Places in the Heart, Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film about the Depression-era U.S. South, ends on a mystical note. The last scene finds an odd collection of parishioners sharing pews in a church.
Here sits a white peace officer who, in a tragic accident, had been shot to death by a drunken black youth. By him is his young widow, who had been left to rear two children on a broken-down cotton farm. Nearby sits a black beggar-thief-farmer whom Ku Klux Klan terrorists ran out of town. There’s a blind man who eked out a living by caning chairs. Plus a traveling minstrel whose simple, haunting tunes punctuated this poor world.
The group also includes town leaders who, at night, donned sheets to lead racist attacks. Over here is an elderly woman who died in a tornado. And there’s an adulterous husband and his long-suffering but forgiving wife. And, finally, we see the black youth who was killed by vengeful whites after he had accidentally shot the lawman.
In a compelling benediction, Benton metaphorically unites these characters by having them eat and drink communion wafers and wine, symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. Thus this disparate tableau of fellow humans, who never would have come together in any other way, finally shares the peace of God.
How many become one
Christians come from all backgrounds, all races, all economic levels, and all nations. Yet they all find unity in the Body of Jesus Christ, through the sacrifice of the Savior of the world. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, also called Communion and the Eucharist, are the memorials of that sacrifice.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” asked the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 10:16). “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (verse 17).
Jesus said: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54).
Jesus’ statement shocked the people of his day. God’s law forbade the consumption of any blood, let alone human blood. Yet Jesus was not suggesting they eat human flesh and drink human blood. He was telling people that, if they wanted to receive eternal life, his life would have to become their own. They had to unite with him through his death and resurrection. They had to live as he required, relying on him to guide their every step.
When he ate the Last Supper with his disciples on the night before he was crucified, Jesus institutionalized these concepts for the New Testament church.
The Last Supper
For centuries, the Israelites had observed the Passover in memory of their Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Their ancestors killed lambs and smeared the blood on their doorposts so God would pass over their homes while striking down the Egyptian firstborn (Exodus 12:12-13). Because the Israelites left Egypt in haste, they ate unleavened, or flat, bread that had not had time to rise. The Passover lamb prefigured Jesus’ sacrificial death. As the Lamb of God, he allowed his blood to be spilled to rescue humanity from sin — in symbol, the Egypt that is this God-rejecting world.
It was after a Passover meal that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper: “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’” (Luke 22:14-16).
Jesus knew he was about to be slaughtered, just as innocent lambs would be killed for the Jews’ Passover observance. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (verses 19-20).
In remembrance of him
Shortly after the Last Supper, Roman soldiers arrested Jesus. At the urging of the Jews, the Roman authorities tried, condemned and crucified him. Jesus bore our sins on the cross so we may be passed over and saved from the penalty of sin.
Christ’s church continued to use bread and wine as a memorial of his death. Paul wrote:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The Lord’s Supper is not an Old Testament observance. It reminds us of a rescue far better that Israel escaping Egypt. Jesus, through his life, death, resurrection and his ongoing work as our High Priest, has delivered us, the Israel of God, from sin and eternal death. He has united all Christian believers, from all backgrounds, in his Body.
Paul tells us about our salvation in Christ:
God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Colossians 1:19-22)
“Christ is the mediator of a new covenant,” Hebrews 9:15 tells us, “that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free.”
For Christians — those who live by faith in Christ — the Lord’s Supper service combines spiritual reflection with joyful appreciation and worship. By participating in Christ’s death, we are united with all fellow Christians. We share our exaltation of the Savior of the world. We embrace the forgiveness we have through Jesus’ shed blood. We celebrate at the Lord’s Table as one spiritual Body in the peace of God.
Author: Norman Shoaf