The Holy Spirit & the Lord’s Supper: Sublime Reason and Reality – 1: To Be Something with God

The Current Confusion

A lead Wall Street Journal article of March 8, 2004, began: “For the first time in 10 years, Mary Wilkinson went to church one Sunday in January. She sat in a back pew at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., flipping through a prayer book and listening intently to the priest’s sermon.”

In this era of miserably meager attendance in the Christian church one might take heart at this report of apparent renewal. But the headline and subtitle of the article tell the reader just why this story made the news: Houses of Worship Are Reaching Out to a Flock of Pets: Purr Box Goes to Communion At St. Francis Episcopal; A Group “Bark Mitzvah.”

Renewed interest in the worship of God?  Not exactly.  In fact, just the opposite: worship of the dog (or cat, of course, or whatever other object of affection might move or all fours).  “What drew Ms. Wilkinson back to the fold,” the article continues, “was a new monthly program the church introduced – Holy Communion for pets.”

So much for interest in the Lord of glory.

The Church in this 21st Century is struggling with the meaning and practice of worship. Protestants congregations have known this for some time with “Worship wars” being a common part of life in the church. Church leaders are asking what it means to be “relevant” and “faithful.” They ask “How do we meet our peoples’ needs?” and “How can we reach people where they are?” The people in the pew demand worship that is “exciting” and “vibrant.” They want to make the most of the “worship experience.” They want it to be “real.”

All in all, the essence and energizing nature of worship are up for grabs.

For some the answer lies in a worship “makeover.” A better beat to the music should show the vibrant nature of our faith-experience or a romantic melody our tenderness and caring. Some try a sermon makeover. Incorporate a film clip, a “skit”, or even a few minutes of comedic monologue, with a “spiritual” emphasis, of course. We “meet them where they’re at” using the latest pop communication techniques. One church even included in its Easter service the “resurrection wave.” Those assembled celebrated one of the most sublime events of history like fans would a touchdown at a weekend football game.

Subjective emotional stimulation and the perception of spontaneity have become the twin tests for spiritual vitality.

The Wall Street Journal article on animals and the Lord’s Supper shows just how far the contemporary foolishness has gone. For some the genuineness and intimacy of the spiritual experience can now be found in feeding the Lord’s Supper to the dogs. The article, appearing as it does in one of the nation’s most thoughtful and widely read newspapers, demonstrates the extent and depth of the problem.

  1. To Be Something with God: Worship, the Supper, and the Spirit

In the history of the Church there have been few times more focused on right worship than in the era of the Protestant Reformation. Beginning roughly around the year 1517 (the year Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the Wittenberg church door) the Church witnessed a renewed interest in faithful biblical worship unlike it had in centuries.

To the Protestant Reformers – those “protesting” the unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic church in hopes of reforming it – few things were more important than the right worship of God. “If we are to understand the worship of the early Reformed Church,” as the preeminent historian on Reformed worship, Hughes Oliphant Old, stated it, “we must recognize that they went to worship not to do something for God, nor even so much to get something from God, but far more to be something with God.”[1]

Achieving this great aim “to be something with God” would require something supernatural, something spiritual. For the Reformers, it would require more than the Roman Church could offer with its mostly mechanical and magical conception of the working of God in the Eucharist. Worship would have to be more than the chewing of bread. Any change to the outside would have to begin with a change to the inside, a wholesale reorientation of life commitments to the praise and glory of God.

Among the Reformers none was more committed to the right worship of God and more submissive to Biblical authority than John Calvin. This interest to “be something with God” finds no fuller manifestation among the Reformers perhaps than in his view of the Lord’s Supper and, particularly, the work of the Holy Spirit in it. “We confess,” Calvin says, “that the spiritual life which Christ bestows upon us does not rest on the fact that he vivifies us with his Spirit, but that his Spirit makes us participants in the virtue of his vivifying body, by which participation we are fed on eternal life.”[2]

The essence of spiritual life, in other words, is not merely that the Spirit revives us at some point in time. The deeper truth is that in conjunction with that reviving, the Spirit also unites us to Christ himself, who is life itself. By that uniting Christ himself sustains us with his life.

In the celebration of the Lord’s Supper this participation in Christ finds full expression.

Calvin demonstrates how the Supper sets before the believer the most sublime of realities. In it Christ is truly present by his Spirit and believers truly partake of His person. In partaking they have true participation in the virtue of his very life-giving body. It is an event, a ceremony, in which the resurrected Christ has true union and communion with His people and their covenantal relationship and commitments are proclaimed. In it the believer is privileged to “be something with God.”

This presence, partaking, and participation are accomplished by the work of the Spirit. As Old has noted: “It is central to the Reformed doctrine of worship that true worship is nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”[3] “There is neither praise of God nor any true worship apart from the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit in the congregation.”[4] “If there is one doctrine which is at the heart of Reformed worship it is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”[5] What Christ accomplishes in the Supper, he accomplishes through his Spirit.

Interestingly enough, Calvin cautioned for care in serving the Lord Supper to unbelievers. He was concerned lest it be “cast to the dogs.”[6] Hardly could he have conceived that four hundred years later dogs themselves would be its intended recipients and that the very “stewards of the mysteries of God”[7] would be promoting the practice.

In the 21st Century a renewal of worship will require something more than a worship makeover. A nip and tuck can never be enough in matters of the heart. It will require a change that is something more than skin-deep. Something other than trendy and farcically tender liturgical techniques is needed. The believer’s aim must be nothing less than to become something with God.

To this end the contemporary church would do well to take a fresh look at the Biblical view of the Lord’s Supper as set out by Calvin. Upon the occasion of the risen Christ, feeding his people with His very life in His Supper by His Spirit, the current preoccupation with a man-centered “relevance” and “experience” would fade to the trite and insignificant. Where the mighty life-giving power of His Spirit is at work there is no need to resort to a contrived and shallow excitement aimed at a relevance certain to be superficial and passing. It is better to be something with God. In the Lord’s Supper, the Believer is invited to that very fellowship and participation

Next:  Spirit-Sanctioned Reason & the Word: The Foundation for Right Thinking.

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, p. 341 (1970). (Hereinafter referred to as Patristic Roots.)

[2] Confession of Faith concerning the Eucharist (1537), Calvin Theological Treatises, Vol. XXII, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press) p. 168 (Hereinafter referred to as Confession). This Confession is a statement of Farel, Calvin and Viret, written by Bucer and subscribed by Capito.

[3] Old, Patristic Roots, p. 291.

[4] Old, Patristic Roots, p. 292.

[5] Old, Patristic Roots, p. 341.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XXI, Battles translation, McNeill editing (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1977) 4:12:5 (Hereinafter referred to as Inst. Where a number is given after the book, chapter and section, it refers to the page number in Vol. 2 of that edition.)

[7] I Corinthians 4:1.