Why Does Your Church Have Catholic Rituals? Part 3

 

Communion

Communion, or Holy Communion, is another one of evangelicalism’s most dreaded words. Again, however, this is another biblical word, from the Greek koinonia, which means “close association involving mutual interests and sharing,” and commonly translated as “communion,” “fellowship,” or “participation.” 1 The two most familiar usages are:

"Eucharistic Adoration" by Claudio Coello (1685-90), Sacristy, El Escorial, Madrid, Spain

"Eucharistic Adoration" by Claudio Coello (1685-90), Sacristy, El Escorial, Madrid, Spain (Click picture to enlarge)

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a koinonia in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor 13:14).

So when we receive the bread and the wine, we “participate” and “fellowship” with the body and blood of Christ, and with one another.

It is also used in the sense of “sharing” material possessions with brethren, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some koinonian for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem”
(Rom 15:26); and sharing in the sufferings of Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may koinonian his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Phil 3:10).

So the Lord’s Supper is much more than a mere memorial service, “Do this in remembrance of me,” as most evangelicals believe it to be. It is not even a public declaration of one’s faith in Christ. Rather, it is a participation, fellowship and sharing of his body and blood. This is shocking to everyone who first hears such a “Catholic” view of the Supper, as R. Scott Clark says,

Our spiritual union with Christ, which Jesus called eating His flesh and drinking His blood, leads the Christian naturally to think of the communal, formal, sacramental expression of that ongoing, daily eating of Christ that Calvin called our “mystical union’”with Christ (unio mystica).

Jesus’ words in John 6:54, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” are quite shocking to us super-spiritual evangelicals. But such sacramental use of the ordinary is the character of redemptive history. The Lord’s Supper, like the Old Covenant feasts that preceded it, involved the sacred use of ordinary things because grace does not replace creation; it renews it. 2

Our individualistic culture has also twisted our minds into thinking that Christianity is “personal.” But from the very beginning, God has chosen a people for his own, not individuals–”you and your children after you.” The Supper is not an individual, but a “communal” feast, a “communion” of the saints, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have koinonia with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). As Clark once again cautions,

We have come to think of the Christian life primarily as a private affair between God and us in our prayer closet. Jesus conducted His ministry and instituted the Supper in a corporate setting, at a feast; and the New Covenant feast was intended to be a communal act of worship as well, not a private spiritual exercise. (See Acts 2:42-46; 20:7-11; 1 Cor 5:7-8; 10-11.) … The Bible, however, deals with man, not only as a solitary unit in his relation to God, but also as a member of a spiritual society, gathered together in the name of Jesus.

Hocus Pocus?

But this communion is not the same as the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Beginning with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the medieval Roman church started teaching that at consecration the substance of the common bread and wine is transformed into Christ’s substance (transubstantiation) while their physical properties remain as is. The Roman church denies it, but in this view, the priest seems to be performing a magician’s trick, a hocus pocus. In fact, this colloquialism derives from hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body,” Luke 22:19, Latin Vulgate) when Christ instituted this sacrament.

Although Martin Luther did not view the Lord’s Supper as a hocus pocus, these words of institution also caused a controversy which split the Reformation into two major camps, the Reformed and the Lutherans, in 1529 after the Colloquy at Marburg. Ullrich Zwingli opposed Luther’s view of the “real presence” of Christ “in, with, and under” the elements, prepositions that are difficult even for theologians. To be sure, Luther’s “real presence” is much stronger than Zwingli’s memorialism, but it is easily misunderstood as too close to Rome’s transubstantiation.

Enter Calvin’s “real presence.” While rejecting both Rome’s and Luther’s views of Christ’s real physical presence in the elements, he argued strongly that Christ was truly and really present–but spiritually, by faith. In his “Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord,” he says,

[A]ll the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.

And not only is he truly present: as bread and wine nourish us physically, so also Christ’s body and blood signified in the bread and wine truly and really nourish our souls. Again, he says,

Moreover, if the reason for communicating with Jesus Christ is to have part and portion in all the graces which he purchased for us by his death, the thing requisite must be not only to be partakers of his Spirit, but also to participate in his humanity, in which he rendered all obedience to God his Father, in order to satisfy our debts, although, properly speaking, the one cannot be without the other; for when he gives himself to us, it is in order that we may possess him entirely. Hence, as it is said that his Spirit is our life, so he himself, with his own lips, declares that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood drink indeed (John 6:55). If these words are not to go for nothing, it follows that in order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food. This, then, is expressly attested in the Supper, when of the bread it is said to us that we are to take it and eat it, and that it is his body, and of the cup that we are to drink it, and that it is his blood. This is expressly spoken of the body and blood, in order that we may learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life.

Thereafter, our Reformed confessions affirm the doctrine set forth by Calvin. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 76 affirms that eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood means:

to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are governed by one soul.

Furthermore, Q&A 79 explains how the Supper nourishes our souls:

[A]s the bread and wine sustain this temporal life, so also His crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink of our souls unto life eternal; but much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit, as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him.

Finally, the Westminster Confession of Faith 29:7 summarizes the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper succinctly:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

Confession, Absolution, Communion. All these are not Roman Catholic, but catholic and orthodox, in other words, Scriptural doctrines.

Previous: Why Does Your Church Have Catholic Rituals? Part 2 Absolution

 


Notes:

  1. Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 552-3.
  2. R. Scott Clark, “The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace,” in John H. Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL, 1998).
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