by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
Worldwide Communion was first celebrated in 1933, at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, in Pittsburgh. It is an attempt to demonstrate to the world our unity as followers of Jesus Christ.
There is a certain amount of irony in that because this meal has been the cause of more fights than probably any other issue in the church. Different churches have different beliefs about the Lord’s Supper.
This morning we are looking at the fourth of our confessions in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions – The Heidelberg Catechism. I chose this for today because this catechism was an attempt to bring together at least two different denominations. The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1562 in the town of Heidelberg. It’s a city in southern Germany. Lutheran theology from the northern part of Germany moved south and Presbyterian theology moved north from Switzerland, meeting in Heidelberg. They had different beliefs, primarily about the Lord’s Supper. Frederick III, who was the governor of that area, commissioned two theologians to write a statement of faith that would satisfy both the Lutherans and the Reformed Christians – the Heidelberg Catechism.
Compared to other Reformation documents, the tone of the Catechism is much gentler. Last week we heard how the Scots Confession “condemns the Anabaptists.” There is none of that in the Catechism. It is polite. It is also personal. A catechism is a series of questions and answers that are intended to teach the basics of the Christian faith. These questions are not just esoteric theological discussions. Many of them ask what these doctrines mean “for you.” There are 129 questions, and they are divided into 52 weeks. The idea was that every week the pastor would preach at the evening service on several of the questions. It was their form of Sunday school.
The first question is an introduction and is one of my favorites. “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer is, my comfort is “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The comfort and encouragement that we need are found in the good news that Jesus loves us. Our hope is not based on what we do, but on the person of Jesus Christ.
The rest of the Catechism corresponds to the passage from Romans that I read a few moments ago. There are three sentences: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25a). The first section of the Catechism deals with being wretched people, because of our guilt and sin. It’s titled “Of Man’s Misery” (They didn’t use inclusive language back then.) The second section deals with the way God in Christ rescues us from our sin – “Of Man’s Redemption.” It is in this section that the Catechism talks about the Lord’s Supper. The third section describes how we are to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s called “Of Man’s Thankfulness.”
Before we look at the Lord’s Supper let’s look at the banner for the Heidelberg Catechism. The red and gold are the colors of Frederick III, who ordered the writing of the catechism.
On the top half of the banner there are three symbols. Each one corresponds to a different section of the catechism. The Crown of Thorns points to the misery that is our because of our sin. The Cross is a symbol of the redemption that is ours through Jesus’ death. The Tablet stands for the Ten Commandments. This section has a number of questions that talk about the meaning of the Ten Commandments. In other words, we show our thankfulness through our obedience to God.
On the bottom half of the banner there are three more symbols. They point to the Trinity, which is affirmed in the Catechism. On the left is the Hebrew name for God, YHWH. To the right of that is the symbol for Jesus, with the letters I H S. I know that looks like a C rather than an S, but these are the Greek letters which make up the first three letters of Jesus’ name; iota, eta, sigma. The bottom symbol is the flame which stands for the Holy Spirit.
So, here is the question I want us to think about today: What does the Lord’s Supper mean for us? Tony Campolo is one of the great preachers of the past fifty years. He’s unusual in that he is an evangelical Baptist, who talks about social justice issues. He often talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who was very involved in ministry to the poor. St. Francis believed that the poor were sacramental.
When Campolo talks about being sacramental the Catholics in his audiences get excited. The Roman Catholic Church is very sacramental. They believe that in holy communion the bread literally becomes the body of Jesus and the wine is transubstantiated into Jesus’ blood. As a Baptist, Campolo has a different understanding of the Lord’s Supper. In communion the bread stays bread and the wine turns into grape juice.
As Presbyterians, our theology is between the two extremes of the Roman Catholics and the Baptists. The bread stays bread and the juice stays juice, but we also believe that Jesus is really present in this meal. I will stand behind the table, say the words and hand out the bread and the juice, but Jesus is the host. It is his table. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper Jesus is present.
Even more, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are spiritually fed. I did a Google search on the word “diet.” In less than ½ a second I had 445 million different results. I’m sure we could go around the room and name at least 20-30 different diets – low carb, low fat, South Beach, Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers. My parents tried the grapefruit diet when I was a kid. I don’t know if they lost any weight but I learned to love grapefruit! Here is the point. We put lots of time, energy and money into caring for our bodies, making sure we get the proper nutrition. That is good. Should we not put just as much effort into the nourishment we get for our spiritual lives?
We are nurtured in a variety of ways. Some of them we do by ourselves; pray, read the Bible. Some we do with other people: Sunday school, small groups or worship. At least we hope that in worship the sermon will feed us. One pastor was normally a bit long-winded. One Sunday he was extra inspired and spoke extra-long. After worship he stood at the door, shaking hands with people as they came out. One couple came up and the husband said, “Your sermon was wonderful, Pastor – so inspiring and refreshing.” The pastor thanked him and started to feel a little bit of pride, until the wife said, “Yeah, it gave him a chance for a longer nap!”
I hope you are nourished through the sermon, but I know that some sermons are better than others. Even if a sermon is good it may not speak to where you are at this point in time. The good news is that at the Lord’s Table we are spiritually nourished. Just as bread and juice nourish our bodies, this bread and this juice nourish our faith.
At the end of the sermon we will recite a portion of the Heidelberg Catechism. The answer to question 75 says this. “He has promised that he himself as certainly feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life with his crucified body and shed blood as I receive from the hand of the minister and actually taste the bread and the cup of the Lord which are given to me as sure signs of the body and blood of Christ.” At this table we are fed.
One more thought. At this table not only are we spiritually nourished, we are united with Christ. God created us and is the source of our life. We were made to be in perfect union with God. However, our sin breaks that union. We turn our backs on God. Yet God created within us an emptiness, a longing, a desire to be one with Christ.
I have a sense that many of us are afraid of our desires. We think that they are wrong and sinful, so we deny them or ignore them. The problem is not the desire itself, but what we look to as a way to fulfill that desire. We look to our families or our careers. We look to accomplishments, or things, or experiences. If only I had that house or that car, if only I could get that new job, if only I had enough money and time to travel, then this longing inside would be satisfied. The things we look to as a way to fill our emptiness may or may not be good, but they will never satisfy us. The deepest desire inside us is to be one with Christ.
At this table we are united with Christ. We take in the bread and the juice. They become part of us, part of our bodies. Because Christ is present in this meal, when we eat the bread and drink from the cup we take in Christ and become one with him. That doesn’t necessarily last because we continue living and sinning. But at least for a moment, we are one with Christ. As the Catechism says, when we eat the bread and drink the cup we are “united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us that, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.”
Because God is God and we are not, we never fully understand how God works in our lives. We never fully understand the sacraments. They are sacred, they are holy, they are beyond our understanding. Yet we are invited to participate in the sacraments, and receive by faith the gifts that they bring.
In the Lord’s Supper we believe that Jesus is present in the bread and the cup. We believe that through the Lord’s Supper we are spiritually nourished and united to Christ.
I invite you now to stand and affirm your faith, using two of the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism, found on the insert in your bulletin and on the screens.
Q. 75. How are you reminded and assured in the Holy Supper that you participate in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and in all his benefits?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread, and to drink of this cup in remembrance of him. He has thereby promised that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood was shed for me, as surely as I see with my eyes that the bread of the Lord is broken for me, and that the cup is shared with me. Also, he has promised that he himself as certainly feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life with his crucified body and shed blood as I receive from the hand of the minister and actually taste the bread and the cup of the Lord which are given to me as sure signs of the body and blood of Christ.
Q. 76. What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his shed blood?
A. It is not only to embrace with a trusting heart the whole passion and death of Christ, and by it to receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In addition, it is to be so united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us that, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, always living and being governed by one Spirit, as the members of our bodies are governed by one soul.