One of the key parts of our life together as Christians in the church is taking the Lord’s Supper. But it is also a practice that is often misunderstood, controversial and irregular, with many men and women struggling to understand its value. Why should we take it? Must we take it? What, if any, benefit do we receive from it? Is it something that is private and personal? Isn’t it just some old ritual?
In addition to these questions, people often feel a sense of guilt: they wonder if they’ve thought about it enough. Or they worry that the practice has become too routine—so routine, they haven’t appreciated it fully. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, there are others who wonder why we make so much of it. Why do we make bread and wine special? Why should we be so ceremonial? Can’t we take the supper any time and with anything? Why can’t we just eat Oreos and drink milk?
These are some of the questions we consider in our interview with Mark Earngey as we seek clarity about the importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Christian life.
Links referred to:
- Video from our May event
- Audio from our May event
- Transcript from our May event
- Our August event: “Can we live without sex?” with Dani Treweek and Chris Thomson
Runtime: 45:38 min.
Chase Kuhn: One of the key parts of our life together as Christians in the church is taking the Lord’s Supper. But it’s fair to say that it’s one of the practices that’s often misunderstood, controversial and irregular. So many men and women struggle to understand its value, and common questions include: why should we take it? Must we take it? What, if any, benefit do I receive from it? Is it something that’s really a more private and personal practice, or something that must be thought of with the whole community? And isn’t it really just some old ritual?
In addition to these questions, there’s a sense of guilt that people often feel: they—they wonder if they’ve thought about it enough. They worry if the practice has become too routine—that they haven’t appreciated it fully. Of course, there’s others on the other end who wonder why we make so much of the Lord’s Supper. Why should we make bread and wine so special? Why should we be so ceremonial? Can’t we take the supper at any time and with anything? Why can’t we just eat Oreos and drink milk?
These are some of the questions that we’ll consider today as we seek clarity about the importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Christian life.
CK: Hello, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Centre for Christian Living exists to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and today on the podcast, my guest is Dr Mark Earngey, who is a colleague of mine here at Moore College, teaching Church History, and also a dear friend of mine. Mark, welcome to the program.
Mark Earngey: Thanks, mate! That’s quite a rap.
CK: Great to see you! Today we are talking about the Lord’s Supper and the place of the Lord’s Supper in the church. Why in the world should we keep the feast? Why should we care about this sacrament? I think that’s the first question I want to throw to you, Mark. Somebody’s listening in: why the Lord’s Supper and does it even matter?
ME: Yeah, it’s an excellent question, and a question I’ve heard asked quite a few times. And it’s a fair enough question. I mean, it’s one of those things that you do in church, and, you know, you might have grown up in church and, you know, done the Lord’s Supper lots and sort of known a little bit about what it is and how to do it, and where to stand and where to put your hands and when to say things and when not to say things, and all that sort of things. But maybe not really thought about why: why do we do this in church? And what have people thought about it before and why do we it this way and other churches do it that way?
These are all really interesting questions that all really come back to Jesus, really, and following Jesus when Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me”. I think that’s basically it: you know if Jesus says one word, then that word ought to be followed by people who love him and love his word. And so, when Jesus gives one command, let alone more than one—two, three, four, who knows—but every command of Christ’s is a special precious way that God wants us to live.
And so I think it’s—really comes back to Jesus—
CK: That’s great.
ME: —and how do we do what he says in remembrance of him?
CK: Yeah. Here’s our Lord saying to you, “Here’s something you need to keep.”
CK: “Here’s something you need to keep on doing.”
CK: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
CK: That ought to just be enough for us. “Jesus is my Lord; Lord you say this; glad to do it.”
CK: And, in fact, this is something that gets reiterated later on in the New Testament.
CK: Paul makes a lot of this in—in first Corinthians chapter 11.
CK: But just as we think about this command that Jesus has given to us and what Paul reiterates, what—what is the significance of remembrance? I mean, why do this “in remembrance of me”?
ME: Well, being the dad of four small children and having, you know, very little sleep often at night, my memory is faulty at the—the best of times. [Laughter] And—
CK: “Hey you!” That’s what we call your kids.
ME: Yeah! Totally. [Inaudible] picks up their nose all the time! But, you know, there’s something about regenerate memory that needs to be reminded of things that we forget, and what better thing to be reminded of than Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of sins? I feel like I can’t tire of being reminded of that, because I’m a guy who’s simultaneously justified and yet sinful.
ME: I’m a struggler. You know, I do what I don’t want to do; I don’t do what I ought to do (Rom 7:15) and man, I need Jesus.
ME: You know?
CK: That’s right. It’s almost a way of saying, “Stay anchored.”
CK: I mean, you know, “Abide in me: this is a way for you to kind of really remain where you need to be—”
CK: “—keep on remembering who you are—”
CK: “—and where you’re coming from everyday.”
ME: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, when I think about my family, I want that for them. You know, I want that for my wife and my children. I want them to remember Jesus and Jesus’ love for them. When I think about my brothers and sisters at church, I totally want them to be reminded the best way that they possibly can of Jesus’ immense love and forgiveness for them.
ME: How good is that? You know.
CK: Yeah. We’ll unpack this in a minute, because there’s something so wonderful about proclaiming truth about Jesus in this event. But as we think about remembrance, just quickly, I mean, what we’re doing here at CCL—Centre for Christian Living—we’re trying to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and one of the everyday issues for us is how we come together as God’s people in church. And, well, I just want to say, one of the things I’ve noticed in the Bible ethically is that even long before Jesus arrives in the flesh, all throughout the Old Testament, one of the constant refrains is, “Remember. Remember. Remember. Remember.” “Remember the Word”, really, is what it’s calling people to remember. Remember what God has said. Remember the promises he’s made. And live in light of those things.
Now, let’s talk about this a little bit more—about the nature of what we’re doing when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. There is something about it being a visible word. In other words, in the Anglican church, we talk about two marks of the church as a very common thing ’round the Reformation in Protestant churches: we talk about the Word preached and we talk about the sacraments duly administered. And those are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin in that they’re both proclaiming truth—they’re both proclaiming the gospel. Of course, they’re different things as well. But when we think about the proclamation that comes with the Lord’s Supper, unpack that for me a little bit.
ME: Sure. Yeah, sacrament: what’s a sacrament? That’s a funny word a lot of us aren’t used to, and maybe when we hear that word, we think of different things and church traditions, and whatever the case is. But at its simplest, the way that the Reformers, the Anglicans and right back to Augustine before then, thought about sacraments that they were signs which pointed to the thing they signified. So, you know, although it’s not a sacrament, I’ve got a ring on my finger and it’s a sign that points to what reality? That I’m married to my lovely wife Tanya. And it’s a beautiful—
CK: Just dodged a bullet, by the way, by saying it’s not a sacrament. That was well-played—
ME: Yeah, absolutely! Absolutely!
CK: Good Protestant card to play there. [Laughter]
ME: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not a—it’s not a dominical sacrament; Jesus didn’t command me to wear a ring, yeah? And yet it’s—I think it’s a good thing to do. So when we think of the Lord’s Supper, we think of “What a beautiful sign—a picture”: bread and wine—and I love this; my little kids can pick it up and we do catechism with the kids, and they can tell me what these little pictures mean. They’re word pictures—that the bread broken is that sign of Jesus’ body broken and the—the wine poured out—or the grape juice or whatever case may be, and we can get back to that “whatever” question down the line—but that is a sign of Jesus’ blood poured out. And so it’s a beautiful picture that points to the thing it signifies.
It’s connect to the Word, because we expound the meaning of those signs. We don’t just leave those signs hanging in the air for Choose Your Own Adventure interpretation and Pick Whatever You’d Like These Signs To Be. We’re not like that sort of postmodern approach to signs. No, no, no: we have the sermon preached before the Lord’s Supper; we have the words of institution and we—we actually encourage people to think about what’s about to happen: it’s great, it’s pointing us to Jesus’ body and—broken and blood shed, and so therefore you can get those signs. You see what they are. So therefore we say that they’re visible words.
Just like Augustine or the great Reformer Bishop John Hooper, who said that the Lord’s Supper is “a visible [sign], that preacheth peace between God and man”.1
CK: Isn’t that lovely!
ME: I love it! I love it. I mean, I remember, you know, Chase, at—at our church earlier this year, I—I try to talk about the Lord’s Supper and—and, you know, hold up my ring and talk about that and then talk about the Lord Supper or then talk about signs and word pictures and—and anyone can get it. And that’s the beauty, I think, of the sacraments, actually: it’s easy to work out [what] these sign pictures are.
CK: Yeah, I was a part of a tradition in the past where this supper was taken weekly. Now, that’s common in many Anglican churches as well, still.
ME: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CK: And I’m actually very much in favour of that: my local Anglican church has the supper once a week on a Sunday morning, and I really love that. What that ensures, in one sense, is that the gospel is proclaimed week in and week out. So, right there wrapped up into the liturgy of the service, what’s happening as we come together is we have a point in time where Jesus’ death will be proclaimed until he comes again. That’s valuable—
CK: —in itself.
ME: Totally. Totally. Yes, that’s right. When you have the Lord’s Supper, it’s proclaiming the death of Jesus. How good is that? Archbishop Cranmer used to say that the priest’s word is like the word in your ears and the sacramental word is like the word in your mouth. And I like it: that’s pretty good, you know? And so really having that word of the gospel proclaimed, how good is that?
CK: Yeah, it’s great.
ME: I mean, bring it on!
CK: We think about sacraments as means of grace; that’s how they’re defined historically. How should we help people think about what it means to receive something as a means of grace?
ME: Sure. Sure. Yeah, traditionally, you know, means of grace—I’m—a bit understood, you know, the sacraments as means of grace, and two particularly special means of grace. You know, there are other ways that God ministers his grace to us, and it’s Word and the sacrament are the two really significant ordained ways that God builds us up. And I think that’s the key thing to think about means of grace: it’s the way that God has decided to build us up and transform us to be more like Jesus. That’s pretty cool.
And so, when we think about “How do we want our churches to be to grow disciples of Jesus?”, I reckon the best way to go is to think about, “Well, what does God want to do to build disciples of Jesus? What does God say in the Bible about the way he’d like to build disciples of Jesus?” And there’s so much to say there; you could have umpteen podcasts on that. But one of the really obvious ones is the Lord’s Supper. You know, when Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me”, that’s a beautiful way of saying, “This is a good thing for a church so that people might grow to be more like Jesus.” It’s a means of grace in that way. It’s for transformation and change.
CK: Yeah. How does that happen? I mean, here we are, we have a little bit of bread, little cup of wine or a little drop of juice or whatever it may be. Blackcurrant’s the worst, by the way; I hate when I get blackcurrant juice! [Laughter]
By the way quick anecdote: I went to a retreat once and they were doing common cup as we’re celebrating the supper. I thought, “Great, it’s going to be port. Sanitary.”
CK: I was thirteenth in line.
CK: I have a bit of OCD, so I knew that I was thirteenth to drink. And as I take a big gulp, it’s warm blackcurrant juice—
CK: —out of the common cup. I’m pretty sure that’s when I got Hepatitis C, but I’m not sure! [Laughter]
ME: Shame! What a fizzer! Probably literally!
CK: That’s right! [Laughter] So how does this actually transform us? How do we grow into being like Christ—
CK: —when we’re taking this bread and this wine?
ME: It’s a really good question. I had a—someone say to me who was training for Christian ministry not long ago and say that they’ve never actually—they’ve been in church all their life, they’ve taken the Lord’s Supper all their life, but they’ve never really understood how it’s meant to be a really good benefit or way for them to grow. And I thought that was such an interesting comment.
I think in hindsight, this person would say, “Actually, the regular rhythm of it and doing it—being remembered about Jesus—has been a slow drip way of growing”; it hasn’t, like, been a lightbulb moment for him where his Christian life just took off in a new way. But it’s been a slow drip transformation that’s helped him. I think he’d probably say that now.
But I think, actually, that kind of sentiment is probably not uncommon for lots of people—that I’ve done this, I’ve gone through the motions, and I’ve never had a great awakening moment, you know: it’s never really fired me up in any massive ways. Although, I’m conscious that people listening to this, there might be lots of people that say—and—and I’d be in this category—would say, “Actually, I’ve had some of the most special, heartwarming moments when I’ve come to the Lord’s table—been reminded about Jesus’ death for my sins.” Yeah, so I’m conscious for lots of people it’s—there are different experiences there. I think “How does this Lord’s Supper help transform us?” is a really good question.
We’ve talked about memory and remembering Jesus’ death for us. We’ve talked about it being a tactile kind of meal—a visible word. We could probably say more about that—how it’s giving us a good sense of what Jesus has done for us through our senses. I’ll says something about that and then remind me to come back onto the main topic, okay?
CK: Will do.
ME: All right. In the Reformation—’cause Church History lecturers, these—you know, these are the things that happen—
CK: I didn’t say what you teach in.
ME: I want to say, in the Reformation—
CK: Yeah. There you go.
ME: —one of the big arguments against transubstantiation—
CK: Just for people that may not be familiar with transubstantiation, can you tell us what that is?
ME: Yeah, it—it’s the official Roman Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s supper, and with the Council of Trent sort of set it forth and others before it were advocates of it. It’s the official position where it says that at the Lord’s Supper, when the priest says the words, “This is my body” in Latin—hoc est corpus meum—which, if you say it really quickly, sounds like “Hocus pocus”, which is where that concept came from—hocus pocus. But the idea was that when the priest said those words, the elements would change by miracle—that is, the elements of bread and wine—were changed by miracle such that the appearance and all—all of the smell and sight and colour and taste of them would remain the same—the accidents—and yet the substance would change. So the substance of bread would change to be Jesus’ body—the same substance as Jesus’ body—and the accidents, it would still look like bread. So it was a miracle, according to the Roman Catholic church.
CK: So somehow becomes the real body and the real blood of Jesus, even though it looks like bread and wine—still, that’s it.
ME: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly right.
ME: The substance becomes Christ’s body and the accidents—the appearance—and so forth remain the same.
The Reformers came along and said, “No, that—that’s nonsense. It defies, you know, logic of how things should be,” and they made a big deal—this is why in the Anglican tradition, we make a really big deal of it being real bread and real wine—these creatures. And so, in the Reformation, Cranmer’s liturgy and Anglican churches today, we speak of the communion table; we don’t speak of the altar. Cranmer would call it “the Lord’s board”, where we put bread on, ’cause it’s a bread board, and at the end of the service, if any bread left over, the curate can take it home and have it with their pork roast—that bit of bread. It stays the same. It’s real bread.
Here’s where it comes back to your question: the Reformers were really keen to make sure that the substance of the thing stayed the same, ’cause they said, “Actually, if you can’t trust that that’s real bread, how can you trust that Christ really died for you?” In other words, just as you touch this real bread, taste that real bread, eat that real bread in your teeth, so true is the realness of that experience—so—this is exactly the same with Christ’s death for you. Christ’s death is so real and true, just as you’re taking this sacramental bread. Which is why Cranmer would say, “It’s like we taste Christ: we grope with our hands, seeing with our eyes, smelling with our nose, and tasting with our mouth”, sacramentally speaking, of course.
Yeah, so it’s a question of assurance: how does this transform us? Well, have you ever come to church with some doubts? Have you ever come to church with a heavy heart? Have you ever come to church conscious of your sins and [in] need of assurance? Yes, we all do. Every week. And this is why I think one of the most beautiful pastoral strengths of the Lord’s Supper is—is actually, you come to the Lord’s table—you come to the banquet table of the King—and you feast on Christ. You might have sin in your life; how can you be sure that Christ forgives you? Well, just as sure as you taste that wine and eat that bread, so sure can you be about Christ’s death on your behalf. So it’s an assurance thing.
CK: Oh, isn’t that beautiful!
ME: You—you’re tasting forgiveness in that sense.
CK: That’s lovely.
CK: And just as much as you partake of that, you can be assured that you’re partaking of God’s mercy shown to us in Christ.
CK: Isn’t that lovely.
ME: I think it’s amazing! I think we need to teach positively about the Lord’s Supper, not just negatively about what it’s not—
CK: Of course.
ME: —but positively about what it is and its immense pastoral payoffs as a way of building up believers—means of grace. You know, I think we often assume that people come to our churches, you know, have it all together, just need a little bit extra teaching or something. You know? Actually, we got to remember that we got people whose consciences are really troubled. You know, we’ve got people who have come to—they need assurance. And so, the Lord’s Supper is a beautiful way of helping people in that.
CK: Isn’t that great.
CK: It takes it away from kind of being this extra add-on that we feel like we have to do some way to be legit by doing it once a year—once every quarter—maybe once a month, if we’re really frequent. Better, of course, if it’s once a week. But I mean, there is this thing that you recognise what we’re doing when we do this is we’re celebrating the truth for—of our salvation.
ME: Yeah. One of the other Reformers I like is a guy: he’s got a tongue twister of a name—he’s called Johannes Oecolampadius: the lighthouse of the Reformation. He was—
CK: [Inaudible] [Laughter]
ME: —more of a threat than Martin Luther to a lot of the Roman Catholics at the time. He was the great exegete of the early Reformation stage. He’s got a beautiful service of the Lord’s Supper that he wrote, and it has this phrase: he speaks about all Christ has done, and he says, “Listen to these words as if you heard it from Christ himself, talking about what he’s done for you and for—for your forgiveness.” This is in the lead-up to taking the Lord’s Supper. And that the last couple of words before you come to take the Lord’s Supper were, “May his blood touch your heart”. I just think how cool is that! You know?
CK: That’s great!
ME: That—that’s what you want to communicate. And I’ll tell you, Chase, I love pastoral ministry and I teach at Moore College and I love teaching at Moore College ’cause it’s pastoral ministry. But one of the things I love doing at church on a Sunday at St Paul’s Canterbury—shout out to St Paul’s Canterbury!—is administering the Lord’s Supper. I love looking people in the eye when they come up the front; we get in little groups around tables; we do it with families: if parents would like their children to come up, we welcome that; you don’t have to be from St Paul’s; you don’t have to be Anglican; you just have to believe in Jesus. We can get onto that sort of subject—
CK: I want to talk about that next.
ME: —and looking people in the eye and saying, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving”. You know? It’s a beautiful ministry moment to look someone in the eye and say, “Jesus loves and forgives you.”
CK: Yeah. There’s something wonderful about that ritual—that regular habit of hearing those words. Which, of course, are always in danger of washing over us as something too familiar. But if we actually come purposefully and intentionally, and really hear that truth again and again and again, what wonderful reassurance!
CK: Now just thinking about who can take this supper: that’s a really great thing that you’ve just phrased a moment ago. You do it in your church, you do it with believers, and you do it widely, in one sense, in your church. Tell me about who is the supper for?
ME: Yep. It’s not just for my church, ’cause there are more Christians in the world than St Paul’s Canterbury. It’s not just for Anglicans, because there are more Christians in the world than Anglicans. It’s for Christians. It’s a family meal. And so, we come to the banquet table of the King as the King’s family—sons and daughters of the Most High. And therefore it’s by faith that we participate. So that’s really important to say—I think, is to say publicly, “Actually, this is a family meal. It’s for believers—doesn’t matter where you’re from, but if you have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, this is for you.” And if you’ve been a Christian for a while, you ought to be baptised and that would be assumed in that comment I’ve just made. But if you’ve got faith in the Lord Jesus, this is for you. And I think before you actually invite people to come to the table, it’s probably worth going through just talking about what that means a little bit. And if people are visiting your church, one of the things when I was at St Ebbe’s in Oxford that they did so well over there was to say—I really love this—they would say, “You know, if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian yet, that’s okay. This meal’s a family meal. It’s not for you yet. But we’d love you to think about all that Jesus has done on the cross and think about where you stand before him. There’s no shame in not coming up. In fact, we respect you for making that call and we would love you—we would love you even more—to join our Christian family, put your faith in Jesus. But we totally respect you.” And I reckon it’s worth just not beating around the bush with that, you know?
ME: You’d be so seeker sensitive in our churches that you shy away from calling a spade a spade. But I think a lot of people, when they come to church, if they’re not yet Christians, they know that. And they expect you to be truthful with them, you know?
ME: And respect them. You know, I think there’s a way of doing that really well.
CK: Yeah, the admonition that we give at least in our liturgy is “to feed on him by faith in your hearts with thanksgiving”. I mean, there’s something “by faith and with thanksgiving” that can only be done appropriately as a believer.
CK: As we take a quick break from our conversation, I’d like to let you know that the audio and video from our last live event on the question, “Is freedom of religion a human right?” is now available online on our website.
I’m also excited to announce the next live event that we’ll be having will be held on August 19th on the question, “Can we live without sex?” There are so many questions raised in churches and broader society about whether sex is an essential element of a fulfilled and satisfied life. Is it a necessary marker of one’s graduation from childhood to adulthood? Does the call to sexual purity place unfair and unrealistic demands on the single Christian? Does the unmarried person require a special spiritual gift to not give in to their sexual desires?
I hope that you’ll join us as two unmarried theologians, Chris Thomson and Dani Treweek, consider how the world’s concept of sex as an essential part of our self-discovery, self-identification and self-expression compares with what God reveals about his purposes for human sexuality and his call to sexual self-control and holiness. Together we’ll consider whether it is truly possible for the Christian person to really live without sex. You can register for the event on our website at ccl.moore.edu.au.
Now let’s return to our conversation.
CK: So let’s tease those other things out just quickly. I mean, when somebody comes and feeds “by faith”, what does that actually mean practically?
ME: Yeah, sure. Practically, it would mean that someone comes believing and trust[ing] in the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins, and even if they don’t fully understand what on earth is going on at the Lord’s Supper, that’s okay—as long as they know that this is a meal—a family meal—for them.
CK: And by “thanksgiving”—
CK: —I mean, it’s a bit apparent, I guess—
CK: —but in terms of thinking about how we actually feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving—
CK: —how is it that we can actually practically think about doing that? Ob—obviously we’re appreciative of what Jesus has done for us, but—
ME: Yeah. So. Okay. Maybe we could say, [you] come by faith, and so, you only receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper if you’re a believer. If you’re an unbeliever and you come to the table, that’s a dangerous thing: 1 Corinthians would make it quite clear that you can heap judgement upon yourself. But as a believer, you come by faith, therefore you receive the benefits.
How do you receive the benefits of Christ? Well, you receive Christ spiritually: he’s ascended physically; he’s only going to return once; he’s not going to return every Lord’s Supper physically; he’s only going to return once at the end of time on that last day. So you receive him spiritually in an heavenly manner. That is to say, he’s in heaven.
CK: I love that, by the way.
ME: Yeah, yeah. So faith, spiritually, heavenly. Key planks. All articulated in the Prayer Book. And so, when you come by faith, you’re united to Christ by faith, and as you pray for—that—that he might dwell in us and us in him—there’s a growth in our communion. So you have union with Christ, but there is a growth in our communion with Christ—our fellowship with Christ—our relationship with Christ through this sacramental meal.
CK: Isn’t that beautiful.
CK: And that happens by the Spirit.
CK: So when we say “spiritually”—
CK: —it’s not this kind of mystical thing that we kind of think about; it’s actually that the Spirit of God dwelling in us—
CK: —is helping us to grow up into Christ—
CK: —and recognise our place in Christ.
CK: And that is an intensely relational thing.
ME: Yep, yep. And it might be really mundane, actually—
ME: —how that growing works. You know, the person who—
ME: —had taken the Lord’s Supper most of their life but never have this, you know, dramatic experience, no, but the Spirit’s been actually growing that guy and helping them conform until the fullest measure of the stature of Christ as the Spirit’s working on them and growing them. Yeah, and that makes sense, right? So the Holy Spirit’s work is marvellous, and really points us towards Christ and transforms us towards Christ. So why would we not want to say that the Holy Spirit’s work at the—the Lord’s Supper is to make us focus on Jesus?
CK: So “by faith” does it mean, then, I necessarily have to kind of drum up some sort of intensely emotional experience as I come to the Lord—
ME: Not at all. Not at all.
CK: —and actually the benefits come to me because of what Christ has done and because of what the Spirit is applying in my life, not because of my feeling a bit bored by this or, you know—
CK: —I—I know it’s ridiculous that we do feel bored, but I mean should I feel guilty if I didn’t sort of, you know, get goosebumps when I was taking the supper?
ME: No, not at all. I mean I—I love the Bible and I love Jesus. And I love how Jesus says of the Bible that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.
ME: And I love that—just the struggler—the, you know, one with little faith—but yet faith—the little one with faith. I think about my daughter Grace and I love when she comes to the Lord’s table with that little beautiful faith. I love that!
ME: Yeah. I think that’s it—maybe not hugely dramatic, ground-shaking, you know, earthquake—
ME: —sort of stuff—
ME: —but, you know? The Christian life, it is not like that, actually—
ME: The Christian life is really, for most of us most of the time, just keeping in step with the Spirit, holding Jesus—or rather, being held on by Jesus—and just holding on.
CK: Now, there’s some other benefits that come: we’ve been talking a lot about the individual benefits to us, but there is something that we’re doing together in coming to the table. So as we share in the Lord’s Supper—as we share in communion, we’re communing with Christ, but we’re actually communing with brothers and sisters—
CK: —as well. Can you talk a little bit about this? What advantages is there that us corporately—
CK: —do this?
ME: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Great. A lot of our church services these days, unfortunately, have this unfortunate habit of tacking on the Lord’s Supper to the end of a service—as if we just got to go through the motions. And if you’re a minister and you’re listening to this, can I strongly encourage you not to be a tacker-oner-er. [Laughter] But—but if this is one of the great ministerial weapons in the arsenal that Jesus has given us, let’s make a good go of this.
ME: We’d be crazy not to—especially if we want to grow our churches, you know, because this is—you want a church growth strategy? Well, here’s the way you grow Christians, right?
CK: So wait: you’re saying, put this right in the middle of the service, make sure it’s a really deliberate thing that’s purposeful and not just sort of this appendage, if you will.
ME: Yeah. I mean, how you construct your liturgy is a—a really interesting question worth a podcast sometime.
CK: Yeah, we’ll do it another time.
ME: But I think the—the key is to ensure that there’s Word and sacrament and that you don’t race through. You actually make the most of this means of grace.
One of the things that you find in most evangelical and Reformed churches—maybe until recently, kind of, tack-on approaches to the Lord’s Supper—is a set of words that would be said before taking the sacrament which would encourage people to examine themselves, and actually, a lot of the time, people would be given notice of the Lord’s Supper before that Sunday: they’d know it was coming up or if it was weekly, they’d know it was just coming up because it was Sunday. And words would be said that actually, you need to become—and you need to be at peace and concord—love and concord—with your neighbours. That is, you’re a Christian; you’re someone who knows you’ve got faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, if you’ve got a grievance with someone in your church, you should get right with them before coming to the table with them.
In our little family—in our church—we allow families to come up for the Lord’s Supper. We don’t do this every week—I’m not going to say we do it every week—but most weeks before the Lord’s Supper, the day before as a family, try to find things that we can say sorry to each other for before we come to the Lord’s table together.
CK: That’s very practical and helpful.
ME: Yeah, and I think that same principle applies to the church body.
ME: Again, this is why we call it a means of grace, because it’s a way of actually helping a church family—
ME: —say sorry and forgive and come to the table.
CK: Yeah, because so crucial to the Christian life is repentance and faith. So let’s just get clear on this: we don’t come to the table once we’ve got a clean slate—that is, once I’ve finished up all my sin—
CK: —then I’m welcome.
CK: So unpack that for me just for a moment.
ME: Well, that’s why we do general confessions at church—you know, the sins that we, you know are aware of—
CK: Commission and omission.
ME: —the things we haven’t done—yep. And we—often “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”, as the Prayer Book would say, before we come to the table. So you’re never going to be able to repent for everything possible, but, you know, the stuff that you’re conscious of, it’s worth—as a Christian person, we must pay attention to our consciences.
ME: This is something that we don’t spend enough time talking about either.
ME: If there’s something that’s sitting on your conscience that you need to go and say sorry for to someone else, Lord’s Supper or not, the Christian response is to do that. It may take time to do that. You might do it imperfectly.
ME: You know, there’s—it’s not just—
ME: —instant success, right? But that’s the sort of principle. If there’s stuff going on, you know, get it right before coming to the table. Use the Lord’s Supper as a beautiful way of encouraging your church family to be Christian and sort—
CK: To keep step with the Spirit!
ME: Keep in step with the Spirit—
ME: —say sorry, work on stuff, grow to be more like Jesus, love each other.
ME: Little children, love each other (1 John 3:18).
CK: Yeah, and I guess what I’m getting at as well is that when we come to the table, it’s not that we must then sort of work for perfection, but—
CK: —what we’re actually doing is casting ourself once again on the mercy of God—
CK: —we’re saying, “Father, I’m sorry for my sin.”
CK: “And where I’ve grieved you and this other person, perhaps, I will …”
CK: “—seek in your power—”
CK: “—to have reconciliation, according to the gospel.”
ME: Yep, that’s right.
CK: And so you’re always leaning into grace.
CK: You’re always trusting the grace that’s come to you—
CK: —in Christ.
CK: Which is why we also have this wonderful statement of absolution that comes—
CK: —with the confession of sin—
CK: —because we are reminded that there is real forgiveness—
CK: —in Christ.
ME: Another gospel moment in the service.
ME: Confess your sins and forgiveness. Again—
ME: —churches out there that don’t have confessions of sins and declarations of forgiveness or absolution—whatever you want to call it, you’re missing out on a beautiful pastoral moment.
CK: A gospel moment!
ME: A gospel moment!
CK: That’s right.
ME: Totally. Totally. Totally.
CK: That’s right. Now, as we think about these things, then, I mean, we come together and we celebrate together. Just give us some practical tips: how do we do this together? You’ve already said we can make amends for sin, but actually as we partake of these things—whether it’s common cup or whether it’s a bunch of cups passed around, or whether it’s a common loaf or a bunch of little wafers passed around—there’s something we do corporately. I mean, I remember observing quite a common trend in America where, at many services, there were stations set up around the room—
CK: —low light, smoke and mirrors—
CK: —all that kind of good stuff. But it was sort of this invitation: if you want to take the supper today, it’s over there somewhere in a corner for you. You go on your own when you want to, if you want to. “Have your time with Jesus” was kind of the statement that would be said. But actually, there’s something about doing this together—partaking together—which seems to be biblical as well. I mean, Paul says, you know, don’t hurry on and—and eat up all the goods before—
CK: —before everybody else gets to the party, you know.
CK: Let’s—let’s make sure we’re mindful of one another.
ME: Yes, yes, yes.
CK: Give us just the practicalities of what this can look like in our life together and why it’s important.
ME: Sure. Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. We don’t want to say communion is just a solitary act; it’s communion—the communion of the saints with the triune God. And so, we do it together.
That will look different in different churches. In some churches, you come up in a line to a communion rail.
ME: And you kneel and you receive the bread and the wine. In some churches, you sit in the seats and you pass around the bread and the wine—probably less of that, you know, post-COVID. And at other churches—
CK: Less common cup post-COVID! [Laughter]
ME: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! You’d need to make sure it was some pretty strong port in that—
ME: —communion wine. Yeah, I don’t even know if that—that’s possible with the COVID. Anyway, who knows—who knows! But at our church at St Paul’s Canterbury—another little plug there—we have two little tables up the front where the ministers stand around and people line up in their—everyone just comes down—piles down in, you know, groups, and you might have a little table where five or six people stand around—maybe a few from the one family, few from another, you know, couple of elderly people and couple of people who are maybe not married—and, like, just a random group of people from our church—lovely—priority of the Christian family being displayed—young and old, male and female, all one in Christ. And the elements are given out there.
So you could do it differently. But you want to just maintain that it’s not a private act of devotion only, and it’s not a corporate act of devotion only; it’s both and. So—
CK: This is interesting—I just want to interject there.
CK: We often think of our Christian life almost in compartments—
CK: —corporate and individual. But actually those things are very much entwined—
CK: —because actually, my personal holiness—
CK: —really depends on how I regard you as my brother.
CK: Or this other woman as my sister.
CK: And actually, my individual sin—
CK: —impacts the whole—
CK: —just as my relationship with all of you impacts my own spiritual—
CK: So there is this real interconnectness between our private and corporate life.
ME: It’s inescapable! I mean, it’s inescapable just by virtue of being human, even though people try to deny it in their practices. But it’s inescapable for Christians. When you’re saved, you’re saved into the church, which means you’re saved into a great company of people. We say “the communion of saints”—you’re not even saved into just the people who are gathering on a Sunday; you’re saved into this communion of people who’ve—who are dead, even, and with Jesus. You’re actually saved into an extraordinary communion of people. So I—yeah, that’s right; it’s more than just “me and Jesus” reality to being a Christian.
ME: It’s an “us and Christ”.
CK: Yeah. As we think about this, I mean, we’ve, I think, shied away from a lot in the Lord’s Supper in recent decades, because of fears of what it may insinuate. I—I think in particular, for Protestants, they’re really worried about looking too Roman Catholic. So if I go and kneel at the rail, it seems like somebody’s doing a special priestly duty to me.
CK: If I take too seriously the bread and the wine, then I’m giving too much credence, if you will, to the elements themselves, rather than the active remembrance. So therefore, we’ve seen, in some ways, a rejection of the formal Lord’s Supper, and we’ve almost made it where I can do this any time I want in whatever way I want. So let me just put a question to you, for example: is it important that we take bread and wine, and not Oreos and milk?
ME: Ah, there’s nothing that drives me up the wall more than, you know, Coke and pizza—
CK: Coke and pizza was going to be my other example!
ME: Yeah, yeah—I mean, it’s—
CK: You went for it! There you go.
ME: Yeah, yeah. No, I—normally, that kind of approach is taken by a well-meaning person who hasn’t thought about it a whole lot.
CK: You’re very generous!
ME: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’d—I don’t want to hack on people too hard—
CK: I think that’s right!
ME: I’m sure I’ve had in the past; I might in the future. But, you know, in my, you know, better moments of judgement, I want to say that these are people who just probably haven’t thought about it much.
ME: And I want to be an educator and help them to figure out how good it is. No, I think, one of the key things is the symbolism: signs and the things they point to have to maintain a sense of symbolism. What are the links that are required for the sacramental symbolism to work? What it basically means is you want to have some bread that’s broken. It needs to be some sort of bread. And you want to have some grape-based drink that’s used. [Laughter] I don’t want be overly prescriptive on that stuff, except to say let’s preserve, firstly, what does the Bible say, and the Bible seems to say quite clearly in Corinthians about bread and grains. So let’s try to stick to, at least, how the Scriptures speak about what’s used in this moment in our services. And wine as well. So you want to preserve the symbolic links.
And actually, I think there’s a richness to that, because wine and bread are important themes scripturally.
ME: You know, new wine—“I won’t drink of the cup again” and the vine—and bread as well, all throughout Scripture. So actually these symbols are not only there in Scripture and shouldn’t be shunned—not only the idea of breaking of bread is intrinsically linked to Christ’s body being broken and wine being poured out intrinsically linked to his blood being poured out. So those are important links for the sacrament to work. But in the broader sweep of Scripture, these things are important. So if you mistakenly go for some other kinds of elements—Coke, chips, beer [?], whatever—you actually lose a lot.
ME: You lose a lot. So I—I would strongly encourage people to use things that retain the symbolism.
CK: And, if you’re not careful, it can be dismissive of the act itself—
ME: That’s right.
CK: —and can easily be irreverent.
ME: Yeah, yeah. That’s a real problem. Again, it’s a—I want to talk up how much of a beautiful means of grace and gospel transformation something like this is. And, you know, we don’t get to the sermon and—in our churches and just sort of laugh and make light of the fact that God’s word’s about to be expounded and preached on. We don’t do that. Or we shouldn’t do that.
ME: If we did do that, that’d be, you know, tut tut! Same deal with the Lord’s Supper.
CK: Yeah, yeah.
ME: You know? Right reverence. You know.
CK: And is it important that it’s administered in church? Is this something I can do whenever I want?
ME: Yeah, that’s a great question.
CK: Can I do it in my Bible Study or when we go camping or …?
ME: Yeah. Because—what we were talking about before about there being an important pastoral dimension to the Lord’s Supper and trying to see people get stuff sorted and get right with each other in their lives in the Christian community we’re part of in the church, I think it’s really important to have the minister—or however you do your polity in the church—the people who are pastorally responsible for you to God actually managing the process of the Lord’s Supper. Your Bible Study leader’s not going to know everything going in your life. Your youth group leader’s—you—you know—
ME: —it’s just—they don’t have pastoral responsibility before God for those sheep.
CK: We won’t get into this now, but I mean, this is historically why this has been the means of church discipline in the past—of administering or withholding the Lord’s Supper—
CK: —as a sign of somebody who is in good stead, if you will, with the communion of the saints in that local congregation. So—
ME: Yeah, that’s right.
CK: —so if we know that there’s some flagrant sin that’s not been repented of, in the interests of your soul, in one sense, that you’re not eating and drinking judgement on yourself, there’s that withholding.
But it’s also like preaching: you don’t just let anybody get up and give a sermon—
CK: —because you want to make sure that they understand the truth and so someone’s going to get up and administer this thing that we’re saying is gospel needs to be doing it appropriately.
ME: Yeah, yep, that’s right.
CK: And I think it’s really important for us. Mark, we’re about out of time. I just want to say, if you’re going to give some practical tips for people as they’re coming to the table, what are ways that they could be thinking about that a bit more just devotionally? I mean—
CK: —if they go to church this weekend—Lord-willing soon enough, we will be going to church, you know—
ME: Yes, yeah, yeah.
CK: —in the weekends ahead, I mean, one of the things I’m really looking forward to—
ME: —is taking the Lord’s Supper!
CK: I can’t wait to take the Lord’s Supper!
CK: So when we come together and we take the supper again—
CK: —give us your 20-second spiel of how to do that meaningfully. What can we do?
ME: Okay, step 1: try to work out when the Lord’s Supper coming up.
ME: So is it this week? Is it once a month you do it at church? Try and work out when it’s coming up. And before it comes, try to get right with people. Thinking about people in your church, maybe there’s someone you could give a call and say, “You know, I just—I love you and I just want to say I said this a little while ago and it was a bit of a flippant comment; I just want to say sorry for that. I don’t know if you were offended by that, but”—you know, you might just want to work out stuff. Maybe it’s your spouse. Maybe it’s your children. Maybe there’s things you can just work on and save. And then come to the table.
And when you come to the table, in whatever form of words your church uses in the lead-up to the Lord’s Supper, and hopefully there’s—it’s not a just a casual liturgy but a words of institution and, you know—“This is an important time when we feed on Christ together”. And as that’s happening, think about Jesus: just as you’re being reminded of what he’s done for your sins, think about Jesus’ love for you.
And when you come to the Lord’s table and you hold the bread in your hand and you drink that wine, then just think, “As real as that bread is—as real as that wine is—so real was Jesus’ death 2,000 years—on the cross—for your sins and those around you”. Just as real as that is. And know that sense of God’s love—that God demonstrates his love for us in this: whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
ME: That would be my advice.
CK: That’s great.
ME: Yeah. Pretty simple in lots of ways!
CK: And as we take it in, I mean—
CK: —as we even just—as we eat down that little bit of bread—
CK: —and drink down that little bit of wine, as we receive those things, we can remember that we are really receiving the mercy and forgiveness that comes—
CK: —from the Father through the Son—
CK: —as the Spirit works that salvation in us—
ME: Yeah, yeah.
CK: —and brings us closer to Christ.
ME: Yeah! And grows us in Christ—beautiful means of grace—and then we say, “Hallelujah!”
CK: Praise God!
ME: And we sing with all our hearts and we thank the Lord for forgiveness. And we look around at brothers and sisters who have been forgiven too—
ME: —we all gather back together post-COVID and we think, “What a beautiful, messy, loved, chosen, special family of people from different countries and backgrounds—different ages—what a beautiful foretaste of heaven, where we get to enjoy life together forever!” You know?
CK: We get to eat together in peace—
ME: How good’s that?
CK: —now, anticipating that really great peace—
CK: —that we’ll know in the future—
ME: Exactly! Yep. It’s a beautiful—
CK: —won by Christ.
ME: But that banquet of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come, you know?
CK: Yeah, praise God for that.
ME: Yeah, yeah.
CK: Mark, thanks so much for the time today. Thanks for the words you’ve shared, and we’re all grateful.
ME: My pleasure. Thanks!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast and also be sure to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you can discover many articles, past podcasts and video materials.
You might also like to stay current with what’s happening through the Centre by signing up for our monthly enewsletter. We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, and if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at email@example.com.
As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.
1 John Hooper, ‘A lesson of the incarnation of Christ’, Later Writings of Bishop Hooper Together with His Letter and Other Pieces, Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009, p. 90.