What Is the Lord's Supper? (Part II)
Our plan for the next several months is to examine what exactly the Lord’s Supper is all about and why it’s worth observing frequently. To kick our study off, we used the definition of the purpose of the Lord’s Supper found in chapter 29 of our Confession. We said there is a threefold purpose: 1) to be used as a perpetual remembrance of Christ’s work, 2) as a provision for spiritual nourishment, and 3) as a pledge of our union with Christ. This week, in preparation for the Supper next Sunday, I’d like you to consider this second aspect: spiritual nourishment. Here again is the excerpt from the Confession of Faith, the boldfaced type highlighting what we will consider:
Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.
Far from being a time to merely remember Jesus, the Supper is a time when we actually get Jesus. We are strengthened by the grace that is Christ (2 Timothy 2:1) and God communicates that Grace—Christ Himself—through very plain, simple means: the Word, Sacraments, and prayer. So we find that the Lord’s Supper is one of the ways that we can apprehend Christ and all of the benefits that are in Him. How exactly does this happen? How do we “get” Jesus in the Supper? In what way is He present in this sacrament?
There have been several answers to this question of the centuries. The Roman Catholic view is that Jesus is physically present in the Supper by means of the transubstantiation: the elements being mystically transformed into his literal body and blood. Protestants, wanting to avoid this theological error, have often said that Jesus is spiritually present in the Supper. This is better than transubstantiation, for sure, but it’s still not quite accurate. Rather, we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Supper, and the means by which we partake of His real and true body is spiritual. You can see how it would be easy for many people to conclude this is no different than saying Jesus is spiritually present in the Supper. But there is an important difference and distinction here: by affirming the real presence of Christ, we are saying that we believe we are receiving nothing more, nothing less than the broken body and shed blood of Christ. It’s a physical reality. But it what manner do we receive this physical reality? Spiritually. Our reception of the real presence of Christ is by faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Belgic Confession (1561) explicates this beautifully:
As certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths, by which our life as afterwards nourished, we also do as certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life. (Article 35, see also WCF 29.7)
Friends, you don’t want a mere memorial meal. Ultimately, that can do nothing for your soul—it cannot strengthen you, sustain you, or save you. You want Jesus. He is the all and all. He is the only thing that makes a bit of difference in this world. If you have Jesus, you have everything (Romans 8:32). And in the Supper you have Jesus! When we come to this realization, it becomes evident that if this is a meal our Lord has prepared for us and invited us to, why wouldn’t we run to it every second we have the chance? We are getting Christ! The words of Jesus in John 6 are by no means figurative, they are literal: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:48–51).
Now, admittedly, it’s a bit easier to stomach (no pun intended) the notion that the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial meal, only a time of remembrance. There are less theological hurdles this way. But that’s okay. We might not understand it fully, but we can still confess it and believe: in the Supper we receive Jesus himself. Not just a representation, we get Him. He is really and truly present when we come to the table in Faith. In fact, it might even be better to say that Jesus is really present at the table, we are the ones who are spiritually present. Indeed, the way we may all feed upon the one Christ is by being lifted up by the one Spirit to the heavenlies, where Christ is. There, we in spirit through faith, feed upon Christ.
The old Reformed liturgies had a way of reminding congregants that this is what was happening in the Supper. They called it the sursum corda, which is Latin for “Lift up your hearts!" Before the meal, the minister would say this and the people would respond in unison, “We lift them up to the Lord!” To use the sursum corda is to use biblical language and conceptions of what it means to commune with the Lord—taken straight from Lamentations 3:41. Beyond that, Psalms 25, 86, and 143 all use the expression of lifting up the soul as a plea to God to be near. This is a helpful reminder when we come to the Table: we are being lifted in our hearts to heaven, Jesus is not being brought down to us. Colossians 3:1 instructs us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” This is true in the Supper as well. Do not crumble the bread looking to find Jesus; He’s in heaven. But when you, in faith, look there to Him, your spirit, your heart, will be lifted so that you may feast upon His true body and blood. This is what we need, brothers and sisters. The real presence of our Lord in the Supper. This is what will sustain our weary souls for this, our brief, earthly pilgrimage.