01 November 2011

Real Presence

John 14: 1-8

Reformation/ All Saints’ Sunday/ 30th October 2011/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Even though I’m in the pulpit, I want to draw your attention away from here toward the table.  The table is all prepared for the celebration of the sacrament.  The Church has many names for what we are about to share together:  Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist, Love Feast, Mass.  Every Christian tradition has something valuable to say about what this sacrament is and how to share it. For us it isn’t an altar, but a table.

For those of us who grew up in the Reformed tradition – Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed – we probably have very similar experiences around of this meal, what it means. If you grew up Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, or Roman Catholic, you have other associations of this meal. Maybe you didn’t grow up in the church and don’t have any associations with the meal – which might be a good thing because you don’t have the some of the baggage that comes with our traditions.

            Last Sunday in adult education we talked about the meaning of the sacraments and what our views of the Lord’s Supper were as children or now as adults.  I grew up Presbyterian, as did Dorothy Boulton.  I didn’t have strong associations with the meal as a child.  I can remember friends and even adults muttering on Communion Sundays that the service would be fifteen minutes longer that morning. It seemed more of an inconvenience, than a cause for joy.  In fact, there was no joy around the meal.  It was a somber, funereal meal in which we remembered the death of Christ, of a body broken, of blood shed, of death.  The feeling was heavy, it was dour, to use a good Scots word. It was gloomy and sullen, something to be endured (dour and endure are related etymologically).  I was taught in confirmation class that it was a “memorial meal.”  That is, we have Communion periodically during the year to remember Christ’s death.  At some level I guess I equated “Communion” with “death.” My childhood pastor studied at the oldest Protestant Seminary in the United States, New Brunswick Theological Seminary situated on the campus of Rutgers College – founded by the old Dutch Reformed Church.  Rutgers was originally a training grounded for Dutch Reformed ministers.

            My pastor’s view of the Lord’s Supper, like many of his colleagues across the Reformed tradition educated in other seminaries, was heavily influenced not by John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, but by the thought of the reformer Ülrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zürich. Zwingli’s theology of the Lord’s Supper held to a “commemorative view;” it was essentially a memorial meal.  We shared the sacrament in order to remember Christ’s death.  The Zwinglian view prevailed in the Church of Scotland and in many Reformed bodies. 

            I can remember people in my own church, including my mother, sort of downplaying the importance of the sacraments.  It was “just” a memorial meal – with the word “just” it was discounted, as a method of memory it didn’t carry a lot of importance.  I can recall my pastor standing at the table saying, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God,” but there was really nothing joyful about it.  And it didn’t look like a feast.

            I’m not judging my pastor’s theology or my mother’s faith.  It was what they believed; it was also what they were taught.  It was only years later at Princeton Seminary that I discovered a fuller theological view; since then my understanding has grown over the years and is still growing.  You could say that while I was formed by Zurich, but I was and am being reformed by Geneva. That is, I discovered that Calvin didn’t approach the sacrament as “just” a memorial meal.  In the sixteenth century the one question that plagued both Protestants and Catholics was where Christ was located in the sacrament.  It seems arcane to us, maybe, but it was a hotly debated question at the time.  As we know, Roman Catholics over centuries developed a theology of the Mass, a sacrifice, in which they came to confess that the bread and wine are literally transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ.  To consume the elements is to consume Christ.  It is through the Mass that grace gets into you that why you should go to Mass often, daily actually.  The Protestants wanted none of that, primarily because scripture can’t substantiate such a view.  But even among Protestants agreement was elusive.  The Lutherans engaged in heated, angry debate with the likes of Calvin and Zwingli.  The Lutherans said the elements didn’t change, but Christ was located in the elements. Calvin and Zwingli and many other Reformed pastors didn’t agree, but even they couldn’t agree on what goes on in the sacrament.  In the end, Zwingli’s “memorial” view prevailed, perhaps because it’s the simplest.

            In contrast, Calvin believed the sacrament was more than a memorial meal.  He didn’t agree that Christ was limited to the elements.  But he would not give up on the notion that when we celebrate the meal, rightly administered, that Christ was present. It wasn’t imaginary or magical, but what he called a “real presence.”  In fact, it might come as a surprise to many that his views on the sacrament come very close to what we would call a mystical understanding. Can you imagine Calvin as a mystic?  Yet, the argument could be made.  That is, he believed that when we share the meal we encounter the real presence of Christ and that this meal is really Holy Communion because there is an actual communion that takes place between human beings and the Holy.  When we share the meal we are participating in Christ’s presence.  Communion is union with Christ. Calvin said, “It is not lawful for us to drag Christ down from heaven to be in the bread;”[1] instead, the Holy Spirit conveys the human spirit to unite with Christ in the heavenly realm.  When we celebrate the sacrament we are lifted up to Christ.[2]

            Now, the logical part of our brains will probably kick-in at this point and try to figure out how this could be so. However, Calvin, who was an extraordinary logical thinker, penned these telling words in his Institutes from 1559:  “Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare.  And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.  Therefore, I embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest.”[3]  I rather experience than understand it – this is an extremely significant and wise statement coming from Mr. Logical.  He experiences the real presence of Christ in the meal; with profound reverence he opens himself to the power of the symbols of bread and wine and rests in the knowledge that somehow, some way Christ will communicate himself through the meal.

            This is no memorial meal for Calvin but something far more profound and significant – it’s a mystery that confronts us and embraces us, it’s a mystery that pulls us into a deeper communion, a union with Christ.  It is not to be understood, but experienced.  This is a remarkable understanding, given that the Reformed tradition has never known what to do with religious experience. We would rather stay in the safer world of reason, of logic, of belief, of understanding.  But, to be honest, who really understands what’s going on here at the table?

            It was theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886), in 1846, writing up at Mercersburg Seminary (which evolved into Franklin and Marshall College), who tried to reclaim Calvin’s view.  Most have never heard of Nevin, very few read him these days.  He took on the Zwinglian tradition, represented at the time by the towering theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary. And they were towering, Princeton Seminary dominated the theological world in America for almost a century, with theologians such as Charles Hodge (1797-1878).  In Nevin’s book The Mystical Presence, he tried to reclaim the real presence tradition within Reformed Protestantism.  In language that is oddly contemporary and relevant, he urged the Church to remember that Christianity is not first a belief system; it’s not first about doctrine.  Ideas are “cold and dead,” he said.  Doctrine, important as it is, only follows from experience.  Doctrine as such has “no power as such to generate life.”  Christianity has “living power” he writes, but it comes not through doctrine and theological prepositions.  It comes through an experience with Christ.  This is perhaps the appropriate way we should read John 14, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  This verse troubles a lot of people, particularly liberal-minded Christians.  It sounds so exclusive.  But note that Jesus doesn’t give us doctrine here or beliefs about him.  These aren’t life.  Jesus said, he is the way, the truth, the life – not beliefs about him, he gives us his self, his person, who he is is the embodiment of God’s love.[4]  It’s about the person.  It’s a person that we follow. When we are in him, we share his way, share his truth, and share his life. It comes through the depth of the relationship, through ever-deeper communion with Christ.

            So how do we share in his life?  Where do we encounter his presence?  There are many ways and many occasions, including the table.  Here we can see why for Calvin the Lord’s Supper is more than just a memorial meal and why he wanted Communion served every week in worship, but the elders in Geneva said, “No.”  Remembering is important and powerful, but does it allow us to really share, participate, and experience Christ’s presence?  If remembering alone is so effective, then why has our Presbyterian way of sharing the supper been so dour?  Does remembering as such transform us?  Does remembering unite us with the “living-power” of God?  Perhaps if we realize that when say in the Communion prayer, “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord” – known as the sursum corda – that we are being mystically lifted up into the presence of God, we would see ourselves welcomed to the Table where Christ is as host and we the honored guests. Perhaps then we will have more than an understanding, but an actual experience.  Perhaps if we approach the table not simply remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, but participating in his death and resurrection, sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, we might then move from seeing this as a somber, heavy meal to what we actually confess, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God,” and what Jesus himself said it was, “Men and women will come from north and south and east and west [– eager –] to sit at table in the kingdom” (Luke 13:29).

            Viewing the Table as mystically participating in Christ takes on even deeper meaning when we remember that whenever we share this meal, the saints below (that’s us, a saint is a beloved child of God) share this meal with the saints “above” in glory. When we celebrate the feast on this All Saints’ Sunday let us imagine we’re at the table with all the saints who have gone on before us and urge us on in the work before us.  This is more than “just” a memorial.  More is going on here than we might suspect or could ever imagine.  The key is remaining open to it all.  So let us go to the Lord’s Table, with joy, with eager hearts burning to dwell in the presence of the Lord.  Knowing, as we will sing at the end of the service, “O blest Communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, but they in glory shine.  Yet all are one in Thee for all are thine.  Alleluia! Alleluia!”[5]  Amen.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 4.17.31.
[2] Calvin, “But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread.  For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us.  To them Christ does not seem present unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence!  The question is therefore only the manner, for they place Christ in the bread, while we do not think it lawful for us to drag him from heaven.  Let our readers decide which one is more correct.  Only away with that calumny that Christ is removed from his Supper unless he lies hidden under the covering of the bread!  For since this mystery is heavenly, thee is no need to draw Christ to earth that he may be joined to us.” 4.17.31.
[3] Calvin, 4.17.32. Emphasis mine.  He continues:  “He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53ff.].  I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food.  In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine.  I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.”
[4] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or CalvinisticDoctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott, 1846), 21-22, 23. Cf. quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Only as life, is Christianity the life of men; as the Savior himself clearly signifies, when he says, not that his doctrine is the truth, but, I am the truth, which is immediately referred again to his, that he is also the life” (23).  Emphasis original to the text. Nevin studied at Princeton Seminary (1823-1828), studied under Hodge, and taught Hodge’s classes at Princeton when he was in Europe (1826-1828).  In April 1848, Charles Hodge responded to Nevin in a review published in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. In September 1850, Nevin published a 128 page response to Hodge in the Mercersburg Review.
[5] Stanza from the hymn, “For All the Saints;” text by William Walsham How (1823-1897).

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