A Community view of the Lord’s Supper (part 4)

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of the most pneumatologically interesting epistles. Within and throughout the book, the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is related to the work and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community. Paul not only was expounding on the specifics of the celebration of the Supper, in his broader argument he was emphasizing an understanding of the church as being uniquely endowed with the Spirit. Thus, to understand the Lord’s Supper in a proper way, it is vital to understand the Holy Spirit. It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to always point to Christ, to always lead the community and the individual into an ever closer approximation and understanding of who Jesus was, is, and will be. This work is carried on throughout the broader ministries of the Church, but no where more pointedly focused than in the celebration of the Lord’s supper. It is for this reason that the Supper can be called a pneumatological event. Here the work of the Holy Spirit in all its manifold ways are celebrated, honored, remembered, and emphasized. The tendency towards a binarian understanding of theology, however, has led to a weakening of this emphasis, and thus a deterioration of the fuller understanding of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church as a whole.

In seeking to understand the Lord’s Supper various theological developments have been put forth which attempt to deal with what is commonly called the “words of institution”. What did Jesus mean when he said, “This is my body”? Taking this literally has led to a development of the idea of “real presence”, in which the elements themselves, in an actual physical or spiritual way, become the actual body and blood of Christ. In overemphasizing the Christological presence in the elements, these theological developments have in fact distanced themselves from the essential Holy Spirit quality and meaning that the Supper in fact likely entails. In seeking to find the real presence of Christ the emphasis is increasingly placed on the elements themselves and then along with this on the person of the priest or officiant whose task it is to consecrate this meal. In John 16, however, we find Jesus himself speaking of the continued presence of the Divine not being represented by his personal presence, but rather mediated by the presence of the Spirit of God who always points to Christ in all things. Jesus states, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

The Spirit constitutes the meal and the community, though never emphasizing his own role. Rather, the Spirit follows what Jesus said in verse 14: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Spirit’s specific work in the church always relates to Jesus and to the eschatological future of God’s kingdom that has dawned already in him,” Pannenberg writes. Yet, the Spirit is not always obvious in his work. “The Holy Spirit, as Person,” states Vladimir Lossky, “remains unmanifested, hidden, concealing Himself in His very appearing.”

In the emphasis of the real presence of Christ in the elements, the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit gets ignored in the attempt to discover how Christ mediates his grace himself in the meal. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann notes, “The special stress on ordination and a sacred ministry – to the point of raising it to the rank of sacrament – apparently always crops up when the church goes over to the practice of infant baptism.” I would argue, however, the case is more true with a view of the Lord’s Supper, in which the office holder gains authority as the mediator, in contrast to the fuller work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the whole church and all those who are a part.

Understood as a work of the Holy Spirit, however, the celebration of the Lord’s supper focuses on much more than mediation to the community through the specific elements. Paul’s comments seem to indicate a broader understanding. There is in his thoughts more recognition of the Spirit who is already working, rather than a mediation and prayer for the Spirit to begin to work or Christ to somehow offer something new and more in recharging the work of grace in our lives.

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