Theological musings/personal reflections

Meditation from Spurgeon for a Eucharist at IBTS

Recently Keith Jones noted in this blog the suggestion that there might be a dialogue – campaign? – to change the attitudes of truly baptistic churches about the Eucharist and his own resolution for 2009 – to engage in that dialogue via the means of this blog and to make it a theme in the theological forum at Amsterdam 400. I have what might be a rather heavy contribution to this – but not too heavy for our discerning IBTS community bloggers, I’m sure. It is a meditation I gave some time ago at an IBTS Eucharist.

In this celebration of the Eucharist [I said] I want to use, for our meditation, some ideas from C.H. Spurgeon.

The first theme is our coming together in unity and yet diversity. This is a real feature of IBTS. What about Spurgeon? For Spurgeon diversity in unity at the Lord’s Table was important. A volume of Spurgeon’s communion addresses, Till He Come, has a preface which notes that a number of the addresses were delivered to ‘the little companies of Christians,-of different denominations, and of various nationalities,-who gathered around the communion table in Mr. Spurgeon’s sitting room at Mentone’. These services, which took place when Spurgeon was away from London in Mentone in the south of France, often for the purpose of recuperation, give an insight into Spurgeon’s vision of the supper as a uniting sacrament. In an address at Mentone entitled ‘The Well-beloved’, he stated: ‘In this room we have an example of how closely we are united in Christ. Some of you are more at home in this assembly, taken out of all churches, than you are in the churches to which you nominally belong. Our union in one body as Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians or Independents, is not the thing which our Lord prayed for: but our union in Himself. That union we do at this moment enjoy; and therefore do we eat of one bread, and drink of one Spirit. Similarly, preaching at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1877, Spurgeon affirmed: ‘We are all one in Christ Jesus; we do not come to this table as Baptists, or Episcopalians, or Methodists, or Presbyterians; we come here simply as those who form one body in Christ.’

A second theme is connection with the past. We often speak here about how we seek as we celebrate the Eucharist to make connections with the way in which our Anabaptist fore-parents celebrated the Supper. We even use wine from Moravia, where Hubmaier exercised his remarkable ministry. Spurgeon too valued the past. Christian literature from the past, he told one gathering at Mentone, ‘contains no words more precious than those which have been spoken at the time of communion’. Spurgeon spoke of these times as ‘sacramental occasions’. Sermons by the seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian, Samuel Rutherford, said Spurgeon, ‘have a sacred unction on them’. Perhaps surprisingly, Spurgeon appreciated ‘the canticles of holy Bernard’ (of Clairvaux), describing how they ‘flame with devotion’. Preaching at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861, Spurgeon declared in dramatic style, ‘O sacred Eucharist, thou hast the dew of thy youth’. He continued, in romantic vein, speaking about ‘the simple breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine’ being observed by persecuted believers of the past, ‘in the mountains of Bohemia, in the Vaudois valleys, in the wild glens of Scotland’. For Spurgeon the Lord’s Supper was an ordinance that connected the church through the centuries.

What about the meaning of the Eucharist? Baptists have differed over this. Spurgeon affirmed his belief ‘in the real presence, but not in the corporeal presence’. Spurgeon’s concept of Christ’s body being in heaven but his spiritual presence being known in the bread and wine is in line with the teaching of Calvin. However, Spurgeon’s theology also owed much to what resonated with his own experience. It was because of these factors that he could make statements about the Lord’s table: ‘We believe’, he said, ‘that Jesus Christ spiritually comes to us and refreshes us, and in that sense we eat his flesh and drink his blood.’ This was what Spurgeon had experienced. At the heart of Spurgeon’s theology of the Lord’s Supper was the conviction that Christ was present among his people as they took bread and wine. This was expressed in the communion hymn which Spurgeon wrote in 1866:

Amidst us our Beloved stands,
And bids us view His pierced hands,
Points to His wounded feet and side,
Blest emblems of the Crucified.

He ended one sermon in mystical vein, with an appeal: ‘Come and put your finger into the print of the nails, and thrust your hand into his pierced side.’ In a famous passage reflecting his belief in an encounter with Christ, Spurgeon said: ‘At this table Jesus feeds us with His body and His blood. His corporeal presence we have not, but his real spiritual presence we perceive. We are like the disciples when none of them durst ask Him, “Who art Thou?” knowing that it was the Lord. He is come. He looketh forth at these windows,-I mean this bread and wine; showing Himself through the lattices of this instructive and endearing ordinance.’

A further theme is simplicity. In Spurgeon’s thinking, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should always be simple. He referred to the ‘sacred institution, the Lord’s supper’, as being ‘simplicity itself’. This was one reason why Spurgeon was opposed to any posture other than sitting at the Lord’s table. At IBTS we find it helpful, often, to stand as we pass the bread and wine to one another. Spurgeon did not oppose standing but he did believe that kneeling to receive the bread and wine was inappropriate. He believed that the normal Baptist practice of sitting, ‘as we would at our own table’, expressed resting in Christ and feeding on him. Spurgeon also attempted to argue that being seated corresponded to the way in which the disciples reclined with Jesus, ‘as the Orientals still do, at their ease, so much at their ease that the head of John was on the breast of Jesus’. It takes a certain leap of the imagination, however, to move from the picture of this reclining group around Jesus to people sitting on the hard pews that there were (and in some cases are) in Baptist chapels.

It was also important for Spurgeon, as it is for us at IBTS, that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently. In line with what Spurgeon considered ‘apostolic precedents’, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle the custom was to have a communion service each Sunday. He told the Tabernacle congregation in 1883: ‘I have been in the habit of coming to the Lord’s table every first day of the week now for many years… Has it lost its freshness? Oh, dear, no!’ Six years later he made a similar, deeply personal statement: ‘I love to come every Lord’s day to the Communion table; I should be very sorry to come only once a month, or, as some do, only once a year. I could not afford to come as seldom as that. I need to be reminded, forcibly reminded, of my dear Lord and Master very often. We do so soon forget, and our unloving hearts so soon grow cold.’

Finally, Spurgeon spoke of the joy of these occasions. The Eucharist at IBTS has always had this joyful character for me. Spurgeon did not want the solemnity of the occasion of communion to be oppressive. He was concerned for ordinary people who found it difficult to cope with a forbidding religious atmosphere. ‘Ye sons of toil’, he once said, ‘ye can come here [to the table] with your garments still covered with the dust of your labour.’ As Spurgeon saw it, an appropriate note of joy needed to be struck at the Lord’s Supper. This belief flowed from his understanding of the real presence of Christ. Preaching at New Park Street Chapel in 1855, Spurgeon made this appeal: ‘Behold the whole mystery of the sacred Eucharist. It is bread and wine which are lively emblems of the body and blood of Christ. The power to excite remembrance consists in the appeal thus made to the senses. Here the eye, the hand, the mouth find joyful work. He spoke of how the senses ‘which are usually clogs to the soul, become wings to lift the mind in contemplation’. Joy was readily expressed in the hymns sung during the communion service.

To conclude this meditation: for Spurgeon the Lord’s Supper, as he said, ‘is more than a memorial, it is a fellowship, a communion. Those who eat of this bread, spiritually understanding what they do, those who drink of this cup, entering into the real meaning of that reception of the wine, do therein receive Christ spiritually into their hearts.’

– Ian

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