There have been many changes made to the Sunday worship of Faith Presbyterian Church over the last twenty-six years.
Early on, for example, we changed the hymnal. In 1986 we added kneelers to our pews so that some of our prayers could be taken on our knees. Since we returned to the sanctuary after the remodel in the Spring and Summer of 1991, the ministers have worn robes while leading worship.
But though these and other changes were of great consequence and, we believe, have wonderfully enriched our worship together on the Lord’s Day, without question the greatest changes have come in our practice of the Lord’s Supper.
Faith Presbyterian Church was, as most evangelical Presbyterian congregations, long used to infrequent communion, usually four times each year, generally the practice of the Presbyterian church since the later 16th century. Early in my ministry we began to observe the Supper twice a month and, after the remodel, began to observe the sacrament every Lord’s Day, alternating between the morning and the evening services.
A few years ago we abandoned the Reformed church’s long-standing custom of pew communion and introduced the practice that now prevails in our services. (The justification for those changes was given in a series of evening messages that can now be found on the church’s website.) I am happy to say that all of these changes, with very few exceptions, have been greeted with enthusiasm by the congregation and that there continues to be the widespread conviction that our present practice of the Lord’s Supper has been an improvement in many ways.
In all of these changes we have reconnected with the central tradition of Christian worship, becoming less specifically Reformed and more generally Christian in our practice, if not in our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, particularly in regard to the Lord’s Supper, our worship now much more closely resembles the liturgy developed by John Calvin than it does the worship service of Scottish and English Puritanism from which the worship of American Presbyterianism descended. For us now, as for Calvin then, the Lord’s Supper occupies a much larger place in our Lord’s Day worship than it has occupied for centuries in the worship of evangelical Presbyterianism. This reestablishment of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day is hardly peculiar to us. Many Reformed and Presbyterian churches have made some, if not all, of the changes that we have made, both in the frequency of observance and in the method of distributing the elements. The new emphasis upon the Lord’s Supper has been the leading edge of a reformation in Reformed and Presbyterian worship, at least in some circles, that has been underway now for several decades.
A meal is several different things in our experience. It is, of course, the means of our bodies receiving the nourishment they require. But, as food is not only nutritious but tasty, not only a necessity but a pleasure, a meal is something that we enjoy. A meal is also, at least widely in our experience, the principal occasion of daily fellowship, especially with members of our own family. It is an occasion by which our family bond is signified and sealed. The Lord’s Supper is all of those things and more. Of course, what makes this meal so unique is the presence of Jesus Christ at the head of the table. The Bible teaches us in many ways that the Lord’s Supper is a means of God’s grace to us. He works through it to sanctify and bless us. He is present to make the Supper not a natural but a supernatural event. This is beautifully expressed in the best of our communion hymns.
“Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face…”
“Amidst us our Belovèd stands…”
When Jesus says that the bread we eat is his body and the wine we drink is his blood, he is telling us that our faith is nourished at the Lord’s Supper. The old writers used to remind us that we must come to the Supper with two mouths: the mouth of our body with which we receive the bread and wine and the mouth of our soul, that is our faith, by which we feed upon Christ and his benefits. Our faith is certainly nourished by that recollection of holy things that takes place in the Supper, but the nourishment is more than that. Our faith is also nourished by the ministry of the Holy Spirit who works in and through the Supper to sanctify us in spirit, soul, and body. Only eternity will tell what a great difference the Lord’s Supper, as the hearing of the Word and the offering of prayer, has made to each and every Christian life.
But, as the Scripture often says, the Supper is also a feast, a celebration. It was the chief defect of pew communion that it tended quite powerfully to obscure this dimension of the communion. If bread is ordinary nourishment, wine is the drink of feasts. A feast is a celebratory meal appointed to remember great events and to increase joy. The Supper, as a feast, serves both of those purposes. It celebrates the Savior’s victory over sin and death and restores to us the joy of our salvation: “This do in remembrance of me.” But feasts are also anticipations. A wedding feast, for example, is the celebration of what will be, not what has been. And so the Lord’s Supper is an anticipation of the wedding supper of the Lamb and the consummation of salvation when Jesus comes again. The Supper, Sunday by Sunday, centers us where we must always self-consciously stand, between the Lord’s first coming and his second.
“And thus that dark betrayal-night
With the last advent we unite,
By one blest chain of loving rite,
Until he come.”
And, finally, as the Apostle Paul made a great point of saying, the Supper is an enacted demonstration of our unity in the body of Christ. We gather at one table to eat the same food and drink the same drink. Many of us love the practice of communing at the front of the church precisely because it fosters such a visible display of this unity, this brotherhood, this family bond.
This sacred ritual, so often repeated, will be a crucial means of deepening our faith in Christ, of increasing our joy in his salvation, and of forging ever stronger bonds of love between us and him and between us and one another. Or so it will be if Christ by his Holy Spirit is working in and through it. And he will, as he promised, if we are careful to partake with faith, with hope, and with love.