The Eucharist and the Church

Introduction

            On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus celebrated a meal with his most intimate friends. Based on the Passover Seder that would have been observed the following night, Jesus spoke the liturgy of the Seder while at the same time preaching the Gospel. After he had broken the bread, he told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19b)[1]. After Pentecost, when the church had formed, this meal was continually celebrated (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). This tradition was passed on from generation after generation of Christ-followers.

            In the modern-day church experience, the Eucharist is celebrated according to many different traditions. This essay will cover the theology of the Eucharist with brief descriptions of varying views and a personal ministerial application. Always present will be the scriptural references to the celebration.

Theology of the Eucharist

            The Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper or Communion) is considered one of the church’s sacraments. Clowney describes a sacrament as “a participation in saving grace… God’s application of salvation to sinners.”[2] While the sacrament of baptism signifies the believer’s entrance into faith, the Eucharist is a sacrament that is ongoing and necessitates the corporate gathering of believers (the church).[3] Both sacraments signify an oath of fidelity to Christ and his church.[4]

            In the case of the Eucharist, this celebration is a reaffirmation of a person’s identity as a Christ-follower. Unfortunately, there have been disagreements among Christians on the theological meaning of the Eucharist. Roman Catholics teach transubstantiation (the meal’s elements are the actual body and blood of Christ), while Protestants are divided even further on the meaning. During the Reformation, Luther taught consubstantiation (the elements have the indwelling presence of Jesus but do not turn into the actual body and blood).[5]  Zwingli taught that the sacrament is just a memorial with no actual presence.[6] Calvin split the difference between Luther and Zwingli. He taught “Christ’s spiritual presence in the elements.”[7] Meanwhile, Eastern Orthodox believers hold to a view that is similar to transubstantiation but emphasizes the mystery of the Trinity within the Eucharistic celebration.[8]

            Unfortunately, as Allison points out, what was instituted as a celebration of unity in Christ  has “turned into the very antithesis: because of different understandings of this ordinance—understandings particularly focused on the nature of the presence of Jesus Christ in the celebration (e.g., transubstantiation, consubstantiation)—the Lord’s Supper has been and continues to be a source of disunity and conflict among churches.”[9] However, all can agree that something very spiritual and mystical happens during a celebration of the Eucharist. The vast majority of Christian faith traditions hold that the Eucharist is mandated and should be celebrated regularly. This celebration is to be done with the unity that Jesus called his church to embrace (John 17:20-23).

Ministerial Application

            In my study, I chose to use the word Eucharist as it describes thankfulness and gratitude. Jesus gave thanks for the cup and the bread (Matthew 26:26-27). As the Passover (the meal the Eucharist is based on) was celebrated in memory of Israel’s delivery from slavery to Egypt, the Eucharistic rite is a celebration of gratitude and remembrance of Jesus’ delivery of us from sin’s slavery to freedom.

            I have more agreement with Calvin’s interpretation of the celebration. When Jesus spoke the words of initiation, he was speaking in figurative language. His body had not yet been offered as a sacrifice. He could not have meant that the elements would become or contain his actual body and blood. However, as Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians 11, it is a celebration to be approached with self-examination (vss. 27-34). Whenever I officiate over the Eucharist celebration, I always offer a time of reflective confession of sin and a personal search for unforgiveness. It is not that we have to be perfect when approaching the Eucharistic table; we must be open to the Holy Spirit and the work he will do through the celebration.

For this reason, I believe that the celebration is for followers of Jesus only. I also think that the Eucharistic celebration should be held with high frequency. Quarterly or monthly celebrations, to my mind, are inadequate (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Conclusion

            Even though different Christian traditions have different views and approaches to the Eucharist, we are unified in that God does a powerful spiritual act when we approach him in the rite. No other religion or worldview has this kind of celebration. We are privileged to have the institution of the Eucharist. It calls our minds and our spirits through the use of our bodies in the present to remember the past (“Do this in remembrance of me” Luke 22:19) in hope for the future (Matthew 26:29).


[1] All scriptures taken  from the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017).

[2] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 271.

[3] Ibid, 272.

[4] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994) Kindle Locations 7580-7584.

[5] Ibid, 7881-7883.

[6] Ibid, 7889-7890.

[7] Ibid, 7904.

[8] “Volume II – Worship: The Sacraments – Holy Eucharist”, The Orthodox Church in America, https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/holy-eucharist.

[9] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 365.

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