Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Often We "Do this..."

Over a pleasant lunch yesterday, I was surprised to hear from an OPC minister that he convinced his session (board) to agree to weekly communion in the morning, and bi-weekly communion at the evening services. There are not too many Reformed churches which follow this pattern at worship, and the ones that do are usually liberal in orientation. When I asked why, the very orthodox pastor replied that Calvin encouraged weekly communion, and that more importantly, in the New Testament it seemed to be the practice.

I was asked how often our congregation celebrated the Lord's Supper, and I said that we generally commune five times a year: once each quarter, plus Maundy Thursday evening. When I have had this discussion on previous occasions with other evangelical pastors, they usually reply that their church celebrated on the first Sunday of each month. So, in short, I am taking up the rear with regards to 21st century sacramental practice. I believe that the advice given to Calvin by the Genevan Town fathers to follow Zwingli's pattern of quarterly communion to be sound counsel, in that it prevents the sacrament from becoming the thin edge of the wedge of liturgicalism and sacramentalism, and also prevents the Lord's Supper from losing its profundity through overuse - i.e., familiarity breads, if not contempt, perhaps rather apathy.

Let me confess that I have never appreciated Calvin's views on the sacraments, they seem to be insufficiently distanced at times from Romanism. Weekly communion aside, several of Calvin's descriptions of what occurs in the Lord's Supper sound awfully realistic, i.e., hinting at a physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine. In Book IV of the Institutes, Calvin writes, "First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ" (17.2). "In this Sacrament we have such a full witness of all these things that we must certainly consider them as if Christ here present were himself set before our eyes and touched by our hands" (17.3). "For he in some measure renews, or rather continues, the covenant which he once for all ratified with his blood...whenever he proffers that sacred blood for us to taste" (17.1).

One could sum up Calvin's view of the Supper in the two Latin words he loved, Sursum corda - we are lifted up to heaven and fed at Christ's table. Now I find that a bit mystical and mystifying, frankly, having never experienced anything of the sort myself. I appreciate the Supper as a memorial of Christ's atoning death on my behalf, and enjoy the physical reenactment of proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. But I am uncomfortable with language which speaks of the Lord's Supper as more than a memorial, more than a sign and seal of our faith. When we say the sacraments are "means of grace," we must understand that in a Reformed Protestant way: that we are blessed, strengthened, and encouraged by the sign of the Supper, and not as recipients of some extra measure of some measurable degree of grace (which is sheer sacramentalism - i.e., grace being the agent of our justification via the sacraments). Zwingli was correct to be nervous about such things, and I am surprised Calvin wasn't, given his statement that our hearts are "factories of idols." Zwingli emphasized remembrance, but also thanksgiving (eucharist), which I prefer to Calvin's mystical communication of Christ in the sign itself.

So I will remain in the rear of this movement to celebrate communion more often. B.A. Gerrish has noted that for Calvin, the Lord's Supper was an offer of the gospel, but for Zwingli it was an act of remembrance and thanskgiving. Both views are Reformed, both views are evangelical, and both views complement and even guard each other from the sinful inclinations of the human heart.


Blogger anman said...

At the church I occasionly go to they do communion every week. And I like their reason to: What is the greatest most magnificent thing that happened in all of our lives? Jesus died on the cross for us. What is the greatest way to celebrating this rebirth within us? And since we are so greatfull for this event why WOULDNT we celebrate everyday? Although, this view point was concluded when I was a child. I still kinda am. I havnt had communion for a long time. I would love to do it again :/

8:08 AM  
Blogger Rileysowner said...

I would like to address the one point you mentioned for not celebrating the Lord's Supper more frequently (our congregation also only celebrates it 5 times per year) that more frequent celebration will make the supper lose "its profundity thorugh overuse."

That is the argument I have heard for many years, but I question its validity. If we take that reasoning to its logical conclusion we could just as easily say, "Don't read your Bible of listen to the preached word too often or it might lose its profundity." Thinking like that strikes me as missing the point.

The supper is meant to remind us of the death of Christ until he comes. I tend to be with our standards in seeing it feeding us spiritually as it is received in faith (hence it is a means of grace). Thus, I would suggest we need both the reminder and the actual celebration of the supper more than just 5 times per year.

Secondly, experience speaking with people who are in Bible preaching congregations where the Lord's Supper is celebrated every Lord's Day tells me that rather than seeing the Supper as less profound, they actually find it more profound and value it even more. One person who married a person in the CRC congregation I grew up in deeply missed celebrating the Lord's Table every Sunday, even though that congregation celebrated it twice a month (once in the morning and once in the evening).

I think there is much value in more frequent celebration of Communion, and I hope that eventually our congregation will move to at least celebrating once a month.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I think there is a difference between the Word preached or the Bible read and the Sacrament. While being spiritually nourished as a means of grace, all three affect us differently, and we experience them in differing amounts (hopefully). For example, one read the Bible daily, if not multipled times during each day. One hears a sermon 1-3 times a week, etc.

Ritual impacts us at an emotional level, a physical level, and so I assume that repeated exposure to it would numb us to its profundity.

But I am happy for those individuals who celebrate daily, weekly, or monthly, and in no way do wish to say it is inappropriate. I was musing on the fact that I myself seem to be content with quarterly communion, and I am out of step with a trend in evangelical circles.

Of course opposite danger is that of the Neder-Dutch tradition, where almost no one partakes for fear of damning themselves. They also lack any assurance of faith.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Frequent communion doesn't inherently lead to ritualism or apathy or the road to Rome, if it is accompanied by proper teaching of the Word.

By the same "thin edge of the wedge" reasoning, I could say that there should be no guitars in worship, because it will lead to worship services being nothing more than rock concerts. That's a fallacy.

If the test of godliness or theology is how far we are from Rome, there's a problem. It's the Pharisees' problem of judging our godliness by an extra-biblical standard.

Christ's presence is real, but not physical - that's Calvin's view. Only if you're a materialist does real seem too physical for you (as if only physical things are really real).

A good question: HOW are the sacraments means of grace? Is it only in their bringing the Gospel to our minds and senses? Or is there spiritual food and drink, as the Heidelberg says, I think? I believe there is more than just remembering going on here. See 1 Cor 10:16 - at the Table, we have fellowship with the blood and body of Christ. Fellowship is more than a memory. Now, this fellowship isn't a saving one, without the communicant possessing saving faith, too. But the fellowship feeds faith. (This is how I take Heb 6:4-5, by the way - tasting the gift could include partaking of communion)

You hit a hot one, for me, and we could talk about this for hours...

4:35 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I am aware of the emotional content to this issue for some. I confess it was more speculation on my part, and concern over my own lack of a deeply felt attachment to the Eucharist.

4:57 PM  

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