A Guide to Reformed Worship – The Lord’s Supper
Today we want to consider what may be regarded as the most controversial of the elements in a Reformed worship service: the Lord’s Supper. Lest we think that there is anything new under the sun, it has always been controversial in the Reformed churches. Even the contemporary perennial question of who may be admitted to the table is something that was being hotly debated in the days of John Calvin.
However, my aim today is not to discuss that particular controversy, or indeed all of the controversies surrounding the sacrament. Nor do I intend to discuss the theology of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, I want to discuss the biblical basis for celebrating the Lord’s Supper in our worship services and then briefly reflect on three liturgical/practical items.
Does the Lord’s Supper Belong in Public Worship?
Interestingly, the Lord’s Supper was not instituted in a public worship service or in anything even approximating one. Instead, the Lord Jesus instituted this sacrament at a private gathering where He and His disciples were celebrating the Passover. But following Pentecost we read these words about the early church:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.Acts 2:42
This certainly seems to indicate that the Lord’s Supper was a regular feature of the gatherings of the early church. The early church appears to have understood that it was the will of the Lord to have this sacrament administered in public worship.
This is confirmed by what we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In 11:20, Paul writes, “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” While these words have a negative scolding tone, it is clear that the church did come together with the idea that they were partaking in the Lord’s Supper. This sacrament obviously played an important part in the worship of the church during and after the time of the apostles.
As time marched on, it continued to be a feature of Christian worship. Unfortunately, with the passage of time the Lord’s Supper took on a deformed appearance. The mass had some external, formal connections to the Lord’s Supper, but it was in many ways a bastardization of the holy sacrament. God opened the eyes of the Reformers and the Lord’s Supper returned in its pristine biblical state. We can conclude that the sacrament rightly belongs in our public worship as a divinely instituted element through which God signs and seals his promises and we take, eat, and drink, in remembrance of Christ.
That brings us to consider some of the more liturgical and practical issues surrounding the sacrament. The first is closely connected with what we just concluded. In earlier articles, we have noted that Reformed worship is covenantal in structure. There is dialogue between the two parties of the covenant: God speaks and man responds. This “dialogue” is also present in the Lord’s Supper, albeit in a sacramental way.
While we do hear God’s Word spoken during the reading of the Form, God also speaks in a way during the partaking of the bread and wine. This is a sacramental form of communication in which we receive “sure signs of Christ’s body and blood” (HC, Q/A 75). With this visible sign and pledge, Christ assures us that we share in his true body and blood and that all his suffering and obedience is ours (Q/A 79). Finally, we confess that the Lord’s Supper is God’s sacramental testimony to us that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins and are grafted into Christ through the Holy Spirit.
But what about us? What are we saying or doing in the Lord’s Supper? Well, obviously we are taking the bread and wine and eating them. In so doing, Scripture says that we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). Who are we making this proclamation to? Naturally, we proclaim this to one another and to ourselves. And when we hear this sacramental proclamation, our natural response is going to be thanks and praise for God and so the covenantal, dialogical circle is again complete.
Making this more concrete, whenever we celebrate the holy supper, we need to be self-consciously aware of what we are doing as an act of worship at this moment. I think that, just as in baptism, we often regard the Lord’s Supper as something passive, something done to us or for us. However, the Lord’s Supper is intended to be an act of worship, something that God’s people do and do with their hearts focused on worshipping. Keeping this in mind, during the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, we should be concentrating on what these elements sign and seal to us. Regrettably, time constraints often prevent any extended reflection on the sacrament. Therefore I would suggest that believers “proclaim Christ death until he comes” to themselves by deeply reflecting on one or two of the many aspects of the sacrament mentioned either in the Form or the Heidelberg Catechism or the Belgic Confession.
A second practical issue that does not receive a lot of attention is the frequency. How often should the Lord’s Supper be celebrated? It is no secret that John Calvin favoured a weekly celebration, although he was not able to implement it in Geneva. In more recent times, several United Reformed churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly and I was privileged to be a guest at one such church for two months in 2004-2005. Closer to home, one of our churches in the United States also celebrates the sacrament on a weekly basis.
There are sound biblical arguments for adopting a weekly celebration. Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 11 seem to indicate that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated very frequently, if not weekly. Some of the early church fathers indicated a familiarity with weekly celebration, as did the later fathers. According to Augustine in the fifth century, the minimum was once per week. Of course, we acknowledge what was mentioned before about deformation of the sacrament, but weekly communion was not introduced as a later innovation – it was simply continued as the practice of the apostolic church.
Unfortunately, logistical considerations in many of our churches make a weekly celebration impractical, if not impossible. When our larger churches insist on sitting the congregation at five or six tables each time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, we cannot expect to see weekly communion. It would only be practical with smaller churches or with the congregation taking the sacrament in the pew.
At the beginning of this series, when we discussed the Regulative Principle of Worship, we noted that it only covers the elements and not the circumstances of worship. I would argue that the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is a circumstance of worship and therefore there is freedom for each local church to decide what is best. While a weekly celebration may be ideal and most consistent with the practice of the ancient church, we cannot say that a church that decides to have annual communion (as was sometimes done in Presbyterian churches) is sinning. Nevertheless, since the sacrament is designed for the strengthening of our faith, who would not desire a more frequent celebration?
Administering the Sacrament to Shut-Ins
The strengthening of faith brings us to another contemporary issue: the administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins. Propelled by necessity, this matter has been studied by our churches in the last number of years. Our last Synod decided that no change in the Church Order is required for this practice to take place – in other words, the churches are free to administer the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins, provided this takes place in the normal fashion, i.e. within the context of a worship service.
This is a wise and laudable decision and it opens the door for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated by those who may need it most. When shut-in and unable to go to church for weeks, months, or years on end, one misses many of the blessings available in the worship service, including the sacraments.
If we really believe, with the Belgic Confession (Art 33), that the sacraments are there for people who are weak, who are we to deny them to those shut-in? Are those experiencing physical suffering and loneliness also to be denied the nourishment and refreshment of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament? Compassion and love compel us to do the right thing for these brothers and sisters.
However, it should be stressed that this compassion and love come to the shut-in on a principled basis. In other words, the context should be as regular as possible. It should be done under the supervision of the consistory.
A minister of the Word and sacraments should conduct a regular service with a number of other people in attendance. The regular Form for the Lord’s Supper should normally be read and so forth. Doing things in this manner also ensures that this practice will not be abused.
The Lord’s Supper is a precious gift from our Saviour. Like the preaching of the gospel, it is something that we should never take for granted. For, like the preaching of the gospel, it puts the beautiful promises of God before us. Whenever we partake, let’s remember how rich we are and give thanks!