I Think We Need To Talk About That Bread – a study in taking sin seriously

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:6f, NIV

Some time back, while out of town, I found myself in a strange church. It was a small congregation from a mainline denomination which was regularly attended by someone I knew. So I walked in and sat down in the middle of the auditorium just as the service began. The first thought which crossed my mind was that the auditorium was nearly empty. Though it easily could have sat 200 people, it must have only had about 30 in attendance, and that number was including those 8 or 9 souls who stood in the choir box, clothed in eccentric robes.

Now, I come from a religious background where churches put an emphasis on simplicity, and in which robes are not used except for the occasional Vacation Bible School sketch about Joseph’s coat of many colors, so this was strange, but certainly not surprising or off-putting. Nor was it necessarily surprising when the rote catechism was begun or when the ear-splitting organ was (very poorly) ham-handed by a young girl with thick glasses obscuring half her face (I believe the quality of the praise is in the intention behind it). It wasn’t even that surprising or concerning when a woman got up to lead a prayer; though I believe Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2 speaks against this. After all, this particular church didn’t seem to even have enough men to execute a worship service, since my quick calculation was that around 24 of the 30 people in the sanctuary were women. No, instead what made the entire situation strange – and wrong – to me was when we got to the celebration of the Eucharist (aka: The Lord’s Supper or Communion).

We finished a hymn and the pastor stepped up behind the central table. It was then that I noticed a massive loaf of bread. The loaf was not merely massive in the sense that it took up an entire platter, but also in the way it puffed out gaudily. Even non-Christians who have only seldom stepped inside of a Christian worship service would likely be surprised by this; since the sight of a thin, crispy wafer in church seems fairly universal.

The pastor said a prayer of thanks and then held the loaf above his head saying, “And when He had given thanks, Jesus broke the bread and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’” After this the pastor tore the bread into chunks and gave it to each of the people standing around him so that they could distribute it to the rest of the congregants.

The plate was passed to me and I couldn’t help but stare at the bread for a moment as it slowly recovered back to its original airiness in the places where the pastor had gripped and torn it from the rest of the loaf. In that moment it occurred to me just how wrong it was to use that bread. Not only was yeast – the one element forbidden – present, but it was present in such abundance. The loaf was like a larger version of one of those rolls thrown onto your table in a Texas-style steakhouse; 15% bread and 85% air. So I passed the bread on without tasting – this certainly wasn’t the body of our Lord substantially, much less trans-substantially.

I have no intention of telling you which church this was, or even which denomination it was. There is no reason to call them out, nor is there even a reason to call into question their motives or intentions; which were probably good, though imperfect. But something very important principally and theologically is present in this story; something which I’m sure most of you have already realized.

Leaven is NOT to be used. The scripture is very clear about this fact in both the Mosaic Passover meal AND in the New Covenant’s Eucharist. Leviticus 23 says, “The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast” (vv. 5f). Keep in mind that the Jewish day ended at sundown, so the Passover meal coincided with the Festival of Unleavened Bread. And, as Matthew notes in 26:17, it was “on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread [that] the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?’” Which was, of course, the meal in which Jesus spoke the words uttered by the mistaken pastor.

Therefore it seems well-established that the bread in our Eucharist should be unleavened, because the bread in the Passover feast was unleavened. It’s simple. It’s clear. It provides continuity. It’s important because following the example of Christ is important; and it’s also very important because of what leaven represents.

Aside from the fact that Christ Himself said to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mt 16:6,11), look for a moment at 1 Corinthians 5. Paul is talking in this passage about an immoral man who is worshipping in the church at Corinth. The man is sleeping with his father’s wife … and the church is not only allowing it, but is “proud” of it (v. 2)! This immoral man is not ashamed, much less repenting, and his presence in their humble worship is fouling it up, not to mention making a mockery of the fellowship of the entire Christian community with the purity of Christ. Likely, the Corinthians didn’t speak up about the situation because they didn’t want to pass judgment on him – much like we label people with standards “judgmental” today. But that’s when Paul tells them, “Your boasting [the pride of the Corinthians in the immoral situation] is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (vv. 6f).

Paul uses this same phrase (“a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough”) again in Galatians 5:9; this time in reference to the other end of the church-misbehavior spectrum. He uses it to address legalism, brought by Judaizing teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia and led them astray to “another gospel” (1:6-10); a “gospel” which focused on righteousness being established by works rather than by Christ.

In other words, Paul makes a case for the middle road being the correct road for healthy churches to deal with the growth of their members. On either side road is arrogance; either arrogance in the shape of licentiousness or legalism – of moral chaos or righteous tyranny. Simultaneously Paul establishes Christ (represented by the unleavened bread in the Eucharist) as the source of true freedom (that’s the point of Galatians). We will never be free and experience growth by either rampant immorality or by checklist-style faith. You see that, Paul is referencing leaven in both of these scriptures’ context as a symbol of the unashamed arrogance of the flesh, exercised through either excess or oppression. But, more poignantly, Paul is pointing out the hypocrisy of churches who accept the sacrifice of Christ on the one hand – partaking of the Eucharist together – but who then place their trust in either their own “love” (is that what you call non-confrontation of sin?) or works.

But for goodness sake! Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice enough? Or are we still in “the elementary teachings about Christ” and “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” by walking away from the “goodness of the word of God” (Heb 6:1-6)?

Certainly, we ALL sin. That’s very clear from Romans 3:23. However, the difference between the proper and the improper, in both 1 Cor 5 and Gal 5, not to mention in each of our situations, is the attitude, or intention, of the heart of the sinner coming before God. We take the unleavened bread because it represents Christ. We consume Him, and His purity (His unleavened self), that we might in turn be consumed BY Him and become pure ourselves. He doesn’t impart that purity unless we admit we need Him to impart that purity onto us. Not because He is in any way arrogant or cantankerous, like some sort of insecure monarch. No! It is because He doesn’t want us to remain the way we are. He wants us to be better. He wants us to be clean. He wants us to be able to enjoy fellowship with Him … now and forever. Taking unleavened bread is a way to renew our vow to live for Him and not for ourselves. We simultaneously reaffirm that we are broken and that He is our Lord and Savior as we imbibe His purity. After all, we have been crucified with Christ, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us!

If we go back to Leviticus 23 we find another piece to the puzzle of the breads; a piece which should be really beautiful to us. “From the day after the [Passover] Sabbath … count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the Lord” (vv. 15ff). The Festival of Weeks (or Festival of Harvest), which came to be known as Pentecost, included two loaves which were commanded to be cooked with yeast.

Why would God command two loaves to be cooked with yeast if He was trying to make a point about yeast and sin? Because the two loaves represented the sin nature of Jews and Gentiles who would one day come to God through Jesus Christ starting on Pentecost in Acts 2. This should be beautiful to us because it means that a long way back in history, when God was establishing His laws through His servant, Moses, He was thinking about US – you and me – and making plans to bring us to Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. You begin to see that there is a reason why the same chapter in the Bible has these two festivals juxtaposed to one another. Just as Passover meant life and freedom, Pentecost was a day of thankfulness for life and freedom. Pentecost was not just a celebration for the bounty of the harvest, but that the harvest included us! It was for Jews and Gentiles alike who bear within themselves the leaven of sin nature.

Our hearts should break at that thought. Yes, certainly break in sadness at the thought that it took God’s own Son dying on a cross to save us from our twisted sin. But also it should break our heart in gladness by making us receptive to the glorious grace which He planned to pour out over the course of 1,500 years of history (roughly the time between Moses and Christ).

One other thing it should do: it should make us much more serious about getting certain things right in our corporate worship as well as our individual worship and dedication. In the Lord’s Supper we celebrate with unleavened bread for three important reasons: 1) because it’s commanded, 2) because Christ, our Passover lamb, was/is sinless and gave Himself for us, and 3) because we must come before God in humility, acknowledging our sin … OUR LEAVEN … our need for the purity of Christ to consume the conceit of our sin.

We may not be harboring an unrepentant sexual pervert in our midst, like the Corinthian church, or a group of legalistic Judaizers, like the Galatian churches, but we are certainly a collection of broken and sinful people. The importance of acknowledging our sinful condition, therefore, is immensely vital … and the importance of acknowledging Christ’s pure sacrifice as completely and utterly sufficient is immeasurably significant … and we get to acknowledge both of them in one simple act: the eating of unleavened bread.

The irony on that Sunday so many years ago was that the pastor spoke the commandment. He verbalized what was important. He quoted 1 Corinthians 11:24. The pastor didn’t change Paul’s words by saying, “And when He had given thanks, Jesus TORE the bread …” No, the pastor said, “Jesus BROKE the bread.” And though we often mess up the commands of God – sometimes innocently and unknowingly – this is a command which is clear and easy to follow. What’s more, it IS important and elegantly beautiful in its simplicity.

Let me go ahead and include a sad epilogue for this post: The church I’m talking about closed its doors not long after my trip there. They had dwindled down to a mere shell of the vitality they once had and they could no longer continue.

I certainly won’t say that correlation in the timing of the two events necessarily equals causation in this case. I have a hard time believing that God shut them down because He was angered by the leaven in their Eucharist bread. After all, based on the things He overlooks in my life on a daily basis, He’s much more patient and gracious than that. But I have no doubt that there is a correlation between the insolence of a church and its lack of vitality.

Having a disregard for the simple is often an indicator of either spiritual immaturity or spiritual sickness. No … let me restate that a bit … it’s not often an indicator, it’s always an indicator. Just as you won’t care about leaven in your Eucharist if you don’t really take sin seriously, you won’t care two cents about praising God if you don’t really acknowledge God as King.

Getting things right may sometimes be corrupted by the legalists among us, but just as often doing it the way God says to do it is a way to continually renew a good conscience before God … and that is something I believe God will bless and make prosperous.

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