1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 1 Corinthians 10:20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-31; John 6:11, John 6:23-42 John 6:48-59
Like a foolish husband arguing with his wife over the true meaning of the word “love,” but failing to embrace his bride, sometimes the Church has gotten tangled up on words and missed the pure reality. Can we fully explain “love?” I will show you love. But it is hard to explain.
The Church of our Lord Jesus has sought to come to terms with the deeper meaning of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We have and continue to debate the meaning of the sign of love which our Lord left us, the Lord’s Supper.
As we come to the Lord’s Supper tonight, we are reminded that this, along with Baptism, represents the central act of communicating the Gospel, apart from preaching. Indeed it is the preached word pictured. The most important things can create disagreements. You would expect such from important matters.
There are several ways to look on the Lord’s Supper.
There is the Roman Catholic View which is called Transubstantiation: In this, the operation of the priest mystically transformed the bread and the fruit of the vine into the literal body and blood of Jesus. To eat His flesh and drink His blood carries a literal meaning.
It was good to go back to the Law and to the Testimonies during the Reformation to discuss this matter. With all regard for my Roman Catholic friends, I agree with the consensus of Protestants that this view simply cannot square with the Word of God. Yet, within Protestantism there are three main views:
The Memorial View: Ulrich Zwingli, a fine preacher and pastor of Gross Munster in Zurich, Switzerland held this view. The memorial view holds that the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial and nothing more. More could be said of this and all of the views, but this is the essence.
The Lutheran View: Luther held to a view called consubstantiation (a term he didn’t care for, himself), that is, that the body and blood of Christ, though in heaven, are also physically in, with and under the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli and Luther got together and locked theological horns at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. Luther would quote John 6:53: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourself.” And he would repeatedly quote 1 Corinthians 11:24: “This is my body.” He even wrote it with chalk on the big conference table, but Zwingli wouldn’t budge, and pointed to John 6:63 which says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”1 And so it went.
The Reformed View: Calvin represents what is often called, “dynamic presence” or “Spiritual presence.” Calvin taught that the Bible clearly shows us that Christ’s physical body is in heaven, and therefore the bread and the Cup cannot become that. Yet, His Spirit is here and can be throughout the world at once, and the force of the Scriptures drew Calvin to surmise that the Sacrament is a memorial, but much more. He wrote:
It is a mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout which is by nature incomprehensible. If anybody should ask me how this communion takes place, I am not ashamed to confess that that 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 (Robert Godfrey in his Calvin on the Eucharist, www.modernreformation.org, quoting John Calvin in Institutes, IV, 17, 32).
We often think of Calvin as the cold logician, but here in the Sacraments, one may even think of him as mystical.
Rather than entering the debate, let us take a fresh, if not brief, look at the matter first-hand. I want us to go to the Scriptures and consider the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as it is named or practiced in the Word of God.
The question is often put: Is it Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist? I want to go ahead and show my cards from this study and say that the Biblical answer is simply, “yes!”
First, we say that this Sacrament is Communion.
Indeed Paul refers to it as Communion in 1 Corinthians 10. Again, with the backdrop being idolatry and regrettable practices in the Corinthian church, Paul shows us that to take part in pagan rituals is to become part of them, just like Communion. The Sacrament of Communion means that we are communing with Christ and that we are communing with each other.
Is the bread that we bless not a communion (koinonea) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
In Ephesians 5, Paul describes marriage according to the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church. There we also see that we are “members of His body.” Paul uses a favorite phrase of Calvin’s for the Communion, the word “mystery.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
What we do tonight is a Communion with Jesus Christ. By faith, we are feeding on His body and blood. We are nourished, mysteriously yes, but nourished by faith on Christ. He is the Bread of life, and to commune on this bread and this cup is, with a heart of faith that perceives it, to enter into one of the most mystical and rewarding moments in life.
If we think of this only as a memorial, then once a year will do. We have Christmas once a year, and that is fine. But more than that would be too much to stop and think about those things. But this is not just thinking about those things. According to Paul, it is a Communion with Jesus. It is a mystery, but mysteries abound in the Christian life. Let us tonight dive into the mystery and experience Christ in Communion.
Now that leads us to another point:
This Sacrament is most certainly the Lord’s Supper.
Paul calls it that in 1 Corinthians 11:20 such:
“When you come together, is it not the Lord’s Supper that you eat?”
The Lord’s Supper (as Paul teaches it here) brings to mind several truths about this Sacrament:
1. It is the Lord’s Supper not ours. He instituted it, He regulates it, and He is the Lord of the Banquet – not anyone else.
2. The Lord and His atoning work on Calvary are memorialized. The Bible teaches us this is a memorial when Christ says: “This do in remembrance of me.” While we see in Scripture that it is more than a memorial, it is yet a memorial. We are brought again to the centrality of our faith: the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins.
3. The Lord’s Supper should then (according to the context here) eliminate factions, heal wounds, and drive us all back to the core element of our faith: The love of God in sending His Son to die for our sins. “You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people from their sins.”
Finally, this Sacrament may rightly be called The Eucharist.
Eucharisteo, is the Greek word that appears in the Bible, for instance, in Matthew 26:27. “And He took a cup and when he had given thanks” (eucharisteo), He gave it to them. Paul also uses this word. Paul calls it, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, while using another word for thanksgiving (eulogia) the Cup of Thanksgiving, as the NIV renders it. So Eucharist is a significant part of the four-fold movement of the Lord’s Supper:
The Four-fold action:
1. Took bread
2. Gave thanks over it
3. Broke it
4. Distributed it
It may actually be thought of in a seven-fold action, when the Cup is included:
5. Took the Cup
6. Gave thanks over it
7. Passed it.
Let me digress for a bit here. This morning we looked at the feeding of the five thousand. I told you that this was clearly intentional in calling our attention backward to the Old Covenant feeding of the children of Israel in the desert. But it is also clearly forward-looking to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The same four-fold feature of the Lord’s Supper is used there. He took bread, he gave thanks, he broke it (John alone fails to mention this part), and he distributed it. Matthew, Mark and Luke use the word Eulogia for giving thanks, but Luke 6:11 uses the word eucharisteo. John then moves to unveil an enigmatic teaching of Jesus that caused a tremendous disturbance. Jesus goes on to teach that He is the bread that one must eat. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was a foretaste of the sacramental meal which believers will see. “I am the bread of life” provokes the Jewish leaders, but Jesus doesn’t budge. In fact, he goes further and says, “I am the living bread. Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Now the Lord’s Supper had not yet been instituted, of course. But the message is clear by the time it is given: Jesus is our life. He is the One who takes the bread, breaks it, gives eucharisteo for it, and passes it to us to eat. But we are feasting on Jesus Himself by faith. This is the doctrine of the union of the believer with Christ. Every time we commune, we follow the four-fold action of Jesus in what is faithfully called the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving.
One last thing: What about Frequency?
Jesus says, “As often . . .” which means what it says. John Calvin believed that since the Lord’s Supper is a meal that conveys the grace of God by faith, and is the most powerful experience of Jesus and our union in Him this side of heaven, “as often” should mean at a minimum, weekly. The Council of Geneva said no and stayed quarterly. Many of our Reformed churches followed, and that became the predominant tradition of Protestantism (though not all). What we are seeking to do is to recover a Biblical appreciation for the Communion being our union with Christ and increasing our times before the Lord, using a combination of both morning and evening communions. We should not judge others on this, and this seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit for now.
There are questions that I sometimes get in the matter of more frequent Communion which I want to address here:
- But is more frequent Communion needed? As Robert Godfrey reminds us, Memorialism could easily live with once a year and many of our Scottish forefathers did just that. But an understanding that begins with memorial and recognizes the other things we have seen in the Word of God desires, naturally, to move us to more frequent observance.
- Will it become rote and dry? I pray not, for our preaching and singing of hymns and baptisms could also become thus. It is by faith that we commune.
- Is this more catholic? It is, if by catholic we mean a part of the greater Body of Christ. If one means Roman Catholic, I hope the answer is self-evident. The Roman view does not depend on frequency but on understanding of what happens in the Lord’s Supper. The Reformed view, that of Real Spiritual Presence, rejects the Roman view as flawed at best, and simply unbiblical at worse. Our response to the Scriptures was summed up by the great Princetonian, Charles Hodge:
To summarize the Reformed position: The Lord’s Supper is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ as a memorial of His death wherein, under the symbols of bread and wine, His body as broken and His blood as shed for the remission of sins are signified and, by the power of the Holy Ghost, sealed and applied to believers. Thereby their union with Christ and their mutual fellowship are set forth and confirmed, their faith strengthened, and their souls nourished unto eternal life.
In this sacrament, Christ is present not bodily, but spiritually – not in the sense of local nearness, but of efficacious operation. His people receive Him not with the mouth, but by faith; they do not receive His flesh and blood as material particles, but His body as broken and His blood as shed. The union thus signified and effected is not a corporeal union, not a mixture of substances, but a spiritual and mystical union due to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The efficacy of this sacrament as a means of grace is not in the signs, nor in the service, nor in the minister, nor in the word, but in the attending influence of the Holy Ghost.2
I was once a part of a presbytery in Kansas where there was a church in trouble. A committee was formed of elders and ministers to come in and seek to help the church. One of the wisest recommendations made was that the church move to more frequent communion, to a clearer understanding of the union in Christ in Communion, of the Lord’s Supper being a means of grace and a faithful way to experience Jesus. This was received well by the local church’s session. The pastor began to preach it, and the congregation emphasized the Lord’s Table as priority in their community life. The results were astonishing. Where there was division, Christ brought healing. Where there was an over emphasis on intellectualism, Christ brought a fresh experience of His grace.
One couldn’t explain it. You just watched it and loved it. And that is the way with Jesus and His people at His table.
Tonight, let us come together, broken and needy to the Cross of Jesus, let us taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us, by faith, commune with Jesus and with each other for this is Communion. Let us remember His love at Calvary for this is the Lord’s Supper. Let us give thanks for this is the Eucharist, the “Cup of Thanksgiving.”
I can’t explain such love. He just tells us to receive it.
Michael Milton is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN.
1 John Piper, “The Lord’s Supper as Worship” (Copyright 1997: www.worshipmap.com/sermons/piper-1cor11.html), accessed on February 7, 2004.
2 See Charles Hodge, “An Overview of the Lord’s Supper” (http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/full.asp?ID=367), accessed February 7, 2004.