May 1, 2016
For a number of years I have been thinking about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. I’m sure that many of you are aware of the various ways in which the Lord’s Supper is understood. Catholics believe in transubstantiation. The bread and the wine become the actual flesh and blood of Christ. They take Jesus’ words very literally. “This is my body. This is my blood.” For Catholics, the Lord’s Supper is a means of saving grace.
Lutherans believe in consubstantiation. The actual flesh and blood of Jesus is co-mingled or ubiquitous with the bread and wine. The bread and wine do not change but the actual flesh and blood of Jesus is present. For Lutherans, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, “a means of grace by which the participant’s faith is strengthened.”
Zwingli, a protestant reformer and contemporary of Luther, who helped to inspire the development of Baptist believers, took a much different view of the Lord’s Supper. He believed that it is strictly a memorial service in which we remember the benefits of Christ’s death. Zwingli took Jesus’ words, “This is my body; this is my blood” in a metaphorical way. The bread and wine represent the body and blood of Jesus. They are symbols only.
In 1529 a meeting took place between Luther and Zwingli, known as the Marburg Colloquy, to see if they could resolve their differences. Using Jn.6, Zwingli would hear nothing about the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine or that the Lord’s Supper was a means of grace. It was a heated three days of debate. On the last day 15 articles of faith drawn up by Luther were agreed upon. The 15th article dealt with the Lord’s Supper. Now think about this. They parted in disagreement, but Zwingli accepted 14 of the 15 articles and agreed with 5 points of the 15th article. The Lord’s Supper became divisive. According to the Evangelical dictionary of Theology, “The agreement concluded with the conciliatory statement: ‘Although we are not at this present time agreed, as to whether the true Body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless the one party should show to the other Christian love as far as conscience can permit.” After the Conference it wasn’t long before there was more bickering over the Lord’s Supper.
There is a part of me that wishes the Christian Church had not felt the need to go into detail about how the Lord’s Supper works. In some ways it seems that when we define it we control it. Part of me wishes the Church had been content to embrace the mystery of it.
But right now, I’m sure that many of you are thinking to yourself, “Yeah, but what about John Calvin.” I’m glad you mentioned his name. John Calvin developed a middle way between Luther and Zwingli. And I want us to consider Calvin’s view. Men and women, it is my belief that at the Lord’s Table believers fellowship together as we feed on Jesus Christ.
I read a transcript of the Marburg Colloquy. One of Zwingli’s points was that Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father. He is still incarnate in his body. The implication is that Jesus is not in the actual bread and wine. He’s not here because he is there with the Father, wherever that is. After all, the scripture tells us this. In Acts 2:32 Peter, in his message on the day of Pentecost said about Jesus, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” And there are other verses that tell us that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Luther agreed but would not yield from Jesus’ words, “This is my body; this is my blood.”
Calvin agreed with Zwingli on this, but according to Baptist theologian, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Calvin also agreed with “Luther that the bread and cup were more than naked signs. They were symbols that conveyed through faith the reality of that which they signified, namely, the real spiritual presence of Christ with His church.” How could it be that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father and yet spiritually present at the Table?
Again, according to Timothy George, Calvin said that, the Holy Spirit so united the believers on earth with the risen Christ in heaven that “their souls are truly nourished from the flesh of Christ...In communion the Holy Spirit lifts our hearts up to the heavenly sanctuary where Christ is the Host at the banquet table of the redeemed.”
Let me quote from Calvin’s Institutes: “But though it seems an incredible thing that the flesh of Christ, while at such a distance from us in respect of place, should be food to us, let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive—viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space. That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there exerting an efficacy of the Spirit by which he fulfils what he promises. And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast, although it is beneficially received by believers only who receive this great benefit with true faith and heartfelt gratitude.”
So essentially what Calvin is saying is that when we come to the Lord’s Table and eat the bread and drink the cup believers are nourished by the body and blood of the Lord through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Now at this point some Baptists begin to squirm a bit in their seats. Calvin is basically saying that the Lord’s Table is a means of grace, not saving grace but sanctifying grace, if you will. Something is really taking place at the Table in the bread and the cup.
I’ve been a Baptist for most of my life. I am in agreement with believer’s baptism and other Baptist distinctives. But when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, I am moving away from Zwingli. And I’m not alone. In fact I am in the company of historic Baptist beliefs.
I never knew this, but the Second London Confession drawn up by Baptists in 1689 had this to say regarding the Lord’s Supper. “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” This is what Calvin was teaching.
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers and a Baptist, also believed that the Lord’s Supper was an external means of grace through which believers are nourished in the Christian life. Spurgeon said, In the Lord’s Supper, believers have the blessed privilege of going ‘right through the veil into Christ’s own arms.’” Listen to this extended quote from Spurgeon, “Whenever we repair to the Lord’s Table, which represents to us the Passover, we ought not to come to it as a funeral…This is my body,’ said Jesus, but the body so represented was no corpse; we feed upon a living Christ. The blood set forth by yonder wine is the fresh life-blood of our immortal King. We view not our Lord’s body as clay-cold flesh, pierced with wounds, but as glorified at the right hand of the Father. We hold a happy festival when we break bread on the first day of the week.” I’ve never heard these kinds of words in my Baptist background, and yet these are Baptists speaking.
J.I. Packer wrote a very influential book that many of us may have read. It is called “Knowing God.” Listen to what Packer recently said about the Lord’s Supper. Referring to the bread and wine he says, “They remain bread and wine, but as we eat the bread and in our hearts say, ‘Lord Jesus I take you as the bread of my life,’ and as we drink the wine, and say in our hearts, ‘Lord Jesus how could I ever thank you enough for shedding your blood, for my salvation,’ we are nourished inside. That is to say, we are strengthened, refreshed. We find new joy in our hearts and we go on our way with a new lightness in our steps.”
Men and women, the symbols do not bring spiritual nourishment in and of themselves. The symbols point to our living Savior. Spiritual nourishment comes through the Holy Spirit in the receiving of the bread and cup. I have come to believe with our Baptist forebears that as I receive the Lord’s Supper with a humble heart of faith, I am feeding on the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, receiving the spiritual refreshment that J.I. Packer is referring to. I look forward to the Lord's Supper this morning. I no longer take it in stride. Rather, it is becoming refreshment for every stride I take.
At the Marburg Colloquy, Luther and Zwingli had bitter words for each other. They both apologized and asked forgiveness. But both had unkind things to say about each other after the Colloquy. The Lord’s Supper is not something that should divide us. It is not my goal this morning to make anyone feel that they should agree with me. My goal is to encourage us to draw near to Christ as he invites us to eat and drink at his Table. After all the Lord’s Table points us to another Table of the Lord. It is the Table that we will gather around when we are with him in his Eternal Kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth. As the Jewish celebration of Passover developed over the years, it began to incorporate what Don Carson refers to as a wish-prayer. The Jews would say, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Paul tells us that in the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. In other words the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We receive Christ and look forward to being forever with the Lord. Amen.