In last week’s post on baptism, I asked you to imagine a young couple who declared that a carved wooden model of a baby that they had made was a real child. I noted that although in many ways this model child might be like any other baby in its outward appearance it would lack the crucial characteristic of a real baby in that it would lack the life which can only be bestowed upon a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.
I further noted that the only thing that could give life to a model baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have. Let us imagine for a minute that this miracle occurred. The young couple in our story would then have a real baby to look after and a central part of their responsibilities for this baby would be to ensure that it was regularly fed. This is because, after having received the gift of life human beings need to feed regularly in order that their lives may be sustained. Human beings require food in order to live.
The principle that life needs to be sustained by regular feeding applies not only to human beings as material creatures with physical bodies, but also to human beings as spiritual creatures created to have a relationship with God. Just as human beings as material creatures need to feed on material food for their physical life to be sustained, so also as spiritual creatures they need to feed on spiritual food in order for their relationship with God to be sustained.
It is this principle which underlies what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Its teaching on this topic runs as follows:
‘Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?
Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.
Question. What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer. Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.
Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?
Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.
Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?
Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.
Question. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?
Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.’
As in its teaching on baptism, what the Catechism says about the Lord’s Supper distinguishes between ‘the outward part or sign’ and the ‘inward part or thing signified.’
The outward part is the bread and wine, which Jesus told his disciples that they should eat and drink in remembrance of him (Matthew 26-26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The inward part is Jesus’ body and blood which were broken and shed for our salvation on the first Good Friday, and which are ‘verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.’ The benefit of this, the Catechism says, is the ‘strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.’
The concept that at the Lord’s Supper it is possible for people to take and receive Jesus’ body and blood and that their souls are strengthened when they do so is one that many people find baffling. This is for three reasons. Firstly, what is received at the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine and not flesh and blood. Secondly, Jesus body ascended into heaven at the end of his earthly life (Acts 1:6-11) and so is not present here on earth for us to feed on. Thirdly, even if Jesus’ body and blood were now physically accessible to us, consuming them would be cannibalism and it is impossible to see how this could benefit our relationship with God.
In order to make sense of what happens at the Lord’s Supper in the light of these objections we need to go back to the point I made in this blog two weeks ago about how material objects can be gifts of love. Consider a young man offering his young lady a bouquet of flowers, or an engagement ring. These are intended as a material expression of his love for her, and if she accepts them as such and returns his love, then their relationship will grow. To put it another way, his gifts of love are a way in which their relationship can be nourished and grow as a result.
In a similar way, when the Lord’s Supper takes place, Jesus, acting through the person administering the sacrament, offers us the bread and wine as a material expression of his love for us shown in his dying for us on the cross (’this is (i.e. signifies) my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you’). If we accept the bread and wine as signs of his love for us and respond with love for him in return, then the result will be that our relationship with him (and with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as well ) will be nourished (‘strengthened and refreshed’) and will continue to grow as a result.
However, as the Catechism goes on to warn, if the Lord’s Supper is to have this beneficial outcome three things must be present in those who receive the bread and wine,
First, there has to be repentance. Our relationship with God will not be able to grow unless we are willing to turn away from sin. Jesus died to deliver us from sin so we cannot say that we accept with gratitude what he did for us unless we are willing to reject it.
Secondly, there has to be faith. Unless we have a ‘lively’ (i.e. living ) faith in the truth that Jesus died to save us then we will not be able to accept the bread and wine as signs of this fact and grow in our relationship with God as result.
Thirdly, there has to be ‘charity with all men.’ In this context ‘charity’ means love and ‘men’ means people, regardless of their sex. As we have noted above, we have to respond to God’s love for us with love for him in return, and the sign that we have that responding love is our willingness to love our neighbour. Love for God and love for our neighbours go together. As 1 John 4:20 tells us: ‘he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.’
What all this means is that we have to take the Lord’s Supper seriously as a key means by which we may be fed spiritually by Jesus and through which our relationship with God may grow. We also have to approach it seriously, seeking God’s help to repent of our sins, to accept what Jesus has done for us, and to show love to our neighbours, so that there may be no barriers preventing us from receiving the love he wants to offer us through the sacrament.
This post is the end of my short series on the Prayer Book Catechism. If you would like to know more about the Catechism and it’s teaching you might find the following books helpful.
Martin Davie, Instruction in the Way of the Lord – A guide to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (London: Latimer Trust, 2014).
Frank Colquhoun, The Catechism and the Order of Confirmation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963).
Arthur Robinson, The Church Catechism Explained (Cambridge: CUP, 1903).
The last two are out of print, but can be obtained second hand.