The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

Recently, I had a friend ask me the following: “[I have questions that] I have heard so many people have different views on. Sacrament, if you miss the bread do you take the water? Or if you go to two wards do you take sacrament twice? Does it matter? Is there any official stance or just speculation? Obviously the best answer for the first is to make sure to take both but what is proper procedure?” I considered these to be good questions, but ones that I didn’t have specific answers for at the time. So, I looked at all the easy go-to resources of potential Church doctrine: the scriptures, Handbooks 1 and 2, Church manuals, Gospel Topics on LDS.org, recent general conference talks, and so forth. After surveying these sources, the short answer is that there are no outright statements that answer these questions. There are, however, doctrinal standpoints and procedural precedent that tend to support answering these questions one way or another.

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Image courtesy LDS.org

Before delving into either question, however, it is important to understand what the sacrament is and why we do it. Partially, I am writing this because I was fascinated to see all the various reasons for the sacrament that I could find and partially because it sets up some later discussions. For Christians generally, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was and is, in the words of one historian, “the central Christian ritual act.”[1] It has been celebrated throughout the ages by virtually all Christians. Latter-day Saints are no different, observing the breaking of bread and drinking of water (in place of wine) on an almost weekly basis. In surveying the sources mentioned above, I found several purposes listed for doing so within the theology of the Restoration. First and foremost 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 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). 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]

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The Last Supper mural at Westminster Abbey

While the sacrament helps us remember the past, it also helps us to look forward to the 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 state this purpose more directly, recalling that Jesus taught that: “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 also taught this aspect of the sacrament 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, an early proto-Orthodox Christian bishop named Ignatius of Antioch emphasized the communal aspect of the sacrament and the unity of faith it engendered: “Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you severally, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ … breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ.”[5] The sacrament is an a community event, where each one of us partakes of the same emblems in unity. In our own dispensation, President Joseph F. Smith taught that: “We … partake of the Holy Sacrament together as brethren in the bonds of the covenant.”[6] Through the sacrament, we commit to the same obligations, united as a covenant people. Thus, the sacrament is a communal means of acknowledging the eternal life given through Christ and how Christians become one with God and 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). 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, that they may have his Spirit to be with them.” 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 covenant renewing. Beginning with Elder Bruce R. McConkie, 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 clarification of the relationship between the sacrament and baptism has come through Elder David A. Bednar. An idea associated with strongly connecting the sacrament 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 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 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. These are important to bear in mind as we discuss the answers to my friend’s questions about the sacrament in upcoming posts.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting

[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] Ignatius to the Ephesians, Lightfoot translation, 20:2, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-ephesians-lightfoot.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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One comment

  1. […] Note that this is the second part of a multi-part series. For background reading, I suggest reading the first post here. […]

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