A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
November 7, 2013
We continue looking at Reformed worship for markers of church authenticity, since Reformed confessions declare that wherever God is rightly worshiped the church is truly present. How does our participation in the sacraments mark us as a “true church?”
When we gather at the Lord’s Table we believe we are made present with our risen Lord at heaven’s table. It is a spiritual presence, but no less real than if we were bodily present with him. We are taken up by faith into the presence of our Host, who is “seated at the right hand of the Father” interceding for us. When we receive the bread and the cup, Jesus doesn’t descend to us; rather, we ascend to him. This is the Reformed understanding of what happens at the Lord’s Supper.
Sometimes the church acts as though it must summon the Lord’s presence among us. But the Table reminds us that in the household of faith that gathers in worship, Jesus is the host who welcomes us, rather than the other way around. What a relief not to have to conjure the Lord’s presence!
Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, said we should think of the church not as a building, nor as an institution, but as an “event.” It is the gathering of God’s people to God’s glory. The event is at core a royal pageant honoring the One we love and serve. Worship is a place of action, and the center of that action is our presenting ourselves to Jesus at his Table, where he intercedes for us and strengthens us for the mission into which he sends us.
Truthfully, it sounds terribly pedestrian to suggest that “all” we need to enter the divine presence is to hear Scripture proclaimed and respond with thanksgiving at a table decked with bread and wine. These elements are so very mundane. We tend rather to think of God’s presence in terms of visions, theophanies, and oracles – extraordinary phenomena of one sort or another. By way of analogy to Israel during the Exodus, we tend to understand ourselves being much more present to God at the foot of the thundering and flashing mountain than in our daily collection and ingestion of manna. Yet it is the latter rather than the former that sustains the life of God’s people.
John Calvin contended that God gives us sacraments because our experiential capacity as humans is limited to what our physical senses can perceive. God condescends (Calvin’s word) to these limitations by providing us tangible things to confirm for us salvation’s spiritual treasures. For Calvin, sacraments are “exercises which make us more certain of the trustworthiness of God’s Word. And because we are of flesh, they are shown us under things of flesh, to instruct us according to our dull capacity, and to lead us by the hand as tutors lead children.” (Institutes 4.14.5)
Communion bread and wine themselves are nothing more than ordinary food and drink; but when I receive them in confirmation of God’s Word with thanksgiving and faith, they transport me into the Lord’s presence and seal my certainty of his heaven-sent benefits being for me too! The gifts of divine grace are just as surely mine as are the bread and wine I have consumed.
Martin Luther reported that he was often assailed with doubts about his salvation. Eventually he learned that the best antidote to a rising crescendo of doubt was to recall his baptism. He might not be able gauge the sufficiency of his faith, but this much was undeniable – he had gotten wet in baptism’s waters, and God was present in that event. And that was enough to renew his confidence that his soul was secure in the mercy of the Lord. His students said that he could sometimes be heard in his chambers shouting, “I am baptized!”
So this is the benefit of the sacrament – it seals tangibly for me the certitude that God’s sovereign gift of salvation is for me too. The Christian community is authentically the church of Jesus Christ when it inculcates this assurance in each and all of its communicants. It is an assurance that changes our posture before God and one another from pride, defensiveness, fear, shame, or judgment to one of thanksgiving (the literal meaning of “Eucharist”) rooted in faith that God’s promises are as surely ours as are the waters that wash us and the bread and wine that feed us.
To recap: The assembly is authentically the church when its members are nurtured in continual thanksgiving that God’s gifts are as fully given to all who receive them by faith as are the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. No exceptions. Period.
For me, too!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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