Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/30/00
In the NT Church, the essentials of worship were the reading and exposition of Scripture, prayer, the singing of hymns of praise and psalms, and the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Yet in the typical American Evangelical church it is celebrated only monthly, usually tacked on to a service into which it is not integrated. It cannot be said to have the same place in our worship that it had in theirs. Why not?
Part of the answer is Protestant reactions to what were perceived as Roman Cathoic perversions of Communion: the doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine do not just symbolize but actually become the literal body and blood of Christ, and practices flowing from that teaching (genuflection, etc.) which understandably struck Protestants as idolatrous. This backing away from problematic aspects of the Mass led to a relative lack of emphasis, that to a lack of teaching, that to neglect, so that now the Lord's Supper is practiced out of obedience by people who have little understanding or appreciation of it. But neglect is hardly the cure for idolatry. Nor has this situation always prevailed in Protestant History. Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, stressed that Christian faith is centered on the Word of God. He helpfully analyzed the Word into four aspects: the Living Word, Christ; the Written Word, Scripture; the Audible Word, Preaching; and the Visible Word (or, he might have said the Tangible Word), The Lord's Supper. The Living Word is supreme; the Written Word authoritative; the Audible Word effectual; what then is the nature and role of the Visible Word? I would like to try to answer that question in the next few weeks. Today, we notice that Communion is a Symbolic Meal which is the Confirmation of the New Covenant.
First, we should stop to think about the fact that Communion is A MEAL TO BE EATEN. (That it was specifically part of the Passover meal we will see later; now we just look at the fact that we eat and drink it). What we eat and drink are Bread and Wine, seen by many cultures as the basic staff of life. We take food for granted, living in an age of fridges and freezers, microwaves and McDonalds. We therefore are apt to miss the connection between bread and life. But the Bread which symbolizes Christs' body should be a graphic reminder of our total dependence on Him for spiritual life. We are as dependent on Christ for spiritual life as we are on food for physical life.
Think also for a moment about the fact that we EAT this Bread. The elements become part of our bodies through a conscious and deliberate act (mastication) and an unconscious and hidden process (digestion). So we come to Christ by a conscious and deliberate act of receiving Him as Savior and Lord, issuing in Justification, from which flows the process of Sanctification. Eating the Bread and drinking the Wine also pictures our union with Christ. The atoms of the food and drink will literally become part of our own tissue. Our union with Christ should also be that intimate. By the acts of eating and drinking, we renew our commitment to that union, telling God, ourselves, and the congregation that we still look to Christ for life and feed on Him.
But Communion is also THE RATIFICATION/RENEWAL OF THE NEW COVENANT (Mat. 26:28). A covenant is a contract, a set of mutual commitments that defines a relationship. Theologically, it is a way of talking about how God enters into relationship with Man. The New Covenant is God's promise to forgive us, cancel our guilt, accept us as His children, and give us eternal life on the basis of the Sacrifice of Christ. All that is asked of us is faith. When Jesus said the Cup represents the Blood of the Covenant, He made drinking it a sign of our acceptance of those terms.
For many of the Old Testament Covenants had Signs attached to them. The Sign of the Noahic Covenant we the Rainbow (Gen. 9:8-17). The Sign of the Abrahamic Covenant was Circumcision (Gen. 12:1, 17:1-11). Sometimes Old Testament people would erect a pillar of stones as a sign of a covenant between them. Whenever we see a rainbow, we are reminded of God's promise never again to destroy the whole earth with water. Every Jewish male carries in his flesh a reminder of the special relationship he is supposed to have with God. They function as a reminder, a ratification, and an aid to faith.
Is there a Sign of the New Covenant? None is mentioned in Jer. 31. Some (paedobaptists, or infant baptists) have argued the Baptism, by analogy with Circumcision, is the Sign of the New Covenant. But Scripture never identifies it as such, though it may function that way. Communion, however, is specifically tied to the Covenant in Mat. 26:28. Therefore, the Lord's Supper is, like the Rainbow or Circumcision, a reminder of the Covenant and an act of ratification for it.
In other words, whenever we celebrate Communion God is renewing His offer to accept us on the basis not of works but of our faith in Christ and His sacrifice. By offering the Bread and Wine through His minister, He is saying, "I still accept you in Him." By receiving the elements, making them a part of us, we are saying that we still accept Christ and His finished work as our only hope of Heaven. That is why participation by an unbeliever is such a serious sin: it is an act of perjury. And that is why believers are asked to examine themselves--not to see if they are "good enough" (who could be?) but to be sure that they can honestly affirm their commitment to the Covenant of Grace. They ratify (if for the first time) or renew their commitment to Christ in terms of the New Covenant whenever they receive.
As the Lord's Supper has receded in prominence, conservative Protestants have been forced to create the Altar Call to take its place--that moment when people are asked to make or renew their commitment to Christ. (This particular piece of Protestant liturgy was unknown until it was invented by Charles Finney in the 19th Century.) Now, I am not against altar calls--they have their place as an evangelistic technique. But we must realize that they are not the New Testament method. What performed this function for the New Testament Church was The Lord's Supper, understood as the ratification of one's participation in the New Covenant through the Realities it represents. And since altar calls by their nature are geared to crisis decisions, they are subject to emotional manipulation, and there is a certain stigma that attaches to one who "goes forward" week after week. Has he no staying power? But Communion is designed to be repeated, to meet our constant need of renewal without the problems that adhere to the other method. Let us therefore use it so today.
Here endeth the lesson.