“After supper,” Jesus took the cup (11 Cor. 11:25). According to Paul, the Last Supper started off with breaking bread, followed by a meal, and finally concluded with the sharing of the cup. Hence, the rite would have looked very different from what is typically practiced in churches. The rite would have included not merely a symbolic meal, but an actual one. The meal would have been book-ended by the bread and the cup, giving the whole thing a “sacred feel.” Paul critiques those in Corinth for making this sacred meal like any other meal. Meals in the ancient world were a place to display one’s wealth and power, and to receive honour from others. It seems that the Corinthians were replicating this sort of thing and Paul would have none of it (see 1 Cor 11:21-22, 33-34).
Jesus takes the cup and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” It is interesting that it is the cup and not the wine that is the new covenant. This is likely a metonymy, which is when something is referred to not by directly naming it, but by something closely associated with it. An example of this is when “Hollywood” is used to refer to the whole film industry. In any event, Paul does not necessarily equate the wine with Jesus’ blood. It may be intended but is not actually stated. By making the cup rather than the blood the central thing, Paul puts the focus on the whole ritual act rather than on the symbolic meaning of the specific elements.
It is possible that Paul is thinking about Psalms, where different “cups” appear. For example, Psalm 75:8: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” This is a cup of divine displeasure, at least in part. Something like this is likely what is in view in Luke 22:42, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (See also Matthew 26:39, and Mark 14:36). If this cup in in view, then again Paul would not be necessarily equating the wine with the blood, as is typically believed. Rather, “blood” might be a metonymy (see above) for the suffering Jesus was to experience – suffering involved in drinking the cup of God’s displeasure. On the other hand, perhaps Paul is thinking about Psalm 116:13: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.” This cup refers to the salvation of God. Both of these perspectives can be defended as Pauline.
What does it mean that the cup is the “new covenant?” In the old Latin this is translated novum testamentum, from which we get “New Testament.” A Covenant is an agreement – a pact. An example is marriage. In the parallel versions in Mark and Matthew it is simply “the blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24, Matthew 26:28). They do not speak of a cup, which shifts the focus to the wine. More importantly, Mark and Matthew do not call the covenant “new.” For them it was presumably not a “new” covenant – it was simply the covenant. This would probably suggest to the original Jewish audience that this covenant was the same as the previous covenant – the Mosaic covenant. Hence, Mark and Matthew would see Jesus as a reformer who wants to get people back to a more authentic understanding of the pre-existing covenant. Mark and Matthew may be thinking of Exodus 24:8 where Moses sprinkles blood of sacrificed oxen on the people saying, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” While this could also be in Paul’s mind, the fact that he shifts the focus away from the blood to the cup suggests otherwise.
Luke, like Paul, calls it a “New” Covenant (Luke 22:20). Paul and Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, may be thinking about Jeremiah 31:31-34, which also speaks of a new covenant. Jews and Christians interpret this passage in Jeremiah differently. For Christians, it is usually understood to be a prediction of the covenant instituted by Jesus. The word “new” suggests a difference from whatever the previous covenant was. It is likely that both Paul and Luke understood what they were doing as being within the context of “Judaism” of their time, so the difference between the “new” and the “old” is not to be understood as absolute, as is sometimes the case.
One interesting difference between the passages that have “new covenant” and the one that simply have “covenant” is the intended audiences. Mark and Matthew are more interested in how their stories are received by Jewish readers, while Luke and Paul are more focussed on Gentiles. A “new” covenant plays better for a Gentile audience who were never really part of the original covenant. On the flipside, it can be imagined that many Jewish readers might have been worried as to whether this new Jesus movement was even in the Jewish fold – and referring simply to the “covenant” might be seen as establishing continuity with what had gone before.
Paul typically uses baptism as his “go to” rite for reflection. Indeed, 1 Corinthians is the only letter which even mentions the Eucharist, while Baptism is regularly discussed elsewhere in his letters. Baptism balances both the movement towards death and suffering as one goes down under the water, and then the movement towards resurrection and new life as one comes up (see Rom 6:4). Paul typically emphasizes the movement towards death more than the movement towards new life – although certainly both are typically always present in baptism. It is interesting that Paul’s rendering of the Lord’s Supper speaks of Jesus’ death in the bread (which is broken) and the cup (which is in his blood) – but does not mention the resurrection.
Where one might expect to find the resurrection, one finds instead the Parousia (which is a word used to refer to the so-called “second coming”). So, Paul finishes with, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The Eucharist points to the death of Christ, and also to the Parousia, but does not explicitly point to the resurrection.
The Eucharist does some interesting things with time in Paul’s thought. On the one hand it points to the past – to Jesus’ death. It doesn’t merely point to his death merely as a fact to acknowledge, rather it is something that welcomes people to take part. Paul wrote earlier “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16, NRSV). The word translated in the NRSV as “sharing” is koinonia. “Sharing” is a weak translation. I think a better translation is “participation.” Hence, 1 Cor 10:16 would be better translated, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
The main organizing idea in Paul’s theology is to be “in Christ.” To be “in Christ” is to participate in him through the Spirit. Hence, to participate in the body and blood of Christ is to participate in the brokenness of Christ – in his death. Baptism also suggests this, but also points to a participation in the risen life available “in Christ.” In Eucharist, at least if we stay with what we find in Paul, the emphasis is on death. This might be because this was what Paul felt he needed to emphasize to the Corinthians. After all they seemed to entirely miss the requirement of dying with Christ. We might only have a fraction of what Paul really thought about this rite.
Paul is typically not interested in the life of Jesus. Maybe we can look to Luke to explore one (of many?) missing aspect of the Eucharist in Paul. In Luke Jesus regularly eats with whoever will eat with him. He has a reputation for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:27-32, 19:1-10), but it is interesting how often Luke speaks of Jesus dining with the Pharisees (7:36-50, 11:37, 14:1), and lawyers (11:45. 14:3). When we get to the Passion Narrative, the Last Supper is the final of many dinners (hence the adjective “Last”). The Eucharist in Luke, then, celebrates not only the death of Jesus, but also his life – specifically his practice of inclusion. He would dine with religious dignitaries just as readily as he would with the “nobodies” of society. This dynamic may explain some of Paul’s expectations for how the Corinthians should have been conducting themselves in respect to this rite, even though he does not mention Jesus’ pattern of behaviour before the passion, as does Luke. In any event, to celebrate the Eucharist would be to participate in this practice of inclusion even with those with whom we might not agree (something the Corinthians apparently did not do well).
The bread saying and the wine saying are not entirely symmetrical. One parallel that does clearly exist, and which holds the two sayings together is that both are to be partaken “in remembrance of me.” Beyond this, parallels are weak. For example, there is no parallel to the breaking of the bread in the wine saying. For example, it could have said that Jesus poured the wine into the cup, but it does not. This means there is no previous action involved in the cup, while there is for the bread. That the body “is for you” does not parallel the fact that the “cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The body is interpersonal – “for you” – between the disciples and Jesus, while the cup represents a somewhat abstract concept. The death of Jesus is interpersonal in Paul, but it also has cosmic implications. The new covenant is an apocalyptic cosmic reality for Paul. The wine may refer to this aspect, while the bread refers to more interpersonal aspects. All this to say that we might be missing Paul’s perspective on the Eucharist if we see the wine and bread as representing two aspects of Jesus’ bodily suffering.