In recent years, there has been an explosion of books and resources encouraging the church to be “gospel-centered.” We are called to be gospel-centered parents, write gospel-centered sermons, and live as gospel-centered communities. All this is well and good. But how does a church keep the cross, the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, at the center of its ministry? Thankfully, there’s no need for ministers to scratch their heads or sit around trying to come up with innovative new ideas. The Lord Jesus Himself left clear instructions.
Sitting with His disciples for the last time before His arrest and crucifixion, “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). Do this in remembrance of me. The Lord’s Supper, a simple meal of bread and wine, is essential to the church’s worship as she remembers and celebrates the death of her Savior.
Already we can see one blessing of the Lord’s Supper: it reminds us that Jesus’ body was broken so that ours might never be and His blood was shed in order that ours be spared. The curse of death fell upon Him, and the blessings of life are therefore given to His people. This makes clear that celebrating the Lord’s Supper is in no way adding to or continuing the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Golgotha. Jesus’ cry, “It is finished!” rings down through the centuries and is proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper. His blood has been spilt and need not be shed again. The sacrifice is complete.
In this way the supper acts as a kind of visible word. It is not bringing new information that we wouldn’t know from the Bible. Instead, it “preaches” to our eyes, hands, lips, and mouths the same gospel but in pictorial form. As I write, my two-year-old daughter has just returned from the park and toddled into my study. I can tell her that I love her. And then I can pick her up, give her a great hug, and kiss her on the cheek. What do the hug and kiss add? In one sense, they do not add any new information, but they strengthen and confirm the words I spoke. So too with the Lord’s Supper. It is a gift of God’s grace to us, confirming the message of the cross. As Q&A 75 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “As surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.”
But there’s more we can say as we seek to understand how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. The supper is not a mere visual aid. After all, the minister doesn’t just stand at the front and point to a broken loaf and a cup of wine. No, we take those elements and consume them, taking them into our own bodies. To an onlooker, it seems as if we’re sharing in a very simple meal. And in fact, thinking of the supper as a meal helps us begin to see a second reason it is a means of grace to God’s church: the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual feeding, where we receive Christ Himself. We feed not just with Christ but “on” Him.
All believers have, as it were, two “lives.” We have a physical body, which in His kindness, God strengthens through physical food. Very possibly, you have eaten some bread today, perhaps even had a glass of wine. Both will have strengthened your body. Then we have a spiritual life. When we take the Lord’s Supper as believers, we are being fed spiritually. While the bread and wine remain bread and wine and are not transformed into Christ’s body and blood, Paul still speaks of the meal as a “participation” in Christ’s body and blood. In older English translations we read of a “communion” instead of a participation, hence the second common name for the Lord’s Supper: holy Communion. First Corinthians 10:16 is the key verse: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
There is certainly mystery here. But somehow, by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, as we eat and drink ordinary bread and wine, then by faith we are receiving Christ and being strengthened in our union with Him. It is not merely a reminder of grace; it is a fresh gift of grace. We come empty-handed—no church charges money for the bread and wine—and again receive Christ, as we did in the Word preached earlier in the service. This understanding helps subtly shift our focus: the Lord’s Supper is, first of all, a time where Christ comes again to us in grace before it is a time where we try our best to reverently remember Him. The primary direction is from heaven to earth, not earth to heaven. It is yet another movement of grace.