What is the Lord's Supper?
Westminster Shorter Catechism again, Q 96- The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.What is the role of eating? If we do not commune with Christ after a "corporal and carnal manner" but by "faith only," can we not be "made partakers of his body and blood” without eating? Can't we just watch it and think pious thoughts and get the benefit that way? This question reveals the shortcomings of most Reformed views of the sacraments in general. We haven't done particularly well with our attitude toward human actions and things. If no significance is attached to the eating, we can end up with something like the medieval Roman Catholic view that Luther and Calvin were fighting against. At a certain point in the Middle Ages, it became customary for Christians only to receive the Communion bread once a year. The rest of the time they were told that they could receive the benefit of the sacrament simply by watching the priest break the bread at consecration. I think this represents a devaluing of the material.
There is also another direction we could go if we don't attach any significance to the eating. We could end up with a Baptist view of the Lord's Supper where God doesn't do anything at all in the sacrament. It's all about what we do. We simply obey and remember. We don't receive any direct spiritual benefit from the ritual because eating is natural and material but God is supernatural and spiritual. We don't want to confuse nature and supernature or matter and spirit. Well, this kind of understanding is a serious problem. This is a clear example of the dualism that completely separates the world and nature from God. Sounds an awful lot like that darned noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world Schmemann has been warning us about. This is precisely why I'm not a Baptist anymore.
According to Schmemann, something else that smacks of dualism is the distinction we make between Word and Sacrament. We are accustomed to thinking of sacraments merely as secondary helps to the Word. We usually think of the Word in terms of God's activity and the sacraments exclusively in terms of our activity. If we think of it that way, from a Calvinistic perspective the sacraments really aren't that important. Well, I don't think Calvin would agree that the sacraments are unimportant but he unintentionally created that impression when he described the sacraments as appendices to the Word.
So, if the distinction between Word and Sacrament is artificial, how do we overcome it? I want to point us to what Schmemann says on page 33 about the Word being as sacramental as the sacrament is "evangelical." What does the statement that the Word is as "sacramental" as the sacrament is "evangelical" mean?
There’s a couple of things. The first thing is that Scripture is the sacrament par excellence of the Church. I don't want to devalue Scripture, but it must be apparent that the words printed on the page or the words spoken by one reading Scripture or preaching from the Word are also things, things as earthly as water, bread, or wine. These are all earthen vessels that only through the power of the Holy Spirit can carry and deliver the weight of Divine reality. Due to the power of the Holy Spirit, who both inspired the writers of Scripture and who enlivens the printed or spoken words of the Bible for us that read them or hear them today, God speaks to us through His Word. Likewise, it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that a community ritual meal becomes a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Granted, there are some important ways in which the Scriptures are unique from the things we properly call sacraments (Scripture, being God-breathed, is, with or without the Spirit's new activity of enlightening us, already sacramental), but, just as bread and wine, the ritual actions, the Word spoken, the people, the minister, etc., require the action of the Holy Spirit in order for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to truly take place, so too do we need the Spirit's activity in order for the Bible to make its transformative mark on us.
The second thing is that the sacraments are an essential part of our evangelical mission as the Church. We are commanded to preach the Gospel to every creature, but we are also commanded to baptize and to gather together to share the Eucharistic meal by which we remember Christ and eat Him as our spiritual food. The sacraments themselves, particularly the Eucharist, both enable our ministry to the world and demonstrate the Gospel to an unbelieving world, showing forth Christ's great love for us and our love for one another. Sacraments are also evangelical because, like the Word, they are means by which the seed of faith can be planted in our hearts and by which that seed can be watered so that it bears much fruit.
Is the above description consistent with the significance of the Lord's Supper in traditional Reformed faith and practice? If not, how central should it be?
We have customarily thought of and acted as if the Word has precedence over the sacraments. I don't think this was the intention of the Reformers. For Calvin, for instance, the right administration of the sacraments was every bit as much a mark of the Church as the right preaching of the Word was. Calvin wanted weekly Communion, but the Geneva city council would not let him. It might have gone differently had Calvin been able to have weekly Communion, but the sacraments have always had second billing in our tradition.
I think this is a mistake, especially when we think about both Scripture and the sacraments as means the Word of God uses to communicate with us. Who is the Word of God? Jesus, of course. He promises to make Himself present both in the Scriptures and in the sacraments. In some sense, then, the Bible and the sacraments are both the Word of God, or, more properly, manifestations of Him. They are really two sides of the same coin, and they complement each other really well. The Bible, for instance, appeals to our minds and to our hearing, while the sacraments appeal to our senses of sight, touch, smell, and taste. God seeks to get to our hearts through every aspect of our humanity so I think we should give Him every opportunity to do so. With that in mind, I think that Word and Sacrament should be equally central to our faith and practice.
Let's look at another perspective. I'll read the following statement about the Lord's Supper. Tell me if this is the statement of a Presbyterian or of an Orthodox or a Catholic.
The Eucharist is the world in miniature; it has cosmic significance. Within it we find clues to the meaning of all creation and all history, to the nature of God and the nature of man, to the mystery of the world, which is Christ. It is not confined to the first day, for its power fills seven. Though the altar stands at the center, its effects stretch out to the four corners of the earth.Is this the statement of a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox? Well, I changed a few words—I turned Lord's Supper into Eucharist and table into altar to make this sound like something an Orthodox or Roman Catholic would say but actually it is from a Presbyterian pastor and professor who is part of a group that has caused a big commotion over in the Presbyterian Church in America and the other conservative Reformed denominations about the importance of the sacraments and the Church in our salvation. In fact, Peter Leithart, whose words I just read has been investigated not less than three times by his presbytery and has endured at least one heresy trial for his positions. Many Reformed evangelicals think all this sounds too much like Catholicism, so some of them are waging a campaign against those who are attempting to recover the full-bodied Reformed sacramental and churchly heritage.
This is an important question. How central is the Lord's Table in our life together as a congregation? This gets into the issue of frequency. How frequently should we take Communion?
Well, I certainly have a position on frequency. I think every Lord's Day celebration should include the Lord's Supper. Not only does it "show forth Christ's death till He comes" but it guards against this whole tendency toward dualism. The Lord's Supper with its emphasis on ritual and the community of faith and material things tells us right away that our spiritual lives are not lived apart from the world or from other people or even from material things. Our spiritual life must embrace the world, people, and things, not just as purely incidental to our lives, but as means of connection with God.
If we move forward on this idea that the Lord's Supper is the world in miniature; that it is central; that its significance fills all seven days of the week and the four corners of the earth; we have a lot of room to fill out our definition of the Lord's Supper. Of course, the Lord's Supper is a sign and remembrance of Christ's death. I think we all understand that. We have talked about the importance of Communion for our mission—how it turns us into the Body of Christ so that we can be His physical presence in the world and tell others about His Kingdom. We've talked about how for the Orthodox this gets into the whole question of the Eschaton—that time when Jesus returns and sets everything right. It gives us a glimpse of that time so we can prepare the world for His Return. I think we have a bit of that in our Reformed understanding of the Eucharist as well.
In talking about all that this sacrament means for us, I think a discussion about the many different terms we use to describe it would be productive. Somebody give me a name for this sacrament.
1. Lord's Supper- it tells us that this is a meal Jesus has with all of his friends. Not only is Jesus our dear friend at this meal but we are all dear friends to one another. This term points us to his death because it was the last meal he shared with the disciples.
2. Communion- I like this one because it tells us something about our relationship to one another as the Body of Christ. We are one. We must truly love one another. That scary passage of Scripture in 1 Corinthians (11:17-32) that talks about profaning the Body and Blood of Christ by unworthily taking the Lord's Supper is most likely about people in the Church failing to love each other—failing to recognize the Body of Christ in the poorer members of the Corinthian congregation. Paul ultimately says that the sacrament will damn us if we fail to love each other.
3. Lord's Table- This is my favorite because it illustrates our relationship to God. That we get to eat at the table with Jesus says that we are the very sons and daughters of God.
4. Eucharist- This is the one that's most important for the Orthodox. I want to spend a little time with this one. The term Eucharist makes us understand that the sacrament is joy, that it’s praise, that it's thanksgiving. We focus a lot of attention on the fact that this sacrament is about Jesus’ death, but it's also about the Resurrection. It's in the context of the Resurrection that this meal is thanksgiving and joy, that it is Eucharist.
This concept of Eucharist is very strong in the Communion liturgy that we use. I just want to emphasize very strongly once again that the Eucharist is a liturgy. We have to include all of it as sacramental. We can't take it apart and focus just on the bread and wine. It's a seamless action and procession of thanksgiving from beginning to end.
With that in mind, I hope you guys noticed in the last part of this chapter how similar our liturgy is to the Eastern Orthodox liturgy Schmemann discusses in our book. They differ from one another in a few places, but, for the most part, each has a very similar structure to the other and very similar content to the other. I want to have us meditate on this idea of thanksgiving, of offering, of sacrifice that is present in both of our liturgies. Schmemann has some very profound and beautiful yet also very difficult things to say about all this in the last 10 or 12 pages of the chapter. There is a lot of giving going on. Let's look at this on page 35:
This offering to God bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to Him of ourselves, of our life, and of the whole world. . . . It is our Eucharist. It is the movement that Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and all frustration, all hunger and all satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful.I think this correlates really well with the statement from Peter Leithart that the Eucharist covers the four corners of the world. We are offering ourselves and the whole world to God when we offer the gifts of bread and wine.
Well, it's after this point that trying to follow Schmemann begins to make my head hurt a little. It gets a little confusing. He begins to talk about how Christ has already offered all that is to be offered to God by giving Himself, so Christ offers Himself as a Eucharist to God. Well, we as the Church have been taken up into Christ's Eucharistic life, so Christ offers us as a Eucharist to God as well. To make it even more confusing, we then offer the self-offering of Christ as a Eucharist to God. In the end, we end up with four offerings that have occurred in the Eucharist. First, we have offered ourselves and the whole world to God. Second, Christ has offered Himself to God. Third, Christ has offered His Body, the Church, to God. Finally, as a response, we offer Christ's self-offering to God.
This kind of talk makes some Protestants very nervous, especially those who are highly suspicious of anything that sounds remotely Catholic. This begins to sound like we are sacrificing Christ all over again or that we are doing some kind of good work here to earn God's grace. I really don't think that's what's going on here. In fact, we get a very strong affirmation of grace in this. All of this is possible only because of what Christ has done in His once-and-for-all death for our sins on the cross and in His Resurrection, and, at the end of the liturgy, God gives the bread and wine that we have offered to Him back to us as the gift of Christ's Body and Blood.
No one has been "worthy" to receive communion, no one has been prepared for it. At this point all merits, all righteousness, all devotions disappear and dissolve. Life comes again to us as Gift, a free and divine gift. . . . Adam [and Eve are] introduced into Paradise, taken out of nothingness, and crowned king [and queen] of creation. Everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given. And, therefore, the greatest humility and obedience is to accept the gift, to say yes—in joy and gratitude. There is nothing left we can do, yet we become all that God wanted us to be from eternity, when we are eucharistic.With that in mind, we can conclude our look at the Lord's Supper with Calvin's view of Christ's presence in the sacrament. This is from his "Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper":
We all confess, then, with one mouth, that, in receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the real substance of the body and blood of Christ. How this is done, some may deduce more clearly than others. But be this as it may, on the one hand we must, to shut out all carnal fancies, raise our hearts on high to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus Christ is so abased as to be enclosed under any corruptible elements. On the other hand, not to diminish the efficacy of the sacred mystery, we must hold that it is accomplished by the secret and miraculous virtue of God and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, for which reason it is called spiritual.Two things. One, Calvin understands Jesus’ words about his flesh and blood to be a promise. He rejects any idea of the bread and wine being transformed into actual flesh and blood, but he somehow still manages to take what Jesus says quite literally, even if he doesn't understand how exactly it works. And he makes it very clear that he doesn't know how it works. Listen here to Calvin's rather surprising mystical side:
Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them. Institutes 4.17.32.The second thing we must note about Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper is that he bids us to "Raise our hearts on high."
A question: Where is Christ physically at right now? He's in heaven at the right hand of the Father, right? Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, right? Can human beings physically be in more than one place at a time? Well, as much as you might sometimes feel the need to be in two places at once, you that are parents know that this is impossible. Okay, let's try to get this straight; if we encounter Christ in His humanity in the Lord's Supper, explain to me how Jesus can be at a thousand different Communion services all at once. Jesus is human, so He can't do it without destroying His ongoing humanity, can He? What He can do, though, is bring all of us to His place. This is where Calvin looked East toward the Orthodox view of the Eucharist for help.
Leonard Vander Zee explains Calvin's solution:
For Calvin, the sursum corda, "lift up your hearts," was a favorite liturgical phrase, because at the Lord's Table we lift up our hearts to Christ in heaven by the Spirit who has united us with him in his glorified humanity. By the same Spirit and through the sharing of the bread and wine, we now partake in a unique way of that union with Christ.Calvin's solution for the problem of Christ's physical presence in the sacrament is for the Holy Spirit to lift the Church into Christ's presence in heaven. This is the reason our Eucharistic liturgy is so similar to the Orthodox liturgy Schmemann has shown us. We are basically striving to do the same thing that Schmemann shows the Orthodox to be doing in their celebration of the Eucharist. We are ascending into heaven to offer ourselves and the world to God and to share in a foretaste of the great banquet of the Lord. Let's say a small part of the Great Thanksgiving we share with the Orthodox as we conclude?
Lift up your hearts!I think we're ready to head into worship now. We will be gathering around the Lord's Table today, so let's go together and ascend with Christ into heaven to share in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.