spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 116, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, St. Luke 23:1-49
O Taste and See
In the night in which He was betrayed . . . This took place in the night in which He was betrayed. In the night in which a man sold Him into death, our Lord Jesus Christ provided for all men the gift of life. He instituted the sacrament through which we receive Him – His life-giving body and blood – into ourselves. He infused His life into us.
And He commanded us to do this – to partake of the sacrament – until He comes. When our Lord returns we will no longer have need of this enacted sermon, as it has been called. When He appears in His body we will sit at table with Him and eat and drink with Him and celebrate with Him the eternal life we have in Him. O the glorious day!
Until it arrives, we recall Christ’s great gift to us, the shedding of His blood, by which He established the new covenant. God abided with His people Israel under terms of a covenant – a covenant of laws, which none could keep perfectly. Their sin remained.
But by His prophet Jeremiah in the words we have read already tonight God had promised a new covenant. Under its terms, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (31:33).
This is the covenant of grace, by which we have life, and the price of it was Jesus’ blood.
Beloved, we are gathered on Maundy Thursday. That word “Maundy” is from the Latin for “commandment.” Jesus commands His disciples to love one another.
On Maundy Thursday He instituted the rite by which we are bound to Him and, through Him, to one another. At the Last Supper He gave us the Eucharist, in which we partake of Him. The verb tense tells us we are to continue partaking; it’s not a one-time thing.
And our word “Eucharist” is from the Greek for “thanksgiving.” We express our gratitude for that which we receive from God. We sing praises to His name.
This short passage that serves as our epistle lesson marks the first time these words were recorded in what became the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth before any of the gospels were composed. These are, in fact, the first words of our Lord set down on any subject.
We must pay them great heed.
“Sacraments, by reason of their mixed nature, are more diversely interpreted and disputed of than any other part of religion besides . . .” So wrote the distinguished Anglican divine Richard Hooker in Book V of his masterpiece, “The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.”
“By reason of their mixed nature . . .” Sacraments are by their very nature a mixture of the natural and the supernatural, the divine word and natural element, the finite and infinite. They are means of human participation in the divine life. Hooker goes on:
“And forasmuch as there is no union of God with man without that mean between both which is both, it seemeth requisite that we first consider how God is in Christ, then how Christ is in us, and how the Sacraments do serve to make us partakers of Christ. In other things we may be more brief, but the weight of these requireth largeness.”
They have been accorded largeness, but largeness does not preclude error. In the very context before us, Paul is blistering the members of the Corinthian church for their wretched behavior at their common meal. Some are drunk. Some eat to excess while others go hungry.
When they come to table together they enact the wedding feast they will share with their Lord in glory. Is this how they will behave with Him?
In the early church, Christians gathered on the first day of the week to celebrate their Lord’s resurrection. The custom grew out of the fellowship meals of the Jews, from which was taken the breaking of the bread and blessing of the cup of wine. To that extent, they were proceeding according to Christ’s commandment.
It may have been to remove the temptation to such bad behavior as that in Corinth that the blessing and partaking of bread and wine were taken out of the context of the larger meal. That happened early on.
Justin Martyr gives us an account of a Eucharistic meal around the year 155 that proceeds according to a liturgy that looks familiar to those of us who use “The Book of Common Prayer” today. Also in the second century worshipers began using the term eucharistia in appreciation of Jesus’ redeeming death and His resurrection and His joining Himself to them in the elements of bread and wine.
The early church did not lack for controversies, but the way of the Lord’s presence in those elements was not among them. It was enough to believe He was in them because He had said He would be in them. The big brouhaha came later.
By the time of the Reformation, that pot was boiling over. During the Middle Ages the Church of Rome had come by fits and starts to the idea of transubstantiation, the physical change of bread and wine into body and blood of Christ at the priest’s words of institution. By the Reformation it had been made dogma.
In England as on the Continent, the Reformers recoiled from this understanding. Bishop Hugh Latimer said an error here would be “the mother and nurse of all errors.” In the Latin Mass, the words we translate “this is My body” are hoc est corpus meum.
Historians tell us this is where we get “hocus pocus.” The Reformers were accusing Catholics of practicing magic.
With Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the fore, the English Reformers taught the real, spiritual presence of Christ in the elements. “I do as plainly speak as I can,” Cranmer wrote, “that Christ’s body and blood be given to us in deed, yet not corporally and carnally, but spiritually and effectually . . .”
John Calvin said much the same. And they were too restrained for some. In the headlong rush to reject everything Roman, Ulrich Zwingli and those who followed him pitched out any actual presence of the Lord in the elements. The pendulum went crazy. Holy Communion was a token, a reminder of what Christ had done for us; nothing more.
That is the view of the majority of American Protestants today and it is devastating Christ’s church in our place and time. It proceeds not from the Bible but from Enlightenment rationalism, which teaches that we can believe only what our human minds can prove.
The sacrament by its very nature is beyond our understanding. As Hooker put it, it is the means of human participation in the divine life. And it requires faith. We need no faith for what we can prove. And it pleased God to demand faith of His people.
Just as Bp. Latimer foretold, this “mother and nurse of all errors” has implications that radiate afar out from the communion table. Verily, verily, I say unto you, when we deny God’s power to perform what is beyond our grasp we deny God.
God’s entire program for revealing Himself is sacramental, in terms of creation as well as redemption. The world is a sacrament; its purpose is to make its Creator manifest to His creatures. God the Son is a sacrament, the express image of His Father. Man is a sacrament, the very bearer of the divine image.
If not for sacraments, the world is no more than the world. Any understanding of the world that is not sacramental is materialistic, and the materialist walks by sight and not by faith.
The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann takes us back to the Garden of Eden with its array of trees bearing all manner of fruits:
“Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, as the central image of life.
“It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: ‘. . . that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”
Schmemann goes on: “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’
“Man is a hungry being. He is hungry for God.” So wrote Schmemann.
For the Christian, life is a sacrament, and without the sacrament, what is life?
Beloved, I came to Anglicanism when I came to see that Anglicans have figured out how to steer through hocus-pocus on the one side and tokenism on the other. To get behind the Enlightenment by way of a book of lessons and prayers composed before the Enlightenment that allow us to approach God on His terms.
I put it to you: If the Holy Spirit can inhabit flesh and blood, why can’t flesh and blood inhabit – spiritually – bread and wine? As God says.
As you approach the Lord’s Table on this Maundy Thursday, come in humble thanksgiving for God’s great gift to you of His beloved Son . . . and for our heritage in the Anglican way. Amen.