A Great Cloud of Witnesses

When we gather to the table to eat the supper with the saints, we do exactly that. I wonder if you’ve ever considered it.

If the Lord’s Supper is a participation in the marriage feast of the Lamb—and most Christians would be comfortable describing it as at least a prefiguring foretaste, though I’m going further than that—then I think it is of benefit to us to consider who we eat it with.

When we eat the body and blood of Jesus on a Sunday, my suspicion would be that we do one of two things. Maybe we consider the people we are eating it with in terms of the physical local church congregation in which we are situated. Perhaps we are a member there and this is our local expression of the family of God, or perhaps we are visiting and delighting in being able to eat the meal with ‘cousins from out of town’ who we are now meeting at the Table for the first time.

Or maybe we simply consider no one but ourselves and the God on whom we are feasting. Of the two options, the first is much to be preferred.

At the Lord’s Supper we eat God, and that reality is earth-shattering, epoch-breaking, and downright weird. It’s worthy of our reflection. But we always eat God at a Table in a context, or to put it more simply: there are other people sat at the table. If you came over for dinner and all of your focus was on the food and none on your companions, then we would think you rude.

The analogy falls down a bit because Christ slain for us is a better ‘meal’ than the best Michelin fayre, and because any offence is given primary to the host—who at the Lord’s Supper is the Lord.

You follow the thought I hope, the meal God has given us is not individualistic, and to eat it in such a manner is to lose many of the aspects of the Supper which renew the church and draw us in to worship. We should consider one another as we eat and drink. However your church practices the Supper, liturgical practices that draw out this corporate element of the meal are to be strongly preferred. In other words, show us that’s true in what we do as well as what we say and think.

One of my slogans—usually delivered with a glint in the eye—is Make Chrisitianity Weird Again. My wife and I often discuss the difference between the wrong kind of weird (off-putting for the sake of it, extraneous and unnecessary) and the right kind of weird (we believe that we eat God and you join the faith by being drowned—the weird that is classic Christianity). The Lord’s Supper is weird all the way down, anything sacramental will be to our machine-catechised minds, but let’s make it as appropriately weird as we can.

So, there you are eating God. You’re also time-travelling. We are from the future, after all, saved from the present evil age (Galatians 1) for the age to come (Ephesians 2). You’re eating, by faith, the marriage supper of the Lamb. That history-ending feast is here to eat Sunday by Sunday. Which is another reason to bake some good bread for the occasion and make sure it hasn’t gone dry through the rest of your Sunday meeting.

Which means another bizarre thing is true. When we eat the Supper, we eat it with every saint from history. We eat with everyone who has ever eaten the Supper—as by faith we ascend to the heavens to eat of the Christ. You’re eating with the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12). The Apostles are there, the saints of history, and presumably the saints of the future too.

Which I hope produces some reverence, but there’s also a comforting thought here too. This means that the departed saints—those that we love who are now waiting in the arms of Christ for their resurrections—partake of the Supper with us. Which I find a comforting thought.

It sounds terribly Roman Catholic to many Protestant ears too, though I would note that the logic in the preceding paragraphs does rest on a Calvinist doctrine of the Supper.

I’ve written before on the way that Evangelicals are as scared of death as the rest of our culture. Death is a reality we all face throughout our lives, and yet we try to wall off our churches from it. I think it’s helpful to consider the idea that we eat the Supper with a great cloud of witnesses, from St. Augustine to the saint that was beloved in your local church and died last year.

I attend a very young church in Europe’s youngest city. We lack older saints in our congregation. That’s a deep pain for us for the wisdom we lack, and the life experience we lack. Though, we often forget that pain with the youthful refusal to contemplate that older might be better. We also lack much death amongst us, which contorts our view of the gospel into strange shapes, I expect. It’s vital that we memento mori—remember death.

When we eat the Supper with the saints across the ages, we are connected to something bigger than ourselves and it lifts our heads to remember those who dwell in the arms of Jesus, the crucified Christ raised victorious. Of course, above all, our heads are lifted from the grave to the cross, where Life died to rescue the dead from the Dragon’s cruel maw.

We eat bread (life) and drink wine (joy) because after death comes life, inexorably. Life follows death without hesitation because the King died to break the wheel of death following death, to break sin’s foul curse, to end the Devil’s dominion.

Thanks be to God.

Photo by Nicholas Barbaros on Unsplash

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