Author: J. Todd Billings
Publisher: Eerdmans Publications
Publish Date: February 15, 2018
Pages: 240 pages (Paperback)
Why do Christians gather around the Lord’s Table? Jesus tells us his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me”—but what is this that the disciples are supposed to do? Even beyond the mechanics, metaphysics, or frequency of the Supper, why should we come to the table? In Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, J. Todd Billings—Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary—believes that what we receive and experience at the table goes all the way to the heart of the gospel. By more fully receiving and experiencing the Lord’s Supper, Billings argues that we will more fully receive the gospel itself.
Remembrance, Communion, and Hope is a book about the Lord’s Supper, but also about so much more. It puts forward a wager that “a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself.” The Supper and salvation are intimately connected. A meager supper is often connected with an anemic gospel. Throughout the book, Billings works to deepen our grasp of both supper and salvation in a way that will lead to renewal within the church.
In the first section of the book, Billings examines why there is often such a large gap between the richness of many church teachings on the Lord’s Supper and our (too often) paltry experience of it. He calls for an examination of our “functional theologies.” In the way we live, pray, or worship, we act out an implicit theology of salvation. Even those who refuse to pray or worship are, through their actions, asserting a particular vision of what life is all about. We all have these functional theologies, but many of them work under the surface. Most significantly, Christians may find their functional theology at odds with what they would profess to believe.
The problem is not primarily teaching, but tasting. We have narrowed our palate and numbed our taste buds to the good gifts of God. We are like people who have chosen “savory” as our favorite flavor and have since lost the ability to taste anything else. We must taste again the sweetness of God to renew our hunger. We need both to remove the idols that blind us from a larger view of salvation/supper and to learn again to hunger for God as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament.
Drawing from the examples of Holy Fairs in the Reformed Tradition, as well as the work of Jonathan Edwards on the spiritual senses, Billings gives a vision of what sacramental longing could look like. The supper is experienced as a participation in the passion and also as a marriage feast and an anticipation of the coming of Christ. Salvation is seen to be forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, new life in the Spirit, and the promise of heaven and the new creation.
In the second section, Billings zooms in on a Reformed theology of the supper. He articulates a confessionally Reformed account of both Christ’s presence in the supper and the nature of the Triune God’s activity through it. All the sharp edges of the Reformed tradition are left on, but are never used to injure anyone. Drawing extensively from the Reformed confessions, the author lays out nine theses that form the contours of a Reformed theology of the supper.
In a dense chapter, Billings responds to contemporary challenges that would claim that the Reformed (and others) cannot truly believe God acts in and through the sacraments. These challenges reveal the same tendency exists in scholarship as in the church: to reduce salvation to either forgiveness or transformation, instead of seeing them as a double grace given in and through the one person of Jesus Christ. Billings digs deep into the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and seeks to show this as a way to inhabit the catholic church. He shows how being deep in one’s own tradition may be the best way to be truly ecumenical.
In the last section, Billings shows how the Supper encapsulates the past, present, and future dimensions of salvation.
As a feast of remembrance, we are invited not only to call to mind the past event of Christ’s death on the cross, but to participate in this public drama of God’s salvation. This is our history as those who belong to Christ.
As a feast of communion, the supper is an intimate encounter where Christ gives himself to us and joins us to himself in deeper communion as we are joined in communion with his body, the church.
As a feast of hope, the supper sets our hearts longing for the new creation, but also for the final heaven where Jesus Christ will be and we will behold him face-to-face.
As Billings readily admits, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope provides no “quick fixes.” There is not one Sunday school class that can be taught to bring about renewal through the supper. There is not one practice a congregation can begin that will guarantee its fuller embrace of the gospel. Indeed, the sacrament is an instrument: not in our hands, but in Jesus’. We are called to embrace what he has offered, as fully as we are able, and trust that the one who gives the gifts will use them to draw us deeper into union with Christ, the giver of all good gifts.
Billings’ latest volume is a gift. Bringing to light the practice of Holy Fairs in the Reformed tradition will go a long way in reshaping our perception of the Reformed as the “frozen chosen,” for example. The book shows the best of what the catholic Reformed tradition has to offer the church today. It is thoroughly trinitarian and theocentric. It engages a wide variety of contemporary and historic sources in a way that holds forth their gifts even as it names their faults. It is a book worth reading for all who care about theology done well and the renewal of the church.
However, the last and most refreshing gift of Remembrance, Communion, and Hope is the breadth and depth of its biblical engagement. Most books dealing with the Lord’s Supper will debate the ‘key texts’ of the Last Supper, 1 Corinthians 11, and perhaps the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. But, Billings reaches back all the way to Genesis 2, where the tree of life is seen as a forerunner of the sacraments, and all the way forward to Revelation 22, where the marriage feast of the lamb will take place. The rich, embodied language of the psalms is invoked regularly, but also the fine-tuned arguments of Paul in his letters to the church in Corinth. These passages are not only referenced, but delighted in.
The full effect of this engagement is that reading the book begins to accomplish its overall goal. The love of, care for, and passionate reception of Scripture as the Word of God is demonstrated on almost every page. As you read it, you grow in your hunger for the Supper and for Jesus Christ who offers himself there.
Why come to the Table? To remember the death of Christ for us, yes. To be transformed through union with Christ, yes. To anticipate the coming kingdom, yes. But perhaps most fundamentally, we come to the table because we are hungry and only Christ, who promises to give himself to us in the Word and at the Table, can truly satisfy us.