Chapter 31: The Lord’s Supper
Concerning nothing in the Christian Church has there been more dispute than over the Lord's Supper, which was surely intended solely as a means of fellowship. Concerning few things have so abstruse theological dogmas been formulated as there have been concerning the Lord's Supper, which was surely intended solely as a divine help in understanding the message of reconciliation, a perceptual picture of the heart of the Gospel, the superb gift with which God longs to draw us to Himself.
The Lord's Supper -- and this must be said first of all ùis not magic but, so to speak, an "illustrated word of God," given in order that we might not merely hear the message of divine grace, but also see it and perceive it the more clearly. This is all that happens; but of course this "all" is the inexhaustible miracle of divine reconciliation.
Bread and wine are distributed in the Lord's Supper. We are to eat and drink, which means that we are to receive that by which we live. But this bread and this wine are signs, symbols. The spiritual bread of life and the spiritual drink of life is -- Christ himself. "I am the Bread of Life. He that believeth on me shall never thirst." This "he that believeth" in the utterance of Jesus is a great mystery; it is likewise the great mystery of the Lord's act in giving us the Sacrament of his Supper. This holy act is a means which God employs to give us His Word, Jesus Christ; to strengthen and nourish that faith with which alone we receive Christ. God then, not simply the pastor and the deacons, does something in the Lord's Supper. Not simply bread and wine but Christ himself is present in the Sacrament. Indeed, Christ the Bread of Life, and not simply natural bread, is to be eaten. It is a miracle that God should speak His Word to us, and that we should receive and eat it in faith. As surely as simple natural bread is eaten, and this natural bread is and remains bread, so surely something else is also eaten -- the Word of God, Christ, the Bread of Life. Both really eaten, the one physically, the other spiritually. The soul is just as real as the body and must, with equal reality, be nourished. But as the soul is invisible, it must be nourished with invisible bread. Christ is the Bread of the soul, just as wheat bread is the nourishment of the body.
It is no mere chance that we use bread and wine in the Sacrament. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper the night before his crucifixion. He broke the bread as a symbol for his body which was to be broken on the following morning. So, too, the wine to signify his blood. The Lord's Supper "proclaims" the "Lord's death." It is a narrative, but more than that, for it transmits at the same time the significance of this death. When a man dies, the significance of his death for him and for his loved ones is that he is no longer present. Jesus' death is, however, no such human death. The death of Jesus is something that God does to help the whole world. The death of Jesus is the atoning act of God. It is this death which the Lord's Supper proclaims, this perishing whereby we receive eternal life. In the Lord's Supper God would say to us that this death is your life, if you in faith partake of him. By faith you are united with the crucified and risen Christ; by faith you, the sinner, come to the Cross and this eternal life comes to you. By faith you receive what is Christ's and he takes upon himself what is yours. This inconceivable exchange -- is the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
You receive this grace through God's Word, be it through the word the preacher proclaims from the pulpit, or by what the Lord's Supper says to you of God's grace. It wants to tell you that! So to tell it that you can also see it, better understand it, and more certainly believe it.
One thing more. It is just by this act of the Lord's Supper that we are told clearly that we can have God's salvation only in fellowship; not each one for himself alone. The Lord's Supper is an act of fellowship. We are not only to be united with Christ, but also with our fellow men. "One body whose head is Christ." When there is one body, each member thinks and suffers for the other.
Whoever goes away from the Lord's Supper without the love of the brethren being awakened in him, has received nothing; he was present in vain, for it is by our love to the brethren that we prove we have fellowship with Christ.