In Taking God Seriously (see my review here) noted theologian J.I. Packer has a chapter titled “Taking the Lord’s Supper Seriously.” After saying things like “we are really more interested in the sermon than in the sacrament” and “We feel the sermon is more important, we expect more from it…,” Packer then asks, “Why do Protestants thus dumb down the Supper? Why do we take for granted, as we seem to do, that it is of secondary and minor importance?”
What Packer is lamenting here is something I’ve become all too familiar with over the years, including recently. With this in mind, I wish to suggest 5 ways we may improve our observance of the Lord’s Supper.
1. We Need to Understand the Lord’s Supper as a Covenant Meal, that is, the covenant meal of the New Covenant. We find this explicitly stated in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20) and Paul’s reiteration of the words of institution (1 Cor. 11:25). We may then explore it as a covenant meal in the larger context of Scripture (see my post here). In the Supper, we remember the Lord’s covenant pledge to us.
2. We Need to Understand the Lord’s Supper as Both Sacrament and Ordinance. I know some tend to avoid the term “sacrament.” But this is more reactionary than anything, which is unfortunate. However a proper understanding of the term “sacrament” will only prove helpful as we rethink and seek to improve our observance. Sacrament is from the Latin sacramentum, meaning a soldier’s sacred oath of allegiance. And when we say “ordinance,” it simply means that it was ordained by the Lord. With the help of Louis Berkhof, when correctly understood “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, in which by sensible signs the grace of God in Christ, and the benefits of the covenant of grace, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers, and these, in turn, give expression to their faith and allegiance to God” (Systematic Theology).
3. We Need to Understand the Lord’s Supper as Holy Communion. “Communion” is the King James Version of the Bible translation of the Greek koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10:16, but which is rendered “participation” modern Bible translation like the NIV and ESV. So when we come to the Lord’s Table, bless the cup and the bread, thus making them “holy,” we are, as Paul says, communing “in the blood of Christ” and “in the body of Christ.”
There is no need to minimize the weight of Paul’s words as is often the case. When by faith we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are communing “in the blood of Christ” and “in the body of Christ.” This we do by faith.
4. We Need to Understand the Lord’s Supper as a Bond of Love. As believers, when we come to the Lord’s Table, we must come as one, not individually, but as one: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). It was precisely because the Corinthians believers had forgotten this aspect of coming to the Lord’s Table, why there were divisions among them, thus making the Lord’s Supper a thing of contempt. Paul had to correct their practice. He could not commend them (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).
Perhaps we can strive to be creative in our observance of the Lord’s Supper to capture visibly this oneness, this unity, of which Paul speaks. This may be done by each participant taking the elements together.
5. We need to Understand the Lord’s Supper as a Time of Self-Examination. We examine ourselves not to see how worthy we are. Rather, we examine ourselves to see whether or not we are observing the bread and the cup in a worthy manner, lest we eat and drink judgment on ourselves for a failure to discern properly the Lord’s body (see my reflections on what I believe this self-examination entails here). In other words, the Lord’s Supper is a time not to think about what we do for the Lord but what we receive from the Lord, by faith.
Conclusion. As the body of Christ, we cannot not take the Lord’s Supper seriously, to echo J.I. Packer. We must continue to rethink our observance of the Supper–the New Covenant Meal, which the Lord has instituted and ordained for us to celebrate as a memorial of himself and a proclamation of his death until he comes.