The Sacraments – Why?

Often in discussions about the Lord’s Supper we ask the theological questions, “What and how?” Seldom, though, do we ask the practical question, “Why?” Why should we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today? What benefit is there for us today? The “Why” question will determine what the celebration of the Lord’s Supper looks like in our modern worship services.

When we discussed some of the historical differences regarding the Lord’s Supper, we mentioned the views of the Swiss Reformer Ulhrich Zwingli. Zwingli viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, that is, in the sacrament we bring to remembrance what Christ did. Zwingli did not view anything mystical, mysterious, or even spiritual happening in the bread and wine. Christ is bodily “up there” but certainly in no way here with us. There is no grace in the sacrament, rather there is simply the remembrance of grace that has happened. There is no assuring seal of God’s forgiveness, but only the memory of its basis.

In Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, Christ’s body is seen as being tied to the bread and wine. In a sense, his body becomes ubiquitous. Wherever there is bread and wine that has been consecrated, Christ’s body is there or thereabouts. But this militates against the understanding that Jesus was and remains fully human with a real human body. This is where Calvin emphasized the bodily ascension of Christ and our union with Him through the Holy Spirit. Douglas Farrow says, “A Christ everywhere means a Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.” A Jesus of Nazareth nowhere robs us of the hope of the resurrection.

We need the balance of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper for today. We need something that is more than just a bare remembrance. But we also need a Christ who is still fully human and bodily present in heaven. Our modern Western world struggles with a dualism when it comes to the physical and the spiritual. We see this in the evangelical church today, who tends to overemphasize the physical in the here and now, while diminishing the physical in the life to come. The Austin Institute reports that only 75% of evangelical Protestants believe in a bodily resurrection. What is more common, in my experience, is the view that life after death is equated with a disembodied spirit in heaven. The evangelical church seems to be drifting toward a pagan Gnosticism that views the body as something to be shed so that we can be the spirits we really are. Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching labels this drift as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the church.

If I might illustrate, in the broadly evangelical church today, worship is typically dominated by praise and worship songs and a lesson from the Bible. The praise and worship is often music that is designed to be emotionally affective. The music is high energy at the beginning, building to a celebratory opening to worship. Then it descends into a more contemplative feel. A prayer might be offered at this point, calling the worshipper to reflect on his life and to thank God. A transition will be made to a lesson from Scripture. It might be a sermon or it might be more of a practical lesson gleaned from Scripture, e.g. 7 Principles for a Better Marriage, or 5 Habits of Effective Christians.

There is a strong pragmatic and bodily focus on worship. How does this worship music make me feel right now? How can God solve my problems? The focus tends to be on what I get out of worship. The danger is a very man-centered worship. To be fair, there is a hope in an eternity with Christ, but that eternity is often viewed as disembodied. The notion of a redeemed creation or a resurrected body and the implications for our life now is often missing.

So how does this relate to the Lord’s Supper? Let’s look at the “Why” question. Why do we celebrate this sacrament? We celebrate because it helps us hold the tension between the physical and the spiritual. It reminds us that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We too will die. But we will rise. The Supper nourishes us in the here and now. Instead of Christ’s presence coming down into the bread and wine, our hearts are lifted up by Holy Spirit to be united with Christ. In a crude manner, I sometimes picture the Lord’s Table as a snorkel that allows us to suck in celestial air while we swim around in the world here. So, why the Table? Because it nourishes our bodies and souls until Christ comes again. It reminds us that though we will die, we will be raised again with Christ. It delivers to us a real grace and communicates to us a hope in Christ.