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What exactly is happening when we come to the Lord’s table and celebrate the sacrament of Communion? This is one of those issues about which Christians disagree passionately. We can think of all the many understandings of the sacrament as falling into three groups.
First, there are a lot of Christians who think that the action of the Supper is only horizontal, involving the community’s act of memorializing the death of Jesus. These people think that Jesus is present when they enact the Lord’s Supper exactly the same way He’s always present. The special thing about the Supper is that we’re remembering how much Jesus loved us on Calvary. These people tend to be the most casual about how they handle the bread and wine or juice, not feeling that the elements require any particular reverence or care. They are likely to celebrate the Lord’s Supper only a few times a year, but when they do they generally welcome everyone who is present at the service without distinction. Most non-denominational churches, most Pentecostals, and most Baptist churches belong in this group.
Second, there are even more Christians who think that the action of the Supper involves the presence of Jesus being dispersed into the world. The motion of the sacrament is vertical, coming down from heaven and being spread around into all parts of creation. These people think that Jesus is present in a special way when they celebrate the sacrament, and it’s a way that validates the worth of the material world. Since Jesus is really present in the bread and the wine, these people tend to be the most reverent about how they handle the elements. They will celebrate the Lord’s Supper (or, as they are more likely to call it, the Eucharist) every week, and some of them will even celebrate every day because they see the sacrament as so vital to their spiritual well-being. Catholics, Lutherans, and some Anglicans belong in this group.
Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians belong to a third group, along with Eastern Orthodox Christians. That may seem an odd grouping, since those in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition and those who are Eastern Orthodox disagree about many other things, but it’s the truth. These two traditions both teach that the action of the Supper is vertical, but not because Jesus comes down. Rather, when we share the bread and the cup, we are all gathered up to be united with Jesus in heaven. He doesn’t move; we do. Those of us in this group believe that Jesus ascended as a fully human person, complete with His human body, which is now—mysteriously—in heaven, which is why His body cannot be passed around in the world. That’s not how human bodies behave. It’s very important that the incarnation of Jesus continues so that He can be our High Priest and mediator, and so it’s important to say that his body is still a human body with a location. Even if the way His resurrected body is located in space is now different that it was before the resurrection, it’s different in a way that’s proper to an embodied, human creature. At the same time, people in this third group think that Jesus is really present in the celebration of communion in a way that is more direct than His everyday presence. In Communion, the bread and the cup become for us a sort of door that the Holy Spirit opens in order to lead us into the presence of Jesus in heaven, so that our human nature gets joined to His in order to be made like Him. For those of us who take this view, it will make sense to have communion regularly, since it is such an important way to nurture our faith and our likeness to Jesus. This is why John Calvin wanted to have Communion every week.
One difference between Presbyterian/Reformed Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians concerns how we understand the elements. Eastern Orthodox Christians think that the bread and the wine function much like icons do in Orthodox worship, as signs that give access to what is signified, and so the elements should be treated very respectfully. Presbyterians think that the access isn’t so much in the piece of bread or in the juice or the wine, but rather in the action of eating and drinking. The elements are only holy while we are eating and drinking them. It still makes sense to show some respect for the elements, the way we do for lots of special items that we use in church.
The truth is that over the years many Presbyterians lost this understanding of the sacrament, even though it is part of our tradition. There are a lot of Presbyterian and Reformed congregations that celebrate communion as if they are members of group one, the memorialist group. But our Book of Confessions is absolutely clear that we do not belong to group one. We believe in the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of communion, and we believe that the Holy Spirit uses communion to unite us to Jesus in a special way. When Jesus told us to eat of His body and drink of His blood, we believe He meant we should be deeply and truly united to Him through this sacrament. Our Essential Tenets describe Communion in this way.
Our ECO polity encourages us to find ways to celebrate the sacrament of the Supper more often, which I think is one of the most lovely aspects of our new life together. I hope that sessions and presbyteries will have many conversations about how best to use this new freedom in ways that honor our sacramental theology and increase our access to this gift that Jesus left with us.