Jesus Christ is the Life – Part 2

Just how, as Christians, do we receive this life?

We spoke yesterday of humans’ deep longing for life, real life, life abundant. Humans want to flourish and thrive. And in the face of suffering and death, we often make desperate efforts to come back to life, to feel alive again. Some seek to break free of bonds of habit and convention that they believe hold them down, some strive to create something new, something that transcends and perhaps cancels the pain of the past, even if just momentarily and even if our creative transgressions turn out to hurt others and perhaps us ourselves. It is a tragic irony of the time in which we live that so many Americans are healthy and prosperous yet nevertheless feel as though they are not yet really living. And it is not accidental that issues of sexuality are so much at the fore of our society, because sexual experience seems to so many to make them fully alive.

But it has been the experience of Christians that life ultimately comes to us as a gift from beyond us. We are most fully alive when God opens our eyes to his creative, sustaining power in us and around us: in the face of a new-born baby, in the play of color along a strip of dark clouds on the horizon at sunset, or in the sudden movement of a red fox or a grey squirrel against the snow on a wintry morning. For 99 verses, God declares to Job that there is life all around him, if he will just open his eyes. Job is justified in his lament and complaint, but they are now reframed by God’s word of life. Job is righteous, but God too is righteous. God allows us to question him, but God also questions us. “Where were you? When did you? Can you?” The Book of Job teaches us that life, real life, emerges out of this dialogue, out of this cross examination between the human heart that suffers and cries out, “I don’t want to die” and the God who declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Just how, as Christians, do we receive this life? In traditional Reformation language, we speak of means of grace. Especially in prayer, in reading and hearing Scripture, and in participating in the sacraments we become aware, in an especially focused way, that Christ is offering us his life all of the time and, moreover, that Christ is feeding our hearts in this very moment, as we pray, take in Scripture, or receive the sacrament. In John Calvin’s understanding, the means of grace do not simply remind us of God’s faithfulness, they also convey it to us here and now. The traditional Eastern Orthodox formula of deification may make Calvinists squeamish: that God has become man, so that man may become God. But if we emphasize the Christological center to this assertion, even the Calvinist can agree that God became incarnate in Christ, so that we might now live in Christ.

Feeling Christ’s Life

In my first presentation, I emphasized that people today want to feel alive. The little boy whose grandfather has just died. The middle-aged man who has emergency surgery for a brain tumor. The young man who wants to defy the powers of death that took his mother. That is why I have spoken so much about the heart. The heart aches, the heart longs, the heart soars, the heart grieves. How does the heart stay alive, when so much weighs upon it? How does it remain a heart of flesh and not harden into a heart of stone? How can the human heart feel the beat of God’s heart within it?

Reformation Protestants—and perhaps Calvinists, in particular—have been suspicious of basing faith on feelings. Feelings place too much attention on us. They direct us inward, in on ourselves, rather than outward to what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth rejected Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence” as a starting point for theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted that “we are bound together by faith,” not by uplifting or blissful experiences. What matters is trusting in God, whether we feel God at work in us or not.

To be sure, the great Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, could write eloquently of “gracious and holy affections.” And in recent years Protestants have rediscovered the value of practices and disciplines that cultivate what the Apostle Paul calls fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). But if it is a matter of feelings, the holiest of persons have felt the least holy. None of us has a spiritual thermometer that can accurately measure our growth in grace.

So, I want to be clear: I do not think that feelings of ecstasy or transcendence are reliable guides to the Christian life. Being a Christian is not like the powerful high that some people get by going to a rock concert or a mass sporting event. What we have learned from the Book of Job is far more profound. The integrity of the Jewish or Christian heart lies in its capacity to hold together highs and lows, comfort and distress, God’s presence and God’s absence. Nevertheless, I want to raise a question and explore a point that we Presbyterians have too often neglected. Do we feel something when we receive Christ, and if we do, what is it that we feel, and what do we make of this feeling?

When I was a young man, I spent a summer backpacking in different parts of the state of Colorado. I would go into the mountains for four or five days and then hitchhike into town to replenish my supplies. One of my forays into the wilderness took me to the Western Slope of the Rockies, an area of dry foothills. The first day, I hiked along a pleasant stream. The second day, the trail climbed steeply away from the stream. Foolishly, I failed to fill my water bottle. I assumed that I would encounter other streams. But the higher I climbed, the drier the hills became. By midday, the sun was blazing, and I was hot and sweaty. I was thirsty. By midafternoon, I was feeling dangerously dehydrated, and still there was no prospect of finding water. In desperation, I took off my backpack, threw myself to the ground, and looked up at the clear blue sky.

As I lay there, I slowly became conscious of a buzzing sound. I got curious. What in the world was going on? Where was that sound coming from? I stood up and looked around. Nearby I saw ten or twenty bees hugging the ground. I slowly came closer and saw that they were actually sitting on a little pool of water, perhaps the last remnants of a late spring snowstorm. I cupped my hands and took a sip of water. Body and spirit immediately responded. The water seemed to course through my veins. I felt myself being revived. That’s my point: I felt myself coming back to life. So, if we believe that Christ gives us his life, do we feel his life flowing into ours, like water into a thirsty traveler?

In recent years, I have spent a good deal of time in Russia, getting to know the Eastern Orthodox tradition. During Lent, what Orthodox call the Great Fast, faithful Orthodox believers remove meat, dairy products, and fish from their diet. Now, I have tried to keep this fast, and I must confess that I don’t find it easy, nor do I entirely understand why it is so important to the Orthodox. But I was struck by the comment that one Orthodox woman made to me; she said, “I can’t imagine going through the fast without receiving the eucharist at least once a week.” I asked her if she felt something when she received communion, and she answered, “I don’t know if I would call it a feeling, and yet I do feel that something is happening to me.” So, again, I ask: Do we feel something when we receive Christ, and if we do, what is it that we feel, and what do we make of this feeling?

Feeling Christ’s Life in Communion

John Calvin’s personal seal was a hand holding a flaming heart, with the inscription, “Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere” (“My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely”). As our friend Professor Charles Partee has emphasized, Calvin insisted that the gospel “is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart” (Institutes, 3.6.4). It is noteworthy that Calvin retained in his eucharistic prayers the sursum corda of the medieval mass, “Lift up your hearts.” Just prior to the communion of the people, Calvin would declare, “Lift up your hearts on high, seeking the heavenly things in heaven. … In joy of heart … come … to partake of our Lord’s Table. … Have the death of this good Savior graven on your hearts … so that you are set afire.”[i] In the eucharist, Calvin feels something; his heart blazes; he experiences Christ’s life entering into him.

Calvin’s statements about the Lord’s Supper are all the more striking given his general reluctance to talk about himself. We know that as a young man he experienced a conversion to the new Protestant teachings that were sweeping across France, but only years later in his preface to his Commentary on the Psalms does he speak of what happened, and then in scarce detail. He simply says, “[God] subdued and made teachable a heart which . . . was far too hardened. … Having thus received some foretaste and knowledge of true piety, I was straightaway inflamed with such great desire to profit by it.” Bare as the description is, do note again his wording: his heart was inflamed. It had come back to life—to the real life, the abundant, eternal life, that the Gospel of John so emphasizes.

So, let us for a moment trace what Calvin tells us about the Lord’s Supper as a source of life. What immediately strikes us is Calvin’s profound sense of awe and humility; what he experiences at the Lord’s Table goes beyond words. As he declares in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. … When I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what the tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery” (4.17.7). In the Lord’s Supper Calvin encounters the same glorious, transcendent God whom Job meets in the whirlwind, although for Calvin we now know this God in the face of Jesus Christ. Job recants and relents before this God: “I spoke but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know” (42:3, Alter, JPS). As for himself, Calvin confesses, “I do not … sufficiently comprehend [the Supper] with the mind. I therefore freely admit that no man should measure its sublimity by the little measure of my childishness” (4.17.7).

Then, the Institutes offer us a series of remarkable passages in which Calvin speaks of just what he believes he receives from the sacrament. The words that he uses—life, food, power, vigor, efficacy, immortality—repeat themselves and come to a crescendo. The Supper is “a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality” (4.17.1). Life-giving bread unto immortality. When we partake of the sacrament, “we may assuredly conclude that the power of [Christ’s] life-giving death will be efficacious in us” (4.17.1). The power of [Christ’s] life-giving death will be efficacious in us. We are made “partakers of his substance, [so] that we may also feel his power in partaking of all his benefits” (4.17.11). We feel his power. “As bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul” (4.17.3). It invigorates and enlivens.

And so on. “His life passes into us and is made ours” (4.17.5). “Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow” (4.17.10). One is “now quickened by his immortal flesh, and in a sense partakes of his immortality” (4.17.32). “We see that this sacred bread of the Lord’s Supper is spiritual food, as sweet and delicate as it is healthful for pious worshipers of God, who, in tasting it, feel that Christ is their life, whom it moves to thanksgiving, for whom it is an exhortation to mutual love among themselves” (4.17.40).

Calvin’s eucharistic liturgy offers equally vivid imagery. Christ imparts his body and blood to us to be “our nourishment unto everlasting life.” In the sacrament, we receive “Christ Himself entire,” “that he may live in us and we in Him.” He is the “bread of heaven which gives us life . . . eternal life.” “May He live in us and lead us to the life that is holy, blessed and everlasting.” “Our souls … [are] nourished and vivified … [as] they are lifted up to heaven, and [enter] the Kingdom of God.”[ii]

Calvin’s image of “flesh of flesh, bone of bone” harkens back, of course, to Genesis and the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. “This at last,” declares Adam, “is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). And we remember that the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians calls this intimate union of man and woman a “great mystery” that also refers to Christ and his church (Gen. 5:32). The “mystery” of the union of two lives is what Calvin believes also occurs in the Lord’s Supper between Christ and the believer.

Subsequent Reformed confessions pick up this imagery of mysterious union. So, the Heidelberg Catechism says:

Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.   Heidelberg Catechism, A.76.

The Scots Confession also uses Calvin’s vivid language. Believers “do so eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus that he remains in them and they in him; they are so made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone that as the eternal Godhood has given to the flesh of Christ Jesus, which by nature was corruptible and mortal, life and immortality, so the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus does the like for us.”[iii]

We will return to the Scots Confession in a moment. But first I would like to ask what, if anything, we feel at the Lord’s Table. Many of us experience the Supper as a solemn, reverent occasion, a time to remember Jesus’ Last Supper and his death on the cross—a theme that is prominent in the Westminster Confession of Faith (6.161). The 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship emphasizes, instead, that the Supper is the “joyful feast” of the Kingdom of God, to which people come from east and west, north and south, a theme that is especially strong in the Confession of 1967: “The Lord’s Supper is a celebration” in which we “joyfully eat and drink together.” We “rejoice in the foretaste of the kingdom” (9.52). Interestingly, the Westminster Confession of Faith does not say “joy” or “celebration” even once in relation to the sacrament!

At the Table, we may long for healing and for God finally to make everything right, as when the Eastern Orthodox eucharistic prayers ask “that we may be delivered from all tribulation, wrath, and necessity.” And we may come to the meal with deep humility, as in the traditional Roman Catholic Mass, when the priest holds up the consecrated host and declares three times, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter beneath my roof, but say only the word, and my soul will be healed.”[iv] Reverence, joy, longing, humility—perhaps the Supper is as polyphonic in meaning as the Book of Job. The sacrament defies reduction it to one emotion or another—rather, it is the “great mystery” that exceeds any of our descriptions.

But my question is not whether we experience various emotions as we gather around the Table. My question is, rather, what do we do with Calvin’s assertion that he feels Christ’s life-giving power? Do we feel this life? Do we feel ourselves coming back to life when we receive the sacrament? Do we sense here, in this bread and cup, a sublime mystery that makes us aware of just how small we really are and that, nevertheless, lifts us above ourselves to taste eternity?

Rediscovering Real Life

For many Americans today, life has become a hard taskmaster. Think of how often we begin the day by saying to ourselves, “Today I have to …” Fill in the blank: I have to finish a sermon, or get to the store, or take the kids to their sports practice, or go to a meeting, or take these medications. Like Job, we spend our days focused on ourselves—our needs, our distresses, our hopes, our responsibilities. Like Job we may attend to these tasks faithfully and diligently. Like Job, we may get to the end of the day and declare that we have been good and faithful servants—well, at least we did the best we could. And, like Job, we reward ourselves with material things—for him, seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels; for us, perhaps just a nice dinner, a good drink, or an entertaining evening at the movies. But that becomes the implicit deal that we make with ourselves, isn’t it? I “have to” do something, but in return I get something.

But, as Max Weber, the great German sociologist of the early twentieth century, saw so trenchantly, so many people today find themselves trapped in an “iron cage.” [v]

They no longer work and seek material prosperity in order to serve God. Rather work and material prosperity have become ends in themselves. But the result, says Weber, is that people today have become “sensualists without heart.”[vi] We still feel, but we feel with what the ancients called our appetites. Our heart does not yet feel really alive—we still long for what the Gospel of John calls eternal life.

Today we can modify Weber’s maxim to assess our culture’s relentless obsession with identity. A person’s fundamental identity is no longer given to him or her by family, tradition, nation, or even God—for example, that in baptism I am a child of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather, society tells us that we have to make or choose an identity. But it is never entirely clear to us, what we should choose or on what grounds we would choose it. We have nothing to orient us other than “that’s just who I feel I am.” The freedom to choose becomes an iron cage from which we cannot escape. Identity becomes a task, not a gift. We choose, but questions still gnaw at us, “Who am I really? Why have I been born? Why someday will I have to die?”

A couple of years ago, my wife and I visited friends in a village near Dresden, Germany. They lent us two bicycles, and my wife and I went on a week-long trip along the Elbe River. Our last day out was grueling. We had forty miles to cover, the way was uphill, and the weather was sunny and hot. By the time we arrived back at the village, I was ready to take a hot bath, put up my feet, and go to bed. I didn’t feel like going anywhere. But our friends announced that their neighbors had invited all of us over for dinner. The neighbors knew that we had spent time in Russia, and they wanted to meet us. It would be impolite, our friends insisted, not to spend at least a couple of hours with them. “Okay,” I said, but I wasn’t happy.

It turned out that these neighbors were German Russians, that is, Russians of German heritage, who after the fall of communism had emigrated from Kazakhstan to Germany. They had lived in this village now for twenty years, but, as we soon learned, no one, except our two friends, had ever invited them over for a cup of coffee or a meal. Imagine that: Twenty years, and only one other household had ever reached out to them! The villagers still regarded them as oddities, as Russians who were not really Germans.

The family consisted of three generations: the man and woman who had originally emigrated from the former Soviet Union, their children, who had been born in Germany, and the woman’s parents, who had come later. None of them were practicing believers. But the grandmother still remembered going to church as a child and celebrating Christmas and Easter. Even now, she had not lost some vague sense that there is a God and that her life somehow belonged to that God. As we ate dinner—bratwurst and endless servings of different salads, as Russians love to prepare them, with beets and potatoes and olives and carrots—the grandmother acknowledged that she felt lonely in the village. She missed her friends and the life that she had known in Kazakhstan. But, she continued, “You know what? When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is go to the window and look out at the village and the fields and the sky. And then I stretch out my arms and say, ‘Thank you, Father, thank you, for another day of life!’”

Well, like Job after God had dressed him down in the whirlwind, I suddenly felt a little ashamed of myself and repentant. Here I had been thinking all evening about how tired I was, and about how I really didn’t understand why these people, whom I didn’t even know, wanted us to have us over for dinner, and now I was hearing the gospel from this foreigner, a German Russian: the good news that life is a wondrous gift from God, not a relentless task for myself. Like Job, there was nothing for me to do but to recant and relent. I had been thinking about myself. I had not understood things beyond me. God was teaching me things that I had not known.

Could the Lord’s Supper awaken us to the great mystery that is God? Could it startle us and remind us that this God has given us and each day again gives us life? Could the eucharist help us recover a sense of wonder at a God who sometimes restores order and, yet, at other times seems wild and chaotic—whose ways are not our ways?” God will be God. The Almighty has his own purposes. But “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,” cries out the little boy. And the only answer that God has ever given his despairing children is this: “Look around you and inside of you, and live. Live the life that I give you.” As Carol Newsom says about God’s words to Job from the whirlwind, “Just as the acknowledgment of the tragic structure of existence points to the limits of human self-sufficiency, so conversely does it point to the preciousness of being—but this time in the mode of gift.” Every time that we receive the sacrament, we confess that life—real life, life that truly lasts and endures—comes to us from beyond us, from a loving but mysterious God. And we pledge to share that life with others, so that they too might awaken in the morning and be able to stretch out their arms and exclaim, “Thank you, Father, thank you, for another day of life!”

Our Savior tells us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” So, we come, we come to the Table. I don’t know what exactly I feel when I eat the bread and drink the cup. Does Christ really enter into me? Does his life come coursing into my veins? Do I feel myself coming back to life? Does my heart become inflamed again with love, praise, and adoration? Before you, my brothers and sisters, I can only recant and relent. I do not know how to speak of these things; they are beyond me. But I take solace in the words of the Scots Confession, and, in conclusion, I offer them to you:

We affirm that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s Table, have such union with Christ Jesus as the natural man cannot apprehend. Further we affirm that although the faithful, hindered by negligence and human weakness, do not profit as much as they ought in the actual moment of the supper, yet afterwards it shall bring forth fruit, being living seed sown in good ground; for the Holy Spirit, who can never be separated from the right institution of the Lord Jesus, will not deprive the faithful of the fruit of that mystical action.[vii]

Soli Deo gloria!


John P. Burgess
John P. Burgess
Dr. John P. Burgess, Ph.D., is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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