Since as early as the Second Century, Church Fathers affirmed that the bread and the wine were indeed Christ’s body and blood. The problem, it seems to me, is that the Council of 1215 reduced the mystery of Christ’s presence at the Table to a mechanical action when the priest says the words of institution, “This is my body; this is my blood.” Notice that the Council used the phrase, to “effect this sacrament.” The “effect” on the people of the Church, however, was to instill such fear in handling the elements that many only partook at the Table once a year. Others, in a more cynical mind, coined the magical phrase “hocus pocus” after the Latin liturgical words a priest would use, hoc est corpus or, in English, “this is the body.”
This was not what Christ had intended when He instituted the meal.
The Protestant Reformation that began in the early sixteenth Century sought to address this distortion. In some ways, the Reformers were successful. In other ways, they added to the problem. Luther did not want to start a new church – he merely wanted to reform the Roman Church. The Lutheran conception of Christ’s presence at the Table is similar to Catholic understanding in that the bread and wine do become Christ’s body and blood indeed when the minister says the words of institution, but they also retain their qualities of bread and wine. Luther was successful in reinstituting weekly Eucharist in the churches for all. The primacy of God’s Word was the central theme in Reformed churches led by Huldrich Zwingli and John Calvin. But the two leaders had entirely different ideas about what happens at the Table. Zwingli reduced the understanding what happens to a memorial – a reminder – of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ is not present at all in the elements. He also reduced the regularity of the Eucharist to quarterly observance. Calvin, on the other hand, believed that Christ was mystically present in the elements through the power of the Holy Spirit. He did not otherwise try to explain it through any special “effecting” or change of substance. He was deeply disappointed that he could not convince church leaders to observe the rite each week in corporate worship.
Because understanding of what happens at the Table is very critical to the spirituality of many Christians, it has become a deep point of contention between the traditions. You could say that my attempt to speak on this issue is “going where angels fear to tread.” Probably true. But if we don’t carefully consider what our Lord gave us at the Table, I believe we miss one of the deepest riches of our faith. And I think we all know that the Lord’s Table is no ordinary happening in our services. Even those who don’t believe that Christ is literally present at the Table approach the rite with special reverence.
What then, really happens at the Table? Prayer for illumination.
Biblical Remembering at the Table – The Past Becomes Present
Please direct your attention to the screen. (B/W slide show of 9/11)
What did you experience as you watched those images? Were you taken back, as I was, to that day on September 11, 2001? Can you recall where you were when you heard the news and what you did that day? I think most people who were of sufficient maturity on that day can recall with a good deal of clarity what happened. When we watched the images, it is as if we experienced those fateful events of nine years ago in this very moment.
Powerful events in our lives shape who we are, both as individuals and as a people.
God, who is our Creator, understands how we function in our minds, our emotions and our memories. When He was forming a people for Himself through the Exodus event recorded in Hebrew Scriptures, God instituted a way in which that experience would be recalled by all the generations of His people who would come after the event itself.
Turn over to Exodus 12 and let’s read the story together. (14-17, 24-27, 40-42)
THROUGH THE OBSERVANCE OF PASSOVER, GENERATIONS TO COME WERE PARTICIPATING THEMSELVES IN THE EXODUS OUT OF EGYPT AND FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM. THEY WERE “MAKING THE PAST PRESENT” IN THEIR LIVES.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Table in the context of Passover. His redeeming work – His life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our “Exodus” from the slavery of sin and death. He is the new Passover. The early Church understood this implicitly. Paul employs this universal understanding of the faith when he urges the Corinthians to purge ungodliness from their community. Using a Passover metaphor, he tells them to “clean out the old leaven; for Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed.” I Cor 5:7.
If the Church has always understood that Christ is our Passover, then what are the implications for us when we partake of the Lord’s Table which Christ clearly meant to take the place of the older Jewish celebration?
(Demonstration of anamnesis - moving from one event in time to another time)
The past becomes present so that we will recognize that we have been rescued and redeemed through the work of Christ – our Exodus from the slavery of sin and death – our Passover.
The Bible has a specific term for this mystery – anamnesis. It means that the past becomes present in our lives. Evangelical theologian, Ralph Martin explains the concept:
“To recall, in biblical thought, means to transport an action which is buried in the past in such a way that its original potency and vitality are not lost, but are carried over into the present. “In remembrance of me,” then, is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified and living Christ in such a way that He is personally present in all the fullness and reality of His saving power, and is appropriated by the believer’s faith.”
Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (126)
The early Church knew that Christ was present at the Table. The Church Council in 1215, unfortunately, affirmed a mechanism for the physical transformation of the elements. The council overshot and missed the point. My purpose in this message is not to denigrate the Catholic Church or faith. I have a deep and abiding respect for the Roman Church. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we Protestants are deeply indebted to our Catholic kin. But hear this point, (and it was articulated by James White, one of Notre Dame’s own liturgical professors) – the mystery at the Table is a mystery of time, rather than substance. It is not the transformation of the elements that is in play here, but rather the movement of one critical event in history to the present. We can and should affirm the power of Christ present at the Table through anamnesis – the biblical understanding of the past becoming present - rather than fighting over whether or not the substance of bread and wine is literally the body and blood of Christ. We can rightly affirm that Christ is present at the Table - with all the fullness of His power and authority – rather than stumbling over the question of whether or not He is on the Table.
So what does that mean for you this morning? Just as importantly, what does that mean for us together as a Church? Simply put, this is a feast of celebration of our deliverance from sin and death through our union with Christ. It need not, and should not be, a somber reflection on the awfulness of our sin and the price that Christ paid through His death. Christ has died. (Dying, You destroyed our death; rising You restored our life.) Your sins are gone. We have been delivered. At this Table, we celebrate our exodus from bondage through our union in faith with Christ.
So let’s celebrate together as Christ’s redeemed people.
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name at Your table; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
"Beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Supper that we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope. We come in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent of the Father into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross.
By his death, resurrection, and ascension He established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation, that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken by Him. We have come to communion with this same Christ, who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world.
In the breaking of the bread He makes Himself known to us as the true heavenly bread that strengthens us unto life eternal. In the cup of blessing He comes to us as the vine, in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit. We come in hope, believing that this bread and this cup are a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love of which we shall partake when His kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold Him, made like unto His glory.
Since by his death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ has obtained for us the life-giving Spirit, who unites us all in one body, so are we to receive this supper in true love, mindful of the communion of saints."
The Worship Sourcebook (313-314)