As Sunday is the first Sunday of the month (a usual time for Holy Communion in many congregations) and World Communion Sunday (the day when all congregations are encouraged to celebrate Holy Communion), I thought it would be timely to write about the sacrament.
There are several different names:
Eucharist–from the Greek “to give thanks” (many of the times we see this phrase in the New Testament, it may just be that the author was actually talking about breaking bread.
The Lord’s Supper–since this was part of a meal when Jesus instituted it.
The Last Supper–not an appropriate name since this only properly refers to the meal in the Upper Room on the night in which Jesus was betrayed.
Holy Communion–having fellowship with God and each other in a sacred way.
Sacrament–from the Latin “oath or vow.” Now it usually means that there is an outward sign of an inward grace. Thus a sacrament needs a sign (physical object) and a thing signified (grace). It is a translation of the original Greek term Mystery, because it is a mystical experience of God.
Ordinance–usually called this because it was ordered or decreed by Jesus to be celebrated.
There are also several different understandings:
Transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine literally transform on the atomic level into Jesus’ flesh and blood, but still appear to us as bread and wine as grace (so we are not “grossed out” receiving it). This is party-line Roman Catholic belief. It is also Eastern Orthodox belief, although they wouldn’t try to parse out how the transformation occurs (hence their comfort with the term Mystery for the sacrament).
Consubstantiation–the belief that just as Jesus was all God and all man, the bread and wine are all Jesus and all bread/wine. Jesus’ presence is said to be “hidden within” the bread and wine. This is party-line Lutheran belief.
Virtualism–the belief that Christ is physically seated in heaven, so he is spiritually present in the bread and wine. This is not “virtual reality,” but rather that all the virtues of Christ’s presence are in the bread and wine. This is party-line Calvinism (Reformed and Presbyterian, and to a lesser extent some Baptist) belief.
Memorialism–the belief that nothing of Christ is present at all and this is simply a reminder or group memory of what Jesus did 2000 years ago. This is party-line for some Baptist beliefs (and a whole host of others that don’t fit in any other category).
Absent from this list is a party-line Wesleyan-Methodist belief. That is because it is very difficult to pin down what Methodists believe on the Lord’s Supper. Wesley had a very Anglican belief (no surprise there since he was a priest in the Church of England), which is like Virtualism modified. Christ is spiritually present, but something actually happens to the bread and wine during the sacrament. Most of the earliest Methodists believed the same, but after years of the movement growing and no real training on issues like the theological meaning and importance of the sacraments for its preachers, there is a wide variety of beliefs within the movement today.
In a situation like this, it is probably best to realize that, just as we cannot explain the Trinity or the Incarnation fully and completely, we will never be able to explain the Lord’s Supper fully and completely. In this case, the Eastern Orthodox have a point. It may just be a mystery to us. Thanks be to God that He is bigger than our understanding of things.