Soli deo gloria: Food for the soul
Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2012 6:00 pm
By: By Wally Bumpas
The Messenger 06.21.12
By WALLY BUMPAS
Special to The Messenger
In our last article, we referred to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a wonderful but often neglected treasure that Christ gave to His Church. In it God allows us to see, touch, and taste the gospel, as well as hear it. But how does the Lord’s Supper “work”? This is a question that, sadly, has divided Christians for centuries. In dealing with it, we will have no choice but to explore a crucial difference between Catholics and Protestants. This disagreement was one of the main issues of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism, upon which this series of articles is based, was a product of the Reformation. Let’s consider the next two questions.
Question 78: Are the bread and wine changed into the real body and blood of Christ? Answer: No. Just as the water of baptism is not changed into Christ’s blood and does not itself wash away sins but is simply God’s sign and assurance, so too the bread of the Lord’s Supper is not changed into the actual body of Christ even though it is called the body of Christ in keeping with the nature and language of sacraments.
Question 79: Why then does Christ call the bread His body and the cup His blood, or the new covenant in His blood? (Paul uses the words, “a participation in Christ’s body and blood.”) Answer: Christ has good reason for these words. He wants to teach us that as bread and wine nourish our temporal life, so too His crucified body and poured out blood truly nourish our souls for eternal life. But more important, He wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in His true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in His remembrance, and that all His suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and paid for our sins.
One will notice that these answers don’t really explain how the sacrament “works.” They attempt to summarize the Bible’s view of what it does. I can pull out my phone, take a picture, push a few buttons and send that picture instantly to my mother 500 miles away. How a picture can fly through the air at the speed of light and re-assemble somewhere else, I’m sure I will never understand. But it works anyway. In a similar way (but a million times more important), it is a mystery how the Lord’s Supper actually strengthens the soul of the Christian who partakes, but the Bible assumes that it does. And it does because we actually meet with Christ. How we believe this happens is where differences arise.
The Roman Catholic view is called transubstantiation. In this view the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine. It takes quite literally the words of Jesus when He said, “This is my body” (as He held up the bread at the last supper).
The 16th century Reformers argued instead that Jesus was using a figure of speech. How could Jesus be holding His body in His hand while He was sitting there in His body? He was no more being literal than when He said, “I am the door.” He was in effect saying, “This is a picture or symbol of my body. Just as eating this bread nourishes your body, so eating (receiving) Me nourishes your soul.” There is a lengthy passage in John 6 where Jesus likens believing to eating and drinking.
Then how do we meet with Christ in the sacrament? Several views came out of the Reformation. Some said the physical presence of Jesus is mixed in with the bread and wine. Others said the sacrament is a mere memorial with Jesus not present at all. Still others (and this is the view of the writers of these articles) said that Jesus is spiritually present, by way of the Holy Spirit. This is reflected in our Catechism answers. According to 1 Corinthians 10:16, we “participate” in the body and blood of Christ. This implies that in some way He is present in the observing of the sacrament.
We may not understand how this works, but that shouldn’t keep us away from the sacramental meal which will “truly nourish our souls for eternal life.” Meanwhile, I need to send another picture to my mom.
Editor’s note: Wally Bumpas serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dyersburg.