Q. What is the Lord’s Supper?
A. 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.
Luke 22:19–20 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
This week I want to focus more on what the catechism says about the Lord's Supper, that is, the more theological side to this sacrament. If you have worshiped with us at Proclamation, you know we place a high value on the Lord's Supper. We celebrate it every Lord's Day when we gather for worship. Some may ask, "why do you have the Lord's Supper every week?" Hopefully after reading this post and the posts that have come before it, you will begin to see why we place such a high importance on the sacrament.
The Lord's Supper as a Remembrance
First in the catechism, we see that this sacrament shows us Christ's death. We're shown this in the institution of the sacrament when Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me". In the "remembrance" clause of the sacrament, it's important to keep in mind that the meal itself is, in it's very nature, a commemoration. The meal serves as a memorial, a monument of sorts, to the act of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. We often think of the language of "do this in remembrance of me" as an action we are to do. And certainly, the meal should cause us to reflect upon the death of Christ. But we want to remember that the meal itself serves as the memorial. In other words, the meal is the "remembrance", whether those who partake "remember" Christ's death or not. Just as the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument in Washington DC serve as memorials in and of themselves that, in turn, lead us to remember, so too is the Lord's Supper a monument to the death of Christ that, in turn, drives us to reflect upon and remember the central act of redemption in Scriptures-the death of Jesus Christ.
Now many Protestants stop there. There are many who believe that this is all the meal does. It simply reminds us what Christ did in his death. Historically though, as divided as the universal church has been over what is happening in the Lord's Supper, one thing most branches of Christ's Church have believed is that the meal is not merely a memorial, nor does it simply serve as a sign of Christ's death on the cross. And the Reformed heritage continues in this tradition of the church universal. We've already seen this with the post on what a sacrament is, and our post last week about the Old Testament roots of the Lord's Supper where we discussed the reality that in it's Old Testament roots, the meal also serves as proclamation that we are at peace with God and at peace with one another.
The Elements of the Supper as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ
One area of major division in Christ's Church is the issue of how the bread and cup are the body and blood of Christ. We would fully affirm that the bread and cup are the body and blood of Christ, but what do we mean by that? Notice the catechism states that the bread and the cup are not the body and blood of Christ "after a corporal or carnal manner". In other words, while the Westminster Divines want to affirm that the bread and wine are indeed Christ's body and blood, they want to reject any idea that somehow Christ is physically present in the elements themselves. This is a rejection of both the Roman Catholic doctrine of "transubstantiation", where when the priest consecrates the elements the bread and wine actually and truly become the body and blood of Jesus; and too the Lutheran view where Christ is physically "in, with, and under" the bread and wine (Luther too rejects transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but are united to the real body and blood of Jesus physically). If the elements of bread and wine remain bread and wine, if Christ is not physically present with the elements, then in what way can we say that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ? The Westminster Divines (the men who wrote the confession and catechisms) insist the answer is in how the Bible uses "sacramental language". Their argument is an issue of interpretation. Scripture often speaks of the sign as if it is the thing signified. So, a good example of this is Genesis 17. In Gen. 17:10 God declares, "This is my covenant, which you shall keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised." Here, the very words of God state that circumcision is the covenant. Yet just a verse later in vs 11, God says, "You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." We know the covenant (the promise) between God and Abraham is the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations, to give him an inheritance, and to give him a land. Circumcision is not the covenant, but rather, a sign of the covenant. And yet, circumcision as the sign of the covenant is spoken of in vs 10 as if it is the covenant itself. This is "sacramental language". This is an example of how the sign is spoken of as if it is the very thing signified. And this is not the only place in Scripture where this happens. Baptism, for example, is spoken of as if it is salvation in 1 Peter 3. Peter writes in 3:21, "Baptism...now saves you." There are very few people who would say that baptism, in and of itself, actually saves. And if you read all of 1 Peter 3, it is clear that Peter is saying that it is what baptism represents that saves. But here, again, is this sacramental language where the sign is spoken of as if it is the thing signified. And when we see this use of language throughout Scripture, we can understand in what sense Jesus would say, "this is my body, this is my blood", and we can with confidence use the same language when speaking of the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper.
The Real Presence of Christ in the Supper
Another area of division over the Lord's Supper is the issue of whether Christ is present in the meal. We see some obvious connections to this in the discussion around the elements of the supper being the body and blood of Christ. The Roman and Lutheran view obviously have Christ physically present, which we see in their understanding of the elements of the meal. But the Reformed view also insists Christ is present in the meal, but he is present in a spiritual, not physical, sense. Why are the Reformers so insistent that Christ is not physically present in the elements of the Lord's Supper? The simple reason is because they wanted to preserve the humanity of the ascended Jesus. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he ascended body and soul. If you remember way back to the question of the catechism, "Who is the Redeemer of God's elect?" The answer reminds us that Jesus, as the redeemer of God's elect, as the eternal Son of God, became man and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures, yet one person forever. Jesus is eternally fully God and fully man. And Christ's physical body has only the attributes of a physical body! Physical bodies, even glorified and resurrected bodies, are not physically present in more than one place at a time. If anyone would question Christ's ability to be in more than one place at a time physically, Calvin would point to our own resurrection of the body. Since Jesus is the first-fruits of all of us who will one day receive glorified resurrection bodies, since Christ is the "prototype", so to speak, of our own resurrection of the body, what is said of his resurrection body can also be said of our own resurrection bodies. This is an important point! Unless we are willing to confess that in our own resurrection bodies, we will have the ability to be more than one place at one time (and Calvin asks, who would ever say that?), how could we embrace a doctrine that would say that the embodied Jesus, who is still truly man, is physically in more than one place at a time? To make Christ physically present in the Lord's Supper, then, is to "empty heaven of Jesus Christ" (since in order to be physically present in the supper he would have to descend from heaven), and would be a denial of his true humanity. Calvin says that to make Christ physically present in multiple places at once (as he would have to be, given the reality that the sacrament is celebrated in multiple places at once) confuses the attributes of a body with the attributes of a spirit. Spirits can be omni-present, bodies cannot.
Some may respond, "But Jesus is not only fully man, he is also fully God! And God is omnipresent!" To this point, the Reformers saw the Holy Spirit as the instrumental person in uniting the elements of the Lord's Supper and those who participate by faith to the embodied Jesus Christ. Just as Christ is able to dwell in the hearts of all his people through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so too is Christ, through the Spirit, able to be present at the Lord's Table! It is the Holy Spirit who unites us to Jesus Christ in the supper. It is the Holy Spirit who unites the elements of the meal, when received in faith, with the body and blood of Jesus. This is why Calvin is able to say that just as bread and wine nourish the body, so too does the flesh and blood of Jesus nourish the souls of those who eat in faith at the Lord's Supper. And for the Reformers, it is not so much an issue of the Holy Spirit bringing Christ down to us in the meal, but rather, in taking us up to Christ!
This video from Michael Horton is very helpful in explaining the Reformed understanding of this (he also goes into, at the end, some interesting historical developments of the theology around the Lord's Supper that isn't particularly relevant to this blog post, but some may find interesting):
All this is to say this: Yes, Christ is really and truly present. Yes, we participate really and truly in the body and blood of Christ. Yes, our souls are nourished and feast upon the body and blood of Christ. The Lord's Supper is more than just symbolic, it is more than just a memorial, it is an active means of grace whereby we, as God's people, when received in faith, are fed and nourished with Jesus Christ himself. It is a means of grace that, through the physical elements of the Lord's Supper, by the work of the Holy Spirit, proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ to us in a tangible, physical way. Given all of this, when answering the question as to why we at Proclamation have the Lord's Supper every week, the answer will always be, "why wouldn't we have the Lord's Supper as often as possible!?"
This blog was written by Andy Styer