White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Longing for the Table of Meeting

Published Tuesday, June 2, 2020 By Matthew Everhard

I cannot wait to hear the sounds of children laughing and playing again in the Narthex. I cannot wait to share hugs with a dozen surrogate grandparents who dote on my kids as their own. I can’t wait to shake the hands of the greeters without worries of hand-sanitizer scarcities running through the back of my head. Like almost every pastor in our nation, and many more around the world, I am eagerly anticipating reopening our church for public worship on the Lord’s Day. But above all of the cheerful aspects of her fellowship, above the pleasant harmony of our voices blending together, I have been longing most to come to the Lord’s Table again.

It goes by various names: the Eucharist refers to its blessed liturgy and sublime prayers. The Lord’s Table or Holy Supper refers to her banqueting celebration and joy. It is also commonly called Communion, because we meet with both God and the assembly of saints in special and unique ways. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is among the highest privileges and joys for believers. Confessional Protestantism gives Communion a higher place than low-church evangelicalism. Memorialist, historically Zwinglian, views on the Table typically hold sway in low-church evangelicalism.[1] But Confessional protestant churches believe something actually happens at the Table.[2] Let me explain.

If the Lord’s Supper has past, present, and future implications, generic evangelical memorialism appreciates well enough both the past and the future. The Supper, of course, looks back on the meaning of Christ’s historic death and resurrection, and forward to His future return (1 Cor. 11:26). So far so good. But Reformation-heritage churches also believe that “something happens” at the Table today, in the very present. This “something” is mysterious, glorious, even spiritual (at the risk of overusing a too-worn term).[3]

This something is what Paul calls “participation” in 1 Corinthians 10:16, translating the richly textured Greek word koinonia, which means an intimate and personal unity and fellowship. This participation is both horizontal and vertical. It is horizontal in as much as the believing assembly — members together in accountable, relational, and covenantal bonds — come together to feed spiritually. We come freely confessing, and freely feasting; repenting heartily and singing joyfully as we do. But this koinonia is also vertical, and herein lies the mystery. In ways that elude precise definition — though the Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 170, perhaps comes as close as we may get — we actually meet with Christ:

As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.

At the Table, at this incomparable meeting place, Christ somehow lifts us up to where He Himself is (Calvin’s terms[4]), and bestows upon believers His covenantal presence, so that He is truly and spiritually — if not bodily — among His people.

No Virtual Imitation

It is actually impossible to share the Lord’s Supper without being together, which is why Paul stresses interpersonal gathering, as only an assembled church can do. Four separate times he frames the meal as uniquely for “when you come together” (1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33). Lockdown orders, stay-at-home mandates, and prudence being the better part of valor have kept us physically distant from one another for just about two months. While some churches have gone into new territory and invented new forms of “virtual sacraments,” the wiser course has been to hold fast the faith, and refrain.

Zoom meetings and YouTube Live streams are an extraordinary blessing for modern Christians, far beyond what previous generations of Christians could have ever dreamed of. In Miscellany no. 262, Jonathan Edwards tried to imagine what forms of communication believers would have in the Millennium, but even his sparklingly creative genius could not envision what we can do today with a high-speed internet connection.[5] But by inventing new sacramental forms (read: online communion) to consecrate bread, and sanctify the cup we would forfeit most or all of the present aspect mentioned above; that “something happens” mystery that Westminster Confession of Faith, 29 and Heidelberg Catechism, 76 describe.

No, rather than risk last minute scrambles for juice-box “wine,” and potato chip “bread” from happening in living rooms all over the interwebs — not to mention the impossibility of actually Fencing the Table —confessional Protestant churches have had only one choice during this crisis: wait.

 

Preparing for Future Table Meetings

This time however, has had the positive impact of increasing our longing for the Supper, and our desire to meet Him at His Table. Just as physical fasting increases the body’s desire for food, so also this unplanned fast from the Lord’s Table should be increasing our desire to meet covenantally as the people of God and feast on this divinely-commissioned foretaste of the greater, Heavenly banquet (cf. Rev.19:6-9).

In the meanwhile, we would do well to prepare our hearts for this glorious eventuality, using the advice of Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 171, as our heart-guide:

They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

 

 

 

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the pastor of Gospel Fellowship Presbyterian Church (PCA) just North of Pittsburgh. He is the author of A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (JESociety Press, 2018).

 

 

 

[1] See Michael Horton’s discussion in The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Christians on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 769-771.

[2] Horton, The Christian Faith, 798-820.

[3] Calvin himself admitted, “Now, should any ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend, or for words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel it than understand it.” Institutes 4.17.32.

[4] Institutes 4.17.31.

[5] “‘Tis probable that this world shall be more like heaven in the millennium in this respect, that contemplative and spiritual employments, and those things that more directly concern the mind and religion, will be more the saints’ ordinary business than now. There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business, that they shall have more time for more noble exercises, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth, by a more expedite and easy and safe communication between distant regions than now. The invention of the mariner’s compass is one thing by God discovered to the world for that end; and how exceedingly has that one thing enlarged and facilitated communication! And who can tell but that God will yet make it more perfect; so that there need not be such a tedious voyage in order to hear from the other hemisphere, and so the countries about the poles need no longer to lie hid to us, but the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ.”

  • Matthew Everhard