The Lord's Supper (Blogging the Belgic: Article 35)
We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
Over the years I have found that Christians often spend a lot more time discussing and debating (hopefully in friendly ways) issues related to baptism (who should be baptized, when, and by how much water, etc.) than they do when it comes to the Lord’s Supper or communion. What is interesting about that fact is that among the Reformers of the 1500’s, there was a lot more debate about communion than there was baptism. The Reformers differed from the Catholic Church not only in their understanding of what happens in communion, but also from each other with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calving all espousing different views. The Belgic Confession falls into the stream that stems from John Calvin, with Article 35 explaining how the Reformed church views communion, which has some common ground with all the other views out there and some say stands in the middle.
This article opens with these words: “We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper to nourish and sustain those who are already regenerated and ingrafted into his family, which is his church.” This statement highlights two important truths in the Reformed view of communion. First, there is a reminder that the church practices communion because it was given to the church by Jesus; he said to do this in remembrance of him at the Last Supper (and then recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11). This echoes back to the article in the Confession on the sacraments, which notes that the reason for Reformed Christians holding to two sacraments is that Jesus explicitly told his disciples to do these practices. Second, these opening words highlight that communion is something for believers; there is only benefit to a person taking communion if she or he has faith in Christ. If one does not have faith, not only are they simply eating bread and drinking the fruit of the vine from a cup, but as the Confession notes later in this article, they eat and drink judgment on themselves: “Moreover, though the sacraments and what they signify are joined together, not all receive both of them. The wicked certainly take the sacrament to their condemnation, but they also do not receive the truth of the sacrament, just as Judas and Simon the Sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ, who was signified by it. He is communicated only to believers. Finally, with humility and reverence we receive the holy sacrament in the gathering of God's people, as we engage together, with thanksgiving, in a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, and as we thus confess our faith and Christian religion. Therefore none should come to this table without examining themselves carefully, lest by eating this bread and drinking this cup they ‘eat and drink judgment against themselves’” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
That statement about judgment looks at the negative power of the sacrament, but the article spends more time looking at the sacraments’ positive power, as it offers nourishment to us spiritually. That would seem to be a major reason for using bread, as bread nourishes our physical life; in the same way, Jesus Christ nourishes us spiritually and this happens in the Lord’s Supper, which the Confession helpfully explains in these words: “Now those who are born again have two lives in them. The one is physical and temporal—they have it from the moment of their first birth, and it is common to all. The other is spiritual and heavenly, and is given them in their second birth—it comes through the Word of the gospel in the communion of the body of Christ; and this life is common to God's elect only. Thus, to support the physical and earthly life, God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all people as life itself. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers, God has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten—that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith. To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood.”
In using bread and the fruit of the vine (either wine or grape juice), there is this symbol of nourishment, but there is also a reminder of the reality to what Christ has done: “He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.” I love these words and often quote them when administering communion; Christ’s death and our forgiveness is as real as the elements that we hold and of which we partake!
The previous two paragraphs quoted sections of the article that described the fact that we must receive these elements by faith. This is a key point that the Confession makes, as it later says this, “Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ's own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood— but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith.” This emphasis might seem odd, but in many ways it was to counter misunderstandings that see communion as physically feasting on Christ and his body being present in the bread. The Belgic Confession states that this is not the case, as Christ’s body is in heaven: “In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven— but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith.” While his body is in heaven, through faith we have fellowship with him; he is spiritually present.
If this sounds mysterious, that is okay, as the Confession does note that there is some mystery as to how all this works. “Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is incomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God's Spirit is hidden and incomprehensible.” The Reformed tradition highlights that there is mystery in the act but that does not necessary mean that the rite should be filled with mystery. “Therefore we reject as desecrations of the sacraments all the muddled ideas and condemnable inventions that people have added and mixed in with them. And we say that we should be content with the procedure that Christ and the apostles have taught us and speak of these things as they have spoken of them.” One does not need to do a lot of things to “make communion happen” but simply do it as Jesus told us with the words of institution. We need to explain what it means -- and that is where mystery lies, not in ceremonies around the sacrament.
While there is mystery in this act and how it all works, the purpose of it is clear, as shown in these words: “In short, by the use of this holy sacrament we are moved to a fervent love of God and our neighbors.” Christ gave us this meal to help move us to love God and our neighbors better! This happens because Christ reminds us of what he has done for us and renews us to live in light of that, as the Confession also makes clear: “This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.” Because of Christ’s love for us, we can love our neighbors.
Christians of previous times spent a lot of time debating elements about communion, but that does not mean that we should be debating it. This article makes clear, however, that the Lord’s Supper is something that we need to nourish us to live as followers of Christ in this world and one that we need to partake of through faith. Therefore, as I recently heard a pastor say, it would be good for us not to yak as much as attack when it comes to the sacrament, talking about it less so that we can partake of it more. May you see the significance and necessity of communion the next time you partake of it with your church family.
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