Two years ago my husband and I visited a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. We enjoyed the service and its Christ-centered liturgy. Going in, I knew that as a non-Lutheran, we would not be partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but what did surprise me was how they structured that part of the service. Everyone who partook had to give the ministers (or deacons?) a slip of paper assuring that they are a member of the Missouri Synod. Not even a conservative Lutheran from another synod was allowed to participate, plus it seems to me that handing someone a slip of paper before taking communion diminishes the ceremonial and worshipful aspect of it. This was done to ensure that their communion remained closed.
Believing Without Understanding
It’s a shame to see division over the very sacrament that is to unite the Church in Christ. Every major sect has its own view of the Lord’s Supper, and many use it to break fellowship with other believers. Last week I read a book called The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism & the Origins of Catholic Christianity by Taylor R. Marshall. It was good, even though it was heavy handed with respect to Roman Catholicism. Marshall notes that in John 6 that “Peter believed the difficult teaching [of eating Christ’s flesh and of drinking His blood] even though he did not understand.” (Loc 1461) If one doesn’t have to understand the Eucharist to believe it, why is it that churches put a burden on Christians to understand before they partake? This is especially troubling when the Bible itself leaves it as a mystery for us to believe without complete understanding.
When I say that the Bible doesn’t give us complete understanding, I don’t mean to say that there isn’t any teaching on the meaning. There is. In John 6, Jesus spoke of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. When the disciples grumbled at this, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” This gives us a strong indication that when we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we do so by uniting with Him in spirit.
Paul, when talking about the Israelites receiving manna in the desert, wrote, “and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (I Cor. 10:3-4)
“Fuel of Endless Strifes“
Okay, so I’ve tipped my hand to show what I believe concerning the Supper, but does that mean I would break fellowship with someone with a different view? On the basis of that alone, of course not! James Ussher said in a sermon at St. Margaret’s Church in 1621, “It is a lamentable thing to behold, how this holy sacrament, which was ordained by Christ to be a bond whereby we should be knit together in unity, is, by Satan’s malice and the corruption of man’s disposition, so strangely perverted the contrary way; that it is made the principal occasion of that woeful distraction which we see amongst Christians at this day, and the very fuel of endless strifes.”
There is a unity with the body of the church and Lord’s supper. The communion of saints– the body–is part of the union we have with Christ, who is the head, and “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:21-22)
This union we have and how it relates to the Lord’s supper is seen in I Corinthians. “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”
In John, Christ pronounced that the bread is His flesh, which He gave for the life of the world. To show that by partaking of the bread, we share in this union. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me, and I in him.”
“Thus in the Lord’s Supper, the outward thing, which we see with our eyes, is bread and wine; the inward thing, which we apprehend by faith, is the body and blood of Christ. In the outward part of this mystical action, which reacheth to that which is sacramentum only, we receive this body and blood but sacramentally; in the inward, which containeth rem, the thing itself in it, we receive them really: and consequently the presence of these in the one is relative and symbolical, in the other, real and substantial.”- Archbishop Ussher
To say that His spirit is in union with us or with the bread does not in any way diminish the fact that Jesus Christ is present and that we are in union with Him, His body and blood, His sacrifice, and His church. It’s too beautiful of a thing to fight over, and I believe it’s a sin to fight over the precise meanings because it leads to disunion with the body–the church. Whether Christ is physically present or spiritually present, He is nonetheless present and uniting us in Him in the sacrament. One does not have to have perfect intellectual assent in order for Christ to be present among His people and for us to unite to Him through the consumption of His body and blood.
Ussher acknowledged, and I agree, that because Christ is in the Supper, we as the church share in Christ’s unity corporately when we partake of the sacrament. Sharing a common cup means that we share in the same fate. (I am strongly against individual cups for this reason.) Because we all share in the sacrifice of His body, whether one understands what that means or whether we agree on what that means, the important thing is that we believe it, just as Peter did. To deny the cup to a sincere believer who is not under church discipline goes against the heart of God.