Friday, August 14, 2009

Nourished by Christ's Body and Blood


The Spirit of John Calvin is truly with us in this season of his 500th birthday. Why else would a Disciple pastor spend so much time reflecting on Calvin's views of things -- like the Lord's Supper? The fact is, Calvin, while in no way perfect, has much to say to us on matters of great importance -- including the Lord's Table. I have always been attracted to his perspectives, especially as they were mediated in the 19th century through the Mercersberg Tradition of Schaff and Nevin. I'm nearly finished reading William Stacy Johnson's excellent little exploration of Calvin's views -- John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (WJK, 2009), which offers important insights for how we might approach Calvin today.

This little introduction leads me to the point of the post -- my continued conversation about the Lord's Supper. Calvin was neither a "mere memorialist" nor did he believe that the bread and wine became in substance the body and blood of Christ. Instead, he spoke of a spiritual presence -- not so much in the elements themselves, but in the whole experience of the Table. This perspective is, I think, a useful one. The question that we're wrestling with concerns the way in which Christ is present to us in the Sacrament. Here is a section from Calvin's extended discussion of the Eucharist found in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John McNeill, editor, (Westminster Press, 1960), Book IV, Chapter 17.

On the meaning and promise of the Supper, which includes discussion of the texts from John 6, he writes:

It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55]. By this he declares himself to be the bread of life, of which he who eats will live forever [john 6:48, 50]. And to do this, the Sacrament sends us to the cross of Christ, where that promise was indeed performed and in all respects fulfilled. For we do not eat Christ duly and unto salvation unless he is crucified, when in living experience we grasp the efficacy of his death. In calling himself "the bread of life," he did not borrow that name from the Sacrament, as some wrongly interpret. Rather, he had been given as such to us by the Father and showed himself as such when, being made a sharer in our human mortality, he made us partakers in his divine immortality; when offering himself as a sacrifice, he bore our curse in himself to imbue us with his blessing; when, by his death he swallowed up and annihilated death [cf. 1 Peter 34:22, VG., and 1 Cor. 15:54]; and when , in his resurrecting, he raised up this incorruptible flesh of ours, which he had put on, to glory and incorruption [1 Cor. 15:53-54]. -- Instititutes IV:17:4]


As you can see from this text, Calvin directly roots his understanding of the nourishing presence of Christ in the meal to the Cross, which is the source of salvation. There is some of Calvin's atonement theology at work here, but the point is, whatever happens in the Supper is rooted not just in the work of the Spirit, but in the cross of Christ -- to which the Supper bears witness.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Being a chemist, I could analyze the body of Christ (if I had a sample) compare it to a sample of bread and claim they were the same- if they were both reduced to the simplest elements. I don't think I could detect a change in the blessed bread vs unblessed.

I could see him using this example in modern times. He only asked for us to remember him as we do it, no magic, or even clergy required. Just faith that he exist(ed) in flesh and blood. More interesting, some insist he still exists as flesh and blood. That seems even more unlikely. I'd hate to wish that on Him. David Mc

John said...

I am thinking that He continues to exist, but that existence transcends flesh and blood. In First Century parlance the totality of a person was contained in his flesh and blood -- the blood being the vessel of Spirit, the body being that which could b perceived with the five senses. But Jesus is so much more than mere spirit or that which can be perceive with the senses.

And when we accept His invitation to eat his flesh and blood we are being invited to take into ourselves the totality of who He is - which transcends mere atoms.

I wonder if there is not a parallel with God breathing "life" into Adam - now Jesus seeks to infuses Himself into the lives of those who accept His invitation to the table.

John