Friday’s Essay - Gathering Around the Table


Below is an essay that I sent to those on the Cove Presbyterian Church e-mailing list. You can hear a podcast of this message by going to the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. 

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Since we’re celebrating communion on Sunday, I thought this might be a good opportunity to spend a little time thinking about the Lord’s Supper, what it means to Christians in several different churches and what it means to us.

Now communion is grounded in the New Testament and is based on the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. And even though Matthew, Mark and Luke present it occurring on one day and John on another, they all view it as a pivotal time in the life of Christ. As Matthew wrote,
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Now this is the event, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

And even though this is important, it’s really the Apostle Paul who took what happened between Jesus and his disciples and presented it as a ritual that Christians should continue to follow. To the Corinthians he wrote,
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.
You see, because of Paul, what was an event in history became a living sacrament that would have special meaning for believers as they moved into the future.

Of course, this meaning varies depending on the religious tradition to which one adheres. For example, for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, communion or the Eucharist is more than just a ritual. For them, once consecrated on the altar by a priest, the elements stop being just bread and wine. They actually become the Body and Blood of Christ, each of which is accompanied by the other and by Christ's soul and divinity. And even though their external appearance and physical properties haven’t changed, the reality has. They are no longer bread and wine; their substance is different; therefore, this is called transubstantiation. Now, for Lutherans, what happens is similar. According this tradition, the body and blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with, and under the forms" of the consecrated bread and wine, so that those who are sharing in the communion are eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ himself as well as the bread and wine in this sacrament. This is called the doctrine of the Real Presence, more accurately and formally known as the “sacramental union,” although it’s been inaccurately called “consubstantiation.” You see, in both cases, Christ is present in the elements, either physically or spiritually. On the other end of the spectrum are other Christians, including many Baptists, who see communion as a memorial. In other words, for them, communion really isn’t sacramental; rather, it’s an act of remembering Christ's sacrifice and a time to renew one’s personal commitment to him. Now, these are three very different ways to interpret that meal Jesus shared with his disciples and that Paul suggested should be a part of Christian worship.

But there’s another way of viewing what happens when we gather around the Lord’s Table, and it’s the one that underlies communion in Reformed churches, like the Presbyterian Church. You see, we don’t believe celebrating the Lord’s Supper is important because the elements actually change either physically or spiritually. But we also don’t believe it’s just a memorial service. For us, Christ is real and present in a special way as we share the bread and the cup. You see, the bread and juice become the means by which the believer has real communion with Christ in his death, and Christ's body and blood are present to the believer. Now, this presence is “spiritual”, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, when we gather around the Lord's table, we believe that even though Christ's body and blood are not physically present, he's with us in a special spiritual way. Jesus is the host of this meal and when we share the communion, we can experience his presence in a special way. For that reason, the elements can nourish our faith. In fact, when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we’re “transformed” into the Body of Christ, or “reformed” into the Body of Christ each time we participate in this sacrament.

Now, as I said, on Sunday, we’re going to share in communion. But regardless of whether you believe the elements are actually changing or that we’re just remembering what happened almost two thousand or that Christ’s presence with us at the table and that presence can change us as a community, we’re still doing something that all Christians share and that can draw us together as one people. And so, as one people, united by a shared faith, let’s all gather around the Lord’s table.