On my finger here is a gold ring. I don't have to tell you what the significance of it is. I remember very well the day when I received it. It was quite a while ago now – 38 years on the 28th of this month in fact. It was a gloriously sunny day. I was rather tired because I'd been awake half the night writing my speech. The scene was a beautiful Medieval village church. I'm sure any of you wives whose weddings I've taken will forgive me when I say that The Dress (capital T, capital D) was the most stunning I have ever seen before or since.
But none of that has any bearing whatsoever on the significance of this ring to me. The weather, how I felt, the setting, were all beside the point. What counted what was what was said, and who said it. It was Vivienne. And she said "I will". No conditions attached. Well, just one. I was required to stay alive. On that condition, she said she would. Vivienne also has a gold ring, of course. Neither of us can take our rings off our fingers now. We're stuck with them.
I said I remember the day well, and that's true but I must admit that as time goes by my memory of the detail is getting more and more hazy. But I've noticed something else. With every year that passes, as my memory fades, the significance of this ring for me grows. Does the gold glow brighter? No. It's getting rather scratched actually. Is it that gold has proved a good investment? No. There are more carats in the average salad.
Why then? It's because, as Vivienne said to me that day, this ring is a sign of our marriage. Vivienne married me with this ring. This is a talking ring. It speaks to me of the promises that we made that day. It speaks to me of the woman I married. It speaks to me of all that she's done for me and with me and all that we've been through together since then. It's worth very little. Yet it's the most precious possession I have, because of the person who gave it to me, and the promises that came with it.
In our series on the Church of England's Articles of Religion – or 'What Christians Believe' – we come today to the subject of the Lord's Supper, otherwise known as holy communion. It's the subject of three of the Articles – numbers 28-30 – all of which are important, and I've included a modern English version of them alongside my outline. You can read them and inwardly digest them at your leisure. The truths they express are vital. But I want to focus more directly on what the Bible has to say on the Lord's Supper. We'll be jumping around a bit but our home passage is 1 Corinthians 11.17-34.
What is the significance of the Lord's Supper? In a sense, it is to our relationship with God what a wedding ring is to a marriage. In itself, it's nothing out of the ordinary. Just bread eaten, and wine drunk. That's a point that's strongly emphasised by Article 28. The bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ. To think that is a massive error and leads to all kinds of other spiritually dangerous errors and spiritually damaging practices. Bishops Latimer and Ridley along with Archbishop Cranmer were burnt at the stake because of their defence of the biblical teaching on this expressed in the Articles.
And yet the Lord's Supper is intensely precious because of the person whose Supper it is, and because of the message that it communicates. I want to draw out its importance under the three headings that you can see on the outline. First, the Lord's Supper dramatises the promises of God. Secondly, it stimulates the faith of the believer. And thirdly, it strengthens the fellowship of God's family. So:
1. The Lord's Supper Dramatises the Promises of God.
In 1 Corinthians 1,1 the apostle Paul is giving the Corinthian church a hammering because of the way that they go about the Lord's Supper. They are divided and greedy and inconsiderate and self-indulgent. They are thinking only of themselves. As a result (verse 20):
"When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat."
Why not? In part, because they're not thinking of one another. But their carelessness towards one another is the result of the fact that they're not thinking of Christ. They're not thinking of the gospel. And the Lord's Supper is meant to be all about the gospel. Verses 23-26:
"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
Those simple actions of taking and breaking and eating the bread and drinking the wine are a reminder and a proclamation of the death of Christ. It's not a dramatic re-enactment of the death of Christ - of course not. And no doubt he could have chosen some other sign. But we eat the bread and drink the wine because Jesus told us to. He has loaded that simple act with meaning, and that meaning is his death for us and all the benefits that flow from it. The bread and the wine signify all the promises that God gives to us in Christ.
God preaches the gospel to us through this visible, tangible sign. Why do we need it? Because we are weak and our faith needs every support it can get. Visual aids, properly used, are very powerful. And this is a visual aids that we don't just look at. We participate in it. To use the old Prayer Book word, we partake of it.
God knows how slow we are to take in what he says to us, so he is in the habit of using visual aids. He always has done. The rainbow. Circumcision. The Passover meal. And then he got the prophets doing it too. The prophet Ezekiel was a great one for dramatised warnings and promises. There's an example in Ezekiel 37.15-17. It's a wonderful visible promise. He says:
"The word of the Lord came to me: 'Son of man, take a stick and write on it, "For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him"; then take another stick and write on it, "For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him." And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand.'"
The people of God who had been smashed and divided as a result of their sin would be made whole and united again by the grace of God. It's a visible promise. The Lord's Supper is similar. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 10.17, Paul says:
"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."
The Lord's Supper is a visible word in which we participate. It dramatises the promises of God in the gospel. That is my first point. My next is this – so:
2. The Lord's Supper Stimulates the Faith of the Believer
Take a look at a tenner the next time you have one. On it is written: "Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds." There on the note is the head of the Sovereign and the signature of the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England. It's only a piece of paper. But it's worth ten pounds. Why? Because of the fancy printing? Not in the least. It's valuable because of the promise that comes with it, and because of who issued that promise. The promise to pay can be relied on because the Bank of England always pays up. It always keeps its promise. The note itself is worthless. The value is in the promise and who it comes from.
But of course, even then there's a condition. Do you remember what it said? "I promise to pay the bearer on demand ..." A ten pound note stuck away in a drawer is worthless. It only becomes valuable when it is used. When the promise is believed and acted upon, then it comes into play, and the promise is fulfilled. The same is true of the promises of God, whether written or spoken or in the form of the Lord's Supper. They're no use to us unless we believe them, claim them for ourselves, and act upon them.
The Lord's Supper is a stimulus to us to do just that. It is precisely a powerful reminder of the promise of the gospel. When we share in the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper, then that's a tangible reminder to us of all the blessings that flow from the cross. It's a spur to our faith. And as we believe the promise that it speaks to us, and claim the promise for ourselves and stake our lives upon it, then all the blessings of the cross flow to us – forgiveness, union with Christ, a share in his resurrection life.
If you're anything like me, then you'll have systems that remind you of the things that you need to do. It used to be a knot in a handkerchief, though the widespread use of tissues means that's probably gone out of fashion. It may be a word written in biro on the back of your hand. Maybe you have Post-It notes stuck on surfaces all around the house. It may be an entry in a diary (for those of us who realise that paper's still better), or on a phone (for the millennials among us).
There isn't strictly any need for calendars of course. Anything that we enter onto a calendar we already know about, so all we have to do is remember it. But we have a great tendency to forget. Without help we're unreliable. With all the pressures that come upon us from the world, the flesh and the devil, we are unreliable in remembering God's promises as well. We need help. The Lord's Supper is one of the ways God helps us. It is God's biro on the back of our hand, God's Post-It note, God's gospel Filofax, God's smartphone calendar, God's knot in the handkerchief of our lives.
But, as Article 29 forcibly reminds us, we need to be aware that the Lord's Supper mustn't be trifled with. The gospel of which the Lord's Supper is a visible, tangible sign has a double edge.
If we make an outward show of being Christian, but in reality, our hearts are locked shut against the gospel, then God's word judges us. God is not mocked. He's not fooled as those around us may be fooled. We can't read one another's minds or see into one another's hearts. But nothing is hidden from God. If we make an outward show of believing the gospel by eating the bread and drinking the wine, but inwardly we're in stubborn, sullen rebellion against him, then we bring down judgement on ourselves.
That's why we ask those who aren't yet believers in Jesus not to take the bread and wine. There's no neutral ground when it comes to the gospel. Either we're on the side of Christ or we're not. Either we recognise our need of a saviour and trust in Christ or we don't. Either we obey him as the rightful Lord of our lives or we don't. If the direction of our lives shows that in reality we neither trust nor obey, but we still participate in the Lord's Supper, then we shouldn't be surprised when that participation is brought in evidence against us. To abuse the Lord's Supper is to abuse Christ. And we can't trample on Jesus without facing the consequences. It was this outward show with no inward reality which was characteristic of some of the church in Corinth to which Paul wrote. So he warns them in 1 Corinthians 11.27-29:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself."
We can think of using the Lord's Supper as rather like approaching red traffic lights. If we come up to a red light and take to heart its significance, then we will stop. The light then gives us security. It protects us from the danger ahead. But if we approach the red light and ignore it, and go straight on through it, we open ourselves to being hit by the oncoming traffic. Then that red light becomes evidence against us. The same red light can be either a sign of safety or the evidence of our guilt. It all depends on how we approach it.
We can participate in the Lord's Supper arrogantly and for outward show, and face the consequences. Or we can come in faith, knowing we're sinners in need of a Saviour who can forgive us and strengthen us to live for him. When we do that, then we'll find that the promise of God is true. Our trust in Christ will deepen. Our obedience will grow. Our faith will be stimulated. We'll find ourselves participating in a meal that unites us with Christ. And what's more, we will find ourselves united with other believers. Because participating in the Lord's Supper is never merely a private matter. Which brings me to my final point:
3. The Lord's Supper Strengthens the Fellowship of God's Family
A Scottish minister was visiting a church member who'd recently been missing Sunday services. The minister sat in silence in front of the fire. After a while, he lent forward, picked up the hearth tongs, took a burning coal from the fire, and laid it in the fireplace. It flickered briefly and went out. The minister picked it up and put it back with the other coals. Within a few seconds, it was on fire again. The minister took his leave, having said nothing throughout his visit. The absentee was back in church the following Sunday.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we belong together and we need one another. The Lord's Supper expresses that fellowship between us. That very name, which the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11, indicates what it is - the fellowship meal of disciples, by invitation of their Lord. Five times in the space of 18 verses in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul uses the verb 'to come together' in relation to the Lord's Supper. Part of the Corinthians' abuse of the sacrament was that the 'haves' were humiliating and neglecting the 'have nots'. They were despising the fellowship and the family to which they were claiming to belong.
So this fellowship that we share through the Lord's Supper has both the vertical dimension of our spiritual contact with Christ, and also the horizontal dimension of the bonding between fellow worshippers. As Paul puts it back in 1 Corinthians 10.16-17:
"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."
So when we participate in the Lord's Supper, let's think of Christ, and think also of one another. Let's be praying for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And let's ask the Lord to strengthen our fellowship so that our participation together becomes an expression of a love for one another that shows itself in prayer and practical care throughout the week.
The Lord's Supper dramatises the promises of God. So believe them. It stimulates the faith of the believer. So use it. It strengthens the fellowship of God's family. So share in it with your brothers and sisters in Christ.