The Lord’s Supper, Food, Nourishment, Grace, and Symbolism

There is a tendency in modern Christianity to think of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as purely symbolic acts. I believe this tendency is largely due to an overreaction to the Catholic position of transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration. And this is unfortunate, because while clearly transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration are not scriptural, overreacting to one heresy by running away from some aspect of truth is not a good solution.

The church fathers referred to the sacraments as “means of grace”. By this they meant that the sacraments are ways in which God delivers grace to His children, the saved.

This description is most useful because it places the emphasis of the source of grace firmly upon God and not upon some innate magic in the actions of eating bread and wine or being dunked in some body of water. But the danger here is that one could infer from this description that because the sacraments are merely the means of grace it is correct to view them as purely symbolic actions.

And this is true to an extent, but it is true in the same way that it would be appropriate to refer to food as a “means of nourishment”. Think about that for a moment if you will.

The only reason that a man may eat bread or cheese or meat or fruit and receive nourishment from it, is because Jehovah, the Almighty God of Heaven has chosen to bless food with this property. And if in his good pleasure, he should choose to withhold this grace, a man could eat all day and receive no benefit to his body.

It is in this same way that baptism and communion are means of grace. It is not that they are somehow completely different acts from eating, but they are acts of obedience that God has chosen to bless.

And this is comforting. It means that in the same way that food begins to affect us before we eat it, in the same way that we take pleasure in its preparation, in its consumption, and in that feeling of fullness that follows our feasts, so communion and baptism are both physical and spiritual things. The plainness of the bread, the sweetness of the vine, the thoughts and ideas that we associate with these simple elements, and all this contrasted with the knowledge of Christ’s deity and His humanity, his beaten flesh, his bloodied head, and what his crucifixion was accomplishing for us and for the entire world, all of this is part of what we are partaking.

So communion is not ‘merely’ a symbol, except in the sense that all things are symbolic. And communion is a means of grace, in the same way that all the gifts of our Heavenly Father are means of his most tender love for us.

Think of this the next time you break the bread and drink the cup.

As always, feedback is appreciated.

Romans 9, the Awful and Terrible God, and Communion

When we first began attending Hope Baptist Church, we noted and appreciated that they observed the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis. Six months later, I have come to the realization that my ability to under appreciate a sacrament knows no bounds.

For the past three weeks, the elders have been leading the church through Romans 9, and let me tell you, these are not verses that are easy to hear:

Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

It is a terrifying thing to read these passages and to know that this is our God; it is a fearful thing to see Jehovah so clearly, and to know the awe that fills our heart and minds at His description. It is an entirely different thing to hear such a sermon and then to partake in communion.

Imagine for a moment that you are the child of the Hebrew king David. Your father, the king, is a man of war. In certain seasons, he takes his sword in hand and leads his armies to war. He has killed men, has with his own hands shed their blood, and he has given orders that would bring death to women and children. On days of judgement, he sits as a magistrate, and hands down rulings. He has sentenced men and women to death for crimes against the law. It is not his hand that kills them, but it is at his word and at his judgement nonetheless. But consider this: this man, the king, the man of war, the judge, the grim faced man who presides over life and death, this man is also your father. And he is not one man when he is at war and a second man when he sits at court and a third man when he sits with you and calls you by your name. He is the same man.

And this is what communion reminds me of. This is not to say that I should not tremble when I think of God. This is not to say that I am to forget that he is both awful and terrible (look up these words if you do not get my meaning – we have watered them down and forgotten what they mean). But it means that I am to place alongside this image of awe, this image of terror, an image of Abba Father, and I am to commune with him.

What I am striking out against here is the wicked idea that God must be watered down so that we can be comfortable with Him. Let me give another example, this time from C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Silver Chair. Here one of the main characters, Jill Pole, has been brought to Aslan’s country and through her own foolishness has found herself alone, lost, and looking for something to drink. Finally she comes to a pool of water, and guarding it, is a lion:

“If you are thirsty, you may drink.”

[…] For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” […] [she] realised that it was the lion speaking. […] [T]he voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.

“Are you not thirsty?” said the lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the lion.

“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realised that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion – no one who had seen his stern face could do that – and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once.

This is how communion felt after the sermons on Romans 9. Here I am, says God, I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms, and I will do so again if it pleases me. Know me. Look upon me. See me as I am… and come and drink.

Gossip and the Supper

Several Sunday’s ago our church heard the annual gossip sermon.

This is the sermon where the preacher outlined in detail the sins of each particular family as they had been related to the elders during the course of the year, and each family was called to public repentance. OK, so it was nothing so juicy as that. Instead it was a sermon that outlined, in juicy detail, the magnitude of the evil of gossip and the destructiveness of this seemingly innocuous sin. The following was the accompanying meditation on the Lord’s Supper.

One of the slogans of our church is that weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper is the first step in church discipline—this meditation is a practical application of that principle. The text was Matthew 26:57-68 (Jesus’ trial).

In the grand scheme of things, Jesus died because the world is full of sinners and thus full of sin, but if we look at the order of specific events that let up to His death (how He came to be crucified at a specific time in a specific place by specific people), we see that Christ Himself was crucified because the Jews conspired to lie about Him, and the Romans were willing to let the lie pass.

Can you see how serious the crimes of the tongue? Liars and slanderers lied and slandered to kill the most innocent of all men—to kill the God-man. Sins of the tongue are no mere trifles. Consider that when you hear that Paul tells us that we take this meal to commemorate the Lord’s death until He comes. We commemorate this most tragic of all deaths as one brought about by false witness, by gossips.

[T]he Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”

If you have unconfessed sin, confess it. If you have been convicted by the sermon today, confess those sins, repent, turn away, and guard your tongue.

But, how do you guard your tongue? Look at it this way: practicing the Lord’s Supper is not just an excuse for somebody to get up and give an extra little inspirational sermon—the fact that real food and real drink is involved here is because they have real meaning. As you partake of these elements meditate on them. Taste them, I mean that, taste them and remember what they feel like on your tongue.

Then, later this week when you are tempted to sin with your tongue you can remember that your tongue had a meeting with God this morning. This particular meal is a sign of ownership. Remember that all of your body, even its smallest part, belongs to Him.

Have you been convicted today? Then remember that as we proclaim the Lord’s death we also proclaim the kind of death that He experienced: a temporary death. Jesus died, but he also rose and ascended into heaven, leaving His Spirit to sanctify you as He intercedes on your behalf before the Almighty Father.

“In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”

The Reality of Spiritual Symbols

In my last post, I discussed the nature of the sacraments and how referring to them as “mere” symbols is insufficient and in many ways misleading about other manifestations of God’s grace. Today, I want to go a little further with that thought.

In one of Peter Leithart’s essays on grace he talks about this very thing, and to illustrate it he uses the example of a young man who is interested in having a relationship with a young woman. (what follows is my memory of Leithart’s example; as I don’t have it in front of me, my apologies for any inaccuracies or misrepresentation)

If a young man was interested in pursuing a relationship with a young woman, it would be necessary for him to show her his interest. And he would do this by using any number of symbolic gestures; things like buying her flowers, writing her letters, speaking to her often and in the specific ways that suitors do. Someone who was trying to focus on the supremacy of the “spiritual” or the intangible might argue that these actions are “mere” symbols of the actual affection and relationship that the young man is trying to establish. But this is not a sufficient explanation, for if the young man were instead to perform none of these “symbolic” actions, he would have a very difficult time convincing his young lady that he was truly interested in her at all. In fact, one could argue that these “symbols” actually make up a very significant and very real part of the relationship.

It is in the same way that these ordinances of the faith are not “mere” symbols. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, marriage, corporate worship, and so on, each of these things, while they are definitely representative of spiritual truths, also make up a significant aspect of our relationship with Jesus Christ. And they do so to the extent that if a person who claimed to be a believer and lover of Christ did not partake in these actions, they would have a difficult time convincing anyone that they truly loved Him at all.  [Edit: You should read the comment by Jonathan below]

Comments?

The Order of Heavenly Memorials

Go look at Exodus 12 if you have not read it in a while. The first 28 verses detail the instructions concerning the practice of the Passover meal.

The scope of the instructions is broad enough to reach to all generations:

“So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance” (v.

14).

“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance” (v.

17).

“And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households” (vv. 26-27a).

Notice how God has chosen to act towards His people. Be astonished, even. The Passing Over, the event that Passover commemorates, does not occur until after these instructions (vv. 29-32). What kind of God is this? He establishes a memorial before He has yet done the thing memorialized.

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In the same way, also, Christ, on the night He was to be betrayed, took the bread and the cup, and established a new memorial that signified His death before He died. Christ memorializes the End of all sacrifices before He became the end. The Lord’s Supper: The New Passover.

We worship a God who establishes memorials before He brings all things to pass. Have faith, then.