If you were here last week, you will know that we are following a short thematic sermon series called “Remembering the Reformation”. 500 years after it all began, we’re spending three weeks looking at some of the big names and big ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Last week we looked at Martin Luther and his rediscovery of salvation by faith alone. Today we’re turning our attention to Thomas Cranmer and his Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. We’re going to see why the Church of England and other Protestant churches see Holy Communion as a supper not a sacrifice, as a remembrance meal rather than a Mass.
If you have ever read or watched Wolf Hall, you will know that Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury during the time of the English Reformation. He became Archbishop in 1533, and served under King Henry VIII and King Edward VI. Its no exaggeration to call Thomas Cranmer the architect of the Church of England, and I have to admit he’s one of my personal heroes. I remember reading his biography when I lived in Oxford, written by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
After Henry VIII announced his break with Rome and made himself head of the Church in England, Cranmer took it upon himself to spend the next two decades of his life reforming its belief and practice. He reformed the English Church’s doctrine and liturgy to be distinctively Protestant. Cranmer’s influence even survives today. For example, he ensured an English Bible was present in every parish church. And many of us still use the Book of Common Prayer which Cranmer wrote, and his words survive in more modern service books as well. He also authored the Anglican ‘Articles of Religion’, which remain the official statement of belief of the Church of England.
It seems that Cranmer himself personally became a Protestant around 1532, when he travelled to Germany and encountered the teaching of Martin Luther. Did you know that there were two ways a Catholic priest in the middle ages could publicly show he had become a Protestant? One was to marry a wife, which Cranmer did straight away. The other was to grow a beard, so by the end of his life Cranmer had an impressive long white beard to show where his loyalties laid! Cranmer was ultimately killed for his convictions, burnt at the stake by Catholic queen Mary in 1556. Thankfully “bloody Mary” (as she was known) didn’t last long on the throne, and Cranmer’s protestant liturgy was soon restored.
I want us today to look at the understanding of the Lord’s Supper that Cranmer and other Reformers came to. An understanding very different to that of the medieval Catholic church, but more faithful to the teaching of the Bible. Two convictions, in particular, drove Cranmer and his colleagues:
- Firstly, they realised that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance meal, not a sacrifice for sin.
- And secondly, they saw that it gives us spiritual communion with Jesus, not his physical presence.
The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance meal and a spiritual communion. Let me pray before we look at both those things: Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us the Lord’s Supper. Help us to understand it better today, and use it to draw us closer to Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.
- A remembrance meal, not a sacrifice for sin
I saw on the news a few weeks ago that engineers in Germany have invented a sideways lift. It’s an ingenious contraption by a company called Thyssenkrupp, that allows the lift compartment to go sideways across a building instead of just up and down. The lift is powered by electric motors, rather than lifted up and down by steel cables, so it can travel in three dimensions not just two. So look out for your first sideways lift carriage sometime soon!
But when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, the direction of travel is definitely either up or down. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are either offering something ‘up’ to God, or receiving something ‘down’ from him. In the medieval Catholic Church, the Lord’s Supper was definitely something we humans offer ‘up’ to God. The Lord’s Supper, which they called the Mass, was an opportunity for a priest to offer a sacrifice up to God. A sacrifice that re-offered, or re-presented, back ‘up’ to God, the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
But Thomas Cranmer and the other Reformers had big problems with this Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. In their view the medieval church had got everything the wrong way ‘round. As they looked at the Bible, they saw that God has given us the Lord’s Supper to help us remember Jesus’s death for our salvation. It is a gift from God, the movement is ‘down’, not up! For example, when he looked at the Gospels, Cranmer saw that Jesus told his disciples to share bread and wine “in remembrance of me”. The whole purpose of the bread and wine was to be a visible reminder, an aide memoire, of the fact that Jesus laid down his body and blood once and for all upon the Cross. The Supper was given by Jesus so we should never forget what he has done for our forgiveness. Our right response should be faith and gratitude, not further sacrifices for sin.
You see, Cranmer and his fellow Reformers saw in the Bible that Jesus’s one perfect sacrifice was full and final. There is no extra sacrifice for sin that needs to be offered ‘up’ to God. “It is finished” said Jesus as he died on the Cross. His one sacrifice remains totally sufficient today to save anyone who puts their faith and trust in him.
This wonderful truth is well expressed in the laws and liturgy that Cranmer wrote for the Church of England. Laws and liturgy that remain fully in force today. For example, the Anglican Articles of Religion speak of the one sacrifice of Christ “finished upon the Cross”, and describe the Lord’s Supper as a sign (or sacrament) “of our redemption through Christ’s death.” The Book of Common Prayer, meanwhile, says the Lord Supper should take place at a Table not an Altar. Strictly speaking, there are no altars in the Church of England. An altar is where a sacrifice is offered, but a table is where a meal is eaten together. Cranmer was clear (and so should we be) that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance meal not a sacrifice for sin.
- A spiritual communion with Jesus, not his physical presence
If I told you I’d had an ‘accident’, you probably think I’d crashed my car, fallen over or spilt my drink. But in the medieval church the word ‘accident’ had another, very different meaning. Someone or something had an ‘accident’ if it had an external appearance. So my ‘accidents’ today would be the clothes I’m wearing, the appearance of my face, my height, hairstyle and so on. This idea of an accident came from Aristotle, and is the opposite of somethings ‘substance’. Something’s substance is its inner reality, not its outer form. So my substance is a human being, a living person – whatever I happen to be wearing on the outside.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the medieval Catholic church believed that something rather strange happened to the bread and wine at the Mass. They believed that the substance of the bread and wine was physically changed into the literal body and blood of Christ, even though its external appearance (its accidents) remained unchanged. Its what they called “Transubstantiation”, and is still Catholic doctrine to this day.
Because of their belief in transubstantiation, Catholic clergy would elevate, worship, and adore the bread and wine after it had been consecrated at the Mass and before they ate and drank it. They believed it had physically become the body and blood of Jesus, even if it still looked and tasted like bread and wine. The medieval Church believed that when Jesus first held up the bread and wine at the Last Supper and said “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, he meant it totally literally.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas Cranmer and his fellow Protestants saw things rather differently. They believed that Jesus was talking figuratively and metaphorically. They believed he was saying “This represents my body. This symbolises my blood”, and they had very good biblical grounds for believing so:
- For a start, its hard to believe that Jesus’ first disciples thought the bread and wine were really physically Jesus’ body and blood, since he was already standing there before them. And he regularly used metaphors to describe himself, which were never meant to be taken literally. At other times Jesus called himself the Gate, the Light, the true Vine, the Good Shepherd, without expecting people to take him totally literally.
- More importantly, the Bible tells us where Jesus’ physical body now is. We’re told in Acts that he has ascended to Heaven and now sits at the right hand of his Father. If we want to find Jesus’ physical body, we need to get to Heaven first! Its not on an altar at Holy Communion.
For these and other reasons, Cranmer strongly rejected transubstantiation, and it remains an officially outlawed belief in the Church of England today. The Articles of Religion say that “Transubstantiation cannot be proved by holy writ, is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture and has given occasion to many superstitions”. On the contrary, Cranmer’s Articles say that “the body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper only in a heavenly and spiritual manner.”
You see, the communion Christians enjoy with Jesus at the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual not a physical one. When we eat the bread and wine and remember what Jesus has done for us, we “feed” on him in our hearts, by faith with thanksgiving. When we celebrate Communion, the Holy Spirit establishes a close connection between us here on earth and Jesus in heaven. Countless Christians, including Cranmer, have testified that their faith is strengthened when they share in the Lord’s Supper. Alongside the Bible and prayer, its a wonderful gift Christ has given his church, to help us deepen our relationship with him.
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper
So as I finish, what can we learn from Cranmer about the Lord’s Supper. As good Anglicans we should share his convictions that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance meal not a another sacrifice for sin. It is an opportunity to enjoy spiritual communion with Jesus, not a chance to consume him physically.
So in a few moments time, when we do share bread and wine together, can I encourage you to do the following things:
- As you eat the bread and drink the wine, look back to the Cross, remember that Jesus laid down his body and shed his blood as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.
- Then look up to Jesus your Saviour, say a prayer of thanks for dying for you. Doing all that was necessary to put you right with God.
- And take a moment to look around you. We share the Lord’s Supper together, it is not a solitary meal. Christians are Christ’s body on earth today. We are to love and care for one another, because we are one body who share in one bread!
- And finally, as you share in the Lord’s Supper, let you heart be filled with hope. Look forward to the great feast in glory that God promises for his people. The Supper we share together now is literally a foretaste of the banquet we will eat when Christ’s kingdom comes in all its fullness.
So look back, look up, look around you, and look forward to Heaven. But for now, let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for laying down your body and blood at the Cross for our salvation. As we share your Supper together, help us to remember and rejoice in your perfect sacrifice for us. And fill our hearts with hope, as together we look forward to the great feast of Heaven. In your name we pray, Amen.