The Lord’s Supper as Speech Act: But Who’s Doing the Talking? (Part 2)

While we might see some openness towards a more sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper in some Mennonite statements of faith[1], others show movement in the opposite direction. It is this movement that is most concerning. A quick comparison between the Mennonite Brethren confessions of faith from 2001 and 1902 reveals this trend. The 2001 Confession of Faith:

The church observes the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Christ. The Lord’s Supper points to Christ, whose body was broken for us and whose blood was shed to assure salvation for believers and to establish the new covenant. Through the supper, the church identifies with the life of Christ given for the redemption of humanity and proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. The supper expresses the fellowship and unity of all believers with Christ and embodies remembrance, celebration, and praise, strengthening believers for true discipleship and service.[2]

Contrast this with the 1902 statement on the Lord’s Supper.

  1. In this holy supper we are brought to see that Christ’s holy body was sacrificed on the cross and His precious blood shed for the remission of our sin, and that He now being glorified in His heavenly state, is life-giving bread, meat and drink for our souls, and unites Himself with all true believing souls for spiritual communion according to His Word: Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with Me.
  2. Only the gracious enlightenment and fellowship of the Holy Spirit can enable the believer to rightfully examine himself, and prepare him to partake of this holy supper in a worthy manner and teach the hidden meaning of the same, so that in partaking of the Lord’s supper they may be fed with the body and blood of Christ, thus to partake of all His sufferings and His merits and be greatly comforted in the strong covenant of grace with God, their heavenly Father.
  3. Thus this sacrament becomes for the believing church a supper of praise and thanksgiving, in which it rejoices over the blessed promises of the holy supper with their divine Redeemer and all His saints in the Kingdom. It becomes a supper strengthening the believer for ready service and true following of Christ in patiently bearing His cross and for growth in true love in all things into Him, which is the head, even Christ, for the building up and betterment of His temple, the Church. All this is carried out as a joyous thank-offering through Jesus Christ for all gifts of divine grace and well doing to the glory of God the Father.
  4. This supper of holy communion of the believers with Christ, their head, is at the same time the expression of holy communion of the believers among themselves and it binds them together in love, peace, and unity according to the words of the Scriptures: The cup of the blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ ? For we, being many, are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.

Note the marked difference between these two statements. There is a clear sense of efficacy attached to the practice of the Supper in the later, while the former explicitly denies any notion of efficacy, preferring to maintain an exclusively memorialist understanding of the Supper – that is, the only act performed during the Supper is an act of remembrance.

This is confirmed to a greater degree in the commentary on the 2001 Confession, “Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper.” This highlights the belief that the Supper has one actor – the congregation. God may act prior to the Supper, but God does not act in and through the Supper itself. The only act performed is that of the congregation. And yet, it would appear that God does speak in the Supper. The very words of Christ are read aloud as the Supper is celebrated; “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.” How can it be that God speaks and yet does not act?

[To be continued…]

[1] See for example the commentary on the Lord’s Supper from the 1995 A Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective, “2. The bread of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of Christ’s body, and the cup is a sign of the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:19-20). As Christians eat the bread and drink the cup, they experience Christ’s presence in their midst. The Lord’s Supper both represents Christ and is a way in which Christ is present again (“re-present”) in the body of believers. In this meal, the church renews its covenant to be the body of Christ in the world and to live the life of Christ on behalf of others.” (http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/cof/art.12)

[2] The official commentary offered by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches on this statement confirms this interpretation: “The Anabaptist position is that the Supper is an ordinance and not a sacrament. Grace, pardon, forgiveness, and new covenant are not effected through participation in the Supper, but rather participation in the Supper represents the fact that grace has been accepted and people have entered a new covenant relationship and community. In the Supper we eat and drink to the reality that we are the redeemed people of God. In participating, we acknowledge the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf, our incorporation into the new covenant people of God, and celebrate our union with Christ in the church.” (http://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/resource/the-mb-confession-of-faith-detailed-edition/#Lords-supper)

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