Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Lord's Supper

A Scottish Sacrament, by Henry John Dobson
"The Lord's Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace." (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 96)

The Lord's Supper was instituted by the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, to be observed by his church until he comes again. I have written before on its place in the church's worship here and here, and against the idea of "livestream communion" here, but here I would like to expand more on the significance of the Lord's Supper.

One of the first things to note is that this supper is not a propitiatory sacrifice that we offer to God. Christ's sacrifice on the cross is not again offered for our sins. "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). But in the Lord's Supper his death is showed forth and proclaimed (1 Cor. 11:26). Christ crucified is portrayed and presented to believers in the gospel and in the sacrament, the bread and wine being symbols of his body and blood. We partake of the Lord's Supper in remembrance of the Lord Jesus and his once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross. And we do not merely remember that he died, but that he died for us. For this supper is a sign and seal of his promise to believers, his promise that this body and blood was given for them and the remission of their sins (Matt. 26:28). This sacrament is a seal of the covenant of grace in the way that people shake hands to confirm a deal. The physical act confirms the words spoken. Jesus holds out his hand and tells us to shake on it. 

As we respond to this sign and seal with faith, it works as a means of grace by which Christ feeds us with himself. In this supper, he invites us to take and eat of his body and blood. The apostle Paul calls this bread and wine a communion (or "participation") in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). It is akin, he says, to the sacrificial meals of the Old Testament, in which those who ate of the sacrifice were participants in the sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:18). The sacrifice on the cross happened long ago, but we continue to feed on it and draw strength from it today. As 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The lamb was slain long ago. Yet 1 Corinthians 5:8 goes on to exhort believers: “Therefore let us keep the feast.” We continue to feed on the Lamb that was slain, participating in the benefits of his death. And in our case the Lamb is risen and alive and we abide in him (John 6:56), like branches in a vine (John 15:1-7). This sacrament is one means by which he gives himself to us, bringing us life from heaven.

While we do feed on Christ in this supper, we do not do so with our teeth and stomach. Jesus did not say that the bread and wine become his body and blood, or that his body and blood is inclosed in the bread and wine. His body remains a human body even when glorified. It remains visible and limited to one place. So his flesh is not found in the bread in all churches around the world - his body is in heaven. Nevertheless, Christ's words of institution do indicate that his body and blood is truly offered to believers in this supper and is truly received by them through faith. Those who outwardly partake of the visible elements in a worthy manner do inwardly by faith receive and feed upon Christ’s body and blood, receiving life and strength from him. This is done by the Spirit, who makes us living members of Christ’s body, participants in all the benefits of his death, branches which partake of the life of the vine (1 Cor. 12:12-13, John 6:63). 

Now a covenant not only has promises. It also has obligations. Those who have been redeemed by Christ's blood are bought with a price, to no longer live for themselves, but for him who loved them and gave himself for them. This supper engages us to gratefully serve our Lord. It also engages us to love each other as fellow members of his body. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). 

In this supper, Jesus holds out his hand to us. By it he testifies to his death, his promise, and our blessings and obligations as his people. But in this supper we also reach out and take his hand. We take and eat. By receiving the bread and wine, we claim Christ's redemptive death on our behalf, expressing our faith in him. We testify and renew our thankfulness, our engagement to God, and our mutual love and fellowship each with other, as members of the same body. It is important to approach the Supper with this intent. To do otherwise is to partake in an unworthy manner, bringing judgment upon oneself (1 Cor. 11:27-31). We must not treat holy things with contempt. We must not cross our fingers behind our back while shaking hands with God. Instead, we should examine ourselves and consider the meaning of the supper as we approach it. Examine your knowledge of Christ, faith in Him, repentance, and love. And not only do we have a responsibility to partake in a worthy manner, but the church also has a duty to guard the holy things (1 Cor. 5, Matt. 7:6, 16:19, 18:15-18). Thus, the Lord's Supper is given to those who have been baptized, have publicly professed faith in Christ, and are members in good standing of a faithful Christian church. 

At the same time, this does not mean we must wait until we feel worthy of Jesus. He came to save sinners and promises remission of sins to those who believe in him. This sacrament is meant to increase our assurance, faith, and spiritual vitality. This supper reminds us that Jesus is our strength, that apart from him we can do nothing, that it is through him that we have peace with God. So come to Jesus and find rest, refreshing, and nourishment for your weak and weary soul. 

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