One Living Body

With the new year, we begin a new series, “Not My Own: Reflections on the Heidelberg.” We have asked various authors to share a time or memory when the beloved Heidelberg Catechism became more significant and personally poignant, an experience that was illumined as the words of the Catechism shone upon it. In the months ahead, we hope to hear a variety of voices express how the Heidelberg shaped and touched them.

One Living Body

by Allan Janssen

Question 75. How does the Lord’s Supper remind and assure you that you share in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and in all his gifts?

Answer. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup. He has thereby promised: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood was shed for me. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves and actually taste the bread and the cup of the Lord which are given me as sure signs of the body and blood of Christ, so surely he feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life with his crucified body and shed blood.

Question 76. What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his shed blood?

Answer. It means to accept with a believing heart the whole passion and death of Christ, and by it to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In addition, it means to be united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit dwelling both in Christ and in us that, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, always living and being governed by one Spirit, as the members of our bodies are governed by one soul.

I had been a pastor for more than twenty-five years when I was asked to consider a position that would mean leaving congregational ministry. As I walked the country lanes near my home considering whether to agree, I asked myself, “If I were to I move on, what I would miss about the pastorate?”

Much to my own astonishment, I realized that I would not miss preaching. I enjoyed preaching. I had seen the power of the Word to challenge, transform, and shape. It was an exciting privilege to be what Calvin calls an “instrument” used by God. But if I didn’t preach another sermon, I would be fine. That is a difficult thing to say, having grown up among preachers who were fond of quoting Paul: “Woe is me if I don’t preach…”

A deep grief, however, fell over me when I thought that I would leave the table. I would no longer preside at the supper. No longer sit at the head of the table where I functioned as pastor.

Was I more priest than preacher? Or had years of living close to persons who expressed the need for the gospel and its profound comfort led me to a subconscious realization? As surely as I distribute the bread and the wine of the Supper, “so surely [Christ] nourishes [our souls] to everlasting life with his crucified body and shed blood”?

I had been thoroughly educated in the notion of the supper (and indeed the sacraments) as a cognitive event. The sacraments remind us of what God in Christ is about. They help us to “understand more clearly the promise of the gospel” (Answer 66). Sacraments are, if you will, illustrations of the message. At best, they show that God’s actions are not ethereal, but historical and earthly, real in the sense that you could touch and see Jesus. But were the sacraments more?

Another experience came to mind and pushed the matter forward, one in which my identity as “pastor” was not at stake. Hearing that my father had suffered a stroke that would eventually kill him, I prepared to travel half a continent to be with him and our family. As I rose the morning before I was to catch my flight, I needed something else. I longed to be in the communion of the saints. I needed friends as well, some who were among the saints. But it wasn’t friendship my soul craved. It was, rather, to gather with and be in the company of the saints of the ages. It was to gather with acquaintances and strangers in the church from a small friary where I spent my days of Sabbath rest. So I went to (gasp!) mass. It was, after all, a week-day morning, and even the Protestants most avid for frequent communion haven’t yet gotten to daily celebrations.

It was the Lord’s Supper that I longed for. But a holy communion at a level deeper than I can grasp or begin to describe. It is the communion that our Lord offers us, a union with Christ that sometimes includes feeling but transcends sense in all forms. It was to be united by the Spirit, the One who dwells both in Christ and in me, and so we (notice how the “I” turns to “we” here in the Catechism) are “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.” And we become one body. To use old language, Christ is truly present in the power of the Spirit. Moreover, Christ is present as the Spirit unites us into one living body, united in Christ.

While the sacraments are sometimes called means of grace, the Catechism happily doesn’t use that language. I say “happily” because as Dutch theologian A.A. van Ruler remarked, in the last piece that he wrote, that while you can claim that the preached Word is a means of grace, the same doesn’t apply for the sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper. It is not a “means” to anything, he argued. You are already “there.” You are already in the kingdom, albeit as the future reaches out to grasp you. The supper is a “pledge and a foretaste” to cite the Reformed Church liturgy. At the supper we are no longer alone. We are forgiven, free, and human, for we are in the company of God through Christ, and so with our fellow humans–the communion of the saints.

I moved on from the pastorate where I wondered whether I should consider a non-ministerial position. I wasn’t offered that job. But I did move on to another table in another community. A recent tradition of the church I now serve is to sing the Lord’s Prayer at the conclusion of the intercessions that bring the liturgy of the table to its end. It is a moving moment as the old Malotte melody rises and falls. Congregants have been united with Christ, with one another, and with all the saints. And for a moment, God’s promise is fulfilled. We are fed and nourished. Through the Spirit we are one body governed by one soul. And our congregation, so steeped in the Word, so stimulated by thoughts and ideas, is drawn deeper into a vision that I, for so long, did not even know that the Heidelberg held!

Allan Janssen is pastor of the Community Church of Glen Rock, Glen Rock, New Jersey and an assistant professor of theological studies at New Brunswick Theological Seminary.