The Anatomy of Worship: The Lord’s Supper
Topic: The Lord's Supper Scripture: 1 John 6:53–6:60
I’m not one to try and rush through the holidays, but I want to talk for a minute about Thanksgiving. I know, I know - Halloween is still more than three weeks away. And by the time our kids are done trick-or-treating, the stores will have had Christmas displays out for six weeks or so? Thanksgiving is the holiday that gets the least amount of attention out of all of the holidays. Everyone gets super hyped for Halloween, and then we’re taking down the jack-o-lanterns and skeletons and putting up the reindeer, wreaths, and evergreens. I’m not a middle child, but I imagine Thanksgiving is the official holiday for middle children. And for me, I never really grasped the right way to celebrate Thanksgiving When I was little, my mom and dad would get my sister and me into dress clothes and then we would drive to grandma and grandpa’s house where we would find a formally set table with plates (ones that I wasn’t allowed to lift off the table because I might break them).
We’d eat around 6 or 7, and it always seemed like such a serious event through my eyes as a child. And then later on in my life, when it was just my dad, my sister and I, Thanksgiving eventually became little more than the typical dinner. My dad spent a lot of time, “trying to get the Turkey right,” as he would say. We’d still eat around the standard supper time, but there were no dress clothes, no fine china, no real fanfare at all. And then, I started having Thanksgiving with Caitlin’s family. Most people put leaves into their tables to fit more people. I think her parents had them to fit more food. It was this incredible bounty with all kinds of dishes. It was with Caitlin’s family that I ate dinner at 3pm for the first time. I later learned that this was all part of the intricate plan to allow optimal time for digestion so that dessert can later be consumed. But for Caitlin’s family, Thanksgiving wasn’t about the food, but more about being together.
Then there are the Thanksgivings I’ve been to that didn’t come from a single kitchen, but many. The times my family and I enjoyed Thanksgiving here at church. And so I have spent most of my life bouncing from different understandings and meanings surrounding Thanksgiving. I’m sure many of you find your Turkey Day nestled somewhere in proximity to the examples I’ve described. Needless to say, Thanksgiving means different things to different people. And this morning we’re going to examine another meal that has perhaps an even more diverse spectrum of meaning and interpretation.
This morning we are finishing our Anatomy of Worship message series. We’ve spent the last several weeks taking a close look at several elements of our worship services here at First Pres. We’ve been able to explore the place of music, welcome, prayer, and the preached word in our worship services. Last week we looked at one of the two sacraments: baptism. This morning we look at the second: The Lord’s Supper; a sacrament that we will participate in together in a few minutes. We’ve already heard the words from Paul in 1 Corinthians, where he speaks on this sacramental meal. The account of the Last Supper is one spoken of often, especially in relationship with the Lord’s Supper or Communion. And rightly so. But I want us to hear the words of Christ from a different moment in his ministry. A time where he spoke about the realities and depth of this sacrament but in a very different context. We’re in John 6:53-60.
I want to begin with this text because it is important for us to recognize that Jesus emphasized and spoke about the realities and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper before there was a table or a broken loaf of bread or wine poured into a cup. We have to remember this always when we consider the sacraments. They are outward symbols of a spiritual reality. Augustine called a sacrament a “visible form of an invisible grace.” While the physical elements of a sacrament are critical for our practice, they themselves are not the meaning or depth of the sacrament itself. The Lord’s Supper is no more a celebration or observance of bread than baptism is a celebration of water. It is the deeper, sacred truth of the sacrament that is at the core of these blessed participations. Our Savior shows us, here in John 6, the core of the Lord’s Supper: That we might take into ourselves the very nature and person of Jesus Christ.
But even that statement, the idea of us drawing into ourselves the person of Christ, is a reflection of a more Presbyterian or Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. It is a part of our Anatomy of Worship here and in virtually all churches within our denomination. And, to be honest, my experience with this sacrament has been strikingly similar to my experience with Thanksgiving. My earliest memory of Thanksgiving was formal, revered, even fancy. And the first place where I experienced the Lord’s Supper was when I was a child growing up in the Roman Catholic Church. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have what I would call the highest, maybe even the most mystical understanding of this sacrament. They believe that by the will of the Holy Spirit and the Lord’s supernatural power, the bread and wine are literally transformed into the physical body and blood of Jesus. The host, or circle of unleavened bread, and the wine are handled with the utmost care and reverence - and offered only to those within the Catholic faith. And, in my mind, as a child, it was a very big deal. It is the first time I can remember having a sense of awe when it came to something religious.
And then, just as I went from fine china and dress clothes to a simple meal and an unremarkable table, I found myself within a church that fostered a very different understanding of the Lord’s Supper. The church where I attended youth group, the church where I like to say Christ found me, only observed the Lord’s Supper four times a year. For this denomination, the main point was on remembering the sacrifice Jesus made. There was a heavy emphasis on the broken body and spilled blood. But there was almost no mention of the “receiving of Christ”, only the remembering.
I came to find that these two expressions of the Lord’s Supper, the high and holy transubstantiation of Roman Catholicism and the remembrance ritual of my small evangelical church, were more or less the two ends of the spectrum for the Christian understanding of this sacrament. And, perhaps no surprise to many of you, there is a fair bit of space in-between these two expressions. And that includes the way we recognize and understand the Lord’s Supper here at First Pres.
The Scots Confession, found in our own Book of Confessions, offers a fairly straight-forward clarity for where our understanding of the Lord’s Supper falls between these two sides of the spectrum. John Knox, commonly called the father of the Presbyterian Church, was one of the authors of the Scots Confession, and within this profession of doctrine, we see a significant emphasis placed on how we understand the sacraments. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, we find clear distinction apart from both the stance of simple remembrance as well as the supernatural transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic church. The confession reads that we must believe the Lord’s Supper is more than a simple sign or observance. Instead, we believe that “in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls.” And then the confession pivots and expounds that, even though we believe this sacrament is more than a mere memorial, that we also don’t lean into the belief that the bread and juice mystically become Christ’s literal and physical body and blood. The mystery of the quality and reality of us receiving Christ’s presence is a pure work of the Holy Spirit and not something we can quantify or measure.
What happens during the Lord’s Supper and what it means are questions the church in all corners has pondered for centuries. And yet, despite all of the mystery and even mysticism surrounding this practice, it is and has always been a vital part of our Anatomy of Worship. Once a month, we come to this place as a people in need of the Lord’s mercy and message, and we receive the bread and the cup from this table. The invitation is open to all just as Christ’s own time on earth displayed no prejudice, bias, or favoritism. We are reminded of the broken body of our Savior and his blood that was spilled upon the cross. We are given witness to symbols that remind us of the costly and incredible sacrifice Jesus made for each and every one of us. And, hopefully, we walk from this table changed and renewed in both mind and heart so that we might more faithfully embody and share Christ in this world.
Friends, we do not need to have all of the answers concerning how the Lord’s Supper works. That conversation is fascinating and perhaps even inspiring, but it does not change what we receive from this table, nor does it alter what we are to do as we depart from it. In this sacrament, our hearts become more aware of Christ’s sacrificial and atoning love. We take into ourselves the presence and the character of the Savior that loves us unconditionally and wants to see us not merely survive in this world, but to thrive. And then we walk from this table knowing there are others desperately in need of encountering the One who has changed us and promised us true and everlasting life. That - brothers and sisters, is why the Lord’s Supper is a part of our Anatomy of Worship.