The controversial subject of the Lord’s Supper

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During the Protestant Reformation, one of the most controversial topics was that concerning the Lord’s Supper. It was so controversial that not only Protestants and Catholics were divided over it, but many other Protestants. And even among the Reformers there were strong disagreements – Zwingli believed in the memorial/symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper while Calvin advocated a spiritual presence of Christ in the elements.

However, of all the reformers, no one has ever written so much about the Lord’s Supper as Martyr Peter Vermigli. Being a former Augustinian prior from the heartland of Italy, Vermigli more than anyone else was able to show the inconsistencies behind the Catholic Mass as well as other Protestant views on the matter.[1] In his Treatise on the EucharistVermigli exposes the flaws of transubstantiation all the way back to the Church Fathers and Church Councils, answering every objection in a typically scholastic manner.

Yet to get the more experiential and devotional side of Vermigli, you have to go to his Exhortation to the Mystical Supper of the Lord to see how all these systematic truths come together. It underlines the nature of the open invitation behind the Lord’s Table for all Christians. He illustrates this point by saying how insulting it would be for guests at a feast to reject their host’s food after being invited to dinner. Vermigli warns the believer not to adopt the same type of behavior around the Lord’s Table.

It is interesting to see the opposite attitude towards the Lord’s Supper that Vermigli, in his particular context, displays here: If you do not take the elements, you receive wrath. Vermigli wants to dismantle all the excuses that believers have for not participating in the Last Supper. Whatever the excuse, it is unacceptable in the mind of God.

Vermigli recalled the parable of those who were invited to the Master’s banquet and declined the invitation (Luke 14:15-24). As a result, they were deemed unworthy and were rightly condemned. Vermigli applies this parable to those who repeatedly refuse to participate in the Last Supper. The sad thing is that many people have been persuaded – perhaps by too much introspection – to think that they could hardly ever attend the Dinner.

Instead, Vermigli tries to redirect the Christian’s mind away from this excessive introspection to the reality of the union we have with Christ. As Christ gave his life for our salvation, all true Christians are required to perform this memorial of Christ’s death in their regular assemblies. To continually abstain is such a grave offense because it is a rejection of one of Christ’s chief means of grace to us.

In a way, by refusing this act of intimate communion with Christ, we are not only refusing his personal invitation to unite with him, but we are also essentially treating him as a stranger. This is what Vermigli calls mocking the mysteries of Christ.[2] How can someone meditate on the words “take and eat, all of you” and then completely ignore them?

Thus, by emphasizing so strongly the need to come to the Lord’s table in the light of our union with Christ, Vermigli’s exhortation encourages us to adore Christ even more in communion, and so to him give more glory.

Today, many Christians in our conservative Reformed circles often abstain from the Lord’s Supper only because of some unwarranted worry they might have. It’s sad and unnecessary. To separate ourselves from such a clear and glorious invitation is detrimental to our Christian walk and is a direct insult to Christ himself. We must do better.

[1] McLelland, J.C. The Life, First Letters and Eucharistic Writings of Peter Martyr (The Sutton Courtenay Press, Baskerville, 1989), 111.

[2] Peter Martyr Vermigli, Exhortation to the Mystical Supper of the Lord (The Peter Martyr Library, Vol. V, Thomas Jefferson University Press, Kirksville, 1999), 275-ff.

Dr. Ottavio Palombaro is an Italian theologian, sociologist and cultural anthropologist. His research has focused on the contemporary relevance of Max Weber’s sociological theory on Protestantism, as well as studies in the history of religions with a focus on Calvinism. He studied at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (BA), at the University of Turin (MA), at the “Statale” University of Milan (Ph.D.) at the Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands- Bas, at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA (M.Div.) and at the Free University of Amsterdam (Th.D.). His research interests revolve around the sociology of religion, church history, and Calvinist theology.

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