At the Table of the Covenant: The Lord's Supper
In the night before his death, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, and thereby presented a great gift to his church. The Passover, which spoke of saving life through the blood of the Passover lamb, was transformed by Christ into the Lord’s Supper. Christ is the true Passover lamb, who was slaughtered. His death means life for his people. At the table of the covenant the church celebrates peace with God. Her original relationship was healed through Christ who is our peace.
You can view the Lord’s Supper from various perspectives and constantly be impressed by the great salvation, the fruit of Christ offering himself unto death. Celebrating salvation is the most important aspect. That is why it is announced as the “celebration” of the Lord’s Supper. The congregation celebrates the feast of reconciliation and peace. We can only do this with great joy (Acts 2:46).
Occasionally complaints are heard about the celebration. For instance, the Lord’s Supper services usually take longer than a regular service, especially in larger churches. For some people, the long wait or the many tables with the repeated formulas are considered tiring. The joy of the celebration is easily dampened by all kinds of minor factors.
Clearly defining what we are actually doing when celebrating the Lord’s Supper can contribute to a celebration that does not lose its splendour.
B. An institution of Christ
The Bible is not at all vague about the fact that the Lord’s Supper is instituted by Christ. We find this recorded in the gospels of Matthew (26:26-29), Mark (14:22-25), and Luke (22:14-20). A comparison of these texts reveals minor differences, which are not fundamental and do not make the reports contradictory. Paul tells us that the Supper is “received from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23). The command of Christ reached him via oral tradition. With authority he passes it on to the congregation.
Indeed this is all about a command from Christ. The congregation is not merely advised to celebrate Lord’s Supper but is charged to do so: “...do this in remembrance of me”(1 Corinthians 11:24). The invitation to come to the table is one of compelling urgency. Christ loves nothing more than to celebrate the feast of reconciliation and peace together with his church. He gave himself over to death for her. By the bread and the cup he proclaimed that his suffering and death was “for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24), and “for many” (Matthew 26:28).
C. A few aspects of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper
Again, it is possible to view the Lord’s Supper from various angles. It shines like a jewel with many colours. In the first place, it can be compared to baptism. The following distinction can be made: baptism assures us that we are grafted into the covenant and incorporated into the congregation and are, therefore, God’s adopted children, while God continues nourishing and taking care of us through the Lord’s Supper (cf. BC, Art. 35). That is why we are baptized only once, but celebrate the Lord’s Supper time and again.
We need the Lord’s Supper as an ongoing strengthening of our faith. But there are additional aspects that give us reason to celebrate.
1. A meal of remembrance
Christ gave the instruction: “... do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24- 25). Remembering Christ takes place through a sequence of actions such as breaking the bread and filling the cup, passing around the bread and cup, accepting the bread and cup, eating the bread and drinking from the cup. These actions lead our thoughts back to Christ’s death on the cross. Commemorating is more than just recalling. Commemorating helps you realize what the events of the past mean for the present. Christ died in the past, and that has consequences for the present. The church remembers that her Lord died, but now he lives, for her. We live, together with our living Lord, and we are on our way to a glorious future with him. By remembering him in this way, our love for him will only grow stronger. In the instructional part of the form for the Lord’s Supper, remembering Christ has been described impressively. The blessing of his death for us is beautifully formulated.
Celebrating the remembrance of the gift of Christ’s offer makes it clear that the Roman Catholic mass, claiming to be a repetition (or, as many Roman Catholics prefer to say, a visual representation) of the sacrifice on the cross, cannot possibly be true. The sacrifice of Christ, “once to take away the sins of many people” (Hebrews 9:26, 28; 10:10,12,14), completely repudiates the repetition of Christ’s offering.
Christ’s words urging us to remember, “this is my body”, have led to radical misinterpretation and schisms in the16th century. The Reformers agreed that it was foolish to conclude from this text that the bread and wine actually turned into Christ’s own body. Thus they unanimously rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation with its claim that Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is repeated in the mass (see Outline 1, D.4). Even so, the Reformers could not arrive at a consensus about the meaning of the words: “This is my body”. Fierce debates about the Lord’s Supper resulted. Calvin attempted to reach an agreement with the Lutherans, but to no avail. The argument concerned the question: in what manner is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper when he says, “This is my body”?
Luther concluded that Christ is actually present because his human nature took on godly characteristics (omnipresence) at the time of his ascension. The substance of bread and wine do not actually change. But Christ is present together with the substance of bread and wine (consubstantiation). Thus our mouths eat and drink him.
Zwingli taught that Christ is actually present in Word and in promise. Yet, in the Lord’s Supper there is no action that flows directly from him or from his Spirit. The only action is on the part of the believers in that they confess Christ’s deeds for their benefit and remember his suffering and death.
Calvin (and in his footsteps, Reformed believers) confessed that Christ is present with his Spirit and gives spiritual nourishment. Christ binds believers more and more to himself through his Spirit (HC, Q&A 76) when he works in their hearts. The result is that they entrust themselves to him and give their lives to him (see the prayer before the celebration). The phrases “this is my body” and “this is the new covenant in my blood” are sacramental manners of speaking. “Is” means “a sign and a guarantee of”. The Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of Christ’s promises (HC, Q&A 66, 78, 79). It can be compared to the function of a photograph: “this is so and so”, or of a cheque: “this is the amount for payment”. The sign and seal must be met in faith. Although one may be able to receive the sacrament without faith, one does not receive the truth or benefit of it, namely the promise, which is Christ himself (BC, Art. 35).
Noteworthy in this context is the development of thought in the World Council of Churches. Under the influence of the Eastern-Orthodox Churches, there is presently a return to the idea that the Lord’s Supper is an offering on behalf of the congregation to God. Bread and wine are seen as dedicated, together with Christ’s prayer of intercession. When the congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper, the death of Christ on the cross is said to be simultaneously reactivated for the benefit of the congregation, an occurrence that offers salvation to the congregation.
2. Proclaiming the death of the Lord
The Lord’s Supper proclaims the death of the Lord. Paul uses this expression in 1 Corinthians 11:26. Preaching is publicly announcing or proclaiming important news. At the Lord’s Supper the church solemnly proclaims the great news which became reality through the death of Christ. It touches the core of her being, for she has life through his death. She also passes the good news on to everyone who wants to hear it. She publicly professes her faith and praises God for his great deeds of salvation. Here is the introduction to the second use of the Lord’s Supper, as Calvin calls it (see Outline 4, D.3).
3. Expectation for the future
Christ awakens in us eager anticipation of the future when he promises that he will drink the wine new with us in the kingdom of his Father (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25), and that he would not eat the Passover again “until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16). Christ has obtained salvation and has his church share in it. This is reason for great happiness (Acts 2:46). But the complete fulfilment is yet to come. As a celebration of the salvation prepared for us, the Lord’s Supper looks forward to that fulfillment.
In the original Dutch form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, this aspect receives only brief treatment. Just one line in the prayer before the celebration deals with it. The English forms, however, assign a whole paragraph on the expectation of Christ’s coming (see Book of Praise pp. 598, 604). This addition of an aspect that had not previously received sufficient attention is now a welcome addition and a strong point in the form. The Lord’s Supper broadens our view as much to the future as it does to the past and present.
4. A communal meal
In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul directs our attention to the fact that the Lord’s Supper, by means of bread and wine, establishes and maintains communion with Christ’s body and blood. In addition, the one bread symbolizes the communion between the members of the congregation. The rich reality of the communion of saints, both vertically and horizontally, is demonstrated and experienced in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (cf. HC, Q&A 55). In John 6:52-58, Christ clearly refers to this when he refers to communion with him as eating his body and drinking his blood” (cf. HC Q&A 76).
The fellowship of saints and the unity (despite diversity) of the members of the congregation is emphatically expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. This fellowship becomes visible at the Lord’s Supper. The form for the Lord’s Supper designates a passage to this (preceding the prayer): “By the same Spirit we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body” (see p. 598, Book of Praise).
In conclusion, it can thus be understood and accepted that the sick and others who are unable to attend church do not take part in the celebration. The Reformed Churches do not recognize a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the home. Calvin did support it, however. In our churches a celebration of the Lord’s Supper for the sick is not common practice. Neither is it preferable1,2As a precautionary measure against Roman Catholic superstition associated with the sacrament of the dying, bread and wine are not brought to the beds of the sick and dying. This is appropriate. Even so, it should not be underestimated how much the chronically ill and seniors miss the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, particularly at a time when they are in need of extra support of their faith. Although this sacrament is not indispensable, it has nonetheless been given as an extra encouragement.
One effect of the living fellowship within the community is caring for the needs of the congregation. The gifts and produce that were brought by the members of the first Christian congregations were meant to be divided among the needy (cf. Acts 6:1-7). In our day and age the table offering (if it is collected3) is also intended for supporting the work of the deaconry.
The Lord’s Supper needs to be properly celebrated as a feast of the salvation Christ obtained for the congregation. Reconciliation and peace with God have become reality. That certainly merits a joyful feast for the congregation. When things are as they should be, the dominant tone of the entire liturgy will be in a major key.
D. The forms
The churches have access to two Lord’s Supper forms, one long form and one short form. The abbreviated form is meant for the second service in which the Lord's Supper is celebrated.4It is a summary of the long form. The long form is taken almost entirely from the Church Order of Paltz, 1563. The first section on self-examination is borrowed from Calvin. The section before the actual celebration has a didactic character. In the 16th century the congregation needed in-depth instruction in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly, instead of the mass. A few important elements of the form are:
1. A strong emphasis is placed upon self-examination and admonition of the sinner. In conjunction with the ten commandments, a number of sinners are listed who, if they continue in such sin, should abstain from the table of the Lord.
This makes it clear that in the 16th century church, discipline was practised especially in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. Calvin strongly favoured this. In spite of criticism, this list of sinners has never been deleted from the form. This would indeed be a great loss since the list reminds us that the Lord’s Supper has everything to do with living in holiness.
The admonition of sinners is followed by encouragement for those who are indeed sorry for their sins and want to be strengthened in their faith.
It is liturgically incorrect to read this part of the form one week before the celebration. The preparatory sermon is suitable for this purpose, a custom which is not an official church decision, and the necessity of which has been disputed several times
2. The section about the remembrance of Christ is without doubt the most beautiful part of the form. It touches the heart of the celebration. Christ’s substitutionary suffering is proclaimed in a persuasive manner.
3. In the old form, the Apostles’ Creed was inserted in the prayer. This is now confessed separately, recited by the minister or, preferably, sung by the congregation.
4. In the prayer, we ask God for the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The Lord’s Supper is, after all, a means by which the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith.
5. The exhortation after the prayer to “lift our hearts on high” (sursum corda) shows us that, contrary to the mass, we should “not cling with our hearts to the outward symbols”, but must lift our hearts to Christ, who is in heaven.
6. The section about communion (1 Corinthians 10:16) states: “The bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ.” Earlier translations (cf. KJV) have “is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” “When he gives the cup” refers back to Luke 22:20. The breaking of the bread is symbolic of two things. It refers to Christ’s body being broken on the cross and also to the breaking of one bread, the symbol of the communion of saints to which every guest at the table belongs. There is no difference in principle between “body broken” or “body given”.5
The repetition of the formulas at subsequent tables is in itself not a problem, but it can be experienced as somewhat tedious in large congregations with many tables. Because the festive character of the celebration can therefore suffer, it is advisable to limit the number of tables as much as is feasible.
Sitting at the table together was not always a common practice. In the past, participants simply remained seated or came to the front to receive bread and wine. In some churches this tradition has gained wider acceptance. There are also some churches where those partaking of the Lord’s Supper no longer sit at the table; instead, bread and wine are passed through the rows of seats.
7. The form allows for the opportunity to read Scripture and sing at the table. In some churches the minister delivers a “sermonette” about the Scripture passage that was read. Liturgically this is not required.
8. The thanksgiving at the conclusion of the celebration brings it to a climax. We should remember, however, that thanksgiving should not only be limited to the end of the celebration. It is the emphasis of the entire celebration.
E. How often?
Article 60 of the Church Order states that the Lord’s Supper “shall be celebrated at least once every three months.” In some churches it is celebrated five or six times per year.
Calvin and Martin Bucer (an important leader of the Reformation who helped to shape the views of Calvin) favoured a weekly celebration but this could not be realized for practical reasons. The synods in the Netherlands in the 16th century agreed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper bi-monthly. The practice has become a minimum of four times annually.
One argument against celebrating the Lord’s Supper more often than four times a year can be our liturgical implementation. The sermon should not have to yield to the celebration. There is also the danger of this sacrament becoming routine. On the other hand, celebrating the Lord’s Supper too sparingly tends to turn it into a special event that is elevated above the regular church service. In general, there is little evidence of a desire to celebrate it more often because it is urgently needed. The Church Order allows for some latitude here, which is probably the best solution.
The Lord’s Supper is a meal of remembrance in which the church recalls the sacrificial death of Christ as well as the blessing obtained in that sacrifice, since through Christ’s death she receives life.
The congregation proclaims and confesses this great news in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our faith is thereby strengthened.
The church also learns to look forward to the return of her Lord with joyful expectation, since the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the feast in God’s kingdom. Also for this reason, this sacrament ought to be celebrated as a feast.
G. Tips for the introduction
- Try to explain why the Lord’s Supper is a great gift to the congregation. Elaborate on this with a view to the distinct character of the celebration.
- Try to work out in more detail why our form gives such a thorough explanation of the Lord’s Supper, while its strong emphasis on self-examination does not really dampen the festive character of this sacrament.
- Beginning with the Passover, work out how this Old Testament feast is transformed and fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper. As a start, use 1 Corinthians 5:7 as your proof text: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
H. For discussion
- Why should you not ask yourself (as part of the self-examination), “Do I dare to partake of the Lord’s Supper, or am I not allowed to do so?” Can you prove from the form that having this state of mind is not the form’s intention?
- How, specifically, should we go about examining ourselves? (See p. 595, Book of Praise.)
- After celebrating the Lord’s Supper, how do you use it in your daily life?
- Child communion is in principle incorrect. What can we do to involve children as much as possible in the Lord’s Supper?
- When we do not long for a more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper, must we interpret this as lacking in faith? How could the service be organized if the Lord’s Supper were celebrated more frequently?
- In the mission field, is it necessary to cling to the traditional elements of bread and wine if the natives are not familiar with these?