Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Lord's Supper and the Papal Mass

This past Sunday I was invited as a guest minister to preach in the evening service at one of the Hamilton churches. I was told that the catechism lesson was to be Lord's Day (LD) 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). When the brother told me that, I must admit that the first thought to flash through my mind was, “Oh, great! I get to preach about the papal (Roman Catholic) Mass.” And that my second thought was, “How nice of my colleagues to leave LD 30 with its maligned, and considered by some to be infamous, question and answer (QA) 80 for a guest minister.”

Be assured that I am just kidding. LD 30, even with QA 80, contains a lot of gospel and is also a pleasure to preach on. It also gave me the opportunity to think through again the matters confessed here, to do a bit of reading on the topic, especially what John Calvin wrote about it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book IV, chapter xvii).

Many people stumble over QA 80. It reads as follows:
Q.What difference is there between the Lord’s supper and the papal mass?   
A. The Lord’s supper testifies to us, first, that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all;1 and, second, that through the Holy Spirit we are grafted into Christ,2 who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father,3 and this is where he wants to be worshipped.4 But the mass teaches, first, that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the suffering of Christ unless he is still offered for them daily by the priests; and, second, that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine, and there is to be worshipped. Therefore the mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.
1Mt 26:28; Jn 19:30; Heb 7:27; 9:12, 25, 26; 10:10-18.21 Cor 6:17; 10:16, 17.3Jn 20:17; Acts 7:55, 56; Heb 1:3; 8:1.4Jn 4:21-24; Phil 3:20; Col 3:1; 1 Thess 1:10
It seems so hard. It has rather strong words against the papal Mass. It calls the Mass, as it is still celebrated today in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), a denial of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ and an accursed idolatry. That is strong language!

And then when we think about some very fine RC people we know—acquaintances, friends, perhaps even relatives—then we might think: "Wouldn't we be better off without this QA in our catechism?" Why do we save these harshest words for something RC?

It is a good question. In some ways, we are closer to the RCC than to many liberal Protestant churches. The RCC still believes and teaches the doctrines of the trinity, of the divine nature of Christ, of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit. It has not denied these basic Christian teachings whereas there are many Protestant churches—even churches that go by the name of Reformed—that deny these cardinal doctrines—that deny the trinity, the deity of Christ, the personality/divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Also when it comes to ethical issues, we often feel closer to RCs than to many Protestants. Think of the abortion issue. The RCC continues to hold the biblical line on this whereas many liberal Protestant churches actively promote abortion on demand. Some years ago, when I was the minister of our Ancaster Church, I stood in the life chain on Main Street in Hamilton, the life chain for the unborn. I found myself standing beside, and having a very pleasant conversation with, the priest of the RCC in Ancaster. (At one point I bade him farewell and said that I needed to return to church to preach. He in turn said good-bye and told me he had a mass to perform. It was a surreal moment.)

It is liberal Protestant churches that are being divided on the same-sex marriage and transgender issues, not the RCC. Why, we might ask, do we reserve our most severe language for the RC Mass?

Well, we need to see this in its historical context. We are not interested in casting aspersions (or throwing bricks, or anything else) at any church today. There are enough bricks and hand grenades being lobbed in the world nowadays, and two Canadian clergymen do not need to add to the fray. Rather, we need to see this in its historical context. And, as always, we need to preach the gospel—and there is a clear statement of the gospel also in QA 80. 

We have here in Answer 80 a comparison between the Lord's table and the (Roman) Mass. Our Lord instituted the Lord's Supper on the night he was betrayed and told the church to eat bread and to drink wine in remembrance of him until he comes. So, it is something we still do regularly as we await the return of our Saviour on the clouds of heaven.

The Lord's Supper testifies something to us. It teaches and makes something clear to us (the first difference), and that is that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all. The passage we read from Hebrews 10 (the New Testament reading) makes that point clearly: v. 12—“When this priest (Jesus Christ) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

There are other passages in Hebrews that speak the same way:
  • Heb. 7:27 says that we no longer need daily sacrifices; rather, Christ sacrificed for our sins once and for all when he offered himself. 
  • Heb. 9:12—the blood of Christ has obtained for us an eternal redemption. 
  • Heb. 9:26—His one sacrifice did away with sin once for all time. 
Contrary to the clear teaching of scriptures on this the Medieval Church (the church of the middle ages, before the great Reformation of the 1500s) taught that neither the living nor the dead have forgiveness of sins through the suffering of Christ unless he is still offered for them daily by the priests.

The Medieval Church brought the church back to the time of the Old Testament with its endless sacrifices. So that is the first main difference between the Lord's Supper and the Mass: the Lord's Supper teaches that the sacrificial work of Christ is complete whereas the Mass suggests that it is not yet complete but that Christ must yet be offered daily on the altar.

The second main difference has to do with the question of how we partake in the body and blood of our Lord. In 1 Cor. 10:16 the Apostle Paul says that ... the cup of blessing that we bless is a participation in the blood of Christ, and that the bread that we break, is a participation in the body of Christ. That invites the question, How do we participate in the blood and the body of our Lord?

The Medieval Church and the Reformed Church had different answers to that question. The Medieval Church said that the bread is changed into the real body of Christ and the wine into the real blood of Christ. They even had a word for it: Transubstantiation. If we parse the word we will see that it is made up of two parts: trans and substance. The substance (bread and wine) is translated (trans-formed, trans-muted) into something else: the body and blood of Christ. It looks, smells, and tastes like bread and wine but, in fact, it has changed into the real flesh and blood of Christ, and that is what we eat. As our catechism says: that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine....

The Reformed Church rejected this. It looked at all those texts that speak of Jesus ascending bodily into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God. And then it looked at Eph. 2:6—that God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. Think of what that means. Do you believe in Christ? Then God has raised you with Christ to be where he is. Not physically yet, but certainly spiritually.

As the catechism says: through the Holy Spirit we are grafted into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

It is not that the body and blood of Christ are brought down to us for us to eat physically. Is is that we, by the spirit, are raised up to where Christ is, where we, in a spiritual way by faith, feed on him.*

The Reformed Church said we should not speak of Christ’s presence to the believer in the Supper; rather, we should speak of the believer’s presence to and with Christ. It is not that Christ comes down and makes himself present to the believer, but rather, the believer is lifted up by the Spirit and made present with Christ.** That is beautiful; it's biblical; it's gospel.

And that is why when just before you celebrate the holy supper your minister will: order that we may now be nourished with Christ, the true heavenly bread, we must not cling with our hearts to the outward symbols of bread and wine, but lift our hearts on high in heaven, where Christ, our advocate, is, at the right hand of his heavenly Father. Let us not doubt that we shall be nourished and refreshed in our souls with his body and blood, through the working of the Holy Spirit, as truly as we receive the holy bread and drink in remembrance of him.
There is a third difference between the Mass and the Lord's Supper, and that has to do with where we look when we worship Christ. We must worship him where he is. Part of the Mass is the adoration of the host (“host” here does not mean what you first might think we mean with the word “host;” rather, “host” means “victim.” From the Latin “hostia” which means “sacrificial victim.”) Christ, the sacrificial victim, is worshiped.

The Lord's Supper, contrary to the Mass, teaches that Christ is bodily in heaven, and that we must worship him there. The Reformed Church concluded, on the basis of scriptures, that the Mass denies the one sacrifice and suffering of Christ, and is actually idolatry since it worships bread which the priest holds up high.

Thanks be to God, the Lord brought about Reformation (in the 1500s). Our eyes were opened and we could see once again that the altar did not belong in the church. That's OT furniture. The NT church needs different furniture.

It needs a table:
  • from which we eat in celebration of the finished work of Christ and the salvation we have by it; 
  • where we are united with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; 
  • and from which we lift our hearts on high to heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 
At the table we are joining him in heaven and feeding on him.

*See also Article 35 of the Belgic Confession:
It is beyond any doubt that Jesus Christ did not commend His sacraments to us in vain. Therefore He works in us all that He represents to us by these holy signs. We do not understand the manner in which this is done, just as we do not comprehend the hidden activity of the Spirit of God.9 Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what we eat and drink is the true, natural body and the true blood of Christ. However, the manner in which we eat it is not by mouth but in the spirit by faith. In that way Jesus Christ always remains seated at the right hand of God His Father in heaven;10 yet He does not cease to communicate Himself to us by faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ makes us partakers of Himself with all His benefits and gives us the grace to enjoy both Himself and the merit of His suffering and death.11 He nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of His flesh, and refreshes and renews them by the drinking of His blood.
**See A Spiritual Banquet: John Calvin on the Lord's Supper by Matthew W. Mason.