We too often identify our selves, define ourselves, by what we are not rather than by what we are. Our religion is often swathed in controversy simply because we will insist on living it in opposition to the way others live it, rather than on its own merits. Of course, we cannot avoid, when we are explaining our faith, making comparisons, as we see below when we come to definitions, but this should not be the sole, or main way we define ourselves.
Only Bread, Only Wine
When it comes to communion we are so “Protestant” in our thinking, and so determined to show that “its only bread and its only wine” that we don’t think enough about what it is or enough of it for its own sake. If its only bread and only wine, then it’s only a table, and it’s only a meal and we can easily enough push it aside. None of this is right and I want to look at, not just what communion is not, but at what it is, so that we can express the right faith at the right table in a way that is positive and that glorifies God. I am sure there will be those who will disagree, in part or whole, and that’s alright too.
There are different names we use, depending on our tradition.
Eucharist – Comes from the Greek eucharistein simply meaning, “to give thanks”.
Mass – From the Latin missa, a medieval name for the Eucharist and is taken from the words of the dismissal at the end of the Latin service: Ite, missa est (Go, you are dismissed). Because the Latin Mass contains theological ideas we do not accept, i.e. the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, we don’t use the word.
Communion – Communion is a word we get from the Apostle’s Creed, translating the Latin communio sanctorum, meaning either fellowship of Christians (the saints), or fellowship in holy things, such as the Lord’s Supper etc.
Sacrament – From the Latin sacramentum meaning oath, solemn obligation. An oath taken by a Roman soldier indicating a deeper level of commitment than that of, say, an employee. An outward visible sign, or symbol of an inward and spiritual grace given by God and ordained by Christ. Thus the sacraments of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper.
Lord’s Supper – Taken from 1 Corinthians 11:20.
Breaking of bread – Taken from 1 Corinthians 11:23-24; Matthew 26:26; mark 14:22; Luke 22:19.
I readily acknowledge my debt to Gordon J. Keddie of Grace Presbyterian Church, State College, Pennsylvania and his book The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of Grace in presenting the following.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same manner he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes.
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
(1 Corinthians 11:23-24)
“We cannot commemorate Christ as our Saviour without thereby acknowledging ourselves to his, the purchase of his blood and devoted to his service.” (Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons)
The Lord’s Supper is for professing Christians to profess afresh their faith in Christ.
Question: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
Answer: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
(Westminster Shorter Catechism)
The Lord’s Supper is an observance by which God means to strengthen and confirm believers in their devotion to the Lord. It is a means of grace.
It should stir up personal godliness and spiritual growth in already committed Christians. This is because the power of the Holy Spirit works through this sacrament, as it is faithfully received.
“The condition of this power, on our part, is faith. That is, if we have faith, we experience the power of the sacrament; if we have it not, we do not experience it.” (Charles Hodge, ibid)
In the Supper, the Lord confirms to us the forgiveness of our sins and our redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death. We confirm to Him that to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, is the purpose of our hearts and the business of our lives. (Galatians 2:20)
In eating this bread, and drinking this cup, you have acknowledged the obligations which His death lays upon you to serve Him. You have been giving a solemn pledge, in the face of heaven and earth, that you will labour to promote the great moral purposes of His sufferings. You have declared that you will crucify the flesh, with its affections and lusts; that you will never listen to the temptations which may solicit you to abandon the saviour; that on your heads, the guilt of the apostasy shall never be charged; and that to deny yourselves, to take up your cross and follow Him, is the purpose of your hearts, and the business of your lives.” (Henry Belfrage of Falkirk)
God conveys his grace to his people as they participate in a believing manner.
Believers confess afresh their faith in Jesus Christ
Believers commune with Jesus Christ
Believers receive grace from Jesus Christ
The essence of the Supper is that Christ comes to commune with us and nourishes us inwardly in the act of faithful participation.
“Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor.11:24-25)
God is omnipresent to all people throughout all time and space, whether they are believers or unbelievers.
The Son of God is present with his people in a distinctive personal way.
There is a real, though spiritual, connection between the signs and the thing signified, so that our faith is strengthened as Christ communicates of himself to the believing communicant at the Lord’s table.
“The power of the Supper is in the presence of Christ working by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believing participants who receive the symbols in faith, according to the Word of God…it is a holy use of ordinary things”
(Gordon J Keddie)
The elements are still bread and wine – but not just bread and wine. They are symbols of Christ’s flesh and blood and his provision of redemption, and visible signs of:
Our inner faith
Our salvation in Christ
Our belonging to God
Our commitment to God
Our witness to the world
“He who in faith receives the cup, receives the covenant of which it is the pledge; and he who receives in faith the bread receives the benefits of Christ’s body as broken for sin. The one is the symbol and pledge of the other.” (Charles Hodge, ibid)
It is a spiritual exercise in which we gain food for the soul (John 6:35); have the Spirit work in us afresh (John 14:17); exercise faith to receive God’s gifts of grace (Galatians 3:14).
It is a blessed exercise for the cup is “a cup of blessing” (1 Corinthians 10:16), and we come expecting blessings of grace. The table represents our need and his provision – the whole gospel.
It is a mandatory exercise for true believers because, although Christ is always with us something happens here that doesn’t happen anywhere else. We face him and remember what he did, we profess him and lay hold of him afresh, and we draw near free of any other encumbrances because this is the sole focus of our attention.
Let us educate ourselves concerning this sacred and essential sacrament and participate with humility and in confidence because of what it is and not just because of what it isn’t.