Celebrating the Lord's Supper on Sunday in person (only)

Dear Beloved in the Lord Jesus,
The elders and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper in public worship at the 2nd Rondebosch Scout Hall this coming Sunday. And, also, why we will not be allowing for participation in the Supper remotely via the internet. If we can have a good grasp of the former, then we can appreciate the latter.
If the length and density of this letter is intimidating for you, may I encourage you to read the introduction, the section called “The error of a cyber-supper” and the conclusion below first. This will help you get the big picture. Then, work through the fuller Biblical and theological arguments behind our decision. This is not an easy topic. Hence, the rather long letter. Take your time. Prayerfully meditate on what is to follow.
Let us begin by reflecting together on the fact that we are indeed experiencing unprecedented times as a church. We have come off a period of weeks where we could not worship together in person. For some of you, this reality continues. While we are grateful for the opportunity to gather together again on Sundays to offer up our corporate praise, we lament that some of you are absent. This pain is an occasion to remember the already-and-not-yet tension of the Christian life. We are at once united to Christ and seated in the heavenly places, while at the same time exercising earthly citizenship (Eph. 2-6; Col. 3). Christ is with us, but not fully. We are not in heaven yet. We are in exile (1 Pet. 2).
Christ’s presence, and – yet – absence, is most palpably demonstrated by our anticipation of the heavenly banquet signed and sealed to us in the Lord’s Supper (Rev. 19:6-10). In preaching, we hear God’s Word of promise that he is for us in saving grace. We are betrothed to him. In the Supper, the audible Word is confirmed to the sensory experience of our eyes, hands and taste-buds. In it, not only is our union with Christ strengthened, but so also our love for each other. All of this happens in the context of a (New) covenant relationship with God. In the official Word and sacrament ministry of the church, God serves his people – not individuals, but a body of believers. Preaching, baptism, Lord’s Supper and discipline accomplish things through God’s ambassador (the ordained Minister, overseen by his elders) in the setting of God’s people gathered in worship on the Lord’s Day. During this covenant renewal ceremony, God has promised to be present in a special way: with his saving grace and power (Belgic Confession (BC) 27-35; Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 25-31; cf. Matt. 16; 18 (:20); 28; Jn. 6; Acts 2:42; Rom. 10; 1 Cor. 1-2; 5:4-5; 10-11).
The church is an organism of Christ’s Word. Here he shows up in a special saving way through his embodied emissaries administering his ordinances in the public assembly of worshipping saints (BC 27-29). To be sure, what is done in one’s home can be used of God for spiritual good (Matt. 6:5-15; Pss. 1-2). Yet, these private means of grace should not be confused with and cannot replace the official Word and sacrament ministry of the church on the Lord’s Day (HC LD 38; cf. Acts 2:42; Deut. 5:16).
The primacy of the Word preached
The living and active Word of Christ
The first mark of a true church is the faithful preaching of the Word of God (BC 29; HC Q/A 98 cf. Matt. 4:17; Acts 2:14-47). The Word proclaimed creates and sustains faith (HC Q/A 65; cf. Rom. 10:15-17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). In this ordinance God gives the whole of Christ crucified and his benefits to his people (HC Q/A 67; cf. 1 Cor. 2:2). This act or service of God is more than the imparting of information or the jogging of the memory of the hearer. It is Christ speaking. In his speaking he creates a new state of affairs – out of nothing: saints out of sinners; a New Testament church (BC 27; cf. Matt. 5-7; Eph. 4:12; 2 Cor. 3:6-18; Jn. 3:3-5; Ezek. 37).
Like water, bread and wine, the sign of Christ’s favourable presence is made manifest through the physicality of a (sinful) man ordained to the special office Pastor, who reads and preaches the Word of God (BC 31; HC 31; cf. Matt. 16:13-20; Matt. 28:16-20). By the working of the Holy Spirit, this sign of a preacher and his proclamation become the life-giving Word of Christ: the reality the sign signifies (2 Cor. 3:16-18; Ezek. 12:28). Just as God embraced human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus and made embodiment indispensable to salvation (Jn. 1), he continues to effect salvation through human and earthly channels (HC LD 25; cf. 1-2 Tim.; Tit.). Ordinarily, participation in the ordinances and rites of the church are necessary to salvation (BC 28).
From the beginning of the Biblical account, God has chosen to speak both law and Gospel, reward and curse, through his ambassadors in the particular setting of a covenant relationship. (Simply put, a covenant is a relationship between two parties with legal aspects[1]). For example, God formalized the covenant of grace with the Hebrews (and their posterity) with a promise made to his earthly representative, Abram (Gen. 15-17; Gal. 3:23-29). In the covenant made at Mt. Sinai, God delivered his word to the Israelites through his commissioned servant, Moses (Ex. 24). At the Last Supper, Jesus ratified the New Covenant with his words of institution in the presence of his disciples (Matt. 26:26-29). In each instance, God moved his plan of salvation forward with words spoken to and through his ordained servants.
According the Old Testament and Apostolic pattern, God is pleased to continue to confirm the saving promises attached to the covenant of grace through his earthly an embodied commissioned ambassador (BC 27-35; HC 31; cf. Rom. 10; Tit. 1-2). This Word of promise is read and expounded by the Pastor during a called public worship service where God’s people are present. In this context Christ addresses his church from heaven and delivers his gifts. In the same worship service, God’s people respond. They respond in unison to their Lord not only with prayers and praise (Acts 2:42; Pss. 42-43). (It is not coincidental that Psalms are by nature communal). They also respond with non-verbal communication to the preaching of the Word. (Yes, your facial expressions and body language speak.) Both responses are part of the covenant dialog between God and his people.
Furthermore, the responsive act of songs sung also has the purpose of instructing and edifying the rest of the body of Christ present – both inside and outside the worship service (HC Q/A 55; Col. 2:12-17). In the fellowship that follows the service we have a rich opportunity to embody Christ to each other, thereby bringing the ministry of the Word full circle. Finally, both the Word of Christ preached and the Christian’s response on earth prefigures the eternal embodied communion between God and his people (BC 37; cf. Rev. 21-22).
The inadequacy of online “preaching”
One of the sad realities of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the months-long hiatus of corporate worship for the majority of churches around the world. For a good number of folk, especially those elderly and frail, the inability to attend public worship continues. RCSS has made and continues to make available the live-streaming of worship services to help edifying and sustain her members during this extraordinary time. And, yet, from the outset we have stressed that an online worship service (which includes preaching) falls short of what we are ordinarily accustomed to on the Lord’s Day at 2nd Rondebosch Scout Hall. Strictly speaking, home worship remains private worship. Indeed, it is used by God, but it still falls short of the fulfilment of the first Four Commandments or Apostolic ordinance and example (Belgic 29; HC 34-38; cf. Matt. 18:20; Acts 2:42; Heb. 10:19-25; Deut. 5).
However, this is not the first time that God’s people have been prevented – for a time – from assembling for divine worship. One recalls, for example, the initial dispersion of God’s OT people in exile (cf. Isaiah). Then the persecutions that came during Apostolic and early church times (cf. 1-2 Pet.). Not to mention the wars, plagues and famines that have been interspersed throughout world history. Through it all God has sustained his people by his sovereign grace (BC 27; Canons IV; cf. Phil. 1:6; Is. 40). Yet, the private means by which God’s people have been carried during testing times should not become the norm. As soon as possible, the public means of grace on the Lord’s Day should be reinstituted and eagerly sought out. Until then, you and I should long for such a gathering; with a longing that shares in a longing for Christ’s return, when glorified embodied corporate worship will commence (BC 37; cf. Rev. 4-5; Rom. 8; Ps. 20).
Celebrating the life-giving Supper as a broken family united to Christ
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper does not communicate anything more than the preached Word. We receive the same Christ. And, yet, in the sacraments the audible Word of promise is guaranteed to us in tangible ways: to strengthen frail sinners; so assure us that despite our failures God is for us (HC LD 25; BC 35). Like preaching and the tangible sign of baptism, the Lord’s Supper accomplish things in the context of God’s covenant relationship to his people; when assembled together and presided over by Christ’s emissary on earth. Again, this is God’s pattern throughout salvation history.
For instance, God’s Word of promise to Abraham mentioned earlier was sealed with the sign of bloody circumcision. So closely was the earthly sign of circumcision united to the forgiveness of sins that God called circumcision “my covenant in your flesh” (Gen. 17:13; Gal. 3:7-9, 24-29; cf. Gen. 15). At Sinai, the words spoken by God to his mediator Moses and inscribed on tablets of stone were confirmed to the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain with the sprinkling of blood and a celebratory meal (Ex. 24). The blood and the meal comprised part of the covenant and brought about its intended purpose: guaranteeing God’s Word salvation. On the night in which he was betrayed, Christ signed and sealed the prophetic word of his coming bloody passion with the ordinary elements of bread and wine (Matt. 26:26-29). The Last Supper was inseparable from the inauguration of the New Covenant. This meal ratified Christ’s embodied words and deeds for sinners.
The earthly signs described above come alive and make things happen when administered in a particular (covenant) setting where particular parties are involved. This is the stuff of sacraments (HC Q/A 65-66). The Lord’s Supper, like preaching and baptism, is sacramental in nature (HC Q/A 68). The signs of bread and wine are united to the thing they signify – the crucified Christ and all his benefits – through the operation of the Holy Spirit. This happens when God calls his people to worship him corporately and he serves them through his ordained ambassador. The Supper testifies and assures us that God’s covenant promises are true for us. Having received God’s gifts we then turn and serve our neighbour. Like wedding rings exchanged to confirm the words of marital institution in a public ceremony, the bread and wine confirm and strengthen our union with the preached Christ (HC LD 28; BC 35). These realities are set forth beautifully for us in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Paul’s letter to a broken Corinthian church
One way to describe the problem with the Christians in Corinth is that they were looking for God and spiritual power in all the wrong places. By the time Paul explicitly warns against idolatry in 1 Cor. 10 he has admonished this church for all manner of worldliness and insubordination: ranging from divisions and infatuation with people Greek philosophy, social status and oratory to eating food offered to idols and sexual immorality; that latter under the pious guise of at least indifference toward embodiment (1 Cor. 1-9).
Israel’s sacramental history
Paul begins his build up to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 10-11 with both the language of sacraments and idolatry. In verses 1-13 he sets the stage by taking his audience back to the forty-year sojourn of God’s people under the leadership of Moses. As the Apostle John records in John 6, Paul recalls the first great Exodus, which he describes as “our fathers” being “baptized [circumcised] into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” And furthermore – with Passover and Supper overtones – that “all ate the same spiritual for, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1-4). However, these heavenly gifts did not keep the Hebrews from rebellion. They ended up in the desert for a forty-year wilderness sojourn for idolatry, and they continued in this vein (10:5-13). Noteworthy in Paul’s description of their evil is, again, a reference to their eating and drinking from Exodus 32:6: “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” Thereafter, Paul lists out their sins; suggesting that table manners and evil are intertwined (1 Cor. 10:6-11).
Sacramental “communion” in the life of Christ
In verse 14 of 1 Corinthians 10 Paul uses the previous thirteen verses to motivate his imperative: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry”. And then he gives the means by which such evil can be avoided: another kind of dining experience. Here the Apostle recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper and gives further insight into its sacramental nature. From a superficial reading of the Christ’s Last Supper with the disciples, one might conclude that observing this holy meal is nothing more than a remembrance; an empty sign that merely represents something in the past. For sure, the Supper does have a memory aspect: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). Yet, memory should not be understood in the Western (Greek) sense of “recollection,” but rather in the Jewish sense of participating here and now in both historic and future events.[2] The Apostle Paul’s rendering of the Supper captures this nuance richly. In it, he recalls Christ’s command to eat the Son’s body and blood in order to have life (Jn. 6). He must have had in mind Christ’s words of institution: “do this in remembrance of me” and “this is my body” (Matt. 26). This formative revelation plus Paul’s argumentation so far in 1 Corinthians 10 – drawing in OT sacramental truths – help shed light on the idea that the cup consecrated and the bread broken are a “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (10:16).
In other words, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t just symbolize union with Jesus, but also effects something wonderful when it is shared. For those that are “sensible” or endowed with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit enables sharing in the body and blood of Christ that nourishes and strengthens faith, just as bread and wine feed our temporal bodies (1 Cor. 10:15). And, yet, God’s gift of his Son in the Supper is more than spiritual sustenance. It also symbolizes and strengthens the unity of Christ’s church (10:17). Christians who share in one Lord and one baptism through faith in Christ (cf. Eph. 4:1-7) are also strengthened with and in that reality in the Supper (HC LD 25, 29; BC 35). I elaborate on this below.
Eating and drinking that is demonic
Paul returns to the interweaving themes of eating, drinking and idolatry in in 1 Corinthians 10:18-22. Paul’s reasoning again is sacramental, but now in the negative sense. He begins by drawing the reader’s attention back to Israel and her rebellion described earlier in Chapter 10. And then draws a parallel with the behaviour of the Corinthians, which has included eating food sacrificed to idols in a cultic setting. According to the Apostle, to eat sacrifices offered to a foreign god in a worship ritual is to “participate” – the same word used to describe the believer’s spiritual sharing in the Supper – in the life of “demons” (vv18-20; cf. 1 Cor. 8).
In other words, sacramental eating can go both ways. One can eat bread and wine to “participate” in the things that these elements signify: the life-giving body and blood of Christ. Or one can eat food sacrificed to idols and “participate” in what that food represents: the table of demons. And thereby provoke the Lord to jealousy (vv21-22). If paganism uses physical means to invite demonic life, how much more water, bread and wine consecrated by the Word and Spirit. Eating and drinking are not benign acts. It all depends on the circumstances (BC 35; HC 35).
The Supper as a sign of our union with each other in anticipation of heaven
While the sign and seal of the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament that strengthens our vertical relation with God, it also symbolises and enriches the horizontal cords of love between fellow believers. After Paul writes about the believer’s “communion” with the body and blood of Christ in the actual act of participating in the Supper (v17), he goes on to describe how this sacrament is also an act of strengthening church unity. This happens as members congregate together to find life in Christ, their head, to in turn love the various parts of his body (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Participation in the Supper arguably makes our unity (in Christ) most visible and concrete.
One manifestation of worldliness among the Corinthian believers was selfishness and drunkenness at the Table (11:21). And, again, as if it does not matter what one does with one’s body. Interestingly, Paul states that such kind of behaviour should at least be reserved for one’s own home (v22). In contrast, the celebration of the Supper should happen “[w]hen you come together…” (v20, cf. v33). As we believe and confess: “[w]ith humility and reverence we receive the holy sacrament in the gathering of God’s people, as we engage together, with thanksgiving, in a holy remembrance of Christ our Saviour… In short, by the use of this holy sacrament we are moved to a fervent love to God and our neighbours” (BC 35). In keeping with Christ’s celebration of the Last Supper with his disciples, we are to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with each other (Matt. 26:26-29).
The Lord’s Supper does indeed sign and seal Christ’s vivifying life and death to us in the present. But the fact that we have to settle for these mediations of our Saviour’s presence reminds us that we are not in heaven yet. The incarnate Christ remains locally in heaven while we are on earth (Matt. 29; Jn. 16; Acts 1-2). We long for this “gap” to be overcome. This is why the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated “until he comes” again (1 Cor. 11:26). Therefore, the Supper is in a sense a “starter” for the main course, which is the marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). In the Eucharist, the believer has begun a communal banquet prefigured in the Exodus Passover, served at Calvary and to be completed in glory.
Loving shepherding and discipline
The church at Corinth, assembling in the midst of a sophisticated and yet debauched society, was a mess. But they were not beyond the reach of God’s grace. Yet, grace for Paul was not a license to sin. And so not surprisingly, he sets forth conditions for coming to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 1:1-9). According to the Apostle, one must be able to discern the body of Christ. Furthermore, each person it to examine himself before partaking. Lest the unrepentant eat and drink judgment upon themselves. And the rest of the body of Christ suffers as well (1 Cor. 11:14-34; cf. BC 35). The Pastor and elders have a weighty responsibility to shepherd and guide in this regard, as those who will have to give an account for the sheep under their care (Heb. 13:17-19; HC 31; BC 35). Our decision regarding a “cyber-supper” is an example of this shepherding obligation.
The error of a “cyber-supper”
The overarching purpose of this letter has been to make a Biblical and pastoral case for celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a public worship service on Sunday and against remotely, in one’s home, over the internet. I will now attempt to bring together more explicitly the various threads set forth above, as well as add a few inferred ones, in defence of these claims.
First off, if it is true that the service – including the preaching – streamed over the internet does not qualify as a true worship service. Then, the Lord’s Supper has nothing official to sign and seal (confirm) to those worshipping remotely.
Second, like the preaching of the Word the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the mediation of Christ’s presence through the embodiment of his earthly ambassador, the Pastor. The efficacy of the means of grace (Word and sacrament) depend upon the Spirit’s attachment to this incarnate officiated ordinance. A disembodied internet administration of the Supper fails to satisfy this God’s requirements. In fact, remote worship over the internet at large is against the whole tenor of the earthiness of the Biblical story and its worship, which finds itself provisional climax in the incarnate Christ and her church.
Third, the signs of the Lord’s Supper also include the unity of the church in one loaf and one cup, which represents Christ’s body. Hence, to celebrate the Supper makes it impossible to enact this reality. We are not in each other’s presence. Beyond this, we cannot express to each other the love we have received from God in the Supper, through embodied fellowship.
Fourth, the entire worship service is a foretaste of heavenly worship that will be corporate. The Lord’s Supper more specifically anticipates the celebration of the wedding supper of the Lamb. The idea of communion online cannot do justice to the “togetherness” of the heavenly meal it anticipates. Let alone, the embodied presence of the One who will sit at the head of the table.
Fifth, shepherding discipline is impossible for the elders to enforce outside of a public assembly. For instance, one does not know if non-communicant children might be partaking. What about regular or first-time visitors that are streaming the service remotely? Let alone the potential for various forms or irreverence that may take place in private. Beyond this, do we want to provoke God’s anger by mishandling his sacrament?
Sixth, and to sum up in terms of the context of covenant. Again, like preaching and other elements of a called worship service, the idea of “cyber-communion” lacks critical aspects necessary to ratifying a covenant: (i) a God-ordained and enfleshed official present; (ii) a public assembly with witnesses; and (iii) discipline and order to ensure that God’s people adhere to the terms of the covenant.
To argue to the contrary is to fall into the error of, among others, the Roman Mass. And her contention that the elements of bread and wine are literally and locally changed in the body and blood of Christ; and therefore become inherently (ex opere operato) efficacious. According to this perspective, the bread and wine have a magical life of their own once consecrated, irrespective of their context. To the other extreme is the argument of radical evangelicalism – with her suspicion of churchly rites and ordinances – that the Supper can be celebrated at home because it is merely an inert and empty sign.
While it may not satisfy the reasonable and popular Corinthian impulse in us all. (Who is not impressed and attracted to what modern technology like Zoom has to offer?) We believe and confess the cruciform folly of the union of the sign and the thing signified (Christ and all his benefits) in a particular assembled setting. That setting is God’s covenant ratification ceremony: corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. God has not promised to ordinarily show up in saving power anywhere else.
Longing with hope for consummate union with Christ
Beloved, for those that cannot participate with us in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper this coming Sunday, here is yet another opportunity to reflect on our pilgrim status in this world (1 Pet. 2). Heaven, not earth, is our true homeland (Heb. 12:18-28). So much is broken and imperfect during our sojourn here. The fallout of COVID-19 is an ever-present and painful reminder of our present exile. We long for the city of God, the New Jerusalem (Pss. 16; 63; 137; 143; Rev. 21:5-22:21). Until then, we lament (Pss. 10; 22; 42-43). We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10).
For now, the eagerness of the elderly and frail to hear Christ’s voice in preaching and to be assured of it in the Lord’s Supper must be tempered by hopeful self-restraint (Heb. 11:1-12:2). The temptation otherwise is to “normalise” the current state of affairs by streaming worship services (both preaching and sacrament) as if remote private worship can substitute for the public and embodied covenant renewal service on the New Testament sabbath (Deut. 5:12-15; cf. HC LD 38). This would be to fall prey to the anti-material (Gnostic) error of the Corinthians. This would be to trivialise God’s means of grace. Such an innovative move would also constitute acting wiser than God and risk incurring his discipline (HC LD 34-38; cf. Deut. 4:15-31; Lev. 10:1-7).
Instead, may we resist such instant gratification and carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Let the elderly and frail be patient until they can return to church.
With this said, perhaps this letter and its circumstances are an occasion for the absent able-bodied to reasonably reconsider a return to corporate worship. Remember, we have sanitary and social distancing protocols in place that make the risk of infection very low. (There is a higher risk involved in your doing things like shop and dine publicly.) So, if you are not in the high-risk category, might you consider joining us again on Sunday: to have your faith strengthened through the ordinary and public means of grace? There is nothing more important in this life.
However, if you remain at home, God WILL continue to persevere you during these uncertain times. If he can raise his Son from the dead, he WILL meet you and uphold you by his Word and Spirit wherever in the world you may be. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39).
We long to see you again. We long to worship with you; listen with you; eat with you; and fellowship with you.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Simon on behalf of the RCSS elders
[1] Michael G. Brown and Zachary Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Reformed Fellowship, Inc., Middleville, 2012), 5.
[2] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2011), 799.