A Trinitarian view of the Lord's Supper
This post explores the profound Christ-centered, Trinitarian meaning of the Lord's Supper as presented by theologians Thomas F. Torrance, Daniel Migliore and James B. Torrance. For a related post on baptism, click here; for one on the sacraments in pastoral ministry, click here.
In Gospel, Church, and Ministry (Jock Stein, Ed.), TF says this concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper:
In Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, JB defines the Lord’s Supper as our “participating by the Spirit in the life of the ascended Christ, our high priest, in memory and communion” (p. 81). He then expounds on the three key words in his definition: participation, memory and communion.
This post is adapted from a lecture in Ted Johnston's Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary.
|"The Communion" by Velázquez (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Thomas F. (TF) Torrance
It is at Holy Communion above all that we see Christ face to face and handle things unseen and feed upon his body and blood by faith. It is there in the real presence of Christ that we grasp something of the wonder of the Savior’s love and redeeming sacrifice, and understand that it is not our faith in Christ that counts but his vicarious life and sacrifice, his redeeming life and death that count. It is at Holy Communion when the bread and wine are put into our hands, that we know it is not our believing that counts but he in whom we believe, not what we do but what the Savior has done for us and what he means to us. It is at Holy Communion, in short, that we really understand best the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Thus it was at Holy Communion that [as a pastor] I found it easiest to proclaim and make clear to people what the unconditional grace of God’s saving love really is….
As members of the new Adam… we are nourished by the life residing in Christ… continually being nourished with “the vivifying flesh” of Jesus Christ [quoting Calvin] who gives us to participate in the eternal life that abides in him…. It is not easy to preach the truth that we are saved by the grace of Christ alone, and [that] it is through the vicarious humanity of Jesus and in its substitutionary bearing upon faith that we can properly believe, but this is what may be proclaimed at Holy Communion as nowhere else….
I have found in my own ministry that it is easiest to preach the unconditional nature of grace, and the vicarious humanity and substitutionary role of Christ in faith, at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the call for repentance and faith is followed by Communion in the body and blood of Christ in which we stretch out empty hands to receive the bread and wine: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.”
There at the Holy Table or the altar I know that I cannot rely on my own faith but only on the vicarious faith of the Lord Jesus in total substitution of his atoning sacrifice on the Cross…. That is what the covenant in his body and blood, which the Savior has forged for us, actually, practically, and really means. It is the very essence of the gospel that salvation and justification are by the grace of Christ alone, in which he takes our place, that you may take his place. (pp. 47, 88, 251-252)
Daniel MiglioreFaith Seeking Understanding (An Introduction to Christian Theology), Migliore addresses the relationship between baptism and the Lord's Supper:
If baptism is the sacrament of the beginning of Christian life, the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of growth and nourishment in Christian life. If baptism marks the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ that welcomes us into his body by the Power of the Spirit, the Lord’s Supper marks the triune God’s ever new sharing of life and love that draws us more deeply into communion with God and each other and strengthens us for service in the world. (p. 288)Migliore then elaborates further on the profound meaning of the Lord's Supper:
[It] gathers together the past, present, and future of God’s creative and redemptive work. In the great prayer of thanksgiving that is an integral part of the eucharistic service, we are reminded of all of God’s lavish gifts in the creation and preservation of the world, and most of all of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation. But for the community of faith, Christ is no mere memory; he makes himself present here and now in the power of the Spirit through the breaking and eating of the bread and the pouring and drinking of the wine, and those who partake of this meal are made one body, one people in him. Furthermore, in this sacrament Christians are summoned to hope in Christ’s coming again. They look eagerly for the consummation of the liberating and reconciling activity of God in which they are now participants and co-workers. Thus in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the whole range of Christian life in time is expressed—memory of the crucified Lord, provisional experience of his presence here and now through the Spirit, and hope for the swift coming of God’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace in fullness….
[The Lord's Supper] is a deeply trinitarian celebration. In the whole action of the Lord’s Supper, thanksgiving is given to God through Christ in the Spirit. It is a meal of thanksgiving to God for the gifts of creation and redemption; a meal of communion with the crucified and living Christ who is God’s gift to the world; and a meal of joy and hope in the power of the Spirit who gives us new life and provides a foretaste of the great messianic banquet of the end time, when God’s liberating and reconciling activity will be completed….
The Lord’s Supper discloses what human life by God’s grace is intended to be—a life together in mutual sharing and love. Just as the meaning of Christian baptism is inseparable from Jesus’ own baptism as the commencement and epitome of his own singular life of love, obedience, and service, so the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is inseparable from Jesus’ practice of table fellowship with sinners and the poor throughout his ministry (Mark 2:15; Luke 15:1-2)….
The Lord’s Supper is a concrete sign and seal of God’s promise of a new, liberated, and reconciled humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. To eat and drink at this table is to be united with Christ by the Spirit and to be challenged to extend the self-giving, other-affirming, community-forming love of the triune God to all people. All are invited to this table, but most especially the poor, the sick, and the outcast (cf. Luke 14:15-24)….
The Lord’s Supper is… the sacrament of human participation in the divine life by sharing life with each other. As a public, open, joyful, hopeful meal, the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of a new humanity… the practice of “eucharistic hospitality,” in which strangers are welcomed into the household of God…. The Lord’s Supper is a beautiful portrayal of the interconnection and interdependence of personal, communal, and cosmic salvation. (pp. 288-289, 292-295)
James B. (JB) Torrance
1) ParticipationJB explains that Jesus, by the Spirit, lifts us up to participate with him in the life of communion that he enjoys with the Father.
2) MemoryHe then notes that Jesus promised his disciples that he would ask the Father to send them “another Comforter” who would “bring all things to their remembrance.” At the Last Supper, Jesus said to them, “this do in remembrance of me.” JB comments:
At the Lord’s Table we do not merely remember the passion of our Lord as an isolated date from nineteen hundred years ago. Rather we remember it in such a way that we know by the grace of God we are the people for whom our Savior died and rose again, we are the people whose sins Jesus confessed on the cross, we are the people with whom God has made a new covenant in the blood of Christ, we are the Israel of God to whom God has said “I will be your God and you will be my people”.... We are what we are today by the grace of God, because of what God did for us then.
This work of memory, of realizing our participation and fellowship in the sufferings of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. He brings these things to our remembrance and interprets to us the meaning of the event. We remember Christ—yet it is not so much we who remind ourselves of these events, but Jesus Christ, who brings his passion to our remembrance through the Holy Spirit, as our ever-living and ever-present Lord, who, in his own person, is our memorial of the presence of the Father. In other words, our memorial is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly memorial. Christ, in constituting himself as our memorial before the Father, by the Spirit lifts us up as we present our memorial before God. So the Lord’s Supper… is a memorial to us, but also a memorial before God. (pp. 85-86)
3) CommunionAccording to JB, “The Christ whom we remember is not an absent Christ. He is present in the power of the Spirit to bring the things we celebrate to our remembrance in an act of communion” (p. 87). Jesus does this through his earthly and heavenly ministry. In the former, he brings to our remembrance his self-offering on our behalf through the course of his earthly life, including the cross. In the latter, he lifts up our hearts and minds to share in his communion with the Father, thus making us participants of the new humanity in him. JB comments:
The Christ who meets us at the table, on the one hand, is the one in whose representative humanity our broken humanity was assumed and judged, the one in whose self-consecration and self-offering we were consecrated and healed. On the other hand, he is the ascended Lord in whose continuing humanity our humanity is presented by our great high priest to the Father, the one by whose eternal Spirit we are given by grace to share in the substitutionary self-presentation of Christ in the Holy of Holies. The one who is truly present in the power of the Spirit in the eucharistic Parousia is also the ascended one who is absent…. The Christ who draws us into such wonderful communion is the whole Christ, the God-man, in whom and through whom God and humanity are reconciled….
The Holy Spirit, through whom we participate in the person and ministry of Christ, exercises a twofold ministry which in a further way corresponds to the twofold ministry of Christ—namely, of representing God to humanity and of representing humanity to God. It is in this twofold sense we are to interpret the work of the Spirit in taking the things of Christ and ministering them to us: (a) Through the Holy Spirit God comes to meet us in worship, in the ministry of word and sacrament, and summons us to respond in faith and obedience and thanksgiving, in offering ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, which is our “reasonable worship.”
This is the one side of the dialogue, the communion, which is worship. (b) In our human, frail, broken, unworthy response, the Spirit helps us in our infirmities, lifting us up to Christ who, in his ascended humanity, is our God-given response, the leader of our worship, the pioneer of our faith, our advocate and high priest, who through the eternal Spirit presents us with himself to the Father. So in and through the mediatorial ministry of the Spirit, we worship the Father in the name of Christ…. The Spirit is not only speaking Spirit but also interceding Spirit, exercising not only a prophetic ministry but also a priestly ministry. (pp. 87-88)JB thus emphasizes that our worship at the Table (and elsewhere) is our participation, through the Spirit, in the worship of Christ (in his now ascended and glorified humanity) toward the Father, on our behalf. Thus we understand that Christ’s worship is our worship—a worship, as JB explains, that involves a wonderful exchange:
God in his grace in reconciling us to himself, lifts us up into a life of wonderful communion by effecting a wonderful exchange. So the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” How has he done it? “Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of men so that we might be made one with the goodness of God himself.” (p. 89)As JB notes, this understanding of the wonderful exchange—that Christ took what was ours that he might give us what is his—is the very heart of the sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper:
[Christ] takes our broken sinful humanity and cleanses it by his self-sanctifying life of communion with the Father, his obedience, death and resurrection. And now he comes back to us in the power of the Spirit to give himself to us in an act where he gives us back our humanity, now renewed in him saying: “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you.”
Our reception of Christ is our grateful acknowledgment of this wonderful exchange. The body on which we feed is the body which he assumed for our sakes, that in our worship we might be sanctified by the once and for all self-offering of Christ. In the communion of the Spirit, in virtue of this exchange, we know that his humanity is our humanity so graciously assumed, his death our death which we show forth, his life our life till he comes, his self-offering our offering, his communion with the Father our communion into which he lifts us up by his Spirit. (pp. 89-90)Thus our reconciliation with God involves both consecration and communion—an order enshrined in the classic order of the communion service. JB comments:
When we come to the Lord’s Table to worship, we come to offer ourselves to the Lord [in consecration]. But what can we render to the Lord, for our lives are so unworthy, so broken and so sinful? After the preaching of the word [which precedes the Lord’s Supper in the classic liturgy], the bread and wine are brought in and set before our eyes and consecrated—not as a sign of our self-offering to the Lord, but as a memorial that nineteen hundred years ago the Son of God assumed our life. He assumed our body of flesh, our mind, our spirit, sinful though they be, sanctified them in his own person, and in our name made that Offering which we could never make. Indeed our self-offering, for a moment, is set aside that we might remember the great offering made for us. But the service does not end there. That same Christ, who is our eternal offering in the heavens, now comes to us in an act of self-giving and says: “Take, eat, this is my body which is for you.” He lifts us with our self-offering of praise and thanksgiving into communion with himself. He gives back our life to us, converted and regenerated in him. Is it not for these evangelical reasons that communion follows consecration?…
Adapting Galatians 2:20, we might say at the Lord’s Table, “We offer ourselves to the Lord, and yet it is not we who offer, but Christ who has offered himself for us and who is our offering, and the offering which we now make in the flesh we make by the faithfulness of him who loves us and gave himself for us.” (pp. 91-92)At the Table, we thus have real communion, by the Spirit with Christ himself, the incarnate Lord who remains clothed in our humanity forever. As JB puts it, as we participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
it is not so much that we feed upon Christ by faith but that he is truly present in the power of the Spirit to feed us and unite us to himself in his communion with the Father…. More important than understanding the mode of his presence [at the Table] is the awareness of who this Christ is who is present. What has he done once and for all? What is he continuing to do for us in his vicarious humanity as our high priest as he nourishes his one body [the church] and draws us to the Father and to one another in communion… When we focus on the question of who, we can rejoice together as we look away from ourselves to him, the he may sanctify us and lead us together into the presence of the Holy Father. (pp. 93-94)___________________
This post is adapted from a lecture in Ted Johnston's Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary.