He said, “This is my body.” We are to receive it as such and we are fed by it because it is his body. We confess, “This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.”
In our course on the Reformed Confessions the end of the semester brings us near the end of the Belgic Confession, to article 35 on the Lord’s Supper. It is a marvelous confession of what God’s Word teaches us about the nature of the Holy Supper, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Every time I have the opportunity to walk through this article with the students it is always a wonder to me that so many Reformed folk are so resistant to more frequent communion. I am in good company. This was a source of great frustration to Calvin too, who made it clear that he regarded the Genevan practice as defective. He argued positively for weekly communion in Institutes 4.17.43–44. See also his comments, in 1561, (Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, p. 96) indicating that even though they had improved the practice from three times a year to monthly, “I took care to have it recorded in the public records, however, that our way was wrong, so that correcting it might be easier for future generations.” His goal was always weekly communion.
I keep asking myself: why are so many Reformed folk so resistant to weekly communion? The reason the Genevans were reluctant is the same reason they refused to allow Calvin to pronounce the forgiveness of sins as part of the worship service: they feared that it would lead Geneva back to Rome. It is true Geneva had some reason to fear. In 1539 Cardinal Sadoleto had written a seductive letter which the Genevan authorities so feared might send the city back to Rome that they asked Calvin, whom they had just exiled, to write a response. For the record, despite the way that the Genevans had treated him he consented. His response to Sadoleto is considered one of the great defenses of the Protestant Reformation. There was external pressure from the House of Savoy to consider also as well as those old-money Genevan families who never really embraced the Reformation. Is there any evidence that weekly communion leads Reformed congregations back to Rome? They observed weekly communion in Strasbourg while Calvin was there and Strasbourg did not return to Rome. I know of congregations who have practiced weekly communion for decades now and they are in no danger of returning to Rome. This objection seems to be a non-starter.
Another objection to weekly communion is that it will make the Supper less significant. In that case, if weekly communion makes the Supper less significant then, by all means, let us do away with weekly sermons. It will hardly do anything that would make the preaching of the Word less important. If quarterly communion is what is needed to keep the Supper in proper perspective then quarterly sermons are next.
I have long suspected that the real grounds for objecting to weekly communion lie in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Supper. For many evangelical and Reformed Christians communion is considered exclusively as a memorial, as an opportunity to remember our sins and the suffering and death of Christ and to grieve for both. In short, for too many Reformed folk holy communion has become a funeral and the idea of a weekly funeral is too much to bear. When Christians who think of the Supper this way hear “weekly communion” what they think is, “a weekly funeral” and they shudder.
The Belgic Confession is a wonderful antidote to this way of thinking. The first thing we confess about the Lord’s Supper is that it is a supper: “We believe and confess
that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper…”. The first thing we say is not “We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the holy funeral.” The principal function of the Supper is not grieving. It is appropriate to remember our sins and to repent of them, as we prepare for the Supper but the Supper is not chiefly a funeral. It is a meal.
An ordinary supper is a meal. It is a way that our bodies are nourished. We confess that like an ordinary (common) meal, the Holy Supper is a meal, a spiritual feast, instituted by Christ “to nourish and sustain those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church.” Imagine that, for some reason, you ran out of food in your house and that all the stores were closed for two days so that you could not eat for two days. You would be quite weak and very hungry after two days. Imagine that your fast continues. Your body will begin to burn muscle to stay alive and then its fat reserves. After that, well, things become rather grim. If that is so, and it is, why do we think that we need only to be fed by the body and blood of Christ infrequently? This is just how we consider the matter in Belgic 34. We confess that we have a “twofold life” (duplex vita), because we live in a twofold kingdom: temporal and eternal. By the operation of the Holy Spirit, “through the word of the Gospel,” we are given a new, second, spiritual life. The chief purpose of the Holy Supper is “for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have…”.
Christ, of course is that heavenly bread, who feeds us with himself. This is one of the truths that I am confident most believers miss about the Lord’s Supper. They are so focused on grieving for their sins and remembering the death of Christ (αναμνήσεις), both of which are a legitimate part of the observance of the Supper, that the lose track of the fact that the Supper is not fundamentally about what we do in response to the Gospel, nor is it at all about our presenting ourselves to God on the basis of our preparation—that is a contradiction of the gospel—rather it is about Christ giving himself to us. The Supper is a gospel sacrament. It is good news for needy sinners.