Communion is a sign and seal of God’s covenant with us. This is often how God works in covenants.
Abraham had faith in God and was already justified, but God gave him the covenant of circumcision, which Paul says is “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11).
The faith, the righteousness preceded the sign and seal. It’s this way in family covenants also. At a wedding, the bride and groom take an oath, that’s a covenant, which is signified by rings and sealed in their sexual union.
If communion is only a sign and seal, then why do it? Most importantly, God said to show the covenant this way. Abraham’s faith needed expression, and God wanted to give him a way to pass it on to his children. They were in covenant now, too. James says our faith is seen by what we do.
But second, the sign and seal are means of renewing the covenant. We don’t renew it because it wears out, but because we wear out if we don’t. Husbands and wives renew their love and enjoy their marriage covenant. Calvin said God gave “his church another sacrament, that is, a spiritual banquet, where in Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
We are marked and fed here again by Christ’s love.
One of the ways Christians have gotten themselves into trouble at the Lord’s Supper is by thinking wrongly about the elements, the bread and the wine. Jesus didn’t say “This is my body, broken for you” so that we could ignore what He is doing and instead wonder “How are the bread particles undergoing molecular transformation into Jesus’ body?” Continue reading
Throughout much of the Church’s history Word and sacrament have not gone together. During the Middle Ages Mass would occur with Lord’s Supper being offered in part (bread not wine) but without preaching.
You’ve no doubt been to many worship services, in fact most Protestant worship services, where the Word is taught, but the sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, isn’t offered.
Many Reformers in the sixteenth century wanted Word and sacrament to go together the way they do in Scripture. Martin Bucer tried to get the whole Christian community into the cathedral in Strasbourg to hear the Word and receive communion every week, and so did Calvin in Geneva, but it didn’t happen.
They wanted this because the Supper is the sign and seal of God’s Word, assurance that it’s really offered to us. It is put in our hands and in our mouths showing His fatherly care and hospitality to us. We eat and drink acknowledging that we accept His grace. If nothing is said, if there’s no Word, then what are we receiving? And if we hear the Word, it says “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Using phrases like “covenant renewal worship” can make worship start to sound complicated, esoteric, academic, and jargony.
But worship is not like that, so we should keep it simple. God forgives sinners, so we confess. He listens and speaks to us, so we pray and hear his word. God is our Father who provides and Friend who enjoys us, so we eat with him.
Adam and Eve had the tree of life. Worshipers in the old covenant had portions from peace offerings when they were able to make it to the temple. We have bread and wine every week, the body and blood of Christ, in the Lord’s Supper.
This is wonderful, and by faith it’s yours. Hear Solomon: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl. 9:7).
One danger of talking about what you believe and what you do is coming to the conclusion that you are really important. How many men have disqualified themselves from the ministry because they made small compromises, or what seemed like small compromises, along the way because the work was “too important” to slow down?
This Supper is a delightful reminder that God gives the increase. This is the culmination of our worship service—the honor we give to God—and here we are seated at his Table to be nourished by Him. It is obvious that we only work out our salvation because God is at work in us.
We don’t know what will happen this year, even this week or this evening. We should strive by every means possible to serve our Lord, but trust Him to give the increase, and to bless him when the increase is not what we expected. At the last Supper and the early meals following the resurrection, the apostles could not have anticipated the extent of the blessing of the Holy Spirit about to be poured out on the Church in Jerusalem. Nor would they have understood that within a generation most of them would be martyred for their faith.
We have no idea what God will do, and every reason to trust him.
This is a table of unity. The Apostle Paul urges us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He says “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all and through all in in all” (Eph. 4:3-6).
We should not fail to notice that there is also one table. Christians often lament the Church’s lack of unity as we experience division and strife. This does happen sometimes when there is a real conflict, but it does not occur simply because we meet in different buildings in different parts of the world. We lack unity when we can’t eat this Supper together, when we separate from others like Peter and Barnabas did from eating with the Gentile Christians in Antioch.
Eating this meal deals with our sins, and not just our sins against God. It maintains the unity of the Spirit and bond of peace between one another. We all partake of one Christ, his one body broken and blood shed, and in him we are one church. Our unity is not seen in our denomination or network or latest cooperative effort. It’s far too important to be left to that. It’s demonstrated, maintained and given here to encourage us. God sets the lonely in families, in his family here. So anyone baptized and trusting in Christ is welcome, and those who are not are not asked to partake under compulsion but to consider the gift of God offered to them.
Martin Luther was once told that the Lord’s Supper ought not to be given to those convicted of a public crime because of the likelihood they were unbelieving. Luther replied: “This doesn’t concern the one who administers. His only concern should be that he offer the true Word and the true sacrament. I don’t worry about whether he [the communicant] has true faith. I give the sacrament on account of the confession which I have heard, the condition of his heart be what it may. I wager a thousand souls that the absolution and the sacrament are right. I must believe him when he says he is penitent. If he deceives me, he deceives himself. Nevertheless, the sacrament is true and the absolution is true. It is as if I were to give somebody ten pieces of gold and he took them to be only ten coppers. The gold is right in front of his eyes. If he doens’t know what he’s taking, the fault is his and the loss is his.”
The New Covenant is a time of vivid, concrete spiritual reality, not one of types and shadows. Before the death of Christ, the faithful were like a boy prince, governed by his tutor, waiting for his maturity so he could rule and grow the kingdom. Israel engaged in various training exercises, like fencing classes for the prince, that would prepare them for real battle with real weapons. Well, the people of God have grown up. We might even be in our 20s; we have yet a long way to go, but we have been entrusted with real weapons now, and a couple of them are right here on the table. The Westminster Larger Catechism asks “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?” And it answers “not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.” What is the work of the Holy Spirit but your faith? By the same faith God accomplishes our salvation whether it be by hearing the Word, or at this table having heard it, eating and drinking it. Bread and wine are the food of conquering kings as Abraham received from Melchizedek. The minor prophet Zechariah prophesied of the coming of Zion’s King, whose coronation we celebrate today on Ascension Sunday, and he said “On that day the LORD their God will save them…for like jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land…. Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women” (Zech. 9:16-17). You are the kings and queens, the royal people of God. Here is your bread and wine. We also include grape juice which we know God blesses. We don’t include it because we’re catering to taste preferences or because it doesn’t really matter what we consume. God set the menu, and the time of types and shadows have passed. We do this because it’s not just what we eat and drink, but how. And we don’t want to stumble anyone physically with the wine in the same way we don’t want someone who is allergic to eat the bread. Special bread, special juice, God understands. But if you can drink the wine, drink it. It’s potent and powerful, part of a dangerous gospel that requires us to grow in wisdom. Drink too much of it and it will mock you. Drink it here and in moderation as Christ delivered, and it will grow you up into his image. And if this whole meditation leaves you unsettled, don’t be. Take what you’re ready to take. We are all together working toward maturity.
From Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb:
“Witness the teetotaling communion service. Most Protestants, I suppose, imagine that it is part of the true Reformed religion. But have they considered that, for nineteen centuries after the institution of the Eucharist, wine was the only element available for the sacrament? Do they seriously envision St. Paul or Calvin or Luther opening bottles of Welch’s Grape Juice in the sacristy before the service? Luther, at least, would turn over in his grave. The WCTU version of the Lord’s Supper is a bare 100 years old. Grape juice was not commercially viable until the discovery of pasteurization; and, unless I am mistaken, it was Mr. Welch himself (an ardent total abstainer) who persuaded American Protestantism to abandon what the Lord obviously thought rather kindly of.
That much damage done, however, the itch for consistency took over with a vengeance. Even the Lord’s own delight was explained away. One of the most fanciful pieces of exegesis I ever read began by maintaining that the Greek word for wine, as used in the Gospels, meant many other things than wine. The commentator cited, as I recall, grape juice for one meaning, and raisin paste for another. He inclined, ultimately, toward the latter. Continue reading