Communion: The Backstory Our Reformation Roots

Matthew 27:17-30                                                                          7.21.19

Today is part three of our summer sermon series on Communion.  You can find the previous sermons on our church website.  We began by exploring the Passover roots of the last supper Jesus had with his disciples.  It was the ancient Jewish meal which shaped the traditional sharing of the bread and the cup to remember the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.  Then last week we learned from the apostle Paul that in the early Christian church, before sanctuaries and steeples, the Lord’s Supper was shared in homes around the dinner table.

Today we are jumping forward about 1400 years to the time of the Protestant Reformation.  Our current communion practices stem from our reformed tradition, so this morning we will dig a bit into how they were shaped back in the 1500’s as groups of church leaders began to question some of the practices and doctrines of the Roman Catholic church.  Any time people come in with new ideas and practices the atmosphere can get stormy.  The Reformation was a time of religious upheaval, heated discussions and strong language that we cringe at in the ecumenical environment we live in today.  I am very aware of the Roman Catholic connections that many of us have today, and that we have visitors from a nearby Catholic School with us this morning!   Generally speaking, most Protestants and Catholics get along quite well in the sandbox of life today.  But 500 years ago, it was very important for our Reformed forefathers (and they were all men at the time) to make it clear how their understanding of doing and being church differed from the Roman Catholic understanding of doing and being church.  Today we are accustomed to focusing more on what we have in common and less on what divides us.  Presbyterians work very closely with our brothers and sisters of Catholic and Protestant churches alike in the areas of mission, service, and social justice issues, but we are still not in complete agreement over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  To give you an example of how difficult it is, several denominations who form part of the same reformed branch of the family tree spent 32 years in conversation and prayer before we could agree to be in full communion with one another!  32 years!  A generation.  Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America talked through doctrinal differences and came to an agreement in 1997 to say these four reformed denominations are in full communion with one another, meaning we have agreed to:

  • fully accept each other as rightly preaching the gospel
  • encourage the mutual sharing of the Lord’s Supper among members
  • recognize each other’s ordained ministers and ministries, and
  • commit ourselves to the ongoing process of further understanding in a common expression of evangelism, witness and service.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have a similar understanding with our Catholic brothers and sisters.  We have our understanding of the Lord’s Supper and they have theirs.  Catholics understand the bread and the wine to actually become the body and blood of Christ in the process of the prayers during the Mass, which is formally called transubstantiation.  Presbyterians understand that the bread and the wine are symbols of Christ’s death and our unity as Christ’s body here on earth.  Because of this different understanding, non-Catholics are typically invited to come forward for a blessing from the priest when others come forward for the bread and the cup in a Catholic mass.  Today, Presbyterians have no problem with people from other Christian traditions gathering around the Lord’s Table.  In the days of John Calvin, it would have been anathema for a Catholic to walk into a Presbyterian service of worship. The feelings were so strong on both sides that their interpretation of the holy meal was the only right one.

How have we made this simple meal such a source of division amongst us?  When you read again the account in Matthew’s passion narrative, I hope that you recognize there is division even there at the Last Supper.  Not everyone is on the same page.  Most of them are in the dark.  Jesus is in control, even guiding the set-up with the homeowner where they will celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  He knows about the betrayer.  He knows what is coming.  The disciples do not.  When Jesus indicates that one of them will betray him, no one can believe it.  Surely not I, Lord?  I’m not the one, Lord?  No one wants to be the betrayer of the Lord.  Most of the time in this gospel, when Jesus is addressed as Rabbi, or teacher, it is a non-Jew who is using that term.  All the other disciples used “Lord” to address Jesus, but not Judas.  Could that be a clue to the distance that has opened between he and Jesus now?  Would any of the other disciples been alert enough to have noticed the difference that night?  The insiders, the closest followers, all used “Lord”.  Judas uses “Rabbi”.  “It’s not me, is it Rabbi?”  Jesus basically confirms what Judas already knows, letting Judas know that he knows he is separating himself from the group and from him. “You said it.”  The phrase, “It’s not me, is it?” is designed to be an automatic “no” answer. No, of course it’s not you…..But Jesus does not give that expected answer either to the group of disciples or to Judas.  Maybe the betrayal is more than just the act of Judas alone….  Do the others have any responsibility?  Could they have done more to stop it?  Could it be that God uses all of them as players in the drama to be sure that this sacrifice actually occurs—that no one’s hands are completely clean?

Communion practices have been a source of division among us since the early 16th century.  John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian community in Geneva, Switzerland, spent a LOT of time thinking and studying and praying about what changes needed to be made for the community of faith to live rightly according to God.  In 1536 he wrote the Institutes of Christian Religion, two heavy volumes which expound his understanding of how the church should operate and what doctrines the church should adhere to. He spills a lot of ink on the topic of the Lord’s Supper and how it is to be celebrated correctly—70 pages, in fact!  And then another 20 pages describing how the Catholic mass does not get it right.  Martin Luther had just put the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle twenty years before, the storm was furious and Calvin was adamant that his message had to get out to reform the church.  His whole purpose was to differentiate his way of being the church from the current way which had developed over 14 centuries of tradition.  In explaining the Lord’s Supper, Calvin wrote:  “The sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things:  physical signs, which thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed though the symbols themselves.”  The physical signs are the bread and the wine.  That same bread and wine exhibit the spiritual truth of God’s love for us in Christ.  It was important to Calvin that both the bread and the wine be present, for leaving out the wine was not truly the supper of the Lord.  He also felt strongly that the supper be celebrated frequently so that we will frequently return to the memory of Christ’s passion, be sustained and strengthened in our faith, be bound to one another, be nourished by mutual love, and the bread and the wine serve as a witness to the love of God.  There were some in his day who thought communion only needed to be celebrated annually so that it would be extremely special, and Calvin spoke strongly against that.

As time went on, the church set up clearer expectations around the Lord’s Supper, as evidenced by this description of who can come to the table found in the Scots Confession, ratified by the Scottish Parliament in 1560 and included in our Book of Confessions: “The supper of the Lord is only for those who are of the household of faith and can try and examine themselves both in their faith and their duty to their neighbors.  Those who eat and drink at that holy table without faith, or without peace and goodwill to their brethren, eat unworthily.” We hear those words as excluding instead of welcoming, but the point is this: coming to the table with a grudge against a neighbor, or leaving someone out who is hungry, creates disunity, the opposite of the goal of the supper, which we were reminded of last week in Paul’s condemnation of the way communion was being shared in the church in Corinth.  Communion is the drawing together of people around a common purpose, by a commitment to love and peace toward all.

In 1561, the Swiss put together their statement of faith, which we also include in our Book of Confessions.  It is called the Second Helvetic Confession, written primarily by Heinrich Bullinger.  Listen to his description of the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord’s Supper declares to us that all our sins are completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once and for all.  It also declares to us that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father where he wants us to worship him.”

It was important to the Swiss, German and Scottish reformers to focus on the fact that Jesus had given his sacrifice of his life once and for all, and that the supper was not to be understood as a sacrifice of his actual body and blood every time we partake of it.  How do you interpret his words: “Take, eat; this is my body.”?  Or “Drink from it, all of you: for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”?  We may not all be able to agree on what those words mean, but I believe we can agree with Calvin who said that the Lord’s Supper is a meal where God nourishes our faith.  Indeed, when the faithful come to the table we come for nourishment, whether it is a Catholic table or a Presbyterian table or a Baptist table or a Pentecostal table.  We are nourished because it is God’s table set for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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