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What do Presbyterians believe about Communion?

The Lord’s Feast

By Melva Wilson Costen

Reprinted from the May 1995 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today) 

We trust in God the Holy / Spirit . . . who . . . feeds us / with the bread of life and the cup of salvation . . . " These words from "A Brief Statement of Faith" reiterate the importance of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for Presbyterians. They affirm that the initial action of this divine meal begins with God. God in Jesus the Christ offers the bread and the cup and bids us come.

It is the Lord's feast, hosted by the One who promises an ultimate continuous feast in the Kingdom of God. Under the enabling power of the Holy Spirit the divine host is made present so that a bond of unity can exist among those present and those unseen.

The host welcomes all who accept the invitation to the Table. We who come need not be concerned about our personal appearance or aptitude. What matters is that the love, the grace and the hospitality of the host create unanimity among us. This meal is provided, not because we have earned the right to eat and drink with Jesus, but simply as an act of divine love.

For Presbyterians this divinely initiated meal is one of two sacraments of the church, instituted by God and commended by Christ. We are following in the tradition of the early church when we affirm three primal material elements of life--water, bread and wine--as the primary symbols of offering life to God. Being washed with the water of baptism, we receive new life in Christ. In eating the bread and drinking the cup offered by God, our memory of the promises are made present by the Holy Spirit.

In the words of John Calvin, sacraments are "a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward [God]." A sacrament is a testimony of God's favor toward the church, confirmed by an outward sign, with a mutual testifying of our godliness toward God. It is a primal, physical act that signifies a spiritual relationship between personal beings.

The Lord's Supper is a sacrament of continuous growth, nourishment and new life. In our Reformed tradition participation in this sacrament should follow the sacrament of baptism. Just as humans need food and drink for nurture and sustenance, Calvin wrote that the Holy Meal is God's way of providing for our maintenance during the whole course of our lives after we have been received into God's family. Both sacraments provide a visible, in fact a graphic, way of presenting God's promises.

Through the sacraments God seals believers in redemption, God renews our identity as God marks us for service. But participation is a corporate act rather than an act between an individual and God.

Infants and children are baptized by the church and nurtured in the faith so that they can participate with the church in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Out of this belief congregations continue Christ's extension of open arms to children and welcome those growing in the faith.

We believe that the sacrament of the Lord's Table presupposes, deepens and assists personal faith. We cannot wait until we think we are appropriately worthy for such a divine encounter. In presenting ourselves and offering God our imperfections, our weaknesses, even our sinfulness, God may make us worthy. Our worthiness is found in putting our trust in God and, in faith, relying upon God's mercy.

The act of eating and drinking with Jesus has been called by a number of names: Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Breaking of Bread. Each of these points to a particular meaning.

The titles Breaking of Bread and the Lord's Supper emphasize the oldest New Testament accounts of the institution of the sacrament (Mark 14:17-25 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The Gospels report Jesus' common eating and drinking with people from various walks of life, making such events worthy of remembrance. As far as it can be determined, Jewish meals always included bread. It was also customary for the host or head of the house to bless the bread and then break and share it with those at the table.

On the day of his resurrection the risen Jesus made himself known to his followers in the breaking of bread. He continued to show himself to believers by preparing, serving and sharing meals. This act continued among the followers of Jesus and the breaking and sharing of bread became a sacred act of remembrance, making present God's gracious act in Jesus the Christ in the special moment of remembering.

The term Eucharist, derived from the Greek word eucharista, which means "thanksgiving," is used by Mark, Matthew and Luke in their accounts of the institution of the Holy Meal. A verb form of this Greek word is used by Paul, emphasizing that Jesus gave thanks before breaking the bread and offering the cup. The joyous acts of thanksgiving that permeated the observance of this rite undoubtedly caused the second-century Christian writers to use the term Eucharist as the standard name for this meal.

The service of thanksgiving and praise included thanks for God's creation; for deliverance from sin; for the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ; and for the privilege of participating in the promised fullness of the kingdom.

The term Communion is derived from the practice of early Christians. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ?" ( 1 Corinthians 10:16). The Greek word koinonia is translated "communion" in the King James Version and "sharing" in the New Revised Standard Version. It is also translated "fellowship" or "partnership," referring to a common sharing or a sense of communion with Christ and with one another. Communion is understood as a common participation in a divine Christian life that a person lives in Christ, because it is initiated by Christ. Calvin contends that such a union is ultimately a mystery too great to explain.

Presbyterians believe that the Word of God should be read, proclaimed and enacted in the Lord's Supper as an integral part of worship. The relationship of Word and sacrament can be understood in the context of the Emmaus Road narrative (Luke 24:13ff). While there are various interpretations of this account, it has long been recognized that the "breaking of bread" is a reference to the Lord's Supper.

The Directory for Worship in the Presbyterian Book of Order encourages the "appropriateness" of frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper. A few congregations have begun celebrations of the sacrament as often as each Lord's Day and on other occasions of special significance in the life of the Christian community. But frequency alone is not the basic issue. Some believe we need to restore the Biblical pattern of the Lord's Supper on each Lord's Day to provide a disciplined reminder of a divine act that will help centralize and "re-focus" the rhythm of our daily lives.

Our Directory for Worship reminds us of the wider meaning of Holy Communion (koinonia): "The church rises from the Table and is sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God's mission to the world." To limit our love, relationship and concerns to those who assemble with us at the Table is "fencing the table" so that it includes only the gathered community. It blocks from our vision those who do not gather physically at "our" table, so that we do not see the people of God everywhere.

The One who invites us to the Table reminds us that we are to live as the divine host lived. We are empowered to remember to seek reconciliation with Christ, an act that compels reconciliation also with one another.

Accepting the invitation to come to the Lord's Feast demands that we actively seek reconciliation in every instance of conflict or division between ourselves and our neighbors.

To say we "trust in God . . . who feeds us . . . " means we have faith in the Word of God--faith in the Word who became flesh, lived among us, and provided the model for our actions. We are invited to the Table to be nurtured for Christlike living. We are called to commit ourselves anew to love and serve God and one another.

Melva Wilson Costen is Helmar Emil Nielsen Professor of Worship and Music at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Ga. (Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is the Presbyterian constituent at I T.C.)


The Sacrament of Christ's Sustaining Presence

By James Ayers

For more than four centuries there have been two common explanations as to what the Lord's Supper is all about:

Roman. The elements of bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. When we receive the sacrament, we are genuinely receiving Jesus.

Anabaptist. The elements of bread and wine are a memorial of Jesus' death; they have no special power. When we receive the sacrament, we are remembering that Jesus died for us.

A respectable argument can be made in support of each of these views, but   Presbyterians think both are incomplete. Each does contain a genuine insight--and misses the insight that the other view holds. In rejecting the opposing position, each makes an overstatement that leads it astray.

The strength of the Roman position can be seen both in Scripture and in the experience of many contemporary Catholics. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them" (John 6:53, 56). That seems quite explicit, and there is more: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). And the words spoken at the very institution of the Lord's Supper are quite plain: "This is my body. . . . This is my blood" (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24).

These texts are affirmed by those who testify that when they come to the sacrament, they receive Jesus in a way that happens nowhere else. They take part in the Eucharist often; again and again they receive his presence there, and they find that encounter profoundly and powerfully meaningful.

Still, the Roman notion seems rather bizarre. The elements look, taste and smell like bread and wine. But, we are told, it is now the actual physical flesh and blood of Jesus. Are we supposed to believe that? Isn't that weird? Isn't it even cannibalism?

The strangeness of the Roman explanation is perhaps the greatest strength of the Anabaptist position. Not that Anabaptists don't also have Biblical support to cite: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26). But rather than an encounter with Christ's sustaining presence, Communion is a stark and austere recollection that Jesus died for our sins.

This introspection then motivates us to live a more diligent and committed life. But nothing is happening in the receiving of the sacrament itself except that we are being told, in a symbolic fashion, to remember.

John Calvin, founder of our Reformed tradition, recognized that the Romanists were correct when they said that in the Eucharist we genuinely encounter Jesus, but mistaken when they said this happens because the elements of bread and wine are physically changed into Christ's body and blood. He noted that the Anabaptists, in turn, were right that no physical change takes place in the bread and wine, but incorrect in supposing that the absence of physical change means nothing is happening.

Perhaps we have a hard time getting this because ordinarily we suppose material reality--the stuff that is made out of atoms--is the only reality there is. When the ancients taught us to say in the Nicene Creed, "being of one substance with the Father," we may miss the nuanced way they said those words and suppose this means Jesus and the Father are made out of some physical stuff. The Creed explicitly rejects the materiality of God: "by whom all things were made" means that all the physical things are created, but God is not created. God is real, but God is not physical.

This, then, is the Presbyterian understanding of Communion: Is Jesus physically present in the elements of the Eucharist--have the molecules of bread been changed into molecules of the body of Jesus? No.

Is Jesus spiritually present in the elements of the Eucharist, authentically present in the non-atom-based substance with which he is con-substantial with God--that is, is he genuinely there to be received by us, and not just in our memories? Yes.

But if the bread and wine remain bread and wine, what is the significance? The Anabaptist and Roman positions each offer us an insight. The Anabaptist position tells us to remember that Jesus died for us that our sins might be forgiven and our lives transformed so that we might live as the children of God. These elements, bread and wine, are symbolic of the elements of life--food and drink. Unless you eat and drink, you will die. And you take the food and drink into yourself, into your inmost being.

Receiving the Communion elements is taking the symbolic representation of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus into our inmost being, receiving the Jesus who died for our forgiveness and transformation. We depend on these elements for our very life.

The Roman position insists that the bread and wine are sacramental: they genuinely offer us the presence of Christ. Not merely a symbol or a remembrance, but the authentic presence of Christ to feed and sustain his people with his own life.

It is a strong doctrine of Communion that we Presbyterians hold. The physical nature of the bread and the wine does not change. And yet Jesus is genuinely present here, as he promised, to sustain and strengthen his people. And we receive him into our inmost being in reliance on and in obedience to that promise.

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Comments

  • I have always thought of the passage in the epistle of James: "Are there sick among you? Then let the elders come and anoint them with oil and the prayer of faith will heal the person and if (s/he) has commited any sin it will be forgiven." It has always bothered me that we Presbyterians dont have our elders doing this! Whether it counts as a sacrament or not is not as important as the benefit that the scripture holds up for us. We should do this. It is the most Presbyterian thing in the world! We should have a healing rite. The Anglicans do! by Janine on 07/25/2014 at 6:02 p.m.

  • What do you do with the left over wafers and drink?? by Linda Norris on 06/15/2014 at 8:18 p.m.

  • I would like to comment on Dudley Davis comment above. Dudley I appreciate your words and insights, however I want to correct something you said. So you do understand if you are a Presbyterian now, that we do not believe it to be a mere memorial, that is more of an anabaptist stance that we actually do not adhere to. Presbyterians believe in the Real Presence in the spiritual sense in the sacrament of Communion. This is taught in our catechisms and our Confession of Faith and John Calvin teaches this in his teachings. In fact it was discussed here above in the The Sacrament of Christ's Sustaining Presence. So make no mistake, we do not take this as a mere memorial, we consider this sacred a sacrament and we believe that we spiritually partake in the Body and Blood of Christ. by Joseph on 01/09/2014 at 8:30 p.m.

  • The Catholic Church in the 1970's, during the implementation of the recommendations of the Vatican Council II, began using what is called the Anointing of the Sick rather than Last Rites or Extreme Unction. It is used whenever one is sick and is judged to be " in danger." It may be received multiple times if an illness progresses or worsens. It may be received before operations. I received it before my C-sections. by Shirley on 12/18/2013 at 10:30 a.m.

  • AMW, we don't have a sacrament that is equivalent to "last rites," which I understand is actually a combination of the sacrament of anointing the sick combined with penance and holy communion (called extreme unction before 1972). Presbyterians only consider two acts sacraments - baptism and holy communion. We do allow and provide an order of worship and liturgy for the anointing of the sick or others for healing and wholeness. Sometimes this happens in private pastoral care settings, sometimes in public worship. by Stephanie on 11/13/2013 at 11:33 a.m.

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