The Bible contains different kinds of literature, which means that it also contains different approaches to theology. Because these theologies are ultimately harmonious, it is obviously our task to be students of them all. But part of this task means mastering them on their own terms before the harmonization is attempted.
For example, the psalms of David represent a devotional literature, which means that they shape a devotional theology of personal piety, heart religion. The proverbs of Solomon represent a wisdom literature, which means that they shape a wisdom theology. The two must go together, but they must be themselves in order to go together rightly. Wisdom theology isolated turns into an arid moralism. Devotional theology isolated turns into rationalism and egoism. We must be shaped by the entire Bible, but we do not do this by throwing the entire Bible into a blender, reducing it to biblical molecules. No, Scripture is assembled out of some great blocks of granite, and those blocks must be respected.
This meal consists of an edible word, a drinkable word. That word is, of course, the Lord Jesus, who is the eternal Word of the eternal Father. This is His body, and this is His blood. We do not just treat the bread and wine as a visible word and as visible drink, but as a word that we are called to take into our mouths, and to swallow it down in faith.
This is not faith in mere bread, or trust in wine. We do not think that any created thing has power in itself to do anything. But God uses instruments. The receptive instrument that He gives us is faith—living, vibrant, evangelical faith. But He also wields other instruments that this faith responds to, seeing the work of God in and through them—sermons and sacraments, for example.
So this meal is an edible word, a drinkable word, and this Word is the Lord Jesus. But what does the apostle John mean when He calls Jesus the Word of God. The Word is not a single mystic syllable of the sort you find in eastern mysticism. No, the Word of God is the eternal and everlasting Wisdom of God. When men reject the word of God, what wisdom is in them (Jer. 8:9)? We are told to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, in all wisdom (Col. 3:16). The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom (Ps. 37:30).
This meal is a sacrament. But what is a sacrament? Where does this use come from? The answer to that question—given the nature of what we are doing here—cannot be confined to one simple answer, but it does have an answer.
The use of the Latin word sacramentum was introduced by the early father Tertullian, who took it from the oath of allegiance that a Roman soldier would swear upon enlistment. This element is certainly present—at the sacrament of baptism, the one baptized is being bound by oath to serve Christ for the rest of his or her life. Every time we take the sacrament of the bread and wine, we are again swearing our allegiance to Christ. But there is more to it.
This Supper of the Lord is not limited in its signification to just one or two things. It is richly laden with meaning on multiple levels. But two of them might appear to be in tension.
The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of what Christ has done for us, and the Lord’s Supper is a communion in what Christ has done for us. This Supper is a memorial of the Lord and it is communion with the Lord. In the former sense, it would appear to assume the Lord’s absence, and in the latter sense it would appear to assume the Lord’s presence. Both are true, but in different senses.
There is a striking similarity between the bread we see here and the body of Jesus Christ. There is also a striking similarity between the wine in the cup and the blood of Jesus. If there were no similarity it could not work as a sacrament—it could not even work as a metaphor.
But there are dissimilarities as well, and we do well to keep them in mind. The bread we break here is bread on a table, on a tray, with a white cloth beneath. The body that was broken was laid out on a cross and nailed there. The wine we drink is wine in a cup. The blood that was shed was blood that was spilled.
The sacramental meal we observe is a ritual, a religious ceremony. It is obviously civilized. It is contained, bounded, focused. The reality that it represents was brutal, and despite the efforts of the Sanhedrin to keep their minutes in order, lawless.
One of the ways we diminish our understanding of the Lord’s Supper is through saying that it is just a metaphor. In the first place, the world is more mysterious than that and there is no such thing as “just” a metaphor. God created the cosmos by speaking, and words are not impotent little labels. But even using the common language of metaphor, the Lord’s Supper would be a complex metaphor, not a simple one. There are many things going on here—thanksgiving, proclamation, longing for the day of redemption, and more.
One of those elements is underscored by our practice of celebrating this Supper weekly. What this accomplishes—among other things—is the creation of a household. Households eat together. Companions are those who share bread together—the word panis, bread, helps to form the word companion.
As you know, you are worshiping God in a Protestant church. This means, of course, that we do deny certain things, and this lines up with the common modern understanding of the word. The word Protestant is thought of as a variant of protestor. But in the Reformation the term was originally more of an affirmation than a denial – think of a word like pro-testimony.
Now of course when you affirm one thing you must of necessity deny its opposite. If you face the east, your back is to the west. If you affirm that two and two make four, you deny that it is three.
So in this sense, we do deny the doctrine of transubstantiation. We deny that this bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of the Lord. We do deny that that happens. But it would be a mistake to think that this denial does not have a corresponding affirmation. We do believe in transubstantiation, just not transubstantiation of the bread and wine.
We gather at this Table weekly. As we do, we should remember that there are three elements to what we do. The first is invocation. We acknowledge God’s presence here with us, and indeed, we invite it. We call upon Him. Second, we rejoice before Him with thanksgiving. This is a Table of thanksgiving and gratitude. And third, there is an element of binding ourselves with an oath.
We are renewing covenant with God here, but not because our covenant with Him was set to expire, like a lease. Rather, we renew our vows before Him, acknowledging to Him, with solemn and deep joy, our intention to live and die as Christians. This is a deep oath, solemn and glad, and so we return to it weekly.
This is not because the oath is weak, and needs shoring up weekly. Rather, it is because we are weak, and we need to be reminded. This is our life. This is our song. This is our connection to all our brothers and sisters throughout the world, and throughout history, who have loved the name of Jesus. This is the body of Jesus, and this is the blood of Jesus. This is our creed, an edible creed. This is our oath, and in gladness we drink all of it.