During the antebellum period of American history, enslavers wanted to feed their captive workers as cheaply as possible, and the least costly way of doing this was to give the enslaved the “waste foods” from the plantation, the raw parts of animals that were considered inedible. This forced the enslaved to make do with the ingredients at hand. If they were to make it through the backbreaking labor in their oppressive environment, they would need nourishment. So, in the most desolate and hopeless of circumstances, African-Americans, caught in the grip of slavery, transformed an unspeakably horrific situation into what would become one of the most celebrated culinary traditions of American culture: soul food.
Soul food was the food of survival. It was the food of the poor, the weak, and the desperate. But soon, even the “enemy” would extol the virtues of these soulful cooks, delighting in their creative culinary work. Many years later, this soul food would provide a bridge of sorts, a point of common delight that both black and white could share, even if the surrounding social context and cultural structures worked against this union. Soul food would soon be cherished by all: the poor, the rich, black, brown, Asian and Pacific islanders, and white, young and old. One could say that soul food is the food of the people.
But as much as I enjoy these foods with which I grew up, as much as they please my palate, they pale in comparison to the original soul food: The grace of God.
The Lord Jesus Christ took the most disastrous of situations: sin, evil, suffering, and a Roman cross, and he produced spiritual nourishment for his people. In the most desolate and hopeless of circumstances, Jesus transformed an unspeakably horrific situation into what would become one of the most celebrated institutions in the Christian church: The Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is the food of survival, the food of the poor in spirit, the weak, and the desperate. The work of Christ was so profoundly transformative that those who were once enemies now find a place at his table by faith, joining the community of believers in extolling the virtues of God’s redeeming love. The Lord’s Supper is a reunion, a point of common nourishment and delight in which people from every tribe, tongue and nation throughout the ages share, even if the surrounding social context and cultural structures fight against this union. Around the Lord’s Table you will find black, white, brown, tan, young, old, rich, poor, men and women eating this family meal together. The grace of God is soul food for the people of God.
The Lord’s loving design for his people is to fill our mouths, our hearts, our very lives with the riches of His nourishing grace. Grace is the spiritual sustenance without which we cannot live. To be sure, one could scarcely find a Christian who would deny the universal and holistic need that we have for God’s grace. So Christians study God’s word, build community, and pray in order to experience God’s grace. However, many evangelical Christians have neglected one of the most profound means by which God lavishes his grace on his people: The Lord’s Supper. This neglect is due to the fact that the Lord’s Supper has been stripped of much of its rich theological significance and formative potential. To put it plainly, most evangelical churches view the Lord’s Supper as a simple time of remembrance rather than a means of grace. People are invited to come forward to the table to focus their memories, not to feed their souls.
Though it may sound strange, this divine dinner invitation holds so much more for us than mere remembrance. Jesus actually invites us to a spiritual feast! With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to three key aspects of the Lord’s Supper and how we may begin to enjoy, in fresh ways, the fullness that God intended for us to receive at his table.
Christ is the Creative Cook
Even a casual reading of the gospels demonstrates that Jesus came to bring grace and salvation to his people (John 1:14). His mission was as broad in its scope as the effects of the fall, but we witness a consistent thematic drive in Scripture with respect to the Lord’s particular attention to redeeming humanity. However, what was not so clear to the immediate followers of Jesus was the cost he would pay for their redemption. Many scenes reveal the surprise of the disciples as they encountered the miracles and healings that Jesus performed, but they were completely unprepared for the manner in which Jesus was going to accomplish the work of salvation. They were expecting a conquering king, not a suffering servant. They wanted a display of raw power, not redemptive weakness. The counter-cultural way of the kingdom was beyond their comprehension. As Jesus introduced the difficult road ahead, the disciples were having a hard time seeing how this plan was going to work. So it was necessary for Jesus to prepare his disciples for the significance of the cross and he chose to work this gospel reality into their hearts through a meaning-full meal.
As Passover drew near, Jesus made preparations for his final meal with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-30; John 13). He knew that these men were accustomed to participating in the Jewish celebration of Passover, a time to remember and celebrate the saving acts of YHWH in the exodus. But at this point, in the gospels, the disciples are introduced to a new celebratory meal in which they could remember and celebrate the saving acts of God in Christ. Jesus intentionally chose this night and this meal as a paradigmatic and foundational institution for his followers. In essence, what Jesus is saying is, “This new covenant meal is the celebration of redemptive history’s climax and I am at the center of it all. This night marks a transition from the old Passover to its fulfillment in a new Passover. I am accomplishing a greater rescue from a greater slavery to a greater enemy. I am the Lamb of God who renders every other sacrifice obsolete. The shedding of my blood will secure your safety and my body will be your nourishment, eschatological manna, for the journey ahead. When my work is complete, you will walk out of bondage strengthened by my grace, assured by my love, and you will worship me.”
On more than one occasion, Jesus made it clear that he was in complete control of the circumstances surrounding his own death. He told his disciples that nobody could take his life from him, he was laying it down of his own accord (John 10). Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” when it was time for his crucifixion (Luke 9:51). Throughout his earthly life, we see that Jesus was, in a sense, gathering all of the ingredients that he would need to make soul food for us.
Let me put it this way: The Lord took two natures (God and man) and one person (Jesus Christ), his life of perfect obedience, his intimate relationship with the Father, He mixed that with a full measure of obedience, substitutionary suffering, shame, mockery, torture, relational abandonment, and crucifixion, placed him in the tomb for three days, then watched him rise up in a resurrection. The end result is spiritual nourishment that is ready to be served to the people of God as their steady spiritual diet.
Jesus knew that his people would have their own crosses to carry. The Apostle Peter would be harassed and beaten in the fulfillment of his preaching ministry (Acts 5:40). Paul would face prison, abuse, and life-threatening opposition (2 Cor 11:16-30). What are you facing? It may be a difficult relationship, loneliness, joblessness, disappointment with life, or the struggles of raising children. No matter what your ethnic or socio-economic background may be, your road to glory will be marked by suffering and trial. Jesus knew that we would need more than memories, we would need the assurance of his promise and his very presence in order to persevere in following him. This is exactly what we get at the Lord’s Supper when we draw near in faith. The Lord’s Supper is a physical handle of sorts that faith seizes, allowing us to grasp God’s promises, not just with our minds, but with our very bodies. We were never meant to break up the fundamental unity between the material and immaterial aspects of our humanity. We are complex people who need to be restored spiritually and physically, in the wholeness of our being. For example, It is not enough for your significant other to tell you that they love you. You need a handshake, a hug, or a kiss to really believe and understand the reality and fullness of that love. It is not enough to read a menu description of delicious food, you need to smell it, see it, and taste it to receive the “fullness” of that food. God has provided us with the opportunity for a full-sensory experience of the gospel in the Lord’s Supper so that we may appreciate and perceive the fullness of his Grace.
Christ is the Hospitable Host
Imagine for a moment that your closest friend extends a dinner invitation to you and a few others. You accept the invitation, not just to eat, but because you enjoy spending time with your friend. You arrive at the house and find the door cracked, so you walk in. You find the dinner table beautifully set, and a note from your friend that says “I hope you enjoy dinner! I will not be present with you for the meal, but just remember all of the good times we have shared together as you eat.” You would be disappointed, to say the least. You would wonder how your friend could extend an invitation for dinner and then not show up at all!
This simple illustration helps us to identify the most important aspect of the Lord’s Supper: The presence of the Lord Jesus Himself. He is a host who is present at the supper to which he invites us. Ministers are the waiters who serve the elements, but Christ is the host who made the arrangements for this meal and who sits at the head of the table. This is why the apostle Paul refers to the Supper as a koinōnia, a participation or communion in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). To have communion with the body and blood of Christ at His table is the have a true encounter with Christ Himself at the table.
As truly as Christ was present with his original disciples at the institution of the Supper, so he is present with his contemporary disciples every time the holy Supper is served in local churches around the globe. But the question arises: “How is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper?” Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck is helpful when he says, “Christ is present in the Supper and is received there in no other way than he is present in the Word and by faith, that is, spiritually.” To say that Christ is spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper is to acknowledge the ministry of the Holy Spirit in effecting this communion. The spiritual presence of Christ in the table makes this institution more than a mere symbol—it is a true offering of Christ and his benefits to be received by faith. In other words, the Supper actually offers what it signifies to those who draw near in faith. We have said that the Supper is more than a memorial. But we must also understand that it’s not magic. Without faith and the ministry of the Spirit, the Lord’s Supper is of no benefit to us. However, when we come in faith, opening the mouths of our soul, we taste the rich nourishment of the gospel and we are strengthened.
Christ is the Magnificent Meal
If you grew up in a Christian home like I did, then it’s likely that before every single meal your family members would bow their heads in order to “say grace” before beginning the meal. Prayer before meals is a recognition of God’s kind provision for our sustenance. What I’ve been suggesting in these few pages is that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we don’t just say grace, we receive grace. In the Supper, we must recognize God’s kind provision in Jesus Christ for our spiritual nourishment and approach His table with a mind to taste his grace in that very moment. It is not that we receive a different grace or a different Christ from the one offered in the preaching of the Word of God. We simply get to enjoy Him through a different means which he himself has provided.
True eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper is communing with Christ, the bread of life, by faith (John 6:32ff). You should come to this table expecting that the transforming presence of Christ will be just as profound in faith-filled eating and drinking as it is in the faith-filled hearing of the preached word. If you feel like you are in the wilderness, then you need “the true bread from heaven” that is offered up at the table for weary sojourners. Are you feeling spiritually sluggish? Depressed? Is the accuser assailing you with guilt or shame? Take up the cup of salvation with full assurance that Christ emptied the cup of God’s wrath against you and there is only blessing remaining for you. Nothing can motivate a person like the grace of God. Nobody comforts like our gracious Savior. There is no assurance or peace like that which comes from union with Christ. So, come to the table hungry for His benefits, and eat. As you taste the bread and drink the cup, receive the riches of the glory of the gospel mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). As surely as you take in the elements by faith, so you take in the life of Christ by faith, and he has taken you up into Himself by grace (John 17). Look around the sanctuary at your family and share this joy, delight in Christ together. With your mind on the hope of glory, eat with anticipation, knowing that this meal is preparation for the greater wedding feast of the Lamb. Let your soul delight in this rich food and let your heart long for that great banquet, when Christ will drink with us once again in His Father’s Kingdom and impart to us “Joy inexpressible.”
Russ Whitfield serves as pastor of Grace Mosaic in Northeast Washington, DC. He is also the assistant coordinator of Cross-Cultural Advancement for Reformed University Fellowship and a Guest Lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Washington, DC campus. Russ and his lovely wife, Vanessa, are raising four fun-loving children in Washington, DC.