Of Crosses and Communion Cups
As a pastor I get all sorts of unsolicited mail offering my congregation the newest and the slickest of Christian gadgets, gizmos, and trinkets. With the season of Lent not far off as I write this, my mailbox is already full of Lent paraphernalia. Our congregation ignores Lent, but I cannot resist opening the promotions to see what's new in Christian chic. One firm offers a wooden communion token for Lent. On one side is printed a cross in purple ink surrounded by a heart (purple is the color for Lent). On the other side is a little poem entitled "A Cross in My Pocket." The poetry is not quite up to Shakespeare’s standard, but the thought is devout enough. By carrying this token in my pocket, I am to be reminded of Christ's sacrifice when I reach for change and draw out the token.
Unfortunately, for many Christians today, there doesn't seem to be much difference between crosses in pockets and the Lord's Supper, or, for that matter, between baby dedications and baptism. Crosses are obviously symbols of the sacrifice of Christ. Communion tokens with purple crosses are symbols of Christ's passion. And the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper are symbols of Christ's oblation. So what is the difference? What do the sacraments do that crosses in pockets don't? I can look at the wooden trinket and be reminded of Jesus. And I can look at the communion bread or the baptismal water and be reminded of Jesus.
Of course, baptism and the Lord's Supper are accompanied by words. But then, my Lent communion token has words, too. And in this technological age, I bet we could put a computer chip on a token that would play "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," followed by a dramatic reading of the crucifixion narrative. There are Christmas cards that play carols when opened, so why not wooden (maybe plastic) nickels that play favorite hymns? And the cross could be displayed on a small flashing display. Imagine what the church has been missing all these centuries!
There is one difference, however, between the sacraments and all other Christian symbols. It is a difference that makes all the difference. Christ himself has commanded us to observe baptism and the Lord's Supper. They are the institution of the Lord. But we should not suppose that the sacraments are different from other Christian symbols only in that Christ himself appointed them. When Jesus established baptism and the Supper as the signs of the New Covenant, he did much more that merely authorize the use of certain symbols.
When our Lord said, "This is my body," he said much more than "This is a symbol of my body." By those words he promised us that when we receive the bread and cup in faith, we have communion with him, with his body crucified for us, and with his bloodshed for us. The sacraments contain a promise that when we receive the sign in faith, we receive also the thing that it signifies.
The apostle Paul teaches this very explicitly. He writes to the Corinthians,
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?1 Corinthians 10:16 NIV
According to the apostle, the bread is a participation or a communion (as the KJV translates it) in the body of Christ. It is not a bare symbol. It is not just a reminder.
John Calvin explained it this way:
For Christ in instituting the Supper, promises nothing falsely, nor mocks us with a vain show, but represented by external signs what he has really given us.(Corpus Reformatorum 20:73)
He also wrote, We hold that, in this ordinance the Lord does not promise or figure by signs, anything which he does not exhibit in reality, and we, therefore, preach that the body and blood of Christ are both offered to us by the Lord in the Supper, and received by us. (The Necessity of Reforming the Church in Tracts & Treatises, vol. 1, p. 169)
Crosses may remind us of Jesus. But in the Supper we are made partakers in Jesus. It is a great mystery how God accomplishes this. We can be sure that the substance of the bread is not changed into the substance of the physical body of Christ (as Roman Catholicism teaches). Jesus' human flesh remains in heaven. The bread is still bread as far as its physical nature is concerned. Nonetheless, in receiving the bread and the cup, we receive what they signify if we come in faith to the Supper. The Holy Spirit causes us who are here on earth to have communion with the body and blood of Christ in heaven when we participate in the Supper with a true and living faith. In the same way, in baptism we are united to Christ and to his death. Again, to quote the apostle,
Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?Romans 6:3
Crosses symbolize Christ. But the sacraments symbolize and convey Christ to us. Crosses are bare symbols. But the sacraments are divinely instituted means of grace by which the gospel is presented to us and we by faith receive Jesus Christ.
The sacraments are visible and tangible signs that convey what they symbolize. Therefore, they also mark those who receive them as belonging to Christ and to his church. In other words, because the sacraments convey what they symbolize (by the ministry of the Holy Spirit), they are seals of the Covenant of Grace. In baptism we are sealed as those who are united to Christ by the Spirit and made members of his body. In the Lord's Supper we are sealed as those who receive their life from Christ.
This makes the sacraments serious business. Indeed, they are matters of life and death. The Corinthian church abused the Lord's Supper, and as a result sickness and even death was visited upon them. Because the Supper conveys what it signifies, if we participate unworthily in it, we abuse the body and blood of Christ.
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.1 Corinthians 11:27 NKJV
If we receive the sacraments in unbelief, we come under the judgment of God. If we receive the sacraments in faith, we receive Jesus Christ and all the benefits of the New Covenant. Likewise, if we receive the preaching of the gospel in faith, we receive Christ and his salvation. If we receive the gospel in unbelief, there is only judgment. This parallel is important to note. The sacraments are the signs and seals of the gospel. As such, the sacraments preach the gospel also. Paul says,
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till he comes.1 Corinthians 11:26 NKJV
Christ is pleased to present himself to us, both through hearing the gospel preached and having the gospel signified and sealed to us in the sacraments. Indeed, the sacraments are the gospel presented in word, action, and element.
So, the next time you are present at a baptism or at the Supper, remember the wooden nickel with a cross on it. Remember that Jesus does not give us trinkets, but rather himself. He gives us his body crucified for us and his bloodshed for us. He gives us his Spirit. As you observe the baptism, or as you partake of the bread and wine, believe the gospel! Such faith will not be in vain.