Drops and Crumbs of Mercy
This Sunday Morning in our Sunday School, we will consider the Sacraments of our holy religion. The term ‘sacrament’ is not found in the Bible and probably finds its derivation in the Sacramentum, the vow a Roman Centurion took when he received his commission, a vow signaling his willingness to be faithful unto death. This metaphor speaks bi-directionally. On the one hand they symbolize God’s faithfulness to us— He has been faithful unto death and will keep all of His promises to us. And they symbolize our commitment to be faithful to Him, even it if it costs us our very lives.
By Christ’s institution, there are two sacraments in the Church, and we have no authority to invent another. They are the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like Circumcision, Baptism is an initiatory rite in which a believer (or a member of their household) becomes a visible member of the Covenant Community. The sign in Baptism is water, which primarily symbolizes the defiling power of sin, and the cleansing power of the gospel. The baptismal water does more than just point out these realities (like a sign post), it also seals the gospel promises to the hearts of those who believe. By faith, our hearts receive this sign experientially, the Holy Spirit rubs its truth into our souls, and we grow in grace through it. This sealing ministry is a double-edged sword; it cuts both ways. When anyone walks away from this promise in unbelief, the sacrament becomes a sign and seal of their damnation (Think of Paul’s language in 1Cor 11, in which worthy celebrants eat and drink judgment upon themselves at the Lord’s Table).
Like the Passover meal , the Lord’s Supper speaks eloquently of Christ, our Passover Lamb, who has been sacrificed for us (1Cor 5:7). The bread speaks of His body, bled dry because of our sins. The wine speaks of his blood, without which there can be no forgiveness of sin. When Christ instituted Holy Communion, it was the Thursday night before the Friday Passover. Jesus, you remember, was handed over for crucifixion about the sixth hour (John 19:14), the very time the priests were slaughtering the Passover lambs in the temple. Most scholars believe Jesus, eager to eat the Passover with His disciples, celebrated the Supper a day early, concerned not to allow His death to get in the way of His one last Passover with His disciples on earth. As such, the bread of this meal would have been unleavened bread (a sign both of the haste of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and of their determination to be pure for God). The wine, which would have been fermented grape juice, was a potent symbol of Christ’s cleansing blood— both sweet and bitter, and rich with aroma, a powerful picture of the blood red cost of our redemption.
Your Session at Christ Covenant is currently considering making a change to our communion service to better represent the original. If this transpires, in place of the ordinary white bread, we would use unleavened bread. And, as an additional selection alongside grape juice, we would add fermented wine. Many Presbyterian and Reformed Churches have already made these changes, serving an outer ring of wine in the trays, with the inner rings containing non-fermented grape juice.
Some may wonder how this adjustment would affect weaker brothers (and sisters) in our midst, those who are recovering alcoholics, or who struggle with overindulging in alcohol. There is much that we could say in response to this. We are our brother’s keeper, and their welfare concerns us deeply. However, we find the example of Christ compelling and dare not imagine ourselves wiser than God. Dare we question the wisdom of Christ who used fermented wine in the communion service? To be sure, such wine is definitely not the sine qua non (without which not) of communion. We think the essential elements are the color of the juice (it surely has to be blood red), and its provenance—it should be the fruit of the vine. The other details are mere circumstances in the service (Remember the Element, Form, Circumstance distinction in our second lecture). With that said however, though it is a circumstance, it is an authentic one that Christ Himself honored with it use. We believe the church is only helped when she follows her Savior’s example. As a Session, we would be very grateful for your prayers as we continue to think through this issue.