Too Spiritual for Our Own Good: Why we fail to see God acting in the sacraments

There is a telling soliloquy in Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins that neatly sums up my concern in this article. Dr. Thomas More, Percy's Catholic protagonist, is having some conflict with his Protestant wife, Ellen, on matters of religious practice.

What [Ellen] disapproves is not that I am doing public penance. No, what bothers her is an ancient Presbyterian mistrust of things, things getting mixed up with religion. The black sweater and the ashes scandalize her.... What have these things, articles, to do with doing right? For she mistrusts the Old church's traffic in things, sacraments, articles, bread, wine, salt, oil, water, ashes. Watch out! You know what happened before when you Catholics mucked it up with all your things, medals, scapulars, candles, bloody statues!

It is things that concern me here—in particular, those things that stand at the heart of Christian worship: water, bread, and wine. The sheer smell and substance of this stuff challenges our understanding of just what Christianity means and how it is to be lived.

In my experience as a pastor, I am constantly surprised to find many Ellens who are far too spiritual for their own good, and who thus have an inadequate understanding of the sacraments. For most Protestants—evangelical, confessional, and mainline alike—the meaning of the sacraments is largely limited to the purely symbolic. The primary transaction goes on in the mind. While physical elements are used, these function only to remind us of spiritual things. They become devotional aids "for those patient enough to bear the irksomeness of a prop...", to use a phrase from Geddes MacGregor (Corpus Christi, London: MacMillan, 1959, p. 179).

What's wrong here? Where does Ellen get these ideas?

What the Bible Teaches

As we might expect, the Bible doesn't do much theorizing or theologizing about the sacraments. The New Testament church, from the beginning, is quite simply a baptizing and a bread-breaking community.

When the New Testament does speak of baptism and the Lord's Supper, it usually speaks of them in surprisingly strong and active ways. It often uses baptism as a virtual substitute term for regeneration or salvation. See, for example, Romans 6. Confronted with the question of whether forgiven Christians might therefore sin with some abandon, we might say, "If you're born again, you don't live like that." Paul simply replies, "Don't you know we were baptized into Christ's death and resurrection?" Why don't we talk about baptism like that? When's the last time you heard people describe their basic identity in terms of their baptism, like it really does something, like it really defines who they are?

In Galatians 3:27-28 Paul makes the remarkable claim that in our baptism we are now "clothed with Christ" and are therefore part of a new community in which there is no "Jew or Greek ... slave or free ... male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." In the New Testament, baptism is a radical act of God by which we are incorporated into Christ and given a new identity in him. Baptism redefines us. It tells us who we are, and it makes us who we are.

Paul also speaks of the Lord's Supper in stunningly concrete terms. It is a "sharing in the body of Christ" and a "sharing in the blood of Christ" (1 Cor. 10:16). This means, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (v. 17). Participation in the Lord's Supper creates deep relationships in the body of Christ. In chapter 11 Paul goes on to upbraid the Corinthians for their desecration of the sacrament by their cavalier attitudes toward the poor and for their failure to understand the Lord Supper's depth of meaning. In graphically unsettling terms, he describes the consequences of their unholy communion. "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves" (w. 27-29).

That's where we tend to stop. But Paul goes on, "For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (v. 30). Obviously Paul is not just talking about an audio-visual device, a way of remembering Jesus in a time of quiet meditation—a mere spiritual exercise. Something far deeper is going on here—something so powerful that its defective celebration affects people's standing with God and I even their physical health.

What is going on in baptism and the Lord's Supper that evokes such powerful, active, identity- defining images in the New Testament? It was left to the church to sort out these biblical texts and to try to understand and articulate just what the sacraments mean and how they work.

The Church's Reflection

Through the centuries the church has struggled to define what exactly sacraments are. I won't go into the whole history here, but two fundamentally opposing views emerged. On the one side are those who spiritualize the sacraments. They see them as mere symbols of what Christ did for us, or as testimonies that we make about our faith in Christ. On the other side are those who, from the earliest days of the church, insist that in the sacraments God is doing something real and powerful. Material things—bread, wine, and water—become means by which God's grace comes into our bodies and souls. In baptism we are really being incorporated into Jesus Christ, and in the Lord's Supper, Christ really comes to us with all the blessings of his death and resurrection.

We tend to think that the sacramental divide is between Catholics and Protestants, as Walker Percy suggests in our opening quotation. But the real divide is between those who affirm that in the sacraments God really does something, and those who do not. In that sense, the Reformed understanding of the sacraments is far closer to the Roman Catholic understanding than, say, to the Baptist view, which sees the sacraments only as ordinances by which we give testimony to our faith. Calvin and all the Reformed confessions make clear that sacraments are both sign and seal of our incorporation into Christ and our salvation in him. The sacraments not only symbolize salvation, they seal it, they guarantee it, they bring its reality into our bodies and souls.

A Real Presence of Christ

I'll limit myself at this point to examining more closely our view of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, but what's said about that sacrament applies to baptism as well.

In the Reformed tradition we don't believe with the church of Rome that in transubstantiation there is an actual change of the underlying substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. But we certainly do believe in the "real spiritual presence" of Christ in the Lord's Supper. And real and spiritual are not mutually exclusive terms.

Listen to Calvin's strong words on the subject:

... all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render his holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.
—Short Treatise, 12

Sounds like transubstantiation doesn't it? But here's the important difference: Calvin and the Reformed confessions clearly teach that Christ's real presence comes to us not by a change in the elements themselves, but through the operation of the Holy Spirit. As the personal agent of Christ and the bearer of all his saving gifts, the Spirit actually feeds us spiritually with the body and blood of Christ, the redeemer of us all. Calvin sums it up: "Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ's flesh, separated from us by such a great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses ..." (Institutes, IV.xvii.10). At the Lord's table we lift our hearts to Christ in heaven, who sends his Holy Spirit to unite us with him in his glorified humanity through our sharing of the bread and the wine.

So we may speak of a real "spiritual" presence. In and through the sacrament, Christ, in his transfigured, resurrected, and glorified humanity, actually comes to us, nourishes us with the benefits of his salvation, and transforms us into his image. To say that this happens spiritually in no way diminishes its reality. Christ, in his whole person, fills the whole human, soul and body, with himself.

Calvin never claimed to explain or even understand this sacramental mystery. For him, as for us, it's a miracle of God's grace.

In Spirit and in Truth

Bread and wine do not feed us with the risen and ascended Christ in and of themselves. Only when the signs are joined to the Word do the sacraments effectively communicate Christ to us. Word and sacrament belong together. Each enhances the other.

Robert Bruce, a Scottish preacher in the late sixteenth century and a fine interpreter of Calvin's sacramental theology, puts it with characteristic Scottish vivacity: "Do you ask what new thing we get in the sacrament? I say we get Christ better than we did before: we get a better grip of Christ now.... For by the sacrament my faith is nourished, the bounds of my soul are enlarged, and so when I had but a little grip of Christ before, as it were betwixt my finger and my thumb, now I get him in my whole hand: for the more my faith grows, the better grip I get of Christ Jesus" (MacGregor, Corpus Christi, p. 181; my translation of the Scottish dialect).

As with the Word, so in the sacraments, we receive Christ by faith. It's not that sacraments have no effect apart from faith. They do. But they have the opposite effect. This is what Paul seems to mean in 1 Corinthians 11:29: "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves."

The sacraments operate through human faith. And faith works both ways. Faith grasps Christ in the sacraments, and faith in Christ is stimulated and strengthened by sacraments.

Often the sacraments are most meaningful when our faith is weakest. Martin Luther, in the throes of spiritual depression could be heard to cry out, "I have been baptized." When we come to the Lord's table, it is our emptiness which gets filled with Christ, our faithlessness which gets shored up by the Holy Spirit. As William Temple says of these times of weakness, "then the sheer objectivity, even the express materialism of a sacrament gives it a value that nothing else can have" (Nature, Man, and God, London: MacMillan, 1935, p. 49).

In the Reformed tradition, then, the gospel sacraments are much more than naked symbols. They do not just give outward testimony to our faith and devotion to Christ or evoke memories of Christ. They don't just serve as devotional aids. They are powerful means, channels of grace. In the sacraments, accompanied by the Word and received in faith, God does something. God incorporates us into Christ and feeds us with the bread of eternal life.

What This Means in Practice

In the New Testament and in the early church, our separation of Word and sacrament in Sunday worship is nowhere contemplated or even permitted. The practice today of centering worship on preaching alone, with the occasional addition of the sacraments, is a modern invention—well, sixteenth century anyway. It has produced some sad results:

First, when we don't weekly renew our membership in the one body of Christ in the sacrament, it becomes much easier to divide ourselves into sectarian groups around one point of doctrine or another.

Second, when the Word stands on its own week after week, without the material confirmation of the sacrament, we need more and more gimmicks and angles with which to communicate the Word, and more subtle emotional manipulations to try to confirm it.

Third, when Christ comes to us only in words and concepts on Sunday, not also wrapped in the flesh and blood of the sacrament, then we may too easily fail to think of ourselves as living members of his body throughout the week.

Finally, when "seeker friendly" churches shy away from the sacraments because they feel that they do not communicate to "unchurched Harry and Sally," they miss an important opportunity. Like all of us, seekers need ritual, not just someone proclaiming the need to be saved. We all need flesh and blood ties to the things we know and believe, however haltingly or weakly. In church, as in all of life—from celebrating birthdays to kissing our spouse before leaving for work—where we neglect the rituals of daily life, the relationships they are intended to express, establish, and deepen, will suffer. In the church our central rituals are the sacraments. They express, establish, and deepen our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. So the last thing we should do is reduce our ritual activity in the name of mission. It's ironic that while the secular world increasingly yearns for more ritual, the church ignores and misunderstands the very sacred rituals that have been at the heart of its worship from the beginning.

In the church I serve, it's a custom that when we celebrate the Lord's Supper at Christmas, we sing these ancient words from the Liturgy of St. James. By combining the mystery of incarnation and sacrament, they evoke for me more than any others the mystery, the physical reality, and the ritual power of the sacraments.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
set your minds on things eternal,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our Lord to earth descended,
came our homage to command.

King of kings, yet bom of Mary,
once upon the earth he stood;
Lord of lords we now perceive him in the body and the blood.
He has given to all the faithfUl
his own self for heavenly food.
—Liturgy of St. James: tr. Gerard Moultrie, 1864




Last year in our small group we studied worship. One of the lessons was on the Lord's Supper, and the study booklet suggested that this sacrament is one of the most profound spiritual experiences you can have. It seemed to suggest that everyone will feel strengthened and renewed by taking the bread and the wine. However, the people in our group all pretty well admitted to each other that these feelings were not part of their experience most of the time.

We realized that the times when the Lord's Supper means the most to us is when we are lifted out of our complacency by some change in routine, or by some new ways of experiencing the sacrament. For instance, partaking of the Lord's Supper as a guest in a different church may make us think about the greatness of God's kingdom that includes so many people. Hearing a new song while the communion elements are passed, or coming forward to the front of the church rather than having a plate passed to you in the seats, can also make the sacrament more meaningful.

I'm a person who is very stimulated by visual images, so banners and dramas help me to worship God as I participate in communion. Once, when the elements were being passed in the pews, we were short one serving of wine. The pastor asked the deacon who was serving to join him at the front, and together they shared the communion cup in front of the congregation. To me that was a visible symbol of our communion with each other. Another time, at a retreat, we stood in a circle after celebrating the sacrament together, holding hands and singing the doxology. Towards the end of the song, we were all holding our hands in the air, praising God and affirming our hope of heaven. Sometimes during the Lord's Supper I call to mind that image of the linked circle of hands stretching out to God, and it helps me to celebrate at the Lord's table. Perhaps some day our congregation will stand in a circle around the outside aisles of the church and repeat that scene.



At different times in your life, you experience different ways of having the Lord's Supper, and you react in different ways too.

When I was younger, I was very frightened of dying, and that fear also extended to the Lord's Supper. I was very concerned about God's judgment, and worried that if I participated in communion without being totally right with God, I'd be in danger of condemnation. I would often come home from church feeling as though the pastor knew every sin I committed and was pointing them out to me.

Later I began to realize more of God's grace and love and forgiveness. I remember the Sunday morning I got up and realized that I was actually not afraid of going to church any more. That makes a difference in howr you participate in the Lord's Supper—whether it's a joyful experience of grace, or a heavy experience of condemnation.

I've belonged to several different churches. Now our family belongs to a large congregation that focuses on outreach. The last time we celebrated communion, there were many different tables set up throughout the sanctuary. After the praise time and the sermon, it was time for the celebration. Several things happened at once. People who felt the need to pray and to reconcile with others before coming to the Lord's table could gather at the front of the sanctuary. Others gathered round the tables, and when the tables were filled, they quietly celebrated communion together by passing the bread and the wine to each other. Meanwhile, the worship team led the remaining worshipers with songs and prayers while they waited for their turn to have the Lord's Supper. It was all done in a very orderly way, but was also very moving.

In our church, families take their children to the table with them. It meant a lot to me to have my daughter pass me the bread and say, "Mom, this is God's body given for you." The idea of being together and being one in the Spirit when we sit around that table is very meaningful.

For me, now, the Lord's Supper means that I'm with authentic Christians, and that I experience the very profound truth that I belong to God.

For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 48 © June 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.