For most American Christians who were not brought up in one of the ancient or liturgical Churches, the Communion meal is seen as simply rehearsing the Last Supper event. It is just a way to remember the sacrifice of Jesus. Christ is not present in the meal in any sense of the word. Nothing “happens” according to the memorial doctrine during the serving of the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, most Evangelical, Pentecostal, and even many mainline Protestant churches, serve the Lord’s Supper only once a month.
The practice of viewing suspiciously the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist seems to have begun late in the Reformation period, primarily as a reaction against the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism.
Yet, it is clear that if not all, then practically all, of the church fathers believed unequivocally in Christ’s Real Presence in the meal. Add to that many reformation-minded church leaders, to varying degrees, still held to the Biblical doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And, interestingly, most of the original reformers held to the necessity of participating in the Eucharist at least weekly.
Here are a few thoughts from those reformation thinkers that I allude to above:
1. John Wycliffe said in his De Eucharistia that the Eucharist “effects the presence of the body of Christ …. Not that the bread is destroyed, but that it signifies the body of the Lord there present in the sacrament.”
2. John Hus said, “The humblest priest doth not … say that he is the creator of Christ, but that the Lord Christ by His power and word, through him, causes that which is bread to be His body; not that at the time it began to be His, but that there on the altar begins to be sacramentally in the form of the bread what previously was not there and therein.”
3. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true Body and Blood of Christ, under the bread and wine.”
4. John Calvin wasn’t far off in his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper: “It is a spiritual mystery which cannot be seen by the eye nor be comprehended by human understanding. Therefore it is represented for us by means of visible signs, according to the need of our weaknesses. Nevertheless, it is not a naked figure, but one joined to its truth and substance. With good reason then, the bread is called the body, because it not only represents, but also presents it.”
All of the great theologians who wrote of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist understood the Eucharistic transformation to be a mystery–but a mystery that all Christians should engage in regularly, seriously, and joyfully. That is why Christ gave us this central rite, not simply as a remembrance, but as spiritual feeding, of mystical union with Him in order that we might be strengthened in our faith and empowered for His mission in the world.
It is my prayer that those in the Free Church movement who have missed appreciating the beautiful mystery of the Eucharist will recapture this essential Biblical doctrine in order that all those wonderful Christians who are members thereof may more deeply experience the glory of worshipping both in Spirit and in Truth.
© Paul Dordal, 2012