Several weeks ago, my wife and I served communion at The Gathering, a Sunday evening service on the campus of Hope College, where I work. Communion is served at The Gathering every week, as it is at a number of other local churches — but weekly communion has never been a part of my church experience.
I suspect that the less frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the broadly Evangelical, nondenominational churches where I’ve worshipped for all of my adult life is largely a function of their understanding that communion is only or primarily a means of remembering Jesus’ crucifixion: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
If communion is what Pastor Uri Brito calls “a matter of subjective mental recollection,” then infrequent communion is just fine. But what if communion is something more than that? I suspect that churches which celebrate the Eucharist weekly do so because they believe that communion actually does something. And if that’s true — if communion actually does something — then what does it do?
To help answer that question, I turned to The Lord’s Supper, a small volume by Puritan Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686), originally published in 1665 as The Holy Eucharist. I don’t intend for this post to be a comprehensive review of the book or a complete summary of Watson’s argument — only to share some excerpts from the book that I appreciated as I read it.
In the first place, Watson argues against the remembrance-only view of communion, writing that a proper view:
“confutes such as look upon the Lord’s Supper only as an empty figure or shadow, resembling Christ’s death, but having no intrinsic efficacy in it. Surely this glorious ordinance is more than an effigy or representation of Christ.… Such as make the sacrament only a representation of Christ do aim short of the mystery, and come short of the comfort.” (18–19).
(He also argues against the “Papist” view of transubstantiation in language that would likely offend my Catholic friends.)
So if communion is more than a remembrance, what is it?
Throughout the book, Watson repeatedly insists that the elements of the Eucharist actually are the body and blood of Jesus. When a Christian partakes of the bread and the wine (or, sigh, the grape juice), he is consuming the body and blood of Jesus Christ — not in a literal, physical sense, but in a very real, spiritual sense:
- “We hold that Christ’s body is in the sacrament spiritually” (17).
- “Christ… gives us his body and blood in the Eucharist” (26).
- “[I]n the blessed Supper, Christ gives himself to believers; and what more can he give?” (26)
- “Christ offer[s] his body and blood to us in the Supper” (39).
- We “receive Christ in the sacrament” (40).
- “In the sacrament, the whole of Christ is served up to us” (49).
- “We shall have not only a representation, but a participation, of Christ in the sacrament” (59).
Watson writes, “in the right celebration of it, we have sweet communion with Christ” (18–19). In other words, we spiritually commune with Jesus. (This is, of course, what the word “communion” means. Duh.)
We receive the nutritious benefits of the medium-rare ribeye and cheesy potatoes by eating them; in a comparable way, by consuming the elements — which is to say, by consuming the body and blood of Christ — we receive the spiritual benefits of Christ’s crucifixion: “as surely as [we] receive the elements corporeally, so surely [do we] receive him into [our] hearts, spiritually” (7).
“In this gospel ordinance, Christ does not only show forth his beauty, but sends forth his virtue. The sacrament is not only a picture drawn, but a breast drawn; it gives us a taste of Christ as well as a sight” (19). By “a breast drawn,” Watson means that we nurse on Christ as an infant nurses on his mother’s breast: “We need but cry, and he [Jesus] gives the breast” (44). Except, in this case, we nurse not on milk but on blood.
Watson spends much of the short volume outlining the benefits of Christ crucified that we receive in the Lord”s Supper: “All kinds of virtues come from him: mortifying, mollifying, comforting. Oh, then feed on him. This grace of faith is the great grace to be sent to work at the sacrament” (49).
At the beginning of the book, Watson responded to an important objection, asking, “But why was the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper appointed? Is not the Word sufficient to bring us to heaven?” (2). And he answers:
“The word is for the engrafting, the sacrament for the confirming of faith. The Word brings us to Christ, the sacrament builds us up in him. The Word is the font where we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, the sacrament is the table where we are fed and cherished. The Lord condescends to our weakness. Were we made up all of spirit, there would be no need of bread and wine, but we are compounded creatures. Therefore God, to help our faith, does not give us an audible Word, but a visible sign” (2).
Now, I do know that a lot of this is basic — especially to my friends in confessional and sacramental churches. But to those of us who were raised in Evangelical and nondenominational churches, this is a fairly revolutionary, radical view. In some ways, reading this book felt like a halting lurch toward a recovery of an inheritance that has been kept from me: Communion is not only a remembrance; rather, it actually does something.
To bring it back to my brief, initial comments on the frequency of communion: If in the Eucharist we commune with Jesus himself, and are fed his body and blood, and our faith is strengthened, and we receive comfort, and we are built up in him, and we are cherished by him — then it follows that we should eat at this table often: “There is no danger of excess at this Supper… the more we take the bread of Life, the more healthy we are, and the more we come to our spiritual complexion” (44).
At the very least, Watson’s book made me hunger for the Eucharist. I don’t expect that America’s non-confessional churches will move away from a remembrance-only view of communion, but as for me and my house:
“We should pray that God would enrich his ordinance with his presence; that he would make the sacrament effectual for all those holy ends and purposes for which he hath appointed it; that it may be the feast of our graces, and the funeral of our corruptions; that it may be not only a sign to represent, but an instrument to convey, Christ to us, and a seal to assure us of our heavenly jointure [union]” (57).