Certain experiences are pregnant with new insight, usually more than we recognize at the time. One of those experiences gave me new insights on the Lord’s Supper.
A colleague and I had traveled to Chicago for a meeting with the late Robert Webber about worship issues. We valued his insights, writings, and workshops very much, and we were eager to pick his brain on many of these issues. We arrived at his office at the appointed time. He was late; we waited. Finally he hurried in, apologetic, and explained that he had been delayed by a conversation with a troubled student. He didn’t explain what the student’s problems were, but he did share the advice he had given. “You know what I told him?” he asked rhetorically. “I said, ‘Flee to the Eucharist!’”
Interesting! I thought. While I might have referred the student to a counselor, or suggested he spend more time reading his Bible, or arranged to spend a few sessions with him to sort it out, Webber told him, “Flee to the Eucharist!” The Table, he was saying, would provide the care the young man’s troubled soul needed.
This healthy new insight has stuck with me ever since. I don’t think I had looked at the sacrament quite that way before. Nor do many others. We are quick to see the Lord’s Supper as an important element in the worship ministry of the church, but not necessarily as a part of the pastoral care ministry of the church.
Webber helped me to see it differently. The Table is for the care of souls! It’s the place for pastoral ministry at its best. It’s the place where wounded and struggling spirits find healing and strength for the journey ahead.
Angles on the Table
Let’s begin by recognizing that there are a number of possible angles from which to view the Lord’s Supper. Here are just a few:
- Perhaps we view the Lord’s Supper as a historical ritual that we need to complete at certain times to keep God satisfied. It’s a way of keeping our membership in the worshiping community intact and fulfilling our duties as church members. Indeed, there was a time in church history when coming to the Table once a year was considered sufficient.
- Sometimes we view the sacrament as an occasion for “grateful memory.” Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and so at certain times we take a long look back—some two thousand years. We are grateful when we remember what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection, and we aim to refresh the crispness of that memory.
- Or we come to the Lord’s Supper as a “propitiation meal”—a reminder of the price Jesus paid for our forgiveness.
- Still others view the sacrament as a way to “protect the kingdom.” While we throw the doors of worship wide open to everyone and make no observable distinction between “sheep” and “goats,” the Lord’s Supper is different. The historical practice of “fencing” the Table makes it clear that some “belong” and others do not.
While all of these angles have elements of value, none captures the full range of the richness this Table affords. And none of them points to the Table as the place for pastoral care.
Take Another Look
And so I plead for a new look at the sacrament and a recognition of it as part of the pastoral care ministry of the church. Here too the worship ministry and the pastoral care ministry of the church overlap. The Table is for soul-care!
Scripture offers many rich pictures of the sacrament that illustrate this facet of the Table. At the Table our Lord affirms his personal relationship with us in the precious words “My body . . . my blood . . . for you!” He promises us that our crushing (or nagging) guilt can be resolved. Jesus tells us that this Table will assuage our hunger and thirst (John 6:35). He stirs in our sometimes-troubled hearts an eschatological eagerness for “my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:26) and encourages our faith “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
The historic confessions of the church consistently speak with the language of nourishing and sustaining us. We are people with a physical life and a spiritual life. Whereas the one is sustained by physical and material bread, the other is sustained by the “bread from heaven.” And so Christ “nourishes, strengthens, comforts . . . relieves and renews” our “poor, desolate souls” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35). No pastoral care ministry of any sort can do better!
Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks about our spiritual nourishment and growth: “Spiritually, [we] receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death” (Article XXIX). The Heidelberg Catechism includes some of the same emphasis. We are “nourished and refreshed” (Q&A 75), and in the context of broken relationships, where many feel they have no place to belong, the catechism reminds us that we “who are many are one body” (Q&A 77; 1 Cor. 10:17).
While much of our theological emphasis for coming to the Lord’s Supper focuses on the requirement to confess our neediness and sinfulness, it has been too easy for us to subtly think of having passed some kind of test that enables our participation. It is far better for us to recognize that this is a Table for people who are weak, broken, crippled, wounded, alienated, anxious, diseased; people who come to receive care for their souls from the Savior.
See Them Come
In my heart’s eye, I can see them as they come: a frazzled young mother trying hard to shake her anger, a confused adolescent looking for something to stand on, an eager eleven-year-old who knows that Jesus loves him but is moving into uncharted teen years, a wounded divorcee who wonders if she’s worth anything, a middle-aged woman frightened by the outcome of her mammogram, family members who haven’t had a kind word for each other in months, a senior with nagging fears about aging, and another who is frightened of dying.
The stories in every pew are different. Each person comes with his or her own hurts, brokenness, and disappointments. And then Christ—who is really present—embraces them, reassures them with his promises, and touches them with his healing power. Each person leaves the table cared for.
Let’s imagine that we are attending worship in a congregation with a very pastoral slant on the sacrament. What might that service look like?
It will certainly include a service of confession and renewal. The pastor passionately speaks the words of Romans 8:1 as clear assurance of God’s pardon to all who have confessed. He or she points to the Table and reassures us that Christ welcomes us there. We sing heartily, yet with a lump in our throat, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?”
The pastor opens up the mystifying but wonderful story from Matthew 20:1-16 about the workers in the vineyard and explains that the kingdom of God doesn’t function the way our society does. We’re not paid by the hour in the kingdom. We are utterly surprised by the extreme generosity of God’s grace. The sermon ends behind the Table with an invitation to enjoy God’s surprising generosity.
We sing some more: “Amazing Grace,” “In Christ Alone,” and “Before the Throne of God Above.” A welcome is extended to all who believe and are in need of healing and care for their souls. We come in humility, amazement, awe; we come in deep wonder. We come as broken people in desperate need of soul-care.
And after lingering at the Table we return home, still with our needs and problems, but also knowing that we are cared for, loved, and embraced by God. We leave the Table with the rich resources of divine grace throbbing through our spirits.
This renewed view of the Lord’s Supper will bring rich benefits to the congregation of faith. At the same time it will raise some questions.
If this Table is to relieve and renew our “poor desolate souls,” then we need to ask whether it is sufficient to provide the sacrament only every few months. We need to ask about the spirit of the sacramental liturgy, and the tone and spirit of the one who leads it, and the careful integration of the worship liturgy, sermon, and sacrament. We’ll also surely want to ask some questions about the age at which we encourage our children to come to the Table, and how we can best serve their faith formation. Finally, we need to ask questions about how to most meaningfully make this sacrament available to those who are shut in but who more than ever need this kind of soul care, especially those nearing death.
So let’s take a fresh look at the Table. Let’s expect more soul-care. And let’s not be afraid to ask the questions.