Next to justification, there was no issue more fiercely debated during the Reformation than the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Although the Reformers did not always agree among themselves as to the meaning of the Supper, they were unified in their opposition to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Using categories from Aristotle, Catholic theologians taught that the substance of the bread and wine were changed, while the accidents remained the same. Thus the elements were transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ, but still retained the outer appearance of bread and wine.
According to Catholic teaching, when Jesus held up the bread and said “this is my body” he meant “this loaf of bread is my actual, real physical flesh.” The Reformers all agreed in deriding this view as nonsensical (the seventeenth century preacher John Tillotson was the first to speculate that there was a connection between the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum [“this is my body”] and the magician’s formula hocus pocus). Protestants have argued that Jesus was employing a figure of speech in the Upper Room. Just as “I am the good Shepherd” did not mean Jesus tended little animals that go baa-baa, and “I am the gate” did not mean Jesus swung on hinges, and “whoever believes in me…out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” did not mean that the disciples would rupture a valve with H20, so “this is my body” did not mean “this loaf is my Aristotellian defined flesh and bone” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).
Luther and his followers rejected transubstantiation, but they did not completely reject a real physical presence of Christ. In affirming consubstantiation, Lutherans have argued that though the bread remains real bread and the wine real wine, nevertheless the physical presence of Christ is there also, “in, with, and under” the elements.
A third view of the Lord’s Supper, called the memorial view, is often attributed to Ulrich Zwingli, though it’s not clear this captures the fullness of his thought. In this view, communion is simply a feast of remembrance. There is nothing mystical and no real presence to fuss about. The bread and wine remain plain old bread and wine. They serve as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, a memorial to his death for our sins.
The fourth view—and in my mind the correct view–is normally associated with John Calvin. Calvin believed the Supper was a feast of remembrance, but he believed it was a feast of communion too. He believed in a real presence, a real spiritual presence whereby we feast on Christ by faith and experience his presence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, by faith, we “share in his true body and blood” (Q/A 79).
No one doubts that the Lord’s Supper is, at least in part, a memorial. We remember the Last Supper and remember Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:23, 26). And as we remember his passion in the past, we proclaim his death until he comes again in the future. But the Lord’s Supper is more than mere mental cognition. 1 Corinthians 10:16 says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?” When we drink the cup and eat the break, we participate in, and have fellowship with, the body and blood of Christ. We are joined to him and experience a deep, spiritual koinonia with him. We gain spiritual nourishment from him (John 6:53-57) and unite as believers around him (1 Cor. 10:17). Christ is truly present with us at the Table.
A Meal, Not a Sacrifice
As important as it is to understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper, it’s just as important that we understand it is a supper we are celebrating. The sacramental feast is a meal, not a sacrifice. The last sentence in the previous paragraph is essential, not only because of the first clause (about Christ’s presence), but also because of the last word. In celebrating Communion, we come to a table, not to an altar. Among all the critical rediscoveries during the Reformation, it is easy to overlook the importance of recovering the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal (not a re-presenting of Christ’s atoning death) with all the elements (bread and cup) distributed to every believer (no longer withholding the cup from the laity). The Lord’s Supper acts as a family table where we can enjoy fellowship with each other and with our Host, partaking of the rich feast of blessings purchased for us at the cross.
I fear that in too many churches the Lord’s Supper is either celebrated so infrequently as to be forgotten or celebrated with such thoughtless monotony that churchgoers endure it rather than enjoy it. The Lord’s Supper is meant to nourish and strengthen us. The Lord knows our faith is weak. That’s why he’s given us sacraments to see, taste, and touch. As surely as you can see the bread and cup, so surely does God love you through Christ. As surely as you chew the food and drain the drink, so surely has Christ died for you. Here at the Table the faith becomes sight. The simple bread and cup give assurance that Christ came for you, Christ died for you, Christ is coming again for you. Whenever we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we not only re-proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:26), we re-convince ourselves of God’s provision on the cross.
Don’t discount God’s preferred visual aids—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and jump right to video, drama, and props to get people’s attention. What a mistake to think these “signs and seals” will be anywhere as effective as the ones instituted by Christ himself. Pastors who ignore the sacraments or never instruct the congregation to understanding and appreciate them are robbing God’s people of tremendous encouragement in their Christian walk. What a blessing to hear the gospel, and eat it too
Of course, this eating and drinking must be undertaken in faith for it to be effectual. The elements themselves do not save us. But when we eat and drink them in faith we can be assured that we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. More than that, we get a picture of our union with Christ. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have communion with him, not by dragging Christ down from heaven, but by experiencing his presence through the Holy Spirit. Let us not come to the Lord’s Supper with drudgery and low expectations. If you shed a tear at the Table, let it not be out of boredom but out of gratitude and sheer wonder and delight. “While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast, each of us cries, with thankful tongue, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?'”