My experience as a church goer across various Bible-believing denominations is that the default understanding of the Lord’s Supper is Zwinglian. The central agent in the divine-human encounter at the Supper is the believer who acts by faith to personalise his or her relationship with God. In these appropriationist models of salvation stress is laid on receiving what Christ has done for us. There is a focus on knowing the benefits of Christ rather than abiding in our present union with the Lord. It seems many Evangelicals have so elevated the audible word above the “visible word” of the sacrament (Augustine) they could abandon Communion altogether without feeling substantial loss. My theological father in rejecting approaches which stress the efforts of personal piety in favour of a much more elevated spirituality has long been John Calvin (Institutes 4.14 and 17 especially). Calvin directs our attention to how the Spirit of the ascended heavenly Lord instructs us through the very materiality of the sacramental elements that our salvation is fully complete in Christ (cf. Col 2:9-10). The liturgical exhortation “Lift up your hearts” (Origen) is a provocation to realise by faith through the action of the Supper that we are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6). As such we participate in the communion of the Father with the humanity of Jesus in heaven through the ministry of the Spirit. A recovery of the glorious heavenly dimensions of our union with Christ in the context of the Lord’s Supper holds promise to reactivate in our midst the eschatological tension essential to New Testament discipleship.
Pointers from Calvin
Union with Christ is the famous central motif of Calvin’s theology of salvation; “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” (Inst. 3.1.1). His key text for asserting a real participation in the body of the risen Christ through the Supper is 1 Corinthians 10:16; “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians p.216). The parallelism between “blood of Christ” (v.16a), which in the New Testament never refers to the Church, and “body of Christ” (v. 16b), makes it clear that some form of spiritual communion with the physical body of Jesus is meant. Avoiding both subjectivism and philosophically grounded interpretations of objective local presence Calvin adopts a Trinitarian framework in understanding the grace of the sacrament. Central to the divine-human interaction in the Supper is the life of the ascended Lord communicated by the Spirit.
Calvin intentionally employs paradoxical language in speaking of a descent of Christ "by which he lifts us up to himself.” (Inst. 4. 17.16). The ascended glorified humanity of Christ acts as a “channel” for the power and life of his deity communicated to us (Inst 4, 17:10, 12). Such talk of being lifted up to heaven to feed there on Christ is consistent with where the writers of the New Testament see the present location of the Church. For example, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,” (Heb 12:22 cf. Eph 2:6; Gal 4:26). This is why our eucharistic piety is attested “in the presence of the Lord and of his angels” (Inst. 4.14.1).
Consistent with his insistence on the real humanity of Jesus with a body presently localised in heaven (Inst. 4.17.12) Calvin invokes the ministry of the Spirit to unite what is separated by space (Inst. 3.1.1; 4:17.10); “the secret power of the Spirit is the bond of our union with Christ” (Inst. 4.17.33). Such a vital role for the Holy Spirit in the Lord’s Supper follows from the broader fact that it is always the Spirit who unites us with the Son’s relationship with the Father (Rom 8:9-16 etc.). The Spirit is the agent who in resurrection has eschatologically transformed the humanity of Christ making it available to God’s elect (John 15:26-27; 1 Cor 15:20-22; 42-45; 1 Tim 3:16). In Christ by the Spirit through the Supper we encounter a nexus between the old and new creations which has immense application for sacramental practice.
The Goal of the Spirit
The Spirit imparts a sense of identity to the children of God and releases their cry, ““Abba! Father!”” (Rom 8:15). This should be our experience as we behold the limitless grace of God in the Supper. Hence Calvin’s enthusiasm about feeding on Christ, “All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast.” (Inst. 4.17.44, 46). Such sentiments seem however so counter cultural to much contemporary Christian sacramental devotion as to suggest we have unwittingly grieved the eschatological dimensions of the Spirit’s work.
To proclaim the Lord’s death through eating and drinking in his presence “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26) should be a deeply intimate conjoint utterance of the Spirit and the Bride in an intense mutual longing for the consummation of all history in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 22:17). The fellowship we have with Christ and one another in the Spirit at the Supper anticipates the fellowship of the messianic banquet of the eschaton (Luke 13:29; 22:15; Rev 19:9). The Spirit, by setting forth in the signs of the Supper our future as realised in the glorification of the ascended Jesus heightens the hunger of the church for the “not yet” beyond the “already”. As he lifts us up to our heavenly Lord we participate in a foretaste of the consummation of all things in Christ (Acts 3:21). From this perspective we can anticipate a “re-sacramentalising” of creation that will overcome a prevalent “flattened Reformed theology of everyday life” (Preece). As the Spirit glorified the materiality of Jesus in resurrection and ascension, the very Lord with whom we have fellowship in Communion, so we understand the created order will be perfected in Christ. Such insight should stimulate active Christian concern and involvement in all the “secular” spheres of life. That such a vision is rare today indicates we have lost a functional eschatology; not the least because we have substituted the action of our faith for the power of the Spirit in the Lord’s Supper. The service of Holy Communion should prevent us from settling down comfortably in this world and motivate us to costly discipleship. To illustrate let me use a personal example.
During a recent Communion service a text came to mind that illustrates the eschatological force present in the celebration of the sacrament; “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (Zech 12:10; John 19:37; Rev 1:7). John’s Gospel sees Zechariah’s words as prophetically fulfilled at the cross, but Revelation transposes the scene to the Second Coming when upon seeing Jesus multitudes will be moved to mourning and repentance. Through the broken bread and outpoured wine of the Supper the Spirit illuminates the Lordship of the one pierced and raised from the dead; it is this glory we proclaim “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). By the enlightenment of the Spirit the eschatological fulfilment of the saving work of Christ is neither distant nor abstract but full of present power to transform our lives in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings for the redemption of the world (Phil 3:10). God through the Spirit places the desire in our hearts to live in the likeness of what we behold in the Supper; in love we desire to live broken and pierced lives in this world for the sake of others (Col 1:24). Such lives signify the end goal of all things in Christ. That the dominical commands, ““Do this in remembrance of me.”” and “Go and make disciples of all nations....” are essentially one is a reality conveyed to the Evangelical Church by the Spirit in her union with Christ (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 22:19).
“Evangelicals neglect the Supper at our peril.... to disregard it is to put ourselves in danger of an eviscerated experience of God’s gracious promises to us in his Son” (Mason). Formally, Christians of a Reformed bent affirm the “wonderful exchange” (Inst 4.17.2) which brings us salvation in Christ. But how many of us are conscious that it is only as “we are lifted up to heaven with our eyes and minds, to seek Christ there in the glory of his Kingdom” that we can “have the full enjoyment of him” (Inst. 4.17.18)? The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a crucial place where we can be “filled with the Spirit” and an “inexpressible joy filled with glory” (Eph 5:18-20; 1 Pet 1:8). Our joy experienced in Communion can be nothing less than a share in the joy of the Spirit’s own fellowship with the glorious ascended Lord in the presence of the Father (John 15:11; Heb 12:2). Since the Lord’s Supper opens up a foretaste of the Trinitarian fellowship in which we will be immersed forever it is intensely eschatological in orientation and expectation. If such assertions seem radical it is because we have been enculturated by an understanding of the Lord’s Supper that is less than the light of the New Testament witness. If we are not excited by the prospect of meeting the Lord in his Supper then I fear we are guilty of a real quenching of the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). Maranatha (1 Cor 16:22).