One Sunday long ago that rarest of things happened: A woman who had never before set foot in a church came and joined us for worship.
Her son had asked why they didn’t go to church. Ours was in the neighborhood. They showed up.
I mean they had never, ever been in a church before. Most newcomers to any church used to be regulars at some other one.
As several of us chatted after worship she described her experience:
I liked the songs and the, uh, talk. But do you always do that ‘body and blood’ thing? That’s kind of gross.”
This was her very first exposure to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It has been a key question of outsiders since the early centuries when the first apologists had to explain that Christians are not, in fact, cannibals.
In our post-Christian culture we need once again to be ready to explain what we do of a Sunday morning—and why it matters.
It would probably be a good start if we thought about it ourselves.
Here is what the Heidelberg Catechism (the widely used and well-loved Reformed summary of Biblical Christianity) said about the topic back in 1563:
76 Q. What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his poured-out blood?
A. It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ
and thereby to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
But it means more. Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.
And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.
No, we have to say, unlike many denominations, most churches in the Reformed tradition do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. It is really important though. Look at the things that we gain by receiving the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus tells us is his body and blood:
1. We receive forgiveness. That is huge. If you’ve read the Heidelberg Catechism, or followed this blog on the topic, you know that the writers saw sin as a big problem. As a species and as individuals we have not lived as God intended. The result is misery.
The Lord’s Supper points us to Christ’s sacrificial death, his body broken and his blood poured out on the Cross. We “eat” and “drink” when we “accept with a believing heart” the realities the elements point to — and so we receive forgiveness.
The Catechism is not saying that just any eating and drinking of the elements does this. It is saying that nothing communicates the grace of forgiveness through Christ so vividly and powerfully.
In the Lord’s Supper we come to know that this overwhelming gift of love is for us, and heals the rift caused by our sin.
2. We are joined to Christ. Huge again. And surprising to many in the Reformed tradition.
We Presbyterians have somehow inherited a simplified version of Zwingli’s teachings about the Lord’s Supper: that it is only about “remembrance”—looking back on what Christ did in the past rather than something he does here and now.
The Heidelberg Catechism does emphasize remembrance, but here the Supper is emphatically more than that.
- We look to what Jesus said about the Supper: it is his “Body.”
- Then we look to the action in the Supper: we eat it.
- The very nature of the Supper teaches us its meaning: his body comes into us like the food we eat.
It is a mystical image of union. And the Catechism emphasizes it with the image of marital union in the words of Adam upon meeting Eve. In the Supper we are so united to Jesus that we are “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.”
3. Our lives come to be governed by his Spirit. Huge again. We are no longer on our own, but now, joined to Christ’s body we find our lives shaped and ruled by his Spirit.
Not all at once. I have nothing to boast about in this regard. But it is real.
The Lord’s Supper teaches us of the deep work of God in our lives. Forgiveness. Union. New life. Maybe we really should do this every week.
I would love to hear from you in the comments: What is the most important meaning of the Lord’s Supper for you personally?