Why the Sacrament?

For Christians, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was and is, in the words of one historian, “the central Christian ritual act.”[1] As Latter-day Saints, we participate in the breaking of bread and drinking of water on an almost weekly basis. Due to a few different reasons, I have been thinking about the sacrament a lot lately. So, I took the time to study the ordinance in greater depth, trying to understand why it’s so important and why we do it so often. During my study, I found several purposes for the sacrament and thought it might be worthwhile to share, since there were a few surprises (at least for me). First and foremost among those reasons is to remember Jesus Christ, but there is also looking forward to the Second Coming, focusing on how Christians can become one with God and with each other through Christ, and making or renewing covenants.

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper exists to help us remember. Paul’s account of the Last Supper (the earliest record we have) recalls that when Jesus took bread, he blessed and broke it, then said: “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:23-26, emphasis added). The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree in basic details with Paul’s account, focusing on remembering. The Book of Mormon also agrees that the sacrament is done “in remembrance of the body of [God’s] son” and “in remembrance of the blood of [God’s] Son, which was shed for them.”[2] As President Spencer W. Kimball once said: “That is the real purpose of the sacrament, to keep us from forgetting, to help us to remember.”[3]

While the sacrament helps us remember the past, it also helps us to look forward to the future Second Coming of Christ. Paul’s account, cited above, concludes with the statement that: “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26, emphasis added). The gospels also briefly touch on this purpose, recording that Jesus said: “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). President John Taylor taught this aspect of the sacrament more plainly when he said: “In the sacrament we … shadow forth the time when He will come again and when we shall meet and eat bread with Him in the kingdom of God.”[4] Thus, the sacrament is not only a time to look back, but to look forward.

While the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is an opportunity to remember and reflect on Christ, it is a chance to develop bonds of love with God and with each other. For example, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote that:

Just as the bread is made out of many grains ground and mixed together, and out of the bodies of many grains there comes the body of one bread … and just as the drops of wine, in losing their own form, become the body of one common wine and drink – so it is and should be with us, if we use this sacrament properly. … Through the interchange of [Christ’s] blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one bread, one body, one drink, and have all things in common. … In this way we are changed into one another and are made into a community by love. Without love there can be no such change.[5]

The sacrament is a community event, where each one of us partakes of the same emblems in unity and become one through our life in Jesus Christ. President Joseph F. Smith added a dimension to this of becoming a covenant people through common obligations when he taught that: “We … partake of the Holy Sacrament together as brethren in the bonds of the covenant.”[6] Thus, the sacrament is a communal means of acknowledging the eternal life given through Christ and how Christians become one with each other through that life.

The sacrament is also an opportunity to testify of our commitment to God through covenants. When the resurrected Jesus visited the Nephites, he spoke of the sacrament as “a testimony” or a “witness” to God that they remembered him and were willing to do “that which I have commanded you” (3 Nephi 18:7, 10-11). Building on his teachings, the sacrament prayers in the Book of Mormon includes the covenants of the sacrament. With the bread, participants demonstrate that “they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given them.” With the water, participants witness that they “do always remember him.” In return, both prayers promise that “they may always have his Spirit to be with them.”[7] By partaking of the sacrament, the Saints make these covenants with God.

In modern times, Church leaders have also included the idea of renewing covenants as a purpose of the sacrament. Beginning with Elder Bruce R. McConkie in particular, it has been noted that there is significant overlap in the covenants made during the sacrament and baptism. In the October 1950 General Conference, Elder McConkie stated that: “So important is this [baptismal] covenant in the eyes of the Lord that he has provided for us a means and a way to renew it often. The ordinance whereby we renew this covenant is the ordinance of the sacrament.”[8] This is one of the earliest times that the sacrament covenants were linked to the baptismal covenants, but the idea became central to Latter-day Saint understanding of the sacrament.

Within the last few years, however, general authorities have begun to note that taking this approach may cause a slight distortion of the doctrine. Elder Neil L. Andersen taught that: “The title ‘renewing our baptismal covenants’ is not found in the scriptures … and it can’t be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament. … The sacrament is a beautiful time to not just renew our baptismal covenant, but to commit to Him to renew all our covenants, and our promises, and to approach Him in a spiritual power that we did not have previously as we move forward.”[9] The sacrament is not only connected to baptism, but to all covenants that are necessary for our salvation.

Further insight into the relationship between the sacrament and baptism has come through Elder David A. Bednar. An idea associated with strongly connecting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to baptism is that the sacrament provides a weekly remission of sins comparable to being rebaptized on a regular basis. According to Elder Bednar, however, baptism provides an “initial cleansing of our soul from sin” and, combined with repentance, leads to receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the agent by which we are purged or cleansed of our sins. Thus, “in the process of coming unto the Savior and spiritual rebirth, receiving the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost in our lives creates the possibility of an ongoing cleansing of our soul from sin.” The sacrament’s promise that we can always have the Holy Spirit with us means that “by the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we can always retain a remission of our sins.”[10] The technicality presented here (at least as I understand it) is that the sacrament, unlike baptism, does not directly provide a cleansing from sin. Both ordinances, however, do lead to the ongoing companionship of the Holy Ghost, which does provide a remission of sins.

Thus, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper serves many purposes in the lives of Latter-day Saints. It is an opportunity to look back and remember the sacrifice of the Savior and to look forward to His return. It is a time to reflect on the life given through Christ and the bonds with God and with fellow Saints that life engenders. It is also an opportunity to witness to God our commitment to Christ and the covenants we have made. The two big surprises for me in my study were that earlier Church leaders pointed out that the sacrament helps us look forward to the Second Coming of Christ and that renewing baptismal covenants is something that is a relatively modern idea associated with the ordinance. They’ve certainly given me more to think about as I participate in the sacrament.

 

[1] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (pp. 131-132). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Moroni 4:3; Moroni 5:2.

[3] Spencer W. Kimball and Edward L. Kimball (ed.), The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Twelfth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 112.

[4] Journal of Discourses, 14:185 (20 March 1870). See also JD 22:82-83 for a similar statement by Charles Penrose.

[5] Cited in Charlotte Methuen, Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries (p. 93). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition. A similar symbolism is found in an early Christian book of instructions called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or Didache. It recorded some of the sacrament prayers used at the time, and a part of the one for the bread was as follows:  “As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains, and after it had been brought together became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth unto thy kingdom.” (Didache, Hoole translation, 9:3-4, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-hoole.html)

[6] Journal of Discourses 11:310.

[7] See Moroni 4-5.

[8] Bruce R. McConkie, “Children of the Covenant,” General Conference October, 1950.

[9] Neil L. Andersen, “Witnessing to Live the Commandments,” General Conference Leadership Training on the Sabbath Day Observance at Church (April 2015). Available to priesthood leaders. See also https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-changing-forms-of-the-latter-day-saint-sacrament/#sdfootnote40sym for a more detailed discussion of this issue.

[10] Elder David A. Benar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR October 2016, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng

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