Theologica
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The Lord’s Table 5: Real Presence or Real Absence?

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Table 5: Real Presence or Real Absence?

In my Christian heritage the memorialist view of the Lord’s Table is prevalent. It is evident in our practice. It’s almost as if we believe in the real absence of Jesus at his table. I am now leaning towards the notion that, despite the cogent arguments for a memorialist view of the Supper, our acts of communion are much more than a memorial.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that start with “The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread” which can be found here. This post is actually a longer version of the first post – with more content and less illustration. You may wish to read that first post rather than this one.

This post covers eleven dimensions to what is happening when we gather round the Lord’s table as believers in Jesus.

Any effort to understand the sacrament of the Lord’s Table must consider why and how it is significant for followers of Jesus.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least for some Christians in the twenty-first century, both baptism and communion have little significance. Some Christian denominations have abandoned the practice of both sacraments entirely — most famously the Salvation Army.

But even amongst those churches which teach both baptism and communion, practice varies, and observance is sometimes, or even often, peremptory. Little significance is attached to either sacrament in many evangelical churches. Yes, the sacraments are usually observed, but with little faith to encounter God through those observances.

When we consider the various means of grace set out in the first post of this blog series, many evangelicals would appear to have more faith to meet with God when reading or hearing the word, or when praising God in song, than they do when being baptised, or sharing at the Lord’s Table. Why is this?

One possible reason is a deficient theology.

Andrew Wilson promotes the proper use of the sacraments in his book and then offers this assessment of the current church situation:

“Why, given how central to Christian experience baptism and the Lord’s Supper have always been—from Jesus, through the apostles, to pretty much the entire worldwide church until quite recently—are there so many churches today that would find the last few pages challenging or even bizarre? How have we ended up with entire denominations in which, on the basis of the space and time they allocate, the sacraments are relegated not just below preaching and singing but also below taking up the offering and even giving the notices? What is behind all this? Several factors are at work, I think. For some, it is a visceral dislike of anything that seems routine or repetitive as opposed to spontaneous and free. For others, it is the association of symbols and rituals with formalism, “religion,” and legalism. For others, the problem with particularly the Lord’s Supper is its exclusivity: those who are not believers are not welcome to participate, which makes it awkward for guests and visitors in attendance. For others, the context is the issue; breaking bread should happen in homes, not on Sundays. Many of us grew up in churches where Communion was extremely boring, a lengthy and solemn section of the service in which the children did not seem welcome, and the adults did not seem happy. Some (especially in larger churches) worry that it takes too long. Some find the whole process of taking Communion, especially the call to self-examination, to be introspective and uncomfortable. Many have simply been born or converted into churches that have never known anything different. There are probably other reasons as well.” (Wilson, pp. 68-69)

When it comes to the Lord’s Table, we evangelicals have a problem.

In the following sections I draw together some key theological themes and conclusions about the Supper which might recalibrate our beliefs and practices.

Systematic theology is an effort to integrate many Bible passages on a single theme into a coherent doctrine of that matter – as I discuss here. This post reflects on what current practice looks like at evangelical, charismatic independent churches in the UK. I also interact both with the traditions we have inherited, and with contemporary scholarship, and will aim to create a foundation on which better practices might develop.

1. The Supper involves remembrance.

Christians differ over whether the Supper is merely a memorial, or more than that. The Zwinglian position is that it is merely memorial (the various positions were set out in the third post of this series here). This is a tenable position — and a common position — however, it may not be the best position. I invite readers to consider something deeper than mere metaphor or memorial is at work in the Supper.

In Luke’s account of the Last Supper we read:

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ (Matthew 22:19 NIV-UK).

Isn’t this a slam dunk for a memorialist view of the Supper?

Gordon Fee asserts that in the Old Testament remembrance was rarely, as in our time, merely a mental activity.

Rather ‘memory’ and ‘activity’ go together. On several occasions physical memorials were erected. The Passover meal was itself a memorial of what God had done at the first Passover — see Exodus 13:1-10. Jesus constitutes the Lord’s Table as a new memorial of his work on the cross. Fee says that in verse 24 Jesus says literally, “this do in my remembrance”. The purpose of remembrance, he argues, is to remember our deliverance — not to remember him.

Fee goes on to say that if we ask the question whether we are reminding God or reminding ourselves, the answer is probably both, but mostly ourselves. Fee is a notable NT scholar, but one whose position is decidedly towards the Zwinglian view of the Supper — common amongst evangelicals.

Might there be a fuller doctrine of remembrance?

As Fee suggests, let’s not imagine that remembrance is merely recollection, rather let us look towards remembrance as participation in the blessings of Christ’s atoning work (Vander Zee, p.149). When we ‘communicate’ we experience by faith a re-union (a re-membering, if you will) with the living Christ and his vitality by and through a working of God’s Spirit. The doctrine of the believers’ union with Christ (that Paul set out in Romans 6:1-11, and there applied to baptism) points to a similar application with the the Lord’s Table.

Let’s consider what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 (ESV):

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 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? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

In this passage Paul refers to the Lord’s Table to make a point about whether Christians should participate in sacred pagan meals. What Paul teaches, Fee argues, is that there is a parallel between the Lord’s Table and sacred pagan meals and that parallel is koinonia (‘fellowship, sharing, participation’). Paul gives this as the reason why Christians can no longer participate in sacred pagan meals.

The words of verse 17 point to an emphasis on communion with each other, that is with the worshipping community. Yet verses 16, 20 and 21 point to communion with the deity who is the basis and focus of the act of worship. We must emphasise both in our own theology.

John Calvin and some modern evangelicals call us beyond Zwingli’s memorialist position.

The sharing in the elements is not merely symbolic. It actually creates that which is symbolises. As we eat and drink we are both participants in and beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning work. Through participation in the supper we are brought into union with Christ, and brought into union with each other as Christ’s body.

If we take a Zwinglian view, that the Lord’s Table is merely a memorial of what Christ did on the cross, then the Supper seems lame compared to the power of God’s Scripture. For many evangelicals we have faith that when we hear God’s word by faith we receive Christ by his Spirit, and we can be transformed by God’s living word (1 Thess. 2:13). We may also have a theology that argues that when we approach God, by faith, in worship we are transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18) — thus we have faith to meet with God as we sing in worship.

So where does that leave the Lord’s Table?

What faith do we have to meet God in the Supper?

What does the evidence of practice in local churches reveal?

By common observation, the way evangelicals participate in communion is rushed, and infrequent — especially compared to the time we gladly spend listening to the Sermon, or joining in Singing. This suggests we have very little faith to meet with God in the Supper. But consider this, we who have faith to meet with God through Scripture and through Singing in worship, do we not have equally compelling Scripture to raise faith in us that we meet with God when we share in the Supper? Surely we do.

So, concerning Remembrance…

The Supper is not merely a remembrance — if by that we mean merely recollection or reminder. When we Protestants break bread, we have become trapped into thinking we must make pious, sombre effort to recall the horrors of the cross. We do not celebrate the Supper? How can we?

Andrew Wilson writes:

“…for Paul, Communion is not just a memorial or a symbol; it acts, bringing the church together with Christ and with one another. We are one, he explains, because we all share in one bread. We share a loaf of unity and a cup of blessing. As we do so, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We actually participate in the body and blood of Christ.” (Wilson, p. 65)

True remembrance means being conjoined to those events today.

The great story becomes our story. To participate in the Supper is to rehearse the story into which we have been brought by the gospel. We are creating and reinforcing our collective memory as the people of the God who is himself on a mission to seek and save the lost. Our shared story, anchored in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, is that we are being put back together, reunited through Jesus with our Father in heaven, and being united with each other as the Father works to reunite heaven and earth by working towards his New Creation — to be fulfilled when Christ returns.

The Lord’s Table is an identity-making remembrance. Thus, the opposite of remembering is not forgetting, but un-membering, or even dis-membering (Vander Zee, p.211). Or, to play further on the word, we might say that when we share in the Supper we are ‘re-membered’ with Christ and with one another. This brings us to our next point.

2. The Supper both creates and requires community.

Paul insisted that we must ‘discern the body’ when we break bread (1 Corinthians 11:29).

A failure to ‘discern the body’ has nothing to do with failing to ‘see’ the ‘real presence’ of Christ’s body and blood in the elements, but rather with falsely thinking we can treat the other members of the body, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with contempt. The apostle believes that our union with one another as members of the one body is so real that broken relationships, whether by contempt, or rejection, or withdrawal and such like, are akin to tearing a body apart, limb from limb — actions that will incur injury and even death (1 Cor. 11:28-30, and Vander Zee, p.159).

Paul gives no instruction about the exact form of words to be used, what elements should be used, or about frequency. He addresses few of our most pressing questions. The only thing he calls out is the relational failures in the Corinthian church. That tells us what the Spirit’s priorities are; and this should point us to the most important questions as we approach the Supper.

Is participation an Individual or a Communal experience?

The Reformers insisted that Christians should ensure they are in good fellowship with one another before participating in the Supper, however, the way most modern evangelicals participate in the Supper, with eyes closed, would appear to reflect the individualism of modern western culture.

In ways we modern people may no longer fully get, because of how thin our cultural heritage is, eating together binds together. The Supper establishes a bond. It does not merely symbolise a bond, it creates and reinforces that bond, it forges the new humanity in Christ’s person (Vander Zee, p. 143, 147).

If the Supper simultaneously unites us with Christ and with Christ’s body, then we must heed the many Scriptural injunctions that we cannot say we love God if we do not love our brothers and sisters (1 John 4:20). This brings to mind Jesus’ emphasis on reconciliation set out for example in Matthew 5:23-24.

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On this theme of reconciliation, Cavin wrote:

“…our Lord wanted it to be for us an exhortation like no other to incite us to greater vehemence and to kindle love/charity, peace, and unity in us. For our Lord communicates His body to us in the Supper in such a way that He is made entirely one with us and we with Him. Because He has only one body, of which He makes us participants, necessarily all of us must also be made one body together by this participation. That unity is represented to us by the bread which is offered to us as sacrament. For, as it is made of a number of grains of wheat which are mixed and confused together so that one cannot distinguish or separate them from each other, so we also ought to be gathered and joined together by agreement of will so that there may be no quarrel or division among us. I would prefer to explain this with the words of St. Paul; he says: “The cup of blessing which we bless is the communion of the blood of Christ, and the bread of blessing which we break is the participation in the body of Christ. So we are the same body, all of us who participate in the same bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9442-9449)

And also:

“We will have benefited much from the sacrament if this knowledge is engraved and imprinted within our hearts: that we cannot wound, slander, mock, despise, or in any way offend any of the brethren without at the same time wounding, slandering, mocking, despising, or offending Jesus Christ in them; we cannot have quarrels or division with our brothers without quarrelling with and being divided from Jesus Christ; we cannot love Jesus Christ without loving Him in our brothers; we ought to have such solicitude and care for our brothers who are members of our body as we have for our own bodies; and as no part of our body can suffer any pain without the feeling being spread to all the other parts, we also should not allow our brother to be afflicted with some evil without likewise bearing our part by compassion.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9449-9454)

And also:

“Lastly by it mutual love/charity was nourished and maintained among them and they also witnessed it to each other, seeing the joining together of love/charity in the unity of the body of Jesus Christ. For whenever we communicate in the sign of the body of the Lord, we mutually obligate ourselves to each other as if by contract, for all the duties of love/charity, so that none of us may do anything by which he may wound his brother, or omit anything by which he can help or assist him whenever necessity requires that. St. Luke recounts in the Acts that such was the practice of the apostolic church when he says: “The faithful were persevering in the teaching of the apostles, in communication, that is, almsgiving, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Thus it was necessary that, without exception, no assembly of the church was held without the word, or almsgiving, or participation in the Supper, or prayers.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9516-9522)

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Break bread with eyes open?

When we break bread let your focus be not only on the bread and the cup, but also on Christ, and also on one another. Maybe participation in the Supper requires us to have our eyes open rather than shut in our own private reverie. In this way the Supper can more fully serve its purpose of creating community.

The Supper reminds us that in Christ we are all equal (Gal. 3:26-29) and interdependent (1 Cor. 12:12-26). A call to reconciliation and mutual forgiveness is central to the Lord’s Table. It is just as central as the reminder that through his atoning sacrifice Christ made a way for us to know God’s forgiveness, and to be adopted into his family forever.

When we gather at the Lord’s Table broken relationships become unbearable.

This is the Lord’s Table. Psalms 15 and 24 tell us what sort of person can ascend the mountain of the Lord. To get into God’s house so we can sit at his table, there are matters you must leave at the door, better still renounce altogether. Enmity, gossip, slander, mockery, negativity, factions, pride, comparison, lust, greed, the list goes on. You can read more about this in my blog on psalms 15 and 24 here. The confession we make when we gather to the Supper is practice at letting these things go, practice that carries across into our whole lives.

At the table we gather with those we don’t like, those we don’t much care about, people whose politics or manners we recoil from.

We gather with those who have let us down, even hurt us. The scars on the lamb of God remind us that we will all carries scars into eternity – scars from other people’s misuse of us. That misuse is not right — but in God’s new society it is forgivable, it is something we can let go of, we can leave at the door, with God the Judge. In these ways the patterns of the Eucharist give us training wheels, habituating us into the humble attitude that admits to failings, and the grace that learns to ask for forgiveness in like manner to how we have forgiven others — The Lord’s Prayer is a common feature of many communion liturgies.

And then there’s the question of church unity

Unity really is on Jesus’ heart as his prayer in John 17 shows. It is a tragedy that the Roman Catholic Church does not give recognition to Protestant forms of communion. This is a deep division in the family of God on earth and tragic because the Lord’s Table is intended to bring us together. But maybe it’s not only the Eucharistic, liturgical churches that have something to learn. We non-conformists have a way of seeing ourselves as the true church too, a reality lampooned in the following cartoon:

Lord's Table
Lord’s Table and Christian divisions

 

We human beings seem to be inclined to see ourselves as part of the solution, not the problem.

Andrew Wilson describes the bad attitude of us non-conformists to other church traditions, thus:

“Things were bad when they did that, but things are better now that we are doing this. They lost something; we found it. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward us.” (Wilson, p. 74)

So then: what if we are the bad guys? The Supper invites us to dare believe that may be true. How will we escape this trap? Andrew Wilson suggests:

“To be self-consciously catholic is to fight this temptation. It is to think, talk, act, and pray as if we believe that what the Creed says is true—the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—and that if Jesus asked the Father to make us one, then it will actually happen. That involves telling the story of the church, and understanding ourselves in light of that story, with suitable levels of humility, honour, and gratitude. Gratitude, because we only have access to the doctrine of the Trinity, the gospel, the Bible, and so on through the efforts and sacrifices of those who have gone before us: saints and scholars, popes and patriarchs, monks, mystics, and martyrs. Honour, because many of them made massive sacrifices in the process, and almost all of them lived their daily lives in conditions that were immeasurably less pleasant than ours. Humility, because for all of our differences with many of them, they got an awful lot right, we get an awful lot wrong, and the same Holy Spirit who works in us was at work in them.” (Wilson, pp. 74-75).

The Supper both creates and requires community.

3. The Supper affirms the material world.

Biblical Christianity affirms the material world.

Like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper is intensely physical. The Supper is additional confirmation that Christ affirms the material world. He is not saving us from the material world. He is saving the material world from sin, Satan, sickness — from all that denies God’s glory, grace and goodness.

The Lord’s Table requires setting up and washing up. This physicality is not an ugly nuisance, it is essential to the nature of the Supper. Christ calls us to embrace this gladly, to do it publicly. The practical setting up for the Supper, and the washing up afterwards, speak to us of God’s affirmation of our physicality by means of the Supper.

Further, when Christ takes up the bread and the cup he hallows the mundane staples of a meal, echoing the affirmation of the goodness of the Creation right at the beginning. We can go further, however. To provide the elements of the Lord’s Table we must cultivate, harvest, mill, bake, press grape, ferment, to make wine or juice (or else a visit a shop). The point is that the elements are not naturally occurring, they are not gifts direct from God. Rather they are the product of human ingenuity. In taking up the bread and the cup Jesus not only hallows the stuff of the earth, he also hallows the stuff of our hands (James KA Smith, 2009, pp.199-200).

The very physicality of the Supper challenges our Platonic dualism and invites us to commune with God, eyes open, embracing our brothers and sisters. Just as Scripture assures our minds of Christ’s promises, the Supper assures our bodies. The fact we do not get this may reveal how far our worldviews have not yet been redeemed by the Spirit — and how much we yet need to be conformed to God’s ways of seeing and being.

Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, writes as follows about Christ’s statement, “This is my body.”

Jesus could have said “this is my love,” or “this is my spirit,” or “this is my presence” – and all these would have been true enough – but he wanted in this major means of communication (“communion”) to get physical, to be with us as earthily as possible, to show us how important his body and our bodies are, to dignify the material, to save us from soul to toe, sacramentally and really, to touch us, and thus to “fill up our senses like a rain in the forest.” And so he said, “This is my body.” (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11622-11625)

James KA Smith quotes Peter Leithart:

“The Eucharist is different from the common meals of daily life but it is also continuous with them. This suggests that the kingdom does not involve a cancellation of this-worldly concerns; it is not a wholly other world but rather this world transformed and transfigured.” (Smith, 2009, p.199)

The Last Supper is not the end of all suppers for Jesus, a last meal before he escapes all further need for nourishment through a Gnostic idea of resurrection which is to escape from the body. On the contrary, at this Last Supper Jesus makes promises about the next Supper he will have with them (Matthew 26:29). More on that later.

The Supper affirms the material world.

4. The Supper is to do with formation, not information.

With Scripture it is far too easy to slip into thinking it’s only about information. It’s not. The word wants to shape our imagination, to seize ours wills, to form our identity and character. That is also God’s purpose in the Supper.

The physicality of the Supper, affirming our embodied nature, works by habitual repetition. It imbues in us, and call us into, patterns of living that better accord with the world as it will be when Christ rules fully and finally. The Lord’s Table, in other words, is a means of discipleship — maybe a much-neglected means among evangelicals.

5. The Supper is to do with Thanksgiving.

Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Christ gives us an example of giving thanks for the elements. Both bread and wine, as just noted, are produced by human labour employed to turn what God has given us into nourishing consumables. In the elements we bring the product of our physical labour. We offer these elements as an act of gratitude to God as our provider, the provider of all we need physically as well as spiritually. Jesus thanked God, not the baker or vintner — but there is implicit thanks to God for the skills and industry necessary in the cultivation and cultural production of these goods.

Thanksgiving seems to be an essential element of any liturgy of the Table. Thanksgiving is learned. It’s what most parents teach their children. Paul wrote:

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV

At the Table we practice thanksgiving. It is habituated into us.

We are formed into thankful people.

The Supper is to do with thanksgiving.

6. The Supper is to do with Christ’s presence.

Christians are those who are ‘in Christ’. In Baptism and in the Supper God both effects, and makes real to us, our union with Christ. And we become one body because we all partake of one loaf (1 Cor. 10:17).

Calvin wrote passionately about this union:

“Godly believers derive great assurance and joy from this sacrament, as proof that they are part of the body of Christ, so that everything which is in him also belongs to them.

“…We cannot be condemned for sin because he absolves us from guilt, having taken it on himself. This is the marvellous transaction he has made in his amazing goodness! Having become, like us, a son of man, he has made us, like him, sons of God. By his descent to earth, he has made possible our ascent to heaven. He received our mortality, and has given us immortality. He took on our weakness, to make us strong in his strength. He submitted to our poverty and gave us his riches. He took on the burden of our unrighteousness which weighed us down, and clothed us with his righteousness.” (Calvin’s Institutes, the 1559 Edition — From Chapter 17 — The Lord’s Supper: How it benefits us, Excerpts from paragraph 2)

But the question remains, in what way is Christ present at the Lord’s Table?

This is an important theological question. Fee believes there is no evidence in 1 Corinthians for a ‘sacramental’ understanding, “as if they were ‘participating in the Lord’ by the actual eating of the food, as though the food were the Lord himself.” (Fee, p.467). Fee’s opinion is based on a certain definition of the word sacrament that appears to accord closely with a Zwinglian view.

Based on 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, what do we share when we break bread?

Verse 16 says that we share in:

  • The cup of blessing which we bless.
  • The bread that we break.

The order here is confusing because Paul has a reason here to reverse the normal order of the Supper. Let’s take these in their normal order.

The bread that we break.

In 1 Corinthians 10:17 and its context Paul teaches clearly that the bread speaks to us about the horizontal relationships that Christians share as God’s family, a family united in Christ. The communion of the saints is clearly in view. Fee writes that:

“…by eating the bread believers…are herewith affirming that through Christ’s death they are ‘partners’ in the redeemed community, the new eschatological people of God.” (Fee, p.469)

In the Gospel accounts, and also in 1 Corinthians 11, however, Jesus appears to link the bread to his own body. However, he could have meant the whole action when he said ‘this is my body’; rather than saying the bread signifies his body, he may be saying that the action he is instructing signifies his body (Bruner). Or, instead, Jesus might have indicated with a gesture the disciples sitting with him at the table when he spoke the words, ‘this is my body’. Perhaps it is best to assume that in these words Christ is signifying both his own body, and those he has united with himself in his body.

The cup of blessing which we bless.

The cup of blessing is a technical term for the final blessing at the end of the Passover meal.

In the context of the Lord’s Supper, Paul tells us that by sharing in this we participate in the blood of Christ.

If we are not imbibing the deity, what does this mean?

Jesus himself gave us the interpretation (Mark 14:24), repeated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25. It is “my blood of the new covenant.” Fee comments that:

“…this language almost certainly refers to their sharing in the provisions and benefits of that covenant… a fellowship meal where in the presence of the Spirit they were by faith looking back to the singular sacrifice that had been made and were thus realising again its benefits in their lives.” (Fee, p.468)

Again we see how Fee takes the popular Zwinglian memorialist position.

Yes, it’s true, the ‘cup’ can be used as a metaphor for death as Bruner notes:

The cup has already been used in this Gospel as a metaphor for death (20:22: `Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”), and it will be used again in the same way at Gethsemane (26:39: “Take this cup from me”). (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11714-11715).

But this is perhaps not the main emphasis here.

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20 NIV)

From the Gospel accounts we might assume that the reference to Covenant may point us only to Exodus 24:6-8 when, we are told:

And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8 ESV)

However, when Paul inserts the adjective ‘new’ before the word covenant, our minds will rather turn to what the prophet Jeremiah predicted:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34 ESV)

There are several different types of covenant described in the Bible.

Those covenants which receive the greatest attention in the New Testament are those covenants between two unequal parties, one the greater and one the lesser, in which only the greater party, God himself, swears to fulfil the conditions and to fulfil the promise. That’s the kind of covenant God made with Abraham which Paul takes to be a model for the covenant we are brought into by Christ.

When we share the Supper, we are brought afresh into covenant with God on very good terms — that he has fulfilled the covenant obligations himself, on the cross, as evidenced by the resurrection. We are saved by grace, through faith.

But how is Christ present?

If we set aside a belief that the bread becomes Christ’s body, and deny that in the cup the wine becomes Christ’s blood, how else are we to conceive of Christ’s presence?

Calvin makes much of the work of the Spirit lifting us up into communion with the ascended Lord at the Father’s right hand. The presence of Christ is a personal presence mediated through the physical means of bread and cup shared in by a fellowship of believers who are carried by faith into union with the ascended Lord. Vander Zee asserts:

“So we must insist that through the sacrament we are actually united with the very Son of God in his glorified humanity. All this is accomplished through the Holy Spirit… In the bread and wine of the sacrament we receive and share in the Living Christ. However that is explained or unexplained is secondary to the gracious gift we receive in it.” (Vander Zee, p.200).

The Supper is to do with Christ’s presence as host and sustenance.

Lord's Table

7. The Supper is also to do with Christ’s absence.

Yes, you heard that right. Vander Zee writes:

“While the Lord’s Supper is a meal of Christ’s presence with us, in a strange way it is also a meal of his absence. At every Lord’s Supper we join with the church in crying, “Maranatha! Come, Lord.” We pray that the One who is present with us by his Spirit will soon be present with us in his glorious kingdom.” (Vander Zee, p.151).

The Supper only makes sense if we also affirm that Christ ascended and will in future return but is not here now physically.

The incarnation is eternal. Yes, in his deity Christ is everywhere present, however, in his humanity he is localised. That means Jesus is not available to us right now physically — not until he returns. Meanwhile he has left us this tangible means of connecting to him in his fulness — connecting to his humanity as well as to his divinity.

Calvin expresses this same thought in this way:

“Nevertheless we must not imagine this communication to be the way sophists have dreamed: as if the body of Christ descended onto the table and were set there in local presence to be touched with hands, chewed with teeth, and swallowed up in the stomach. For we do not doubt that it has its own (finite) limits as the nature of a human body requires, and that body is contained in heaven where it was received until He will come for judgment. So we also believe that it is not lawful to bring Him down among the corruptible elements or to imagine that He is present everywhere. Indeed that is not necessary, in order for us to participate in His body, since the Lord Jesus richly pours out by His Spirit the benefit that we are made one with Him in body, spirit, and soul. Therefore the bond of this joining is the Holy Spirit, by whom we are united together, and He is like a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9316-9322)

Each time we Christians gather, awaiting Christ’s return, we break bread in anticipation of the promised marriage supper of the Lamb.

In view of Christ’s absence, of the promise of Jesus’ return still not fulfilled, James Smith describes the Supper as a ‘sanctified let-down’ (2009, p.200). The Lord’s Table is a meal for sojourners. It’s a table in the wilderness (Psalm 78:19), eaten in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5). The Supper is a reminder of what is promised and not yet delivered, so it constitutes us as an eschatological people, expectant, eagerly waiting, aligned to a new world that is not yet visible.

This awareness and hope shapes how we live now. The Supper renews that hope. It mandates how we order our lives so they are aligned with what will be. The Supper is a judgment on the values and priorities of this world. It is an invitation to live together as a foretaste of the coming community that will be fully realised when Jesus comes.

In the synoptics, the final words Jesus utters at the Last Supper point forwards to the eschatological inauguration of the kingdom of God that will be realised when Jesus returns in all his glory. He was going to leave them — has left us. He is now physically absent, but he has not left us as orphans. He has sent us his Spirit (John 14:16-18).

The Supper reminds us of Christ’s absence, but it also assures us of his future presence.

8. The Supper is eschatological — full of hope.

The Supper involves a longing for Christ’s appearing, for Christ to be among us again tangibly in his resurrected body, a yearning that his kingdom rule would come fully and finally on earth as it is in heaven, that heaven and earth would finally be reunited, never to be parted again. As we eat and drink we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26 ESV).

In the Supper we get a foretaste of this promised reunion with the bodily Christ.

9. The Supper is a proclamation of the gospel.

The Supper is not a re-enactment — but it is an action that invokes Christ’s cross-action, that invites reflection on this central event of Christ’s mission, its meaning and its outcome.

Calvin wrote:

“To this point we have considered how this sacrament serves our faith before God. Now because in it our Lord reminds us of the very great generosity of His goodness (as we have declared above) and warns us to recognize that; so He likewise exhorts us not to be ungrateful for such an undisguised kindness but rather to magnify it with suitable praises and remember it with thanksgiving. That is why, when He gave the institution of this sacrament to His apostles He commanded them to do it thus in memory of Him, which St. Paul interprets as “proclaiming the death of the Lord” (1 Cor.11:26). That is to confess publicly, openly, and all together as with one mouth, that all our confidence and trust for life and salvation is in the Lord’s death, so that by our confession we may glorify Him and by our example we may exhort others also to give Him the same glory. Here we see again the goal of the sacrament: to give us practice in remembering the death of Jesus Christ.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9434-9440)

The gospel is in the Lord’s Supper.

Whenever we think of a theology of breaking bread we are likely to think of the Passover in Exodus, and the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 52-53. The Supper is a remembrance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice in our place. As already noted above, Paul tells us the Supper is a proclamation of Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:26).

The gospel is also made evident in what happens when we break bread. Maybe the most striking aspect of the Gospel accounts is how Jesus is the one who does it all. “He took… he blessed… he broke… he gave…” (e.g. Luke 22:19, Matthew 26:26-30 – see Bruner). Jesus is always the host at this meal. It’s his table. Jesus speaks of ‘my body’, ‘my blood,’ and ‘my Father.’ We are not feeding him. He feeds us. Bruner, echoing Martin Luther’s radical attack on what he saw as the errors of medieval theology, reminds us that this is called a sacrament, not a sacrifice.

A sacrifice would be a gift from the people to the Lord. A sacrament, by contrast, is always a gift from the Lord to his people. Participants will, of course, remember Christ’s once-for-all-time sacrifice, and will probably bring a sacrifice of praise before or after they break bread. But praise is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not a propitiatory sacrifice. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament — a gift from the Lord to us — in the same way that the gospel announces God’s work for us, not our work for God — the great rediscovery of the Reformers. Thus the only commands to us, Christ’s people, when it comes to the Supper, are “take, eat, drink”. We are to receive, by faith. (Clearly Bruner takes ‘sacrament’ to mean something positive, contra Fee).

The Supper is a proclamation of the gospel.

10. The Supper and the Sermon belong together.

Both Vander Zee (p.160) and Bruner note how the lengthiest accounts of resurrection appearances include both the ministry of the word, and the ministry of food — consider the appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), or the appearance when the disciples were fishing (John 21:1-14). Maybe it would be good to always keep the Sermon and the Supper together?

Andrew Wilson pleads for us to keep the Sacrament, the Scripture and the Spirit together in his book Spirit and Sacrament.

We can go further and say, following the list of means of grace set out in Acts 2:42-47, that when we Christians meet we should keep together the Supper, the Sermon, the Spirit, the Supplications, the Singing, the Social Justice action and Sharing Life together. In many modern Evangelical churches the main features of a Sunday gathering are Singing and Sermon. Is our liturgy too thin, lacking those practices that were intrinsic to the early church — or including them only in a peremptory way like a box-ticking exercise?

11. The Bible records God feeding people frequently — and the Lord’s Supper falls right into that sequence.

The Gospels are full of God feeding people. Feasting is, in many ways, more Christian than fasting.

One of humanity’s most basic needs is food and drink. ‘God is not only the giver of food; he is the food we most deeply need. Alexander Schmemann insists that “man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”’ (Vander Zee, p.239)

Senior reminds us that the Lord’s Supper draws from past biblical feedings and brings them all to their provisional apex in this meal:

(1) Yahweh’s manna feeding of his people under Moses (Exodus 16);

(2) Yahweh’s increasing the supply of meal and oil through Elijah (1 Kings 17);

(3) Yahweh’s miraculous feeding of a hundred men through Elisha (2 Kings 4);

(4) Jesus’ miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand Israelites (Matt. 14); and

(5) Jesus’ miraculous Feeding of the Four Thousand Gentiles (Mark 8).

The feedings become more and more universal until here, at last, there is a feeding that intends to benefit “the whole wide world” (‘for many’ v. 28). “Give us this day our daily bread,” a petition that Jesus put right in the middle of his Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:11), like his Lord’s Supper, makes concern for people’s bodies central to the church’s spiritual life. (Bruner, Kindle Locations 11702-11706)

We can go further than this and look eschatologically. The Lord’s Supper supersedes the Passover ceremony; and it will, one day, Jesus says, be superseded by the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 19:6-9).

The Lord’s Supper looks forward to the eschatological fulfilment of the kingdom of God when Christ returns, and we will be reunited with him in a great party inaugurating the reunification of heaven and earth in God’s new heavens and earth. Hallelujah.

What are we to conclude?

I find the Roman Catholic position untenable. And, if the Roman Catholic position is accepted, then I have never yet participated in a true communion because I have never yet shared the bread and the cup at a celebration hosted by what the RC church recognises as a true priest who has the authority and ordination required to actually bring about transubstantiation.

Contra this, I believe all those who have faith in Christ are included in the royal priesthood, that our Protestant acts of communion are valid, so I implicitly distance myself from the Roman position, much though I love my Roman Catholic friends.

Of the other three views developed at the time of the Reformation I accept that all three are tenable. However, I now consider that the Zwinglian view that the elements are merely symbols is perhaps the least convincing, not least because it also tends to diminish engagement in this sacrament. I say this knowing that this memorialist view is likely the most common view of the Supper among British Charismatic Evangelical Christians.

Millard Erickson summarises the Reformed view of the Supper in this way:

“Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper but not physically or bodily. Rather, his presence in the sacrament is spiritual or dynamic… There is, then, a genuine objective benefit of the sacrament. It is not generated by the participant; rather, it is brought to the sacrament by Christ himself. By taking the elements the participant actually receives anew and continually the vitality of Christ… [However] Nor should the benefit of the Lord’s Supper be thought of as automatic. The effect of the sacrament depends in large part upon the faith and receptivity of the participant.” (Erickson, pp.1127-1128)

I believe that a real impartation of Christ occurs as we participate together in obedience by faith.

It may be thought, therefore, that I am closest to Calvin’s view — although I would also emphasise the essential need to share the Supper together as a communal meal, alongside a focus on the elements themselves. This is to avoid a very individual, privatised view of the Supper and of the elements.

This is the fifth post in a series about the Lord’s Supper.

The first post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread’ is here.

The second post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table,’ can be found here.

The third post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life,’ is here.

The fourth post, “The Lord’s Supper 4: new philosophical objections to transubstantiation,’ is here.

There was also a related post on ‘2 reasons why what you love matters.’

Bibliography

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

Ian HOWARD-MARSHALL, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1997

Steven NEMES, Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics, Fortress Academic, 2023

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

 

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