“I offer thee my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely. . .”
When the day for worship arrived…St. Pierre’s Cathedral was unusually crowded (September 3, 1553). All of the Libertines [who shared houses, land, wives, etc] swaggered in with their hands placed on the hilts of their swords, and took their seats near the Lord’s Table. Calvin boldly preached his sermon, and after descending from the pulpit he firmly placed himself behind the Lord’s Table refusing to serve any “despisers of sacred mysteries.” He said, “These hands you may crush; these arms you may lop off; my life you may take; my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane, and dishonor the table of my God.1
These words hit the Libertines like a thunder-clap, and those who had entered the church so proudly now left it very ashamed of themselves. Beza reports,
“But Calvin, though he had been informed of what was done only two days before the usual period of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, raising his voice and his hand in the course of his sermon, after he had spoken at some length of the despisers of sacred mysteries, exclaimed, in the words of Chrysostom, “I will die sooner than this hand shall stretch forth the sacred things of the Lord to those who have been judged despisers.” These words, strange to say, had such an effect upon these men, however lawless, that Perrin secretly advised Berthelier not to come forward to the Table. The sacrament was celebrated with extraordinary silence, not without some degree of trembling, as if the Deity himself were actually present.”2
To Calvin, preserving the Lord’s Table from duplicitous communicants was worth offering his neck to the sword. The substance of the glorious truth of the gospel pictured and enjoyed during the Eucharist (εὐχαριστία) would simply not be reduced to trivialization in Calvin’s presence.3 No one would defame the sacraments under Calvin’s care unless they were also willing to remove Calvin’s head. In this, something quite unique took place. Calvin, with Christ, and as a proof to the Church, offered himself up to death and resurrection in order to protect the purity of the Table—but also, perhaps, to exposit the very meaning for which we sit at the Table. Markus Barth explains:
The death of the one Jesus Christ concerns so fundamentally those sitting at the table that they accept that his death is their death; that his suffering makes them willing and capable of suffering with him; that his resurrection promises theirs; that their life is in him as he is in them – he is their life.4
In the Church, we experience Christ as community. In the sacrament, however, we spiritually experience Christ as material narration.5 A sacrament is a material sign of a spiritual truth uniting the sign with the thing signified. At the Table, through union with Christ, we are, according to Calvin, participating in his very flesh and blood by faith. To participate in the Table is to participate in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.6 As Calvin stood resolutely before the Genevan Libertines, he enacted the truth which the material sign was meant to signify: We are by the power of the Spirit united with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, and so, we should not fear to suffer and die with him, for we are to also rise with him. Calvin fully expected to be beheaded, and it was the meaning of the Table he protected that produced in him the audacity to boldly endanger his life like this.
The Lord’s Supper, for Calvin, was a banqueting feast of glorious enigma. He did not hesitate to admit that the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a bewildering mystery. In his Institutes, for example, Calvin concedes that,
Whenever [the Eucharist] is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my 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, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.7
And later, in his humble attempt to penetrate the mystery, he writes:
That sacred communion of flesh and blood by which Christ transfuses his life into us, just as if it penetrated our bones and marrow, he testifies and seals in the Supper, and that not by presenting a vain or empty sign, but by there exerting an efficacy of the Spirit by which he fulfills what he promises. And truly the thing there signified he exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast. . . I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited. For unless we would charge God with deceit, we will never presume to say that he holds forth an empty symbol.
Therefore, if by the breaking of bread the Lord truly represents the partaking of his body, there ought to be no doubt whatever that he truly exhibits and performs it. The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true, let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.8
In this, Calvin’s dramatic display—or his embodied exhortation, we might say—was perfectly symmetrical to the value of the event. To profane the Lord’s Table—to trifle with it—was to jeopardize the very faith and life of the Church.
1. Wiley, The History of Protestantism (Vol. 2), 327.
2. Beza, Life of John Calvin, lxii-lxiii; Michael Serven
3. “What is offered to us by the gospel outside the Supper is sealed to us by the Supper, and hence communion with Christ is no less truly conferred upon us by the gospel than by the Supper.” True Partaking, 281.
4. Barth, Markus. Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper, 37.
5. The Heidelberg Catechism, regarding the Supper, reads:
Q75. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood. (1 Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25)
6. In his Treatises on the Sacraments, Calvin writes: “Christ then is absent from us in respect of his body, but dwelling in us by his Spirit he raises us to heaven to himself, transfusing into us the vivifying vigor of his flesh, just as the rays of the sun invigorate us by his vital warmth.” Elsewhere, on being transposed into the presence of Christ by faith through union with him at the Lord’s supper, Calvin writes, “because we are unable to fly high enough to draw near to God, he has ordained sacraments for us, like ladders. . .God has given us this wonderful support and encouragement and strength in our weakness.” Beeke, Joel. The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 135.
7. Institutes 4.17.7.
8. Institutes 4.17.9.