The Lord’s Supper, Part 1 – What’s the big deal?

One of the reasons I have started this blog for our church’s website is to explain our beliefs and practices for those who may be unfamiliar with a church such as ours. There are several ways to “label” Grace OPC, i.e., Reformed, confessional, conservative, etc., but these labels will mean different things to different people. So, for those who come to the website looking to find out what we’re all about, I hope some of these blog postings will be helpful.

In this post and a few others to follow, the subject will be the Lord’s Supper. I have chosen to write about this because, first, it is an extremely important, yet largely neglected, matter for Christians to consider, and second, I am working my way through a book on the Lord’s Supper for our Theology and Leadership Class. The book is called “The Lord’s Supper”, and is written by Dr. Robert Letham. In these posts, I will summarize important points from his book, and from time to time add some thoughts of my own.

When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, what is the big deal, anyway? If I have trusted in Christ as my Lord and Savior, if I have experienced the new birth, then what part does communion play in my salvation? Should I really be that concerned with the Lord’s Supper, when it seems to have caused so much division in the Church (of course, the ultimate cause of division in the Church is sin, but the sacraments have often been at the center of controversy)? Letham argues that, in our day, we have so stressed the individual and the individual’s experience of conversion, that the Bible’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper, especially as a corporate, churchly practice, has been all but forgotten. And so sincere Christians may ask such questions about the sacrament.

But this neglect of the Lord’s Supper is a tragedy, because according to the Scriptures, it really is a big deal. Christ commanded his disciples to observe the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:20-29; Mark 14:17-21; Luke 22:14-23; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-26), and accordingly taking communion was a integral part of the life of the brand-new church (Acts 2:42). And it is crucial to understand that Christ gave us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper not just as a way for us to remember his death on the cross for our salvation (as important as that is), but as an effectual means of grace. That is to say, communion is no mere rite, a bare memorial to Christ’s death, but the bread and the cup, when received by faith on the part of believers, become instruments by which Christ communicates himself to us, with all of his saving graces.

Where does the Bible teach this? It is implied in the words of 1 Corinthians 10:16: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Letham argues that the meaning of “participation” in this verse is explicated in another part of Scripture, John 6. There, Christ declares: 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 (v.51). And a few verses later Jesus says, Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (vs. 56-57). Though Jesus spoke these words before he instituted the sacrament of communion, Letham persuasively shows how these words make best sense when understood as Jesus’ own explanation of the Lord’s Supper. And the point is just this, that according to Scripture, the Lord’s Supper is truly a means by which Christ imparts to us himself and his grace. So yes, the Lord’s Supper is a big deal for Christians. Do we want to be filled with Christ; do we want to avail ourselves of his grace as much as possible? Of course we do, and one means by which we are filled with Christ and his grace is by coming to the Lord’s Table, to feast by faith upon the life-giving body and blood of Christ. As Letham puts it,

In the Lord’s Supper through faith (the gift of the Holy Spirit) we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood and so are nourished to everlasting salvation. (pg. 13)

And, as he quotes from Calvin,

…the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself. Now who does not see that communion of Christ’s flesh and blood is necessary for all who aspire to heavenly life? (quoted on pg. 14)

Now, this raises an immediate question. In what sense is the body and blood of Christ truly present in the Lord’s Supper? This is the question Letham tackles in chapter 2 of his book, and on which I’ll write next time.

But first, I need to mention one disagreement I have with Letham in chapter one. He argues that, on the basis of the Gospel of John, the night Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper was not the Passover, as is traditionally understood. I was not persuaded by his argument here. To be sure, it is a difficult question, but it seems to me that the Synoptic accounts clearly depict Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper during the Passover meal. In any case, his position doesn’t affect what else he has to say about the sacrament.

Pastor Scott