Sunday, 20 January 2013
This is my Body
The other ordinance which God gave to his church is that of communion, Lord’s Table, or breaking of Bread. I’ve been reflecting on that again recently in both a theological and practical sense. It’s always been prone to misunderstanding.
Early Christians were accused by the pagan world of being savages – after all didn’t they eat flesh and drink blood? There is also such a wide variety of practice of it in Christian churches that the essence can be lost in the welter of discussion around its timing, frequency, open vs closed, etc. I am glad that we do this every week in our church gathering , though all of us at times would admit that if we regularly repeat an act, it can become a habit and a practice we so easily take for granted. We have also given it greater prominence recently by placing it in the middle of the service rather than as an ‘add-on’ at the end. It has been given its rightful place as an essential part of the worship service and allows everyone the opportunity to participate rather than being forced to leave to attend to children etc.
In the Roman Catholic church, the doctrine of transubstantiation is given prominence - the idea that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ (hence the ringing of the bell to signify the actual moment of ‘transubstantiation’ and the need for all of the wine to be totally consumed at the end of the eucharist. Thus there is the temptation to abuse alcohol!)
Martin Luther the great reformer was very hard to shift from this position. Famously he scratched onto the table at Marburg “Hoc Est Corpus Meum”. What more could be said - if Jesus said “This IS my body” then surely transubstantiation had some merit, he argued. Fast forward nearly 500 years and I remember sitting in a church members meeting as a young Christian and listening confused to a discussion as to what should happen to the bread after communion was over. It was argued that it needed to be disposed of carefully since it had been used for such a sacred purpose!! No wonder I was confused.
Ulrich Zwingli however, the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, profoundly disagreed with Luther and rightly pointed out that the elements are symbolic and suggestive rather than actual body and blood and hence there was no merit at all in the bread and wine themselves. He rejected the idea of real presence. The Lords Table was intended to signify the death of Christ. Such views did not go down well with Luther and led to the gathering at Marburg where Luther stuck by the actual words of Christ.
Our view of the Lord’s Table as Baptists is essentially the Zwinglian view – but we must be careful not to over emphasise the symbolic nature of the table and downgrade the very obvious truth that there also lies within it a means of grace. It is a help to us to go on with God. At the Table we look back to the cross, look up to God, look round at the needs of the world and look forward to heaven. After all it is only “Till He Come” then we shall gather at a very different feast – the marriage supper of the Lamb.