Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, part 2

Here is the follow up from yesterdays blog.  From an article by Sam Storms, "The Sacraments, part 1."
Protestants outside the Lutheran tradition understand the words of Jesus ("This is my body . . . This is my blood") to be a metaphor (in a simile one thing is said to be “like” or “to resemble” another; a metaphor boldly declares that one thing is another). There are literally hundreds of metaphors in the Bible: "All flesh is grass" (Isa. 40:6); "The Lord is my shepherd" (Ps. 23:1); "You are the salt of the earth" (Mt. 5:13); "You are the light of the world" (Mt. 5:14); "I am the bread of life" (Jn. 6:35); “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20); “the seven heads are seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9); see also Mt. 13:38; John 8:12; 10:9; 1 Cor. 10:4. I. H. Marshall explains:

“The word ‘is’ . . . can mean ‘signify’ as well as ‘be identical with,’ and there can be little doubt whatever that at the Last Supper the word was used with the former meaning. The saying was uttered by Jesus while he was bodily present with the disciples, and they could see that his body and the bread were two separate things. One might compare how a person showing a photograph of himself to a group of friends could say, as he points to it, ‘This is me.’ In any case, Jesus had done nothing to the bread which could have changed its character; all that he had done was to give thanks to God for it, not to bless or consecrate it in any way” (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 85-6).

Within Protestantism, however, there are two variations:

a.         A strictly symbolic view, in which the sacrament is nothing more than a visible symbol or tangible representation of the body and blood of Christ; partaking is but an act of remembrance or symbolic declaration. There is a sense in which we may thus speak of transsignification or a change in the meaning of the elements. Prior to their use in the eucharist the bread and wine aremerely bread and wine. When acknowledged and blessed as the elements of the eucharist they take on new meaning (although their substance remains unchanged). We might also refer totransfinalization (McGrath, Christian Theology, 441) insofar as the consecration of the elements changes their purpose or the end for which they exist. McGrath explains:

“Just as a man, on setting off on a long journey from home, might give his wife his ring to remember him by until his return, so Christ leaves his church a token to remember him by until the day on which he should return in glory” (442).

b.         Other protestants, following Calvin, insist that whereas there is no literal physical presence of Christ in the elements, there is a spiritual or moral presence. The elements thus become truly a means or instrument or channel by which the sanctifying or nourishing or sustaining grace of Jesus become operative in our lives. There is truly a presence of Christ in the elements beyond the omnipresence that is always true. Thus, in saying that the words of Jesus are metaphorical, I don't deny that in some sense he was providing a pledge of his personal presence with his people that is to be recalled and experienced whenever they break bread together. William Lane explains:

"As certainly as the disciples eat the bread which Jesus hands to them, so certainly will he be present with them when they gather for table fellowship. Jesus' first gift to the disciples was the pledge of his abiding presence with them in spite of this betrayal and death” (Mark, 506).

The implication is that in spite of Christ's death and departure from the earth, the bread and wine of the Supper in some sense serve to mediate his abiding presence with those who know and love him. The elements not only point to and recall his death, they also awaken us to the fact that Christ in his saving and sanctifying power is forever in our midst. Two texts should be noted:

1 Cor. 10:16-21 - We read in v. 16, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" To partake of the elements of the Lord's table is to come under his influence and power (cf. v. 20); it is to commune and share with his abiding presence; it is to experience in a special way all those saving benefits and blessings that Christ's body and blood obtained for us.

1 Cor. 10:17 also points to the horizontal dimension of this ordinance. We not only experience communion with Christ, but also with one another! It was the custom of the early church to observe the supper by using one loaf of bread, from which each believer would take a piece. Paul draws the conclusion from this practice that those who share the one loaf broken into many pieces are thereby joined together in the unity symbolized by the original loaf.

C.        Insights from 1 Corinthians 11:23-34

1)         The Lord's Supper is primarily designed to elicit or to stimulate in our heartsremembrance of the person and work of Jesus.

2)         This remembrance is commanded. Participation at the Lord's table is not an option.

3)         This remembrance entails the use of tangible elements. It isn't enough simply to say, "Remember!" The elements of bread and wine are given to stir our minds and hearts.

4)         It is a personal remembrance. We are to remember Jesus. The focus isn't any longer on the Jewish passover or the night of his betrayal or anything else. The focus is Jesus.

5)         In this remembering there is also confession. In partaking of the elements we declare: "Christ gave his body and blood for me. He died for me."

6)         In this remembering we also proclaim the Lord's death till he comes. This, then, is not merely an ordinance that looks to the past. It is an ordinance of hope that points to the future.

7)         To partake of the Lord's table in an unworthy manner (v. 27) is to take it without regard to its true worth, not yours. To partake unworthily is to come complacently, light-heartedly, giving no thought to that which the elements signify. I. H. Marshall explains:

"In some Christian circles today the fear of partaking unworthily in the Supper leads to believers of otherwise excellent character refraining from coming to the table of the Lord. When this happens, Paul's warning is being misunderstood. The Lord's Supper is the place where the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and offered to all who would receive it. Paul's warning was not to those who were leading unworthy lives and longed for forgiveness but to those who were making a mockery of that which should have been most sacred and solemn by their behaviour at the meal” (116).

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