There is a heartfelt desire to experience the presence of Christ in Hmong churches. So much so that it is being sought out in numerous experiences (i.e. casting out demons, divine healing, worship, etc.). Such an approach is wrapped around the idea that the presence of Christ can only be experienced by extraordinary means. The assumption is that through extraordinary worship, fervent prayer, or restless devotions; one will experience Christ in deeper and newer ways.  However, veiled behind this desire is often a discontentment with the ordinary and the mundane. This false assumption is nothing new. Far before the 21st century; the 18th century’s Pietism and 19th century’s Revivalism was in many ways a similar response to “bland worship” and “dead orthodoxy” that some believe still permeates within many churches today.[1]

No doubt it is good to want to experience the presence of Christ as he has promised his church. Yet what is often neglected is that Christ not only promised to be with us, but he has also ordained the means by which he would be with us. Scripture suggests that the presence of Christ is not experienced through the extraordinary or the extravagant, but rather through ordinary means—the Word and sacraments.

Unfortunately, these ordinary means have been neglected. Not in the sense that they are no longer observed in the church, but in that, they are not sufficiently seen as presenting Christ. If I were to ask how many members of Hmong churches today expect to experience the presence of Christ in communion, I’d expect a lot of confused faces. The reason is because their experience of Christ is often sought in the charismatic, in chords, and in personal devotions. Although culture and depravity have a lot to do with this neglect of Christ in the Supper; one can also look back to the influence of Ulrich Zwingli.

 

Who is Ulrich Zwingli to the Hmong Church?

Many Hmong believers might not know this, but the way that they are practicing communion stems from Ulrich Zwingli’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.  Zwingli denied the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and gave a figurative interpretation to the words of the institution.[2] Now he did not deny Christ’s spiritual presence to the faith of believers. However, he viewed the Lord’s Supper primarily as an act of remembrance.  Therefore, what lies before the church is simply just bread and wine (or grape juice)—nothing more, nothing less.[3]

The bread and wine, as declared by Paul is Christ’s body which was broken, and his blood which was poured. In this somber experience believers remind themselves of the atoning work of Christ through his death. Granted, believers are instructed by Christ to partake of the supper in remembrance of him in 1 Corinthians 11:24. However, such a narrow position implies that the Supper is something that the church does for God as a pledge, rather than a meal which God provides for His church. [4]  Hold such a position on the Lord’s Supper does not fully cover the Biblical and historical understanding of this sacrament. For in the same verse, Paul proclaims that Christ himself identified his body with this meal. It is because of Christ’s self-identification to the meal that the Lord’s Supper is considered a means of grace, rather than a response to grace.[5]

Therefore, I argue against the position that the Lord’s Supper is strictly a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace wherein the real presence of Christ strengthens his church. The church does not need to look elsewhere. For in the Supper, Christ calls his sheep to commune with him, and to feast upon him through the working of the Holy Spirit.

A Covenant Meal

As stated above the Lord’s Supper is a meal which God provides for his covenant people. This becomes apparent when considering that the Supper is rooted in the Passover meal. A meal which Christ desired to share with his disciples on the night that he was betrayed.[6]

The Passover was a redemptive event, wherein God saved his people and brought about a great exodus. This exodus came by the hand of God as he poured out his wrath against the Egyptians for enslaving his covenant people. As the spirit of judgment hovered over Egypt that fateful night, God instituted the Passover meal as a rite for the people of Israel[7]. This was to serve as a commemoration of the steadfast love of God in saving his people, and it was a way for the people to participate in this redemptive event.[8]  Like the Passover, God the Son institutes a meal on the night that he was betrayed. His betrayal was the start of what would ultimately pave the way for his people to enter into a new exodus. An exodus from slavery to freedom; from this life to eschatological life.

As the disciples reflected upon the words from Exodus 12 of the Passover lamb’s blood being sprinkled upon the door posts to save the lives of many, so too Christ’s blood would be shed. For he stands in the place of the Passover lamb, but in a greater and newer way. Such that Christians do not partake of the Passover meal ritualistically like those in the Old Covenant, but New Covenant believers partake of the Lord’s Supper looking back in redemptive history and forward to eschatological life. The Supper is a covenant meal which flows from the steadfast love of God. He gives it to his people for their benefit; in order that they might look in faith towards the new heavens and new earth, and persevere.

Paul articulates this idea of “newness” in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8. He states, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” In speaking of the Lord’s Supper, Paul is proclaiming a newness which has come because of Christ. This newness is presented for believers as a promise in the Supper.  The old leaven bread being synonymous to the old covenant administration was to be thrown out, because of the sufficiency of Christ as the long awaited Passover lamb. The lamb which would save his people from a greater bondage and a greater judgment. Therefore, the meal set before believers is a promise that God’s judgment has passed them. It is a meal with no condemnation for the one who comes resting upon Christ. The Supper is a covenantal meal which dispenses grace for the benefit of believers, and not a response to grace

A Means of Grace

Throughout Church history the Lord’s Supper is often referred to as a means of grace for believers. Yet to what extent the Supper is a means of grace differs greatly among theologians. Zwingli affirmed that the Supper was only a means of grace if God chose to be operative through it.[9]  For Zwingli, the Supper did not guarantee grace and blessing. The reason is because Zwingli did not see an immediate connection between the sign and the thing signified.[10]  Zwingli strongly believed that the presence of Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant could only be present according to God’s sovereign will. In other words, the human function of administering the Lord’s Supper could not guarantee the presence of Christ and the New Covenant blessings.[11] Now, Zwingli would not say that the sign doesn’t point anywhere. Rather, he argues that the Lord’s Supper properly points believers to the historical redemptive work of Christ.[12]

In contrast to Zwingli, Calvin believed that God truly works in the believer the reality which is in the Supper.[13] In other words, the Lord’s Supper is a vehicle full of grace to those who are in Christ Jesus.[14]  And the grace which is offered is none other than the grace of Jesus Christ. What is offered in the Lord’s Supper is not a common grace, nor simply a reminder of the work of Christ, but a special grace—a saving grace. It is a sanctifying grace which removes sin and renews the sinner in conformity with the image of God.[15]  Neither is this grace which is bestowed unto all who partake of the meal in faith intrinsic to the bread and wine. In other words, the bread and wine in themselves do not dispense faith as Roman Catholics would argue. Instead, Scripture is clear that it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit that the benefits of redemption merited by Christ are applied to believers.  It is the Holy Spirit that is perpetually operative in this sacrament to work and confirm faith in the hearts of believers.[16]  The Holy Spirit can apply these blessings to believers because of the real presence of Christ in the Supper.

Real Presence of Christ

The real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a long forgotten concept in many evangelical churches. However, for the reformers Calvin and Luther, it was a very important issue as they wrestled with the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Roman Catholic Mass. Transubstantiation teaches that the real presence of Christ is wrought by the blessings of the priest upon the elements of the bread and wine. Though it may still appear to be bread and wine, after the blessing, what actually lies before them is the real body and blood of Jesus Christ offered once more as a sacrifice to turn away the wrath of God. No doubt this was extremely problematic for the reformers as they reflected upon the words from Hebrews 9:24-26,

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (ESV)

The Reformers rejected this re-presentation of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice on the cross mediated in the Lord’s Supper. Christ did not need to be re-sacrificed for his death was sufficient for all.

Another position that was rejected by Luther, Calvin, and the majority of the Reformers was Zwingli’s position, which happens to be the position of many evangelical churches today. As stated above Zwingli viewed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Christ’s death. In this way he rejects the real presence of Christ by declaring the supper as a reminder of Christ’s accomplishment. However, it would be a mischaracterization to state that Zwingli held to a “mere” memorialism.  The reason being because Zwingli had not intension of denying the divine presence of Christ in the Supper.  For he would affirm the very words of Christ in Matthew 28:20, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  Defending against the accusation of holding to a “mere” memorialism, Zwingli states: “The Supper cannot be merely a commemorative rite when the one commemorated is himself present and active amongst those who keep the feast.” [17]  Zwingli does believe that Christ is truly present in the Supper, because he is the omnipresent Son of God who communes with the church in his spirit. However, Zwingli does not believe that Christ is substantially present in the Supper.[18]

Arguing only for the spiritual presence of Christ proved to be problematic for both Luther and Calvin as it divided the two natures of Christ.[19]  The real presence of Christ could not be a Christ divided, for Christ was raised bodily from the grave, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father.[20] Yet this is exactly why Zwingli spoke of a spiritual presence of Christ, because Christ in his humanity was not visibly present nor omnipresent. He argues, “Therefore our Eucharist is a visible assembling of the church, in which we eat and drink bread and wine as symbols, that we may be reminded of those things which Christ has done for us.”

Luther was unsatisfied with Zwingli’s understanding of the presence of Christ. He saw Zwingli essentially laying waste to the hypostatic union. However, Luther went to the opposite extreme by stating that Christ’s humanity is swallowed up in his divinity. That is, Christ is present in the Supper because he is omnipresent not only in his divine nature, but also in his human nature. Furthermore, Luther acknowledged that Christ had ascended to the right hand of God the Father, but argued that the right hand of God is not in any one location, but everywhere. Thus in Luther’s Catechism, it states that Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements.  For Luther, Christ was truly present in the Supper—both bread and wine.  By articulating Christ’s presence in this way, Luther was avoiding to speak of the elements as being the body and blood of Christ as Rome had argued.                                                                                                                          Along the lines of Luther, Calvin did not have much sympathy towards Zwingli’s memorialist understanding of the Supper. For he states, “…to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is present to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.”[21]  Calvin appreciated Luther’s heightened view of the Supper, yet he was not fully convinced of Luther’s position either. Calvin adopted what some would argue as a middle ground between the extremes of Zwingli and Luther. He argued, that although Christ is in heaven, believers are nourished in the Lord’s Supper by his body and blood as the food for souls who are united to him in the Spirit.[22]

In the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed view speaks of a sacramental union which is presented before the believers. This sacramental union involves the sign (bread and wine), and the thing signified (Christ and all of his benefits).[23]  This distinction is a very important aspect of the Reformed perspective on the Lord’s Supper, for the Reformed Tradition does not believe that Christ is bodily present in the bread and wine. Calvin states,

“Now, if it be asked whether the bread is the body of Christ and the wine his blood, we answer, that the bread and the wine are visible signs, which represent to us the body and blood, but that this name and title of body and blood is given to them because they are as it were instruments by which the Lord distributes them to us. This form and manner of speaking is very appropriate. For as the communion which we have with the body of Christ is a thing incomprehensible not only to the eye but to the natural sense, it is there visibly demonstrated to us. Of this we have a striking example in an analogous case.”[24]

Christ is present in the Supper, yet he is not present specifically in the elements. The elements are but instruments which the Holy Spirit uses to communicate to believers the body and blood of Christ and all of his benefits. Therefore, as believers partake in the eating of the bread and in the drinking of the wine they can say that they are feasting upon Christ.

Although Christians are feasting upon Christ in a spiritual manner, it is not simply the spiritual Christ whom they are feasting upon. They are feasting on the whole of Christ. Although the bread and wine do not contain the physical presence of Christ, nonetheless, believers are feasting upon Christ who is both true God and true man.[25] Yet how is this possible? It is possible through the power of the Holy Spirt. He overcomes the distance between Christ and the church. He is the one who makes the sacramental union effective. This is a mysterious work wherein believers truly receive Christ. Not Christ in Spirit, but as stated before, Christ who is divine and human. In the Supper Christians partake of the Second person of the Trinity. The eternal logos who added to himself a true body and a reasonable soul. Jesus of Nazareth who suffered, died, and ascended to heaven. This is a glorious feast, but it is also a mysterious feast.[26] Michael Horton states, “Though reigning at God’s right hand, the true and natural body of Christ and all his benefits are given to us as the empty mouth of faith receives the thing signified just as the empty mouth of flesh receives the bread and the wine.”[27]

Conclusion

The Lord’s Supper is more than just a memorial of the historical redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Rather, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace wherein the real presence of Christ strengthens his church.  It is a covenantal meal which believers take in the presence of Jesus Christ as he manifests himself to the church mysteriously by the Holy Spirit.

The church need not look anywhere else than what Christ as prescribed. For in the Supper, Christ calls his sheep to commune with him. As all who receive and rest upon Christ and partake of this covenantal meal, they are strengthened both vertically and horizontally. The former speaks of the work of the Spirit in applying to us the benefits of redemption. The latter speaks of the communal oneness that believers share as they are united to Christ. Thus as Christians are drawn to Christ, they are necessarily drawn to one another in this covenantal meal—the Lord’s Supper. In this meal Christians experience the real presence of Christ and his love as he continually gives himself to his bride. To use an analogy, Christ is not skyping his bride as he watches her eat supper. Instead he is bodily present.

Through the exercise of faith believers receives Christ just as through faith one comes to receive and rest upon him for salvation. Therefore, what lies before the church is a reminder of the propitiation of Christ, a promise of covenantal faithfulness, and an opportunity to reaffirm one’s loyalty to God.[28]

Look no further to alter calls, to camp retreats, to the extravagant or the extraordinary. For in the Lord’s Supper Christians experience the real presence of Christ as they feast upon the elements. What more can be done, when Christ gives himself through such an ordinary means? Nothing else is needed outside of what Christ has instituted. For in the Lord’s Supper the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ come to all who eat in faith.[29] Therefore eat with joy. Eat in remembrance of Christ’s redemptive work. Eat and experience the real presence of Christ for he gives himself to the church through this ordinary means. It is who is revealed that is extraordinary.

 

 

 

[1] Michael S. Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” in A Better Way (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 94.

[2] Louis Berkhof, “The Lord’s Supper,” in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 646.

[3]  G.W. Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” in Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 181.

[4] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 116.

[5] George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth on the Lord’s Supper An Ecumenical Appraisal,” in Conversational Theology: Essays on Ecumenical, Postliberal, and Political Theme, with Special Reference to Karl Barth (  Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2015), 21.

[6] Edmund P. Clowney, “The Sacraments,” in The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 285

[7] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 115.

[8] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 116.

[9] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 182.

[10] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 181.

[11] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 182.

[12] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 182.

[13] William Stacy Johnson and John H. Leith, “The Church,” in Reformed Reader: A Source Book in Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 316.

[14] Berkhof, “The Means of Grace,” 604.

[15] Berkhof, “The Means of Grace,” 605.

[16] Berkhof, “The Means of Grace,” 605.

[17] Leanne Van Dyk, “The Reformed View” in The Lord’s Supper: Five Views, edited by Gordon T. Smith (Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 2008), 70.

[18] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 183.

[19] Bromiley, “Zwingli: On the Lord’s Supper,” 183.

[20] Van Dyk, “The Reformed View,” 70.

[21] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” in Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin, Volume 1, Eugene: Wif and Stock Publishers, 2002), 170.

[22] Van Dyk, “The Reformed View,” 78.

[23] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 117.

[24] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” 171.

[25] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 117.

[26] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 118.

[27] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 118.

[28] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 117.

[29] Horton, “A Table In The Wilderness,” 119.

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