What Does This Sacrament Mean?
In order to properly integrate the Lord’s Supper in worship, it’s important for worship leaders and the congregation to have a clear understanding of the CRC’s confessional stance on this sacrament. This is especially important because other, less confessionally based understandings have made inroads in the CRC. Also, a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper will serve to increase the desire for believers to participate in it and the benefits they derive from it.
Broadly speaking, the main issue is whether the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross, or whether, in and through the sacrament, we, by faith, actually commune with the risen and ascended Christ, become bonded more firmly to him, and receive the spiritual life he provides. Do we receive Christ in the sacrament, or do we just remember what he has done for us?
While we “do this in remembrance” of the Lord, more is happening at the table than a mere remembering of what he has done for us. While no one can claim to fully understand the mystery of participation in Christ through this meal, the Belgic Confession (Art. 35) gives a thorough theological understanding of what the Lord’s Supper means for the life of the believer. A few key quotations:
“We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper to nourish and sustain those who are already regenerated and ingrafted into his family, which is his church. . . .
“Thus, to support the physical and earthly life, God has prescribed for us appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all people as life itself. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers, God has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten—that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.
“To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread, Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls. . . .
“Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. . . .
“Finally, with humility and reverence we receive the holy sacrament in the gathering of God’s people, as we engage together, with thanksgiving, in a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, and as we thus confess our faith and Christian religion.”
In addition, the Scriptures indicate that the Lord’s Supper is a meal that symbolizes and effects the unity of believers in the congregation and at all times and places (1 Cor. 10:14-17). It also causes us to anticipate the coming of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:26).
It is clear, then, that in this meal we receive Christ and all his benefits by the mediation of the Holy Spirit through faith. This understanding of the sacrament should prompt us to celebrate it often (perhaps weekly, as John Calvin desired), and with appropriate joy, reverence, and faith.
How Should This Sacrament Be Celebrated?
- Some communities find it beneficial to prepare for the Lord’s Supper the Sunday before its celebration. This may be done as part of the confession and assurance, as a focus of the sermon or its application, or in the use of the preparatory form available in the back of the Psalter Hymnal or online at crcna.org/resources/church-resources/liturgical-forms-resources.
- Synod 1994 of the CRC (Acts of Synod 1994, pp. 493-94) decided that the “prescribed forms” for celebrating the sacrament need not be used on every occasion of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, any celebration of this sacrament should include at least the following elements:
- Thanksgiving for the great acts of God in our salvation.
- The Words of Institution from Scripture with the breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup.
- An invocation (epiclesis) for the Holy Spirit to feed us with the body and blood of the Lord.
- Sharing the meal together.
- It is also meaningful to include the preface (Sursum Corda) to the Lord’s Supper, which dates back to the early church:
Leader: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Leader: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
This widely used preface helps the congregation to sense their oneness with the universal church. Its regular use also gives the congregation an easily remembered and familiar set of words to signal their entry into this sacred meal.
- The Lord’s Supper is the “visible word” (Calvin) and should be a part of a liturgy of Word and sacrament. It therefore should follow the sermon with perhaps an intervening prayer and offering (including the presentation of the elements). In this way, the sacrament seals the spoken Word and assures us of its grace.
- While the CRC has a tradition of less frequent celebrations of the Lord’s -Supper, synod has encouraged more frequent celebrations. In many congregations monthly (and, increasingly, weekly) celebrations have resulted in a deeper appreciation of the sacrament, and this is more in line with biblical and early church practice.
- The manner of participation may vary widely, and neither the Bible nor the church has set a norm for this, except that it should normally be celebrated in a public worship service.
Some of the common ways congregations receive communion are as follows:
- Receiving the elements while seated in the congregation.
- Receiving the elements at the front of the worship area, given -individually by intinction by the pastor and elders.
- Receiving the elements in a circle around the table and passed one to another with the words “the body of Christ for you” and “the blood of Christ for you.”
- Receiving the elements while seated together at the table.
- Receiving the elements with some personal movement involved (coming to the front or gathering in a circle) adds the advantage of a physical -action that mirrors and symbolizes a coming to Christ, or, as one writer put it, a Reformed altar call.
- In the Lord’s Supper, Christ signifies our salvation through his atoning sacrifice on the cross in the form of physical bread and wine (grape juice). In the Lord's Supper, it is fitting, therefore, that these material elements should be readily visible and tangible. Actual loaves of bread, pitchers of wine or grape juice, and substantial vessels can enhance the experience and meaning of the sacrament.
- The Lord’s Supper can be too much centered on Christ’s death on the cross, calling for a somber mood. While the cross is certainly in view, so are the resurrection and ascension of the Lord. We commune not with a dying Savior but with the Savior who lives and reigns. The Lord’s Supper is often called the “joyful feast of the Lord,” so a mood of joy and celebration should always be present as well.