How should I benefit from communion?
Many helpful books and articles have been written on how the believer can and should benefit from partaking the Lord’s Supper. At the heart of most of them the believer is encouraged to meditate on Christ, particularly on His self-giving, love constraining sacrifice. We can be sure that we will derive no benefit from the supper if the Father’s love, the Son’s sacrifice and the Spirit’s fellowship are not the focus of our feeding. In this brief article, however, I would like to try and answer the question by highlighting an often-neglected aspect of the Lord’s Supper – the corporate and covenantal character of the supper.
Asking the wrong question
I would like to begin by substituting the singular ‘I’ in the question for the plural pronoun ‘we’. The change appears minimal, but it is actually profound. We too easily, and unbiblically, think of the Christian life in personal, singular categories. We read the Bible as if it were addressed particularly to us as individuals, when it was written to God’s people in their corporate, covenantal identity. I do not mean the Christian faith is not personal, or that there is no such thing as individual faith. Rather, my point is this: God’s people are one. Salvation brings us into the one Body of Christ, His church (1 Cor. 12: 13). The default mode for the Christian life, then, is not ‘me and Jesus’ but ‘us and Jesus’. The Lord’s Prayer puts it memorably: ‘When you pray, say: “Our Father…”’.
John Calvin begins his exposition of the sacraments with these words: ‘We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel’ (Institutes 4.15.1). The key words here are ‘aid to our faith’. In giving us sacraments, Calvin goes on to say, ‘God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness.’ The sacraments are needed, not because God’s word is lacking in any way, but because we need all the help God can give us to instruct and establish us in the faith. In the sacraments then:
[God] according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.
We have a kind and merciful God who uses earthly elements ‘to lead us to himself’. All the benefits we receive from partaking of the supper will be experienced in God leading us to Himself. He wants His children to know Him better. The Lord’s Supper is a gift from a gracious Saviour to help us better grasp, and experience, His love for us.
The first thing that needs to be affirmed, then, is that believers are expected to benefit from participation in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord has not left us a spectacle for us to admire, but a supper for us to eat and be spiritually nourished by, just as we give our children food to nourish them. Along with the preaching, hearing, reading of God’s word, prayer and the fellowship of the saints, the sacraments are ‘means of grace’. They are not bare or empty symbols, but vehicles for the Holy Spirit to bring us into sweeter communion with our risen Saviour (1 Cor. 10: 16). We benefit from the supper as we recognise and receive Christ by faith in the emblems of bread and wine.
Second, any benefit that we obtain from feeding on Christ at the supper is dependent, in large measure, on grasping that we are feeding on Christ in communion with other believers. The Lord’s Supper is not a transaction first between the individual Christian and Christ, but between the church fellowship as a whole and Christ. This is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 10: 17. The one common loaf is an expression and symbol of the one people of God. We gather at the supper as ‘family’. Together we meet and fellowship with our risen Lord. I am not saying there is no individual benefit for believers at the supper. Rather, I am saying that we come not as a disparate group of like-minded and like-hearted believers, but as God’s one family. This means we must seek to cultivate a sense of the theological imperative at the heart of the supper, namely that it heralds, highlights and proclaims the oneness of Christ’s church, the unity of the twice-born. Just as a family is greater than its constituent parts, so the church is greater than an aggregate of its members. One of Paul’s solemn strictures on the Corinthian church was that people were eating and drinking ‘without waiting for anybody else’ (1 Cor. 11: 21). There was an arrogant individualism that was bringing great dishonour to the celebrating of the Lord’s Supper.
Think familially. As you eat and drink say to yourself, ‘These are my brothers and sisters. We are all one in Christ. We belong to one another. We have all been redeemed by the same blood and are indwelt by the same Spirit. We are all the children of the same Father. We are blessed beyond all words.’ Also, it will help if we placard our unity by eating and drinking together, not individually the moment we receive the bread and wine.
Third, the benefit we receive from eating the Lord’s Supper lies, in measure, in our understanding what exactly the supper is. There is the widespread view that the supper is only a ‘memorial’ of Christ: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ It is undeniable that we eat and drink in remembrance of Him whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for us. It is, however, no less undeniable that the supper is also, as Paul dramatically puts it, a ‘communion in the blood of Christ’ and ‘a communion in the body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 10: 16). Calvin again takes us to the heart of the matter (Institutes 4.17.1):
…the signs are bread and wine, which represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ…. Now Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality.
We are not to imagine that the Lord’s Supper initiates us into a communion with Christ that we do not have through hearing the word of the gospel in faith. No. ‘Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.’ It is as if our heavenly Father draws us pictures of His grace to us in Christ, so that we will the better grasp and experience the wonder of that grace. Listen again to how Calvin explains this (Institutes 4.17.5):
…the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life; but when it reminds us that he was made the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savour of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread.
All of this is a great mystery to us. Calvin even urges us ‘not to confine [our] mental interest within… too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher’ than he is able to lead us. In a striking statement, he acknowledges:
…although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to confess.
Not everything in the life of faith can be reduced to comprehensive statements. There are profundities that take us out of our depth – and the Holy Supper of our Saviour is one of those profundities.
Pray then that the Lord, by the power of his Spirit, will feed you with Himself. Pray that His won graces will be more powerfully impressed on your soul. Pray that the presence of the One who walks among the lampstands (see Rev. 1: 13, 20; 2: 1) will be felt and experienced as in faith we eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6: 53,54).
Ian Hamilton is the minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.