“This is my body” … what exactly do we eat at communion?

Chalice with wine and bread. Background with copy space

I want to return to something we looked at a bit earlier this week.  What was it that Jesus said at the last supper and what does this mean for when we take communion today?

Mark 14:22-25 reports:

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 “This is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

In the earlier post, we saw that Jesus was saying that he was now the Passover meal.  Just as those who wanted to be saved from the angel of death in Egypt had to eat that meal, the lamb and the unleavened bread, and just as they had to shelter under the covering of its shed blood, so too, his disciples must completely and fully depend on him for salvation. 

Christians have followed Jesus’ instructions to remember him in the eating of bread and drinking of wine down through the centuries.  But if Jesus said “this is my body” when he took the bread, then what are the implications for communion. A few different options have been given and they have caused sharp debates among Christians, splitting even families.

The Roman Catholic position has been that in some mystical way, at the point when the priest lifts up the bread and the cup, the elements actually do become the body and blood of Jesus. This is called Transubstantiation   Martin Luther, the first of the reformers differed from Catholicism in many ways however, he still wanted to see something significant in the bread and the wine. His modified position is known as consubstantiation. Whilst the bread and wine do not become Christ’s body and blood – he is after all in heaven and present everywhere with his people, in some sense Christ is present in the physical elements so that we are feeding on him.

Another reformer, Zwingli saw this as a nonsense. We would still be re-offering Christ as a sacrifice in effect. He insisted that we needed to think more carefully about what it means when Jesus says “This IS my body.”  Did he literally mean that the bread and wine became his body? Of course not.  So, he must have been talking metaphorically or symbolically. To Zwingli, the meal was a memorial meal only, a symbolic act of remembrance.

John Calvin refused all the positions.  He argued that whilst the bread and the wine do not become Christ’s body and so Jesus isn’t physically present in the elements, that Christ was present at the meal and not just as its host. Calvin would agree with the comments I made that “Jesus is the meal.”  We just eat physical bread and wine with our body. However, we feed on Christ in our hearts.

So, which view is right and what are the implications?  We will want to tread carefully here given that different Christians who have thought about it carefully have come to different views.  Getting it exactly right doesn’t affect our salvation.  However, this doesn’t mean it is unimportant.

First of all, transubstantiation and consubstantiation cannot be right.  There are three reasons for this.  First, the obvious and practical one.  It was obvious when Jesus said the words that the bread wasn’t literally becoming his body. They could see his body right there.  Secondly, there are some theological problems.  If Jesus turns up in bits of bread scattered around the world and those bits of bread are his body then that would deny that Jesus exists in heaven with a physical body now.  We would lose the truth of his humanity. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it would mean that we offered Christ as a sacrifice again and again every week.  We must reject this position.

However, I think that Calvin was right to argue that Zwingli’s position fell short.  Now, there aren’t the big theological dangers with Zwingli that there are with transubstantiation. Personally, I would advise against taking part in a “mass” because it is doing something completely different and ultimately idolatrous. However, I wouldn’t worry so much if a the vicar or pastor stands up and talks merely in terms of symbols and memorials. 

Yet, that position seems to lose something of the spiritual significance and weight of communion. Jesus doesn’t just say “This represents…” He says “This is…” And I think that we are meant to ponder that.  As I said before, I believe the point is that we are meant to see the intimate significance of who Jesus is to us and what the Cross means. Christian faith is not something that happens at arms length.  It’s not just something we learn about.  Our sermons are therefore not just educational instruction and our ordinances or sacraments (baptism and communion) are not just visual aids. 

The Gospel means that Jesus comes right into our lives.  Through his Holy Spirit he fills every part of our life. Just as food and drink satisfies and strengthens so that it is essential to physical life, so too, this filling with Christ, is essential if we are to know eternal life.  That’s what happened when we became Christians.

This means that our remembering at communion is actually a form of renewal. It is reliving again the point when Christ came into my life, when I took and ate the living bread.  So, we feed on him in our hearts.

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