last Supper. (My italics.) Yet if we stop there we’ve only said the half of it. To make any headway in understanding the Eucharist, we must see it as the arrival of God’s future in the present, not just the extension of God’s past (or of Jesus’s past) into our present. We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord. And he lives, through the resurrection, precisely as the one who has gone on ahead into the new creation, the transformed world, as the one who is himself its prototype. The Jesus who gives himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of God’s new world. At communion we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land. It is the future coming to meet us in the present.” (Surprised by Hope, chapter 15)

I shall be experiencing all that again tomorrow morning … becoming for a moment a disciple round that table in the upper room 2000 years ago and sitting too with Jesus at the banquet in the world to come. Hallelujah! It was all there, of course, in that little-sung hymn of Horatius Bonar (1805-1889) …

Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
here would I touch and handle things unseen,
here grasp with firmer hand th’etemal grace,
and all my weariness upon Thee lean.

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;
here would I lay aside each earthly load,
here taste afresh the calms of sin forgiven.

Too soon we rise, the symbols disappear;
the feast, though not the love, as past and gone;
the bread and wine remove, but Thou art here,
nearer than ever, still my shield and sun.

Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
yet passing, points to the glad feast above,
giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
the Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.

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