He is not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. But Tim Chester is prescient. Little did he know that the Western church would enact the thought experiments which open his recent book, Truth We Can Touch: How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives.
Congregations across the globe have performed these studies: what would you lose if you couldn’t sing as a church? What would you lose if you never celebrated Communion?
At a time when bread and wine are distant from our experience, when many churches are trying to survive on Zoom-mediated services, we feel intuitively that something is lost and missing. But when we try to decipher the hole in our lives, it is hard to identify. We miss something, but what it is? One clue is found in the nature of the Lord’s Supper. This sacrament, Chester argues sagely, is like holding hands. Holding the hands of your spouse has no intrinsic value, but it communicates the one-flesh union that is marriage. A couple who coupled hands might signal their love, but a married couple draws on a covenantal well beyond the physical act. The Supper is Jesus holding your right hand, reassuring our wayward hearts that he will receive us into glory.
Setting the body and the spirit at odds is a timeworn tactic, but the sacraments display to our eyes and our skin the promises of God. The objectivity of the Word is buttressed with these physical tokens. Chester’s book reminds us of our dependence on what the Lord has ordained in reality. The conjunction of our weakness and the stunning beauty of the sacraments should cause us to delight that our Father would provide this visible Word. As Calvin quipped, “The sacraments bring the clearest promises and they represent the word for us as painted in a picture.” God doesn’t just tell us the dictum: “You are united to my Son.” Rather, he clothes the intellectual in physical form.
We don’t simply get truth downloaded into our minds about Jesus, but receive Jesus himself. Haven’t we felt the burden of subsiding on our own reserves these past months? Here is a resource to encourage you as your church moves back to corporate celebration of baptism and Communion. Why should we resume partaking of bread and wine?
These ordinary, created items are life-changing. As we are guests at the table of Jesus, we learn what it means to serve from the Suffering Servant. As we receive the generous gift of a Father who stoops to deliver grace in matter and form, we learn what it means to be generous with our earthly goods. As we see the Lord use the visible Word, enacted as the new covenant antitype of the Mosaic sacrificial corpus, our view of the world and the Word is reshaped.
This view, that God is the primary agent in the Supper, is radically different from our natural understanding. We want to be the lead actors in our own narratives, yet the Word humbles us—we cannot remain in a realm of Forms, but are led to the particulars of this Son’s suffering, this death, this resurrection. Only then can we inhabit the story of the Supper and of baptism.
Chester’s prioritization of God’s agency in the sacraments is welcome, for the average pewsitter struggles still to identify what is occurring in baptism and the Supper. As he notes: “What do you do when you are baptized? The answer is nothing. It is done to you…salvation does not start with our faith. It starts with the Father’s electing love, Christ’s work of redemption, and the new life of the Spirit in our hearts” (46).
Yet the downward primacy (from God to us) does not obscure the secondary purpose in the sacraments. The modern focus on our own covenantal commitment to “giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life” is not neglected in the bread and the water, but enriched when we see the work of God in our midst. (See WCF 28:1)
Here is the reorientation we need in a me-focused society. We need to use the sustaining resources promised to us in baptism. When we are filled with guilt or doubt, look to the water that declared you washed and cleansed in Christ.
When we are famished, hungry for a crumb from Christ’s table, look to the meal the bridegroom makes for his bride. While every meal we have is a reminder of our dependence upon God as our Creator, the Lord’s Supper is set apart as special, for in it we see that we are sinful creatures., in need of reconciliation with God and with our fellow saints.
Chester helpfully employs this distinction between union and communion. The former is a two-way relationship with God. The latter is founded wholly on God’s grace to us in Christ. We are called daily to respond to God’s grace with love and enjoy his love of our good works. When we prioritize Bible reading, prayer, worship, the life of the church, he is pleased and we find our soul’s delight. But this communion is based on God’s grace to unite us together with Christ (Eph 2:8-10).
So it is with the sacraments: baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ, while the Supper is the display of our communion with our Savior.
Why do we miss Communion? Because this memorial meal transforms us, connecting us by the Spirit to the grand saga of redemptive history. As we remember Christ’s death and his once-for-all sacrifice, we are placed into the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as surely as the Jews were placed into the Exodus when they celebrated the Passover.
We have forgotten the taste of the bread, the way the wine passes down our throats, and the joy of the worship of the gathered church. The next time you return to the Table, realize the kindness of your God, who knows your frame, how battered and bruised you are, and see the reminder of God’s faithfulness.
In short, the sacraments are a missed opportunity for our strengthening, sanctification, and delight in the Father, Son, and Spirit. Chester’s book is an apt summary for the Christian who needs a refresher or who seeks to learn more about the mysteries of the faith.
John Stovall (Ph.D. University at Albany) serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia.