For the next three weeks we will be talking about the Sacraments of the Church. The Sacraments were one of the most divisive issues when the Protestant Reformation took place nearly 500 years ago, and they are one of the main reasons there was not just one Protestant denomination formed at that time. Not only were those who were disaffected with the Roman Catholic Church interested in reducing the number of Sacraments, they could not agree among themselves about the meaning and practice of the two they wanted to keep.
The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments; the Presbyterian Church has two. This week I’m going to talk about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper since we are celebrating it during worship. Next Sunday I will talk about the Sacrament of Baptism, since we are celebrating it in worship then. And the following Sunday I will talk about the other five and why the Presbyterian Church does not grant them the status of Sacrament.
The word “Sacrament” means what it sounds out to: it is a “sacred moment,” a “holy moment.” I’m doing the two backwards, as you’ve probably realized. The Sacrament of Baptism is understood in the Presbyterian Church to be a one time moment which never needs to be repeated, while the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of continuing nurture which we should celebrate regularly to nurture our faith. The Sacraments are frequently referred to as “visible signs of an invisible grace,” and I think that is helpful. The water, the juice and the bread are tangible things that we can see, touch, feel, and taste, that help us imagine and enter into the divine mysteries which are being affirmed.
So let’s talk about the Lord’s Supper, sometimes called communion and sometimes called The Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. In the Catholic Church the service within which the Eucharist is celebrated is called “Mass.”
The roots of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper go back to Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples the night he was arrested. They were celebrating the Passover meal together, in which Jews celebrate God’s great deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. You remember the story, the Jews in Egypt were to kill lambs and smear the blood of the lambs on the doorposts of their homes as a sign for the angel of death to pass over those homes when the firstborn of Egypt were slain due to Pharaoh’s disobedience. They were to use the lambs to prepare a symbolic meal including unleavened bread to indicate that they would be leaving Egypt in a hurry. Jews were to continue celebrating the Passover in remembrance of this great deliverance, and Jesus and the disciples were doing that some 1300 years later.
But Jesus reinterpreted what was happening at this meal. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he took the cup and gave it to them saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Drink ye all of it.” Later the disciples remembered these words and realized Jesus was telling them about the new act of deliverance God was about to provide for them through the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son. And remembering that he said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” sparked them from earliest times to commemorate this meal and its meaning repeatedly. In speaking of the importance of this meal, Paul wrote, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
How did something so straightforward, with such simple instructions, get made into something so divisive? Nothing should so simply and ably illustrate the unity of all Christians everywhere than when we come to the Lord’s Table to remember that Jesus gave his life so that we might have eternal life. In gratitude and thanksgiving and humility we remember that God has done for us that which we could not do for ourselves. People will come from north and south, east and west, to sit at table in the kingdom of God. We come not because of who we are or where we are from or what our views about different issues are, but because we are all totally dependent upon the grace of Christ for our salvation.
But it has been and continues to be one of the most divisive issues in the Christian religion, and by no means is that all ancient history. Just a few years ago, when Benedict was pope, the old wound between Catholics and Protestants was reopened even beyond the normal division. The Vatican issued a statement saying that the Protestant churches of the Reformation “have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery and cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense.” That’s an official statement that because Protestants don’t view the Lord’s Supper in exactly the same way the Catholic Church does, Protestant churches are not really churches at all.
The general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches wrote the Vatican in response and minced no words, saying, “This makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the Reformed family and other families of the church. It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity.” The top Protestant leader in Germany said, “Hopes for a change in the ecumenical situation have again been pushed into the remote future.” What a shame.
Where does this division come from? As is frequently the case, it comes from an overly literalistic interpretation of the Bible. The roots of this division can be traced to the fact that the Catholic Church has always said that the bread and wine of communion are literally transformed and become the body and blood of Jesus when the priest says the words of institution and prays over the elements. “This is my body. This is my blood.” The interpretation leans heavily on the 6th chapter of John, where Jesus says, “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
This literal interpretation led to charges that the early church was cannibalistic in its ritual meal. By the time of the Reformation, lay people in the Catholic Church were not trusted to handle the elements. It would be a great tragedy for the body or blood of Jesus to be dropped on the floor. Lay people were not even encouraged to take communion, and often just the priests participated on behalf of all present.
So the “eucharistic mystery” that Protestants are deficient in, according to the Vatican, is the belief that the elements actually become the body and blood of Christ. They are correct that I do not believe that, but the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is totally filled with mystery for me for other reasons, and approaches being a mystical experience for me. Christ is present in this Sacrament in a unique and powerful way, and it is not necessary for the elements to be changed in order for that to happen.
Today in the majority of Roman Catholic churches you and I would not be welcome to participate in communion. In at least one branch of the Lutheran Church, many Baptist churches, and many other denominations, we would not be invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper. I love that the Presbyterian Church opens the communion table to people from any Christian branch which looks to Jesus for salvation.
Reformation leaders savagely attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its literalistic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper and the practices that had led to. In turn, the Reformation leaders were accused of watering down the Lord’s Supper so much that it was no longer a “sacred moment.”
Listen to the regard which John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, had for this Sacrament. He wrote, “I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For, whenever the Lord’s Supper is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.” (Institutes, p. 1367)
Calvin’s position was that the elements of communion are not what is changed in the Sacrament. It is the participants, the believers, who are changed. Christ is not brought back to earth to be killed over and over again. We are lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds, “to seek Christ there in the glory of his kingdom.” (p. 1381) It becomes, then, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
The Second Helvetic, or Swiss, Confession, adds, “The body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father; and therefore our hearts are to be lifted on high, and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshiped in the bread. Yet the Lord is not absent from his Church when she celebrates the Supper.” Christ is not present bodily but spiritually.
“Eucharist” is from a Greek word which means “thanksgiving.” It is what we do when we sit down to a meal – we give thanks for it. This alone should guide how we come to the Lord’s table, in a spirit of thanksgiving rather than criticism of how anyone else interprets what happens here.
What do we have to be thankful for as we gather at this table? It is not the best tasting stuff you will have today, and it will not fill you up. But it reminds us of all that we have to be thankful for in Christ. There are three aspects to that thanksgiving.
First, there is thanksgiving for what happened in the past. Jesus gave his life for us on the cross so that we might have life abundant and life eternal. He paid the price for our sinfulness and made the gift of forgiveness available by his body broken and blood shed for us. We remember that sacrifice at this table and we give thanks.
Secondly, there is thanksgiving for what happens in the present. Jesus is alive – he arose from the dead and rules with God, and he is with us through the Holy Spirit. We serve a risen Savior, and we commune with him here and now in the Spirit. We remember the constant presence of the Comforter at this table and we give thanks.
Thirdly, there is thanksgiving for what will happen in the future. Revelation offers us a glimpse of an innumerable multitude in heaven worshiping and singing to the praise, honor, and glory of God. They do not hunger, thirst, hurt, or mourn. We remember that hope as we come to this table, which serves as a humble foretaste of the great feast of God where we anticipate being reunited with loved ones.
And as Calvin said, words fail to communicate the wonder and mystery here with any kind of adequacy. So I invite you to come to the table in thanksgiving, ready, as Calvin suggests, “to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.”
Here, O our Lord, we see you face to face.
Here would we touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,
And all our weariness upon you lean.
Too soon we rise, the symbols disappear.
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but you are here,
Nearer than ever, still our shield and sun.
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
Yet, passing, points to that glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 13, 2017 Central Presbyterian Church