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Transforming Presence: A Meditation on the Lord's Supper

Gregory E. Reynolds

When I administer the Lord's Supper—as I do each Sabbath—after distributing the bread, I say, "Take eat, this is my body ... " I never say, "Our Lord said," or words to that effect. I say the same for the wine. Why? Because I seek to implement the Calvinistic doctrine of the real presence of our Lord. He is the resurrected, enthroned, living host of the Supper. It is his Supper. I speak in his place, thus, not as if he were absent. Liturgically it is important that those partaking understand that there is more going on in the Lord's Supper than meets the eye. By his Word and Spirit the Lord is present, and his presence is a transforming one.

Of course, there is a sense in which he is absent, and that is why I speak in his place. "I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29, emphasis added). We have not yet entered into the complete enjoyment of the glorious achievement of our mediator, the second Adam—the consummate and continuous communion symbolized by the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev.19:6-10). Jesus' statement is a promise that leads us on—a hope that forms the bright horizon of the Christian life. We feed now by faith and not by sight. But the Word of God gives us substantial food, a spiritual foretaste of the coming union of heaven and earth. That nourishment we receive now.

For sustenance, we remember Christ's once-for-all work on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. This strengthens us in the reality of our completed redemption, and assures us of God's love and care, and of his faithfulness to bring us to that day. More than a mere signification, the Lord's Supper is a seal of all of the benefits he has won for us in his death and resurrection, by virtue of our union with him. By faith we "receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death" (WCF 29.7). The Supper is also a "bond and pledge of [our] communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body" (WCF 29.1). So a present blessing is communicated by Christ's Word and Spirit. He is present with us by these means. Our mediator is, as it were, mediated to us by his Word and Spirit through our participation in the meal. This is a real presence—a transforming presence.

The experience of eating in space and time, in our bodies—fallen though they are—in the presence of the congregation, which is the body of Christ, is a significant form of communion almost lost in our world. Fast food and gourmet dining (as a kind of hobby) have alike distanced us from the idea of a meal as personal communion—as a celebration and affirmation of personal relationships, especially as they are bound in covenants. In contrast to the lack of true dining in our world, the Lord's Supper accentuates the reality of the incarnation of our Lord as the first of a new humanity, a new creation, who summons us to join him in celebrating and enjoying his accomplishment.

This communion is meant to have a transforming influence on its participants by virtue of our Lord's presence in the meal. Such presence in everyday life and in the sacrament is severely threatened by the discarnate tendency of electronic mediation, which disconnects us from the presence of others in ways that are often too intangible to be fully appreciated. We can only wonder how much the pervasiveness of electronic mediation has contributed to the lack of transformed lives in the modern church. Oddly, this very same tendency toward disembodiment is directly related to the reduction of life to molecules and formulae—to bits, bites, and pixels. We are impatient with mysteries—with anything we cannot control or define. It is these attitudes that hinder us from fully appreciating the importance of the Supper, and yet draw us to it as a necessary antidote to our worst tendencies as a culture.

The love of God, demonstrated so concretely in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, assures us that that love is really communicated to those who eat and drink at the feast by the host who has invited them. This in turn calls the guests to serve the gracious host, learning the ways of his holy kingdom. The Supper is a corporate feast, shared with the body, and meant to nurture our relationships with one another in a loving, holy community of the new creation in Christ.

Presence is a mysterious and irreplaceable reality intrinsic to our creaturehood. Media critic Stephen Talbott tells the story of a young boy whose father took him for a day hike in the woods. On the trail they encountered a beautiful snake and spent some time watching it. Upon returning home the boy exclaimed to his father, "That was the most wonderful day of my life." Why did this outing seem so extraordinary to the boy? Talbott goes on to envision a typical boy's day in which he is surrounded by electronic media—his entire day mediated by various technologies. His first-hand experience is marginal. This makes the snake on the hike exceptional—nothing like the prosaic experience of seeing a hundred such snakes on a nature program. The actual presence of the father, the woods, and the snake left a deep impression on the boy.

The Lord's Supper, like the preached Word, and public worship as a whole, is an experience of our risen Lord's presence through his chosen medium. As we see, and smell, and taste, along with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are assured that our Lord's love for us is historical and real. The Latin praesentia means "being at hand." Without leaving heaven—because his body is fully human and therefore finite—Jesus is at hand, coming alongside us, by his Word and Spirit.

The coming again of Jesus is described by Paul as his appearance, his presence (παρουσία, parousia). "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him ..." (2 Thess. 2:1). As we long for the final and permanent visit of Jesus to his people, he calls us on the way to his promised land through his presence in the Supper. In our feeding on Christ he imparts and seals the promise of resurrection glory that he has won at the cross and presently enjoys in his exalted state. His body and blood are communicated to us in the heavenly mode as "wholesome food for our souls ... a spiritual repast ... effected through the secret virtue of his Holy Spirit," as Calvin expressed it in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:24.

So our Savior's presence is a transforming presence. The purifying hope of his future and final visitation is fortified by the Supper. As John tells us, this hope has a sanctifying influence on us in preparation for the heaven land. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3). His formative influence upon us is visible. "Now when they [the temple authorities] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13). So the transformational power of the Supper should make it evident to those around us that we have been with Jesus.

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