One of the standard ways to talk about the difference between a Roman Catholic approach to the Lord’s Supper is to refer to altar versus table. This is helpful, but it can still be misleading. When this happens, the debate reduces to a contest between the Roman Catholic “real presence” and the Zwinglian “real absence.” And this is because we have fallen for the assumption that the sacrament is either on the altar, or not. If it is, then it is an altar. If it is not, then what we see is a table.
But we have to distinguish between real presence and local presence. Christ is certainly present in the administration of the Lord’s Supper (it is the Lord’s Supper), but we limit things drastically by asking whether He is locally present in the bread and wine, as they sit there on the altar (or table). And, having limited things in this way, if we answer a certain way, additional questions about the veneration of the elements naturally arise. If Christ is present there, then should we not do what we would all do if Christ were there? Wherever Christ is, Christ should be adored.
But Jesus did not tell us to watch and adore. He told us to take and eat, take and drink. And in our obedience, Christ is with us. Christ inhabits the obedience, and the bread and wine are not obedient. Christ is in the participles, in the eating, and in the drinking. Christ is present in His body, and we are that body. As we take the elements and do what we were told to do (which did not include bowing down to them, adoring them, etc.) we are taken by the Holy Spirit and are knit together with Christ and the rest of His body. The elements sitting on an altar by themselves are nothing, and do nothing. But the elements are the instrument that God uses to accomplish His purposes. In order for an instrument to do what it is intended to do, it is necessary to do with it what we were told to do with it, which is eat, drink, and believe.
To take the elements of bread and wine, and separate them from the sacramental action, the sacramental participles, is a mistake of the first order. It is to remove an animated thing from the animating principle, thereby killing it, and then worshipping it as though it were alive by itself.
Lest there be any confusion here, I would identify my position as a close variant of sacramental Calvinism. For those who want to pursue the subject further, I would recommend Keith Mathison’s fine book on the subject, entitled Given for You. This means that when the people of God assemble in the name of Jesus Christ, and one of their number says the words of institution, and they together offer the memorial of Christ’s body and blood by eating and drinking, Christ is really present among them. He is present with them in the person of the Holy Spirit, and they are present with Christ in heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is present in this series of events in a covenantal way that He is not present at other times. (I am not talking about omniscience; of course in that sense Christ is present everywhere and always). For those who approach this with evangelical faith, His covenantal presence is presence for blessing. For those who approach it with idolatrous unbelief, His covenantal presence is presence for chastizement. Many at Corinth had even died.
Too often a Zwinglian critique of the Roman Catholic understanding says that we should not adore or venerate the elements because Christ is absent. “He is not here; why are you venerating?” I would say that we must not adore the elements because Christ is present.