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The Last Supper (Matt 26:17-56)

Have you ever read Wolf Hall by the late Hilary Mantel – or watched the TV version produced a few years ago by the BBC? If you have, then you’ll know that Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury during the time of the English Reformation. Cranmer became Archbishop in 1533, and served under King Henry VIII and his son Edward VI. Its no exaggeration to call Cranmer the architect of the Church of England, and I remember reading a magisterial biography of Cranmer’s life when I studied in Oxford, written by the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch.

After Henry VIII announced his break with Rome and made himself head of the Church in England, Cranmer took it upon himself to spend the next two decades of his life reforming its belief and practice. He carefully crafted the doctrine and liturgy of the newly independent English Church. In his Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer provided the Church of England with a set of services and prayers that remain in use to this very day – not least at our 9am service here every Sunday.

With just a couple of alterations, Cranmer’s Articles of Religion also remain the official statement of the Church of England’s doctrinal position – the most important declaration of its theological convictions. Tragically, Thomas Cranmer himself was killed for his convictions – he was burnt at the stake by Queen Mary in 1556. But “bloody Mary” (as she became known) didn’t last long, and Cranmer’s works were restored to official status in the Church of England by Queen Elizabeth I and her successors. 

On this Maundy Thursday evening, I want to briefly look at Cranmer’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper – an understanding shaped by the accounts of the Last Supper found in Scripture:

  • Firstly, Cranmer recognised that the Lord’s Supper is a supper that reminds us of our redemption, an aide memoire, for all Christ’s people.
  • And secondly, Cranmer was convinced that the Lord’s Supper is a supper that offers us spiritual communion with Christ – it grants us special intimacy with our Saviour.

So let’s briefly consider both of Cranmer’s convictions.

A supper that reminds us of our redemption

In the medieval Church, the Lord’s Supper, or Mass, was seen as an opportunity for a priest to offer a sacrifice up to God. A sacrifice that offered back to God the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. The Mass was a means by which God’s wrath could be placated and pardon won for both the living and the dead. Whether you were alive on earth, or a troubled soul in purgatory, a Mass could be offered to secure your redemption.

But Thomas Cranmer and his fellow Reformers believed that the medieval church had become confused about the purpose of Holy Communion. Cranmer and his fellow reformers came to see that the Lord’s Supper has been given to us as a memorial meal to be enjoyed, rather than a sacrifice to be offered.

For example, when he looked at the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, Cranmer saw that Jesus told his disciples to share bread and wine “in remembrance of me”. 

For Cranmer it followed that the function of this special meal was to be a visible reminder – an aide memoire – of the fact that Jesus had sacrificed his body and shed his blood once and for all upon the Cross. The Supper was given by Jesus to his friends so they (and us) would never forget what he went through on Good Friday for our full and final forgiveness. As the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 11 “whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”

If that’s true, then we should consume this special meal with immense gratitude in our hearts. In Cranmer’s own words, it’s a memorial meal to be consumed “by faith, with thanksgiving”. It’s a God-given meal to be gratefully received by every Christian, rather than a sacrifice to be offered on our behalf. Its significant that Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer states that the Lord’s Supper should take place at a table not an altar. An altar is where a sacrifice is offered – but a table is where a meal is shared with family and friends. 

A supper that offers spiritual communion with Christ

Tonight’s reading also leaves us in no doubt that Christ’s last supper with his disciples was an immensely intimate moment. In that Upper Room they spent precious time together before being scattered in the Garden of Gethsemane. The special meal they shared was a private occasion before the very public events of Good Friday.

Jesus, of course, is no longer with us physically. He’s no longer with us bodily in the way he was on that first Maundy Thursday evening. But it was Thomas Cranmer’s second conviction that when Christians celebrate Communion, the Holy Spirit establishes an intimate spiritual connection between us and our risen Saviour. 

As we share in the Lord’s Supper, there is a sense in which heaven and earth come into contact. As faithful believers consume the consecrated bread and wine, our hearts are united with our ascended Lord. In the words of Cranmer’s communion liturgy: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood…that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” No wonder, therefore, that countless Christians have testified that their union with the Lord Jesus is strengthened when they share in his Supper. Alongside the Bible and prayer, holy communion is a gift Christ has given to his church. It’s a supper designed to sustain and strengthen our relationship with him. 

A supper with four dimensions

So on this Maundy Thursday let’s learn from Thomas Cranmer that:

  • the Lord’s Supper is a supper that reminds us of our redemption – an aide memoire of Jesus’ saving work – given to the people of God. 
  • And it’s also a supper that offers us spiritual communion with Christ – a chance for spiritual intimacy with our Saviour.

So in a few moments time, when we do share bread and wine together, can I encourage you to do four things: 

  • Firstly, look back to the Cross, remember that Jesus laid down his life as the perfect sacrifice for sin. Remember all the anguish and affliction he endured out of love for us.
  • Then, secondly, look up to Jesus your Saviour, and say a prayer of thanks for his finished work on the cross. Express your gratitude to him for reconciling us to God. Thank him for staying resolute in the Garden of Gethsemane – for not deviating from his mission when every human instinct must have been to flee for his life.
  • And then, thirdly, take a moment to look around you. The Last Supper was not a meal Christ ate alone, but one he shared with his closest companions. Similarly, we are to share the Lord’s Supper together – its not a solitary meal. In the words of the communion service, “we are one body who share in one bread”.
  • And finally, as you consume Holy Communion, let your heart be filled with hope. As he finished his wine with his friends, Jesus looked forward to the day when he would “drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” So look forward to the great feast in glory that the Lord promises his people – because the Supper we share tonight is designed to be a foretaste of the family meal we’ll enjoy when our Father’s kingdom comes in full.

So as we share in the Lord’s Supper shortly, remember to look back, look up, look around you – and look forward with great hope. 

Phil Weston