Round Table: Communion
Perhaps no facet of Christian theology is more important and more often debated than understandings of Communion. Instituted by the Lord Jesus the night before his death, the practice of communing with fellow Christians using bread and wine (or, in some early Christian communities, cheese and wine) reaches back to the earliest Jesus Movement and continues to form and define Christians today.
In order to demonstrate both the unity and diversity of Christian perspectives on Communion, we have asked our authors to respond to the following question: “What is Communion, and what role does it play in your faith?” There are six perspectives on Communion below, each followed by short responses by the rest of the contributors to this Round Table discussion. We invite you to join the discussion.
Our forefathers ate manna in the desert just as the scripture says, “He gave them bread out of Heaven to eat.”To which Jesus replied, “Yes, but what matters is not that Moses gave you bread from Heaven, but that my Father is giving you the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God which comes down from Heaven gives life to the world.”This made them say to him, “Lord, please give us this bread, always!”Then Jesus said to them, “I myself am the bread of life. The man who comes to me will never be hungry and the man who believes in me will never again be thirsty.
Reading John chapter six has always been difficult for me. I find myself reading a first century text with a twentieth century mindset (as that is the century into which my parents and I were born). This means that as I begin to read this uncomfortable text, I try to shoo it away by thinking it must be figurative. Granted, Jesus spoke in metaphors and parables quite often, hiding the truth in obvious stories.
John six, however, is not like that. Jesus radically says, “Unless you do eat the body of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you are not really living at all. The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up when the last day comes. For my body is real food and my blood is real drink. The man who eats my body and drinks my blood shares my life and I share his.” (John 6:53-56, PHILLIPS)
No wonder Jesus’ own disciples call these things “a hard teaching”, wondering who could accept it. I wonder if I can accept it. “My body is real food and my blood is real drink” sounds very literal to me. My inner process of explaining away begins to whirl. Yet I cannot explain away this chapter of John’s gospel. I don’t know Greek and I don’t know Jesus well enough to read the tone to see if there is metaphor that I am missing.
Is it any wonder, then, that I attend an Anglican church? The Eucharist is not something I can explain easily or readily. It is both physical and spiritual. It is real and mysterious. Partly I comprehend; partly I partake of wafer and wine in faith. I know the Eucharist as symbol and as substance. Yes, I must be Anglican in this.
Anglicans, you see, tend to want things both ways in certain situations. In this case, the bread and wine are symbolic reminders of the last supper of Christ and His disciples. However, the bread and the wine are the spiritual food and drink for our inner man. As article XXVIII of the Book of Common Prayer points out: “…insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ…”1 In this first section we have the literal reading of John six. In the final paragraph of the same article, however, we read this: “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.”2 Are you scratching your head at Anglicans yet? The wine and the wafer stay wine and wafer, but spiritually we are feeding on the body and blood of Jesus.
Having been on the altar guild at church for a brief stint, I learned that after the service, any undrunk wine in the communal chalice was dumped directly into the ground. This wine could not be saved, yet as it had been blessed (set apart as holy); we treated it with reverence, not wanting to send it through the sewer, but pouring it directly back into the earth. It was still wine, but somehow it is also more than wine. I appreciate this reverence in the handling of the wine (and bread) that have been blessed.
All of this said, what does the Eucharist really do? Is my life changed by the fact that a wafer melts on my tongue and the wine burns down my throat each Sunday? I believe I am changed. After drinking the wine the chalice bearer says, “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” I am thus reminded that the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek eukharistia, which means “thanksgiving, gratitude.” The root word being kharis, meaning “favour, grace.”3 When God shows us gracious favour, how can our response be anything but gratitude? Thus, the act of kneeling to receive the bread and wine each week feeds my spirit; but it also leads me to giving thanks for God’s grace.
If I begin my weeks with thanksgiving to God for His unspeakable gift, won’t that change the tenor of the week? Am I not more likely to stop and give thanks in all things, not just the good, but the hard, too? Some may argue that it does nothing of the sort, and perhaps it does not for someone who has grown up—or at least, grown stale—as an Anglican. Perhaps for some it is rote, but for one who has begun to celebrate the Eucharist with an Anglican mindset later in their Christian faith, this act sets the stage for the week. I am physically involving my senses in receiving the Life of Christ and in giving thanks in return. It is both physical and spiritual. It is real and mysterious…And I am grateful.Show Sources
1 Articles of Religion XXVIII Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1945) 60.
3 Harper, Douglas Online Etymology Dictionary: Eucharist © 2001-2014
Good summary. It’s interesting to read the similarities and differences. As far as I can tell, we’ve never have undrunk wine at any of the Catholic parishes I’ve been to. The extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, if there are any, drink the remainder; otherwise, the priest does. Sometimes, it’s a lot. We have a special drain, however, that goes into the earth for washing the cups and stuff for the same reason. – Michael
Jody, I appreciate the depth of thought you clearly put into your submission. I have to say though, I am curious as to why it is that you can accept so wholly the spiritual presence of Christ in the presence of Communion, but are certain that there must be some explanation for the Eucharist other than that it is the true and physical Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior. I know it seems impossible, to our human senses, for simple bread and wine to actually become body and blood when they look, smell, and taste like they are still normal food and drink, but neither does it really make sense, scientifically or otherwise, for there to be only one God and three persons or for Jesus to be both truly God and truly man simultaneously.
The fact is that God is more than capable of doing things that make absolutely no sense to us. As you said, these things are mysterious. They are beautiful, they are unbelievable, and truly remarkable. They are also the things that our lives, salvation, and faith hinge upon. What we believe is based on faith in the fact that what God tells us through the Bible is true. The Christian faith requires that we accept the fact that there is an almighty God capable of doing anything. Why then is it so hard to accept that the Lord’s Supper is precisely what Christ says it is: His Body and Blood? He doesn’t tell us it is a spiritual representation, and he doesn’t tell us that it is a figurative symbol of his love (and neither did you); instead he tells us that it is His Body and Blood and that we are to eat it for the forgiveness of sins.
I respect the thought and care that you put into your submission, and I in no way think that you undermine or disregard the significance of Holy Communion. It is clear to me that you acknowledge the fact that it is an integral part of the Christian faith, but I fear that you err on the side of clinging to human reason in a situation where it is way out of its depth. – Nicholai
Jody, I love how you present the mystery of the Eucharist here along with thanksgiving. Your regard for the Eucharist is certainly one of great reverence. I would be lying, however, if I did not admit that I was overcome with a certain degree of horror to read that the ‘leftovers’ are poured out into the ground after the service. For an Orthodox Christian, such an act is unthinkable. After Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Priests consume whatever is left in the chalice—because it is the body and blood of our Lord, given for us to eat and drink.
Now, we do, also, have blessed bread (antidoron)—which is the remaining portion of the bread after the center seal has been cut out to be consecrated—which, when not entirely eaten, may be scattered outside for the animals to eat (for the same reason, that we cannot just ‘throw it out’). But we would never do this with the Eucharist. The other thing I would like to point out is that the symbol and reality do not have to be mutually exclusive (it’s a mystery!). In fact, they were viewed as complementary until Berangarius of Tours in the 11th century. All that said, I really appreciate the way you talk about the Eucharist in this contribution! –Ben
After reading Jody’s response, I think I recognize my hunger (pardon the pun) for knowing whether or not the Lord’s Supper is truly the body and blood of Christ or is not. I have a hard time straddling the two. After doing some research, it seems that most Anglicans agree with something like the Reformed doctrine, having rejected transubstantiation. As an aside, I do want to say that I resonate with Jody’s plain reading of John 6, it sure seems (on first glance) to mean that the Supper is Christ’s actual blood and body. -George
Jody, Thanks for sharing your perspective so gracefully. Having spent some time worshiping in the Anglican Church, I have come to approach the “via media” approach to communion, the recognition of body and blood, bread and wine, sacrament and symbol. I think you’re thoughts on John 6 are very important. Too often I hear Christians explain this passage away as a parable or metaphor, despite the fact that the telltale literary indicators of those genres are missing from this passage. The varying interpretations of this passage remind me of something Anglican-turned-Catholic John Henry Newman once noted in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, that too often we accept once hard teaching of the Christian faith (for example, Jesus’ miracles) and then try to explain away something equally difficult (in this case, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) without reflecting upon our paradigm assumptions. Again, thanks for your perspective. JJP
It is very appropriate for all of us to approach this subject with the humility you demonstrated in your post. My questions for you: why do you see it as necessary to connect Jesus’ teaching in John 6 with the observances commanded at the Last Supper? Obviously they correlate, as does the Passover feast and the manna in the wilderness, but John 6 pre-dated the Last Supper. What if the hard teaching referenced by the disciples wasn’t the “eating and drinking” aspect, but the need to fully embrace Christ as the “provision” from God (manna, bread of heaven)? – Dan Jarvis
The Eucharist is called the “source and summit of the Christian life.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks at length about its institution by Jesus, sacramental significance, and how we believe that the Bread and Wine, by the work of the Holy Spirit, become the Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ. It’s the focal point of Mass, which is celebrated daily all around the world, and is never separated from reading Scripture. It’s too profound a mystery and too deeply seated in Scripture for me to justly summarize here, so I will just speak from my own experience.
Recently, I went to St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana and sat in the gorgeous church to pray. The ceiling was incredibly high, well situated around the raised sanctuary where it continued up and allowed rays of light to enter the room. Pews were angled on all sides with various places to pray on the periphery, and it was peaceful. Quiet. Fascinating paintings were along the walls, and inviting statues of the Saints sat beside kneelers and candles in various corners. And in the middle were the podium, chairs, and a tall, wooden tree in the shape of the Cross with a crucified Jesus upon it. But one important thing was missing: the Tabernacle, the locked box, of sorts, that the priest keeps the consecrated host for Mass and veneration (namely the Body of Jesus in full divinity) was missing. It’s always the first thing I look for. The crucifix is just a reminder of Who is really there.
I got up and followed a side door on the right side until I came to a small room with stained glass featuring angels on all sides, light pouring over the Tabernacle, which stood in front of a handful of pews. One young lady was there. I didn’t know what to say, but I was so excited that I had finally found Him that I sat down, taking a few minutes out of my busy day to fall on my knees and just sit with Him. Nothing else. Just sit.
Later, I told Fr. Dan what had happened, being surprised about its location, and he called my search the “Instinct of the Faith.”
I wish I could describe what that’s like to the uninitiated, but it’s not something I fully understand myself. Only God could reveal Himself in such an awesome and mysterious way. While attending non-traditional churches with hour-long sermons, huge choirs, and jubilant worship, I feel excited and even edified by what the preacher says, but it’s always been supplementary to the celebration of the Mass, which isn’t centered around human beings and what they have to say (although some priests have a knack for good homilies). I’m there to encounter Jesus, not just in some spiritual sense, but in a real and material sense, even if I cannot, at that moment, partake in Communion because of some mortal sin.
What is before me is the Living God. When I see the Eucharist, I see the victory of the Cross and its power over death. I see the Manna from Heaven, my daily bread. I see the Tree of Life, once removed from humanity. I see the Passover Lamb, standing as if slain—and so much more. My eyes which gaze upon the plain bread and wine cannot be fooled by what Scripture—and what the First Christians—celebrated as the Last Supper and the anticipation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. It’s God hiding in plain sight.
Michael, I certainly appreciate your last paragraph, tying together the mana, Passover Lamb, etc. in the Eucharist. It is bringing together those real things (bread and lamb) into something even more real than bread on our tongues or meat on our plates. But II Corinthians 4:18 says, “For we are looking all the time not at the visible things but at the invisible. The visible things are transitory: it is the invisible things that are really permanent.” (PHILLIPS) Would you be able to say that the bread and wine transitory, but our spiritual man being fed the spiritual Body and Blood of Christ is more substantive? ~ Jody
Michael, you clearly have a deep love and appreciation for the Eucharist, and I am glad to see that. The Lord’s Supper is one of the highest points and most significant parts of the Christian faith, and your instinctive search upon entering the church demonstrates your understanding of that.
You specifically mention that the celebration of the Mass is not centered on us as human beings. Since, for the most part, I essentially agree with your submission as a whole, I wanted to focus on that.
I think, if I understand what you’re implying, that I can agree with you that humanity doesn’t sit at the center of Communion. Unlike the Joel Olsteen theology of the modern world, the Lord’s Supper, and really the entire liturgy, does not revolve around our wants and dreams or our personal satisfaction with the current state of our lives. It is about Christ, his sacrifice, and the love of our Creator. However, it is also true that the very sacrifice we give thanks for in every service was a sacrifice made for us and our salvation. The Lord’s Supper is not about us, but it is given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
We are drawn to Holy Communion because it is the means through which we partake in the Body of Christ and are made members of his church. Jesus Christ becoming man, laying down his life for us, and providing us with his Body and Blood is a manifestation of God’s love for his creation. Again, it is not about us, but it is for us. – Nicholai
The Eucharist is truly something that must be experienced and cannot be explained. I love how you wrote about your personal experience—an experience that is not ‘merely spiritual.’ I’ve really not much to say in response. Great perspective, Michael. –Ben
I think Michael’s response is an important one for recognizing how similar Protestant and Catholic’s emotional and reverential treatment of the Supper really are. I lament with Michael the fact that many Protestant church’s disregard the Supper in their liturgies. I think I want to present some push back, however, at one point of Michael’s response, and say that the Lord’s Supper should never be disconnected from the Word. Gospel teaching must always be pared with the action of the Lord’s Supper, otherwise we won’t understand the significance of what it is we are partaking in. That is to say, maybe we should see the Eucharist not as a stand alone element of the liturgy, but as the climax or the visible representation of the gospel preached, proclaimed, and sung. -George
Michael, Thanks for sharing your experience with us here. It serves as a good reminder of “arguments from experience”, something our Western, post-Enlightenment minds often reject out of hand as superstitious or unfounded. We cannot forget that Christ’s Incarnation is the greatest experience the world will ever know, and that God speaks through our experiences of His grace, as well as the experiences of others. Thanks for that important reminder. JJP
I appreciate the way you can relate your personal experience so vibrantly, and as a reader, it makes me want to stand next to you and experience your vision of Christ right along with you. I have no reason to challenge you on your experiences or your heart toward God as you celebrate Catholic Mass. However, I would challenge you to look back at your first paragraph, and note that you are turning to Catholic tradition for the definition of what the Lord’s Supper means. I would encourage you to walk back through the Scriptures themselves, as you seek to know Christ better. – Dan Jarvis
When I initially started thinking about what to include in this post, I felt more than a little overwhelmed. The Lord’s Supper is instrumental in shaping what it means to be a Christian, and honestly I can think of only a handful of topics that could possibly be considered more important to our faiths and more defining of our varied denominations. However, last week when I was talking with my father (a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor) in anticipation of this post, he pointed something out me that I believe does an excellent job of really getting to the heart of things.
Even though the fact that Lord’s Supper is so fundamentally important and significant, it is also incredibly straightforward and simple.
What the Eucharist is, what it does, and what role it should play in our lives is laid out very clearly for us in the Bible:
“While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28 NASB)
“While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:22-24 NASB)
“And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; this do in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:19-20 NASB)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke use slightly different wording, but they are all recording the same message and they are recording it pretty clearly. Jesus tells us “This is My body,” and he tells us “This is My blood.” Therefore, I have no reason to believe anything different. Additionally, Jesus tells us to take His body and His blood and consume them. Therefore, I cannot legitimately justify doing anything different. Lastly, He tells us that we are given His body and His blood for the forgiveness of our sins and as a covenant with Him.
Human reason may not be able to comprehend or understand why or how these things can be true, but if God is able to make Himself man and die for the salvation of the whole world, then why would we question whether or not He could turn bread and wine into His very body and blood?
Communion is the body and blood of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is given and shed for me and for all believers for the forgiveness of sins, and it sits at the very heart of my faith. There is certainly more that could be said, but honestly, after you have read Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s passages, what more needs to be said?
Nicholai, Though I am familiar with both the Catholic view of transubstantiation (the bread and wine being made the actual body and blood of Christ), and the Lutheran view of consubstantiation (the body and blood being present under the physical realities of bread and wine), I cannot, from your writing, discern that you believe something different from our Catholic brothers. Can you explain how Lutherans differ from Catholics if you both believe the bread and wine are actually real body and real blood? ~ Jody
I couldn’t agree more. I am particularly humbled by how Jesus connected that breaking of the bread On the Road to Emmaus: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:30-32) – Michael
The only thing I would add is that, while the synoptics do clearly speak about this subject, one could also benefit from looking at the the Old Testament. When I re-read through the Bible last year I was dumbfounded by the typology. Honest and straightforward approach to this subject. –Ben
I think Nicholai’s critique of Protestants that deny that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ is too simplistic. It is simplistic for it critiques the worst of Protestant theology, namely those that deride Catholics and Lutherans with statements like, “You can’t be serious that this is really the body and blood of Christ? Jesus isn’t in that silly wafer!” I believe more is required to defend a Lutheran position than, “this is the plain reading of the gospel texts.” I absolutely believe, with Nicholai, that Jesus could turn bread and wine into his very body, however I’m not convinced that he does. -George
Nicholai, Thanks for sharing your perspective with us. Having grown up and been confirmed in the LCMS, I was particularly interested in reading your perspective to see how closely my own previous experience lined up. Your “synoptic approach” is very interesting (on a number of levels); could you share any non-synoptic sources for your Eucharistic theology? That is, I’m wondering how you read John and Paul in this mix. Additionally, your point concerning our need to affirm the mystery of the Eucharist is important, and something the Western church has far too often forgotten. I was just reading Ephrem the Syrian, who offered an important reminder that there are some things about God and His works that our human minds are just not able to comprehend. As we think about theology, this is something we ought to bear in mind more often. Again, thanks for your thoughts here Nick. JJP
I am so glad you quoted extensively from the Bible, and I share your enthusiasm in embracing the words of Jesus. It seems that our difference of opinion on this matter is largely one of interpretation. When do Jesus’ “I am” statements refer to literal elements (light, bread, gate, shepherd, water) and when are we to take them as metaphors for the salvation He provides? Or, when Jesus held up the bread, and said, “This is my body” to the disciples, would they (in context of that moment, with no reference to future church traditions) have understood him to be speaking in metaphor? For example, if I held up a rose in front of my wife and said, “This is my love for you” she would understand contextually that the rose itself has not mystically a literal piece of my love, but rather, a symbol of it, a tangible representation of something intangible. – Dan Jarvis
The Eucharist is a Holy Mystery. It is what differentiates Christianity from every other religion, pagan cult, and secular gathering. Within it is contained the mystery of life and the economy of salvation. It is the body and blood of Christ—a partaking of the very sacrifice offered on the cross—which is the medicine of immortality,1 the food of salvation.2 When we commune in remembrance of Christ,3 our remembrance is one of actual participation (anamnesis) in His body and blood and sacrifice on the cross, not mere reminiscence (mneia).4 The carnal man cannot survive without food, neither can the spiritual man live without this Bread of God,5 which is not like common bread and drink.6 While earthly food is transformed into our bodies, resulting in temporary survival, the heavenly food transforms us into Christ’s body.7 In this very real sense, participation in the Eucharist is how we abide in Christ,8 how we become partakers of the divine nature,9 and what constitutes unity among Christians as the body of Christ.10
The Eucharist is, without question, the centerpiece of Christian life. Only recently has Christ’s Eucharistic institution been dethroned from its primary place in Christian worship. Historically, such an act would be akin to voluntary condemnation and spiritual death.11 We have it backwards. The problem with Adam was that he ate; the problem with modern man is that he does not. Christian communities without the Eucharist, regardless of their nature, are merely moral subsets of secular society which have distorted sacred scripture, ignored Paul’s exhortation to stand fast in Holy Tradition,12 and have been taken captive by the traditions of men.13 Christianity without the Eucharist is an implicit rejection of the incarnation, an eviction notice from the physical world to God, and structured on moralism. Christianity, however, is about participation in the life of Christ, not do’s and don’ts or rational assent to dogmatic propositions. His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos asks,
What is the fundamental ‘action of the church’? It is surely the celebration of the Eucharist, the divine liturgy. At the last supper, Christ instructed his apostles not say this, but do this. He gave them an action, not just words.14
We are told that, if you do not eat of the Lord’s body and blood, you have no life in you.15 What does all of this mean for the modern Christian who does not understand the Eucharist in this manner? I do not know, but God is merciful. What I do know is that I am in much greater need of God’s mercy than anyone else. Ultimately, the Eucharist is a mystery. Just like the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, and the Holy Trinity, it supersedes all human reasoning and rationale. I cannot convince you of anything, but I am entreating you to prayerfully behold the mystery, reflect and read, and perhaps even question what you currently believe about the Eucharist. And finally, to taste and see that the Lord is good.16
View Sources 1Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians. Chapter 20.
2St. Cyprian on the Lord’s Prayer (Nn. 18, 22; CSEL. 3, 280-281; 283-284)
3Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24
4See Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, An Introduction to God. Page 91. Which reads: “In both of these passages [Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24], the word for remembrance is not the Greek word meaning “recall,” which is mneia. Rather, the word used there is anamnesis, which means “to make present by means of memory.” Anamnesis is invocation—by doing this act, the Church is invoking the very presence of that which it remembers, making truly present at this moment something from the past.”
5St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians. Chapter 5. Also see John 6:33.
6St. Justin Martyr, First Apology. Chapter 66.
7See Christophorus Stravroupolos, Partakers of the Divine Nature. Also see John 6:58.
8John 6:56; John 15.
91 Peter 1:4; Also see St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lectures. Mystagogic 4, 22, 3.
101 Corinthians 10:17
11St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans. Chapter 7
122 Thessalonians 2:15
14Pope and Patriarch in Rome: Future Opportunities –Lecture by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/lectures_by_metropolitan_kallistos_ware
1Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians. Chapter 20.
Ben, Wow, thank you for your explanation. I don’t think I have thought about the Eucharist transforming Christians into the body of Christ. In one sense I think that is done when we become Christians, in another, I know it is a daily process to become more like Christ. However, could you explain a bit more what you mean by “becoming partakers of the divine nature” via the Eucharist? We are made in the image and likeness of God as humans, doesn’t that mean that we already image the divine? Do we somehow become divine by receiving the bread and wine? ~ Jody
Well said. I always think of the Laborers in the Vineyard parable (Matthew 20:1-16) when I consider those traditions that celebrate Communion without belief in the Real Presence or the belief in Apostolic Tradition that somehow only priests in the Catholic Church can make possible what only God can make possible. God is so generous and merciful that I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone was somehow included in His economy of salvation. -Michael
Ben, I can only say that I wish I had your eloquence. Your contribution to this Round Table was beautiful to read, and since I am unable to find a major objection to anything you wrote above, I will instead attempt to add some additional insight to what you have already shared.
Several years ago, I attended a conference with my father and older brother in Wisconsin, and on the first day the host pastor of the conference spoke of the Lord’s Supper as the very life blood of the Church. He spoke of the tragedy that is the modern day custom of partaking in commune as infrequently as twice a year, or as is often the case, only once or twice a month. He was speaking specifically of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but his words are more widely applicable. We should be gathering at the Lord’s Table as often as possible! I do not fully understand where the tradition of partaking in Communion so infrequently came from, but it pains me to visit friends and family and discover that I am visiting on a “non-Communion” Sunday.
Perhaps there is some unfortunately misconceived notion that partaking in the Lord’s Super frequently dilutes the significance of the meal, but from personal experience, I know that sharing in the Eucharist not only on every Sunday, but on Feast and Saint’s days as well, is the high point of my life within the Church. I thank God that I have never had to go an extended period of time without receiving Communion, but even one or two weeks without the Lord’s Supper causes me to seriously long for the great gift of salvation that is the true Body and Blood of my Savior.
I do fear and pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ who actively abstain from partaking in this definitive meal or who reject its nature and purpose. I think you touch upon the heart of the matter when you compare Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit to our failure to partake in the holy meal gifted to us by God. – Nicholai
I find reading over Ben’s response absolutely hilarious. I’ve read over it a few times and I “amen” at just about every point. We agree on everything, it seems. Though I know it isn’t true we agree on everything (we disagree on if it is Christ’s body and blood), it is fascinating how similar our responses are. I will just point out a few direct similarities, 1) Remembrance as “participation,” 2) the Eucharist is about abiding in Christ, 3) the Lord’s Supper is about Church unity, 4) the Eucharist is the climax of the liturgy, and 5) “taste and see that the Lord is good.” -George
Ben, Thanks for sharing your perspective here. The more I read (from you and others) on the Orthodox conception of Communion, the more I am convinced that you all have the most scripturally and historically accurate perspective. Your point about the Eucharist being a rememberance of “actual participation (anamnesis) in His body and blood and sacrifice on the cross, not mere reminiscence (mneia)” is, I think, especially difficult and important for our Western minds to grasp. Too often we think of “symbols” and “remembrance” as ontologically distinct from that which they represent, in contrast to the understanding of the early Church within the contexts of Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Your point about the recent denigration of the Eucharist is also spot on, though I wonder how many contemporary Protestants would balk at the rich Eucharistic theologies of the magisterial reformers (Luther and Calvin especially). And you quote Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr—I can’t help but love your position. Would you say there have been any “developments” (not in a “corruptions” sense, but as in natural growth) in the Orthodox conception of Communion over the years? JJP
I take issue with your suggestion that John 6:53 relates to partaking of Communion. I am not sure that “original hearers” would have heard anything from Christ that sounded or felt like modern liturgical church traditions do. Those may have much value, but I don’t think we can read them back into the biblical text. Using this hermeneutic, would I not also need to turn to John 4:14, and wonder where I can find (or what church will provide) the living water I must drink to gain eternal life? Or reexamine John 13 and the need for foot washing as a necessary step in my relationship with Christ? I don’t mean to make light of these metaphor, but rather to suggest that over-literalizing them might lead a person to a fundamental misunderstanding of their original intent. I have every reason to believe your passion for the Eucharist and I respect your vision of its centrality in the Christian experience. I have never considered it to be “central” but more a representation of who is, indeed, the center of all things, and a reminder of the new life He died and rose again to make possible. I would echo the quotation of William Hunter, just before he was executed, from Psalm 51: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” – Dan Jarvis
Growing up, I always thought it odd that certain types of Christians placed so much emphasis on the Lord’s Supper (silly Catholics). After all, Christianity is fundamentally about Christ dying for my sins and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (right?). However, I was raised with a sense that Communion was a serious matter, a symbol with real significance. My father, during our once-a-month ritual, would always solemnly pray following the meal, mouthing his repentance for past sins and gratefulness for Christ’s sacrifice.
Coming to college, I began to attend a Presbyterian church. Here, the ritual was at the climax of the service, and was eaten each week! It was as if the entire liturgy, worship, and preaching were leading up to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Further, the congregation is urged to worship as they partook, not merely to confess sin and recognize Christ’s atoning sacrifice. From the feel of the ritual, I intuitively understand a celebration of Christ’s victory, a mourning of my own sin, and a nourishment by the grace of God. Now within a congregation that serves the meal each week (!), I wake up on Sunday excited about the emotions, significance, and nourishment that result from the service.
For the rest of this response, I hope to elucidate the theology of the Reformed tradition that undergirds my experience of Communion each week. I by no means consider myself an expert on the disagreements between the traditions (that’s why we do Round Tables, right?), nor do I feel qualified to present any definitive “Reformed” answer to the question. However, in this response I will be presenting the Reformed understanding of the Supper, as well as arguments as to why the Reformed view is correct, utilizing Herman Bavinck (19th century Dutch Reformed theologian) and Michael Horton (21st century Westminster Seminary).
Horton summarizes the Reformed view of Communion as “a meal in which God ratifies his covenant of grace by feeding believers with Christ’s true body and blood in heaven through the power of the Spirit.”1 The purpose of the Supper is, according to Bavinck, “above all a gift of God, not our memorial and confession…It must first of all be regarded as a message and assurance to us of divine grace signifying the mystical union of the believer with Jesus Christ.”2 The benefits that result are “foremost the strengthening of the believer’s communion with Christ,”3 for we share in Christ’s benefits—the forgiveness of sins and “hope of eternal life and of a blessed resurrection on the last day.”4 “Finally, the Lord’s Supper also serves as the confession of our faith before the world and strengthens the communion of believers among themselves. Believers are one in Christ and therefore also one among themselves.”5 Horton, against a Zwinglian view, clarifies the “remembering” that occurs in the sacrament, one that is not mere recollection, but is “participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future.”6
The primary Reformed critique of Catholics and Lutherans (and Orthodox, it seems) lies in eschatology. Christ has been resurrected by God and is ascended at the right hand of the Father. The church is the people of God who live between the “already” of salvation through faith by the Holy Spirit and a “not yet” Kingdom of God in which Christ will descend and finally reign. Horton interprets John 14-16 in this light, “over and beyond all of the post-resurrection meals that Jesus shared with his disciples, the meal that we now share occurs on this side of the ascension and Pentecost. In the power of the Spirit, we not only recognize Jesus as the Christ; we receive a foretaste of the eschatological feast (the marriage supper of the Lamb). Yet it is not the fully consummated reality. If “Zwinglian” views tend to eclipse our present participation in the eschatological feast, Roman Catholic and Lutheran views exhibit an overrealized eschatology of the Eucharist, resolving the productive tension between the “already” and “not yet” that this covenant meal not only reveals but intensifies.”7 Bavinck summarizes the argument, “[The Lord’s Supper] is a communion with the person of Christ that does not consist in a physical descent of Christ from heaven, nor even in a mixture or transfusion of the flesh of Christ with our souls, but in the elevation of our hearts heavenward, in a union with Christ by the Holy Spirit.”8
1Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 823
2Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Abridged in One Volume, Edited by John Bolt, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 687
6Michael Horton. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 799
8Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Abridged in One Volume, Edited by John Bolt, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 683
George, In the first part of your post you say twice that you receive “nourishment” from the Eucharist, but you don’t say whether that is physical (body and blood), spiritual, emotional, or mental nourishment. Could you explain what you mean by that term? I’m a little surprised at how much the Reformed view echoes the Orthodox view of the Eucharist. You say the difference lies in eschatology, between “already” and “not yet,” with God’s Kingdom still in the “not yet” or “to come” stage. But some (N. T. Wright, for example) would argue that with every act of love we are bringing God’s Kingdom now. That the Kingdom itself is now, but not fully realised yet. At which point, maybe you differ less than you thought. ~ Jody
That’s really interesting. Thank you for sharing. I can see more similarities than differences in the reverent way in which you described Communion. Whether the reality is “already” or “not yet” is somehow less striking to me than that mystical union with Jesus Christ and the confession of faith. -Michael
George, thank you for your contribution to this Round Table! I appreciate your thoughts as well as the consideration you clearly put forward in putting together your submission. However, I must ask how the descriptions of the Lord’s Supper that you reference in your fourth paragraph are a more convincing interpretation of Scripture than simply taking what Christ said to his disciples at face value? I am not suggesting the partaking in Communion does not strengthen our faith as you said, but I struggle to understand why it is so hard to accept and acknowledge that what we consume at the Lord’s Supper is precisely what we are told. What Christ actually says to the twelve is that the bread and wine He serves are, in fact, His Body and His Blood and that they are given to us for the forgiveness of our sins.
Yes, I know it doesn’t seem to make sense. I know that He has ascended into heaven, and that there is no logical or scientific explanation capable of explaining how millions of Christians could be continuing to consume a single body at regular intervals century after century. Also, I will admit that Communion retains the physical appearance and taste of bread and wine rather than flesh and blood, but the fact is that we are dealing with the Word of God. The same Word of God that shaped the universe and created life from nothing also tells us that the Eucharist is Jesus’s Body and Blood.
In some ways, I feel like I am repeating myself in each of this responses (as well as my initial submission), but I believe that when dealing with matters of faith and salvation, it is better to keep falling back on the Word of God that we are given rather than attempt to craft a manmade explanation for a process and gift beyond our mortal understanding. The Christian faith depends on a lot of things that we can’t rationally explain being true. If we cannot believe that when Jesus says “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” he means precisely what he is saying, then how can we accept the Word that tells us He is divine? How can we believe that when the Bible says that our sins our forgiven that they are no longer damning? When we begin to question whether or not the Word of Lord actually means what it says, where is the foundation upon which our faith can stand?
Hopefully I am not coming across too aggressively. My goal is certainly not to be hostile, but human non-literal interpretations of Scripture is a dangerous and slippery slope that causes me a great deal of concern. – Nicholai
George, I loved reading this contribution. The more I speak with you, the more encouraged I am by the similarities—though not total agreement (so close, but so far)—in varying points of theology. For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is offered within the context of the Divine Liturgy (and as an Orthodox Christian I believe that this is the right context). And the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, is the principal action of the Church (cf Kallistos Ware). For this reason, the Divine Liturgy is viewed as a journey to the Kingdom—a stepping outside of time and into the Kingdom. Beyond this and other obvious differences between our two perspectives, I really appreciate the sincerity of this contribution. My heart is lifted to heaven as I read these! Thanks, George! –Ben
George, Thanks for sharing this with us. I’m glad to hear of the development of your views on Communion, especially while at Hope. My own conception of the Reformed perspective on Communion was changed by Hope, as I had never attended a Reformed congregation where Communion was a weekly part of the liturgy. I’m also glad that you brought Horton (whom a couple of my colleagues at SLU studied under) and “covenant” into the conversation. I’m very guilty of not recognizing the Last Supper as an important part of our Lord’s establishment of His New Covenant (despite the fact that He says that’s what going on). On the “already” and “not yet” paradigm, what is the scriptural/exegetical/systematic dividing line that places Catholics/Lutherans on the “too realized” side of things, the Zwinglians as “not realized enough”, and the Reformed at just the right place? Thanks, JJP
My own view of the Lord’s Table is in many ways similar to the Reformed view represented here. However, I wonder if in this particular expression of it, the understandable drift toward “increasing piety” might be evident. Increasing piety is a term related to biblical translation, and the tendency over the centuries for hand-copyists to change, for example, the name “Jesus” to “Jesus Christ” and then even to “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Obviously none of this is in error, but the original Greek was simpler than what the given translation had become. As I read the Reformed view on Communion, this trend feels apparent to me. Nothing about the celebration, means of grace, soulish-nourishment or anything else the author references is errant. However, in my view, it goes beyond the simple observance Jesus modelled for us at the Last Supper, and beyond even Paul’s directions for observance in 1 Corinthians 11. – Dan Jarvis
Before answering our Round Table question, I feel a brief word is in order regarding my status as a “Searching” Perspective. My wife and I are in the midst of a multi-year Church Search, where we have been learning about, visiting, and engaging numerous different churches and denominations in an attempt to determine where we best fit within the People of God. This process has led us to think and consider (and rethink and reconsider) many facets of what we believe and why we have believed it. Accordingly, though my perspective may (in some respects) be similar to those of the other Round Table contributors, I do not (yet) have a specific tradition which I may officially affiliate myself. Yet I wanted to write something for this Round Table, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that those of us at Conciliar Post do not all pretend to have the answers, that we are all still on journey’s of faith, and that some of us are at a stage of change and transition on the journey.
Now, onto speaking about Communion: What is it and how does it impact my faith? For me, Communion is the sacramental participation in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, a visible and real “joining together” with our Lord that, among other things, is a foreshadowing of our eventual union with Him in the new Heaven and new Earth. I think a good explication of this are the three English terms that are often used to describe this Christian meal: Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist. The term “Communion” reminds us that through this meal we are in relationship, not only with God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but also with our fellow Christians. And not only the fellow Christians with whom we commune at our individual churches or within our specific denomination, but Christians of all times and places. This is where I often have concerns with “Closed Communion”, where churches only allow members to participate—this is one of the saddest examples of the Church not being united.† Through Communion we unite, not only symbolically, but in some deeper sense as well, with the Invisible Church.
Likewise, the “Lord’s Supper” indicates important aspects of the how we should understand this meal. First, we should remember that the Lord Jesus Himself established and commanded the breaking of bread on the night of His betrayal. That is, Communion is not some ritualistic “corruption” of Christianity that the “papists” or “heretics” inappropriately made a central part of the Christian faith. Rather, the Lord’s Supper was given by our Lord to His people as a means of grace, forgiveness of sins, and remembrance of his sacrifice. Second, speaking of the Lord’s Supper should remind us about what the Lord said at the institution of this supper, namely, “Take; this is my body” and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14.22, 24). While different traditions debate the precise meaning of “is” here, there is something to be said for a childlike faith that takes Jesus at His word rather than trying to play un-contextualized semantic games to make these words sound less paradigm-altering than they are. Additionally, I find unconvincing arguments concerning “symbolic” representation within the First Century context, where this concept presupposed something real and beyond the immediately visible of which a symbol meaningfully partook, not as the ontologically empty, abstract “reminisces” that symbols are often understood as today.
A third term applied to this sacrament is “Eucharist”, which is derived from the Greek εὐχαριστία and means “thanksgiving”, an indication of Christian thankfulness for Christ’s once and for all, time-transcending sacrifice on the cross. Our participation in the Eucharistic meal demonstrates our continual thankfulness for Christ’s grace, and serves as a reminder of our need to love and make sacrifices for others (1 John 4.19). The historic use of this term should also cause us to consider the Church’s historic stance upon the Eucharist, which has been spoken of from the earliest days as the “medicine of immortality”1 and the body and blood of Jesus for the power of those who follow Him.2
Hopefully my digressions into each of these three terms have indicated the manner in which I hope communion impacts my faith, as a communal meal that encourages us to unite with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as a reminder of the historic reality of Christ and all that pronouncement means, and as a means of grace participating in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus the Anointed. To conclude my thoughts on Communion and its importance, I affirm the words of Irenaeus of Lyons from Against Heresies 5.2.2:
“If our flesh is not saved, then the Lord has not redeemed us with his blood, the eucharistic chalice does not make us sharers in his blood, and the bread we break does not make us sharers in his body. There can be no blood without veins, flesh and the rest of the human substance, and this the Word of God actually became: it was with his own blood that he redeemed us. As the Apostle says: In him, through his blood, we have been redeemed, our sins have been forgiven.”
†I realize there are sometimes legitimate reasons for withholding communion, but this practice ought to be applied on a “one on one” basis rather than a “pronouncement” effectively anathematizing all of Christendom which is outside the walls of your church.
1 Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 20.2.
2 Justin Martyr, First Apology 66-7.
Jake, I’m glad I read your piece last, as it seemed to tie together various historical quotations and the understanding of the words we use for this celebration. I especially appreciated your distaste for closed communion, as I don’t think a Believer ought to be excluded from the Eucharist, even if he has a different understanding (symbolic, spiritual, real presence) of what is happening in the receiving of the bread and wine. We can still fellowship together in Christ in this life-giving sacrament, even if we don’t quite agree on the depth of the Eucharist. ~ Jody
It’s been really interesting to read about your search. There’s a sense of adventure about it. Anyway, the only question I would have for you is in regards to the withholding communion for particular denominations. Without arguing one way or the other myself, is Communion (to you) at all a public declaration of faith? Given your belief in an Invisible Church, this is perhaps a moot point, but it was a question that popped into my head as I read your essay. -Michael
Jacob, I think you bring up an excellent point of concern, and one that I understand must surely be of particular concern and interest to you as someone who holds dear the significance of the Lord’s Supper but is still searching for a denomination to call “home.”
As a member of a Church Body that withholds Communion from those not in fellowship with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have witnessed instances where non Lutheran friends and family members have been seriously hurt and offended by the fact that they were not allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper at our services. It is hard for me to accept that we refuse to join with some devout and fervent brothers and sisters in Christ at the altar when I know that Communion is so central to the life of the Church, but at the same time, I could not do any differently in good conscience.
To share in Communion is to share in a common relationship and a common confession. It is no small thing for two people to receive Christ’s Body and Blood together at the same altar, and the significance of the community that is established by sharing in the Lord’s Supper shouldn’t be taken lightly. For us to accept anyone, even fellow Christians, to the altar that do not share a common confession is to undermine and downplay that significance. Sometimes the difference in beliefs seem minor, but especially in situations where the nature, substance, and purpose of Holy Communion itself cannot be agreed upon, it would be a kind of contradiction to partake in the meal together. What the Eucharist is and what it does is not dependent on those receiving it, but rather on the Word of God that says it is His Body and His Blood, but the act of partaking the meal is an act of confession and a declaration of faith as well as a receiving of the Sacraments and the forgiveness of sins. As a consequence, only those who can honestly share a common confession of faith should gather together at the altar.
At my family’s church where my father is a pastor, we encourage non-communing Christians to come up and receive a blessing alongside those communing. We do recognize that to some extent there is a common confession across all denominations that hold the Creeds to be true, and we do not exclude our non-Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ out of malice or because we believe they have no hope of salvation, but because those differences that are significant enough to divide our denominations are also significant enough to prevent us from, in god conscience, receiving the Lord’s Supper in communion with each other.
I most certainly pray that you, your wife, and all believers have means of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ through Communion, and I give thanks to the Lord for the fact that our salvation is not determined by human practices and denominational lines. However, differences in confession and faith prevent us from partaking in the most hold of meals together this side of Heaven. – Nicholai
Jake, I appreciate your post as a “searching Christian.” I agree with most of what you said, with two exceptions. The Orthodox understand the Eucharist as the consummation of a marriage. Being so, closed communion takes on the same reasoning as abstaining from sexual relations until marriage. Participation in the Eucharist presupposes participation in the sacramental life as a whole—ascetic struggle, confession, etc. . . the laundry and dishes of married life (if I may boldly take the analogy so far). Further still, we understand close communication not as an unjust deprivation but rather as protection—it’s dangerous to have sex before marriage and will probably end up seriously hurting someone. We are simply following the practice described by Justin Martyr in his First Apology, Chapter 66,
“And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”
Certainly the Eucharist, as the epitome of Christian unity, is something that we must strive to participate in together. But it’s not that easy—we run into several problems of a pragmatic nature. We do not want to shave the gospel down to bare minimums so we can have agreement. After all, everything the Lord has given us is important . . . Neither can we say that our differences do not matter . . .
So, for now, if someone wants to participate in the Eucharist at an Orthodox Church, he certainly can: just become Orthodox!
Secondly, Western Christian understanding of an invisible Church is a problem for Orthodox Christians who believe that the Church is a concrete reality. But we must also remember that when we speak of the Church we are talking about an united whole—for we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Orthodox Christians make no such divisions as “Church Militant” and “Church Triumphant.” There is, simply, the Church, with Christ as Her head and led by the Holy Spirit. I would be interested, however, in learning how you understand the invisible Church. (And actually, the issue becomes even more confused since we are talking over the lines of Christian traditions—the Orthodox do not necessarily accept the idea that anyone who is not ‘formally’ Orthodox is going to hell . . .)
I love your contextual approach to the presence of Christ. History is important (as you know better than I!). –Ben
Won’t Jacob just pick a tradition already? This man goes around saying he’s all “objective” and stuff because he’s not tied to a tradition…. I kid, I joke. Unless I’m misinterpreting, it seems that Jacob has not come out and said, “I agree that the Supper is the body and blood of Christ.” If that is the case, then I agree 100% with his response. In particular, I especially appreciate his understanding of the Eucharist as a “sacramental participation” that “foreshadows our eventual union with [Christ] in the New Heavens and New Earth.” I think that statement goes along with my eschatological critique of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran perspective that sees Christians as already having physical union with a Christ that continually descends bodily. -George
In your quest to find a church family, I realize there are many more dynamics at play than simply doctrine. On this difficult (but prayerfully successful) quest, I wish you well. What you have likely already encountered is not just a vast difference in style between traditions and denominations, but more importantly, a vast difference in authoritative premises. For example, in some traditions (like my own), the Bible itself is the final authority for all matters of faith and practice. We are happy to reference back to church tradition, learn from important historical figures, and even carry on rituals throughout the centuries, but we strive to maintain a direct line to the Bible for any doctrinal premise we hold. In simple terms, we see church history as a helpful guidebook, and the Bible as the divine rulebook. Not every church thinks this way, some putting more or less weight on their structural leaders (Pope, etc.), dogmas, or traditions, and ranking these additional “sources of divine content” next to the Bible, or treating their interpretations of the Bible to be authoritative. This roundtable has surfaced that fundamental difference. I believe that a “sola Scriptura” perspective leads a person to a dramatically different version of Communion than where the “Scripture+historic church” perspective leads. To what, or to whom, will you look for the answer to this question of final authority? Your answer will likely determine your view on this important topic, and ultimately your choice of a church! – Dan Jarvis
I love remembering Christ, His sacrifice, and His promise to come again. I grew up in a non-denominational church with Baptist leanings, and, in that context, we took the bread and cup in hand at regular intervals–almost always monthly, and at times more often than that. Our communion was open, prayerful and reflective.
However, I confess that sometimes I treated these moments lightly, or as mere ritual, or a matter of “fitting it in before the final hymn,” and in that respect, I often failed to honor Jesus. I have repented of that negligence. I love what Communion means; I love even more the Savior to whom this symbolic ordinance is dedicated, and I want my participation in the sacred meal to bring Him honor.
As a pastor, I often worried that my people were missing the heart of Communion, or going through rote motions without really “considering” the body and blood of the Lord. Our church began addressing this question with more focused observances, and, in some cases, entire events dedicated to them. For example, we set aside the Thursday of Easter week to celebrate the Last Supper–with an elegant evening dinner, confession and prayer around tables, literal breaking of bread loaves, and (as best as we knew how), times of rich, Cross-centered worship, readings and exhortations.
Those moments were rich with love and grace. We were seeking to bring the plain interpretation of the Scriptures to bear in our real world experience. This led us to joyful song, tearful consideration of the Cross, hearty fellowship and humble confession of sin and prayer for each other.
I always look for the Bible’s obvious meaning, unless deeper interpretation is called for based on the literary genre of the biblical passage in question. Thus far on my spiritual journey, my studies into the primary texts regarding the breaking of bread have led me to what some call the “memorialist” position. These texts are Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:17-34, and, possibly, Acts 2:42-47. (Although John 6 could also be referenced here, the passage seems to more plainly address our need for salvation, and does not in my view appear to be a prescription for a “literal” feast on Christ’s body and blood at Last Supper observances).
Jesus commands us to remember Him through this special meal, in the same way the nation of Israel was commanded to remember their salvation through the Passover meal. The meals themselves were not the issue–they were means by which to remember the great rescue God had provided! Christ’s work on the Cross is to be remembered, never repeated. Jesus sacrificed himself for me in real space-time, about 2,000 years ago, a perfect Lamb, once for all. This became the legal basis for my justification before God (Romans 3:20-26).
I praise my resurrected Savior for making this unrighteous soul right, for redeeming what was broken, condemned and lost. In celebration, then, I partake of bread representing His broken body, and a cup symbolizing His shed blood, with a thankful heart. By His wonderful grace, I have been saved. Thank you, Jesus!
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.’” (John 6:53 NASB) -Michael
Dan, as someone who knows very little about Zwinglian confessions, I appreciate the opportunity to read your contribution. Thank you for taking part in our Round Table!
I’m afraid that my response to your submission very much mirrors that of my response to others and my initial post. In all cases when the literal interpretation of Jesus’s “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” is questioned, I can only ask why we have any reason to doubt that He means anything different from what he says? The passages that you mention within your contribution are the very passages I would cite to try and demonstrate that Communion is truly and certainly the very Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior.
The lengths that are taken to try and demonstrate that Scriptural passages pertaining to the Lord’s Supper mean something other than what the words tell us genuinely boggle my mind. We do not draw into question the fact that when the Bible tells us that Jesus is the very son of God and yet still man it means just that, or that when we are told that Christ bodily rose again from the dead on the third day that he did precisely that, but from so many branches of Christianity there is an incredibly strong resistance towards treating the Lord Supper with the same kind of faithful and humble acceptance.
I do not mean to be disrespectful or inconsiderate in my responses to any of those contributors to this Round Table that believe Holy Communion is something other than the Body and Blood of Christ, but it does genuinely concern and amaze me that while so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are willing to accept the Creation story and the fact that God created life itself also reject the idea that he also feeds us himself through the Eucharist when that’s precisely what he says.
While I hope to gain a better understand of my fellow Christians outside the fellowship of the LCMS through this Round Table, I also hope that everyone reading these posts will seriously consider the internal consistency of accepting some “impossibilities” from Scripture on faith while rejecting others. – Nicholai
Dan, I appreciate your concern about taking communion too lightly—as may be a tendency with the Zwinglian / Memorialist perspective. I am somewhat confused, however, when you say you attempt to take the “obvious meaning” of scripture unless further interpretation is called for. In each passage you cite, the meaning seems apparent: “this is my body, this is my blood” (Matthew, Mark, Luke). . . “Is it not communion in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians). In fact, in Luke, the Greek word used for remembrance is anamnesis which means more than just “recall” (mneia) but rather calls forth a real participation through remembrance—the word anamnesis differs from what we would commonly understand as remembrance.
All of this, and yet you dismiss John’s account with the wave of a hand—but this is based on a presupposition that the Eucharist is not, somehow, connected with salvation. It seems that the ‘obvious interpretation’ of these verses is what the Church has always believed: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If, indeed, scripture must be read contextually, then we must look at how the early Church (the apostles, disciples of the apostles, etc) understood these passages . . . and even a cursory glance at scripture within this context reveals that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the correct, or simple, meaning of these verses. There is no getting around it unless you completely dismiss a contextual understanding of scripture and base it off of individual whims and interpretations . . . Which you can totally do, but that’s the same thing that people, like Joel Osteen for example, do to prove their points through scripture. And this is a clear abuse of Holy Scripture. It is this very same misuse of the scriptures, in fact, that has caused, within the evangelical / protestant sphere, the emergence of 50,000+ denominations. Without the context of history and the Church, what scripture ‘means’ will always be boiled down to one person’s word against another’s. –Ben
I’m in a sort of awkward position here, as I feel I am in between the Lutherans/Catholics/Orthodox on the right, and the Memorialist here on the left. While I sympathize with some of Dan’s concerns (Christ’s sacrifice is unrepeatable, “tearful consideration of the Cross”), I find mere “remembrance” to be a stunted view of the Supper. 1) Communion is not something we do, but Christ who offers his body and blood as a gift, 2) The Supper participates in the events of the Crucifixion, not merely recollects them, 3) The Supper is rendered unnecessary as we can remember the Cross doing any number of things, and 4) (According to the Reformed tradition) The Supper mystically unites us with the ascended Christ by his Spirit and gives us Christ’s benefits of forgiveness of sins and hope of eternal resurrection. The Memorialist position, while (in my opinion) rightly disagreeing with the Lutheran/Catholic/Orthodox position, denies the power of the Supper and ultimately renders it non-essential. -George
Dan, Thanks for offering your perspective here, I appreciate your willingness to serve as a guest author for this forum. Your increased emphasis on communion is something I wish more pastors would do. And while I sympathize with your concerns about ritual becoming too rote, I wonder how far that concern goes. I don’t want to take some time off from telling my wife that I love her, just so it can be more special and I can “consider” what I’m saying more fully. Some things are worth doing again and again. My biggest concern with the memorialist perspective is the lack of any orthodox Christian who affirms this view before the Reformation. For me, 1500 years of Christian interpretation and practice, while not necessarily a perfect historical guide, presents something of a problem for something as important as Eucharistic theology. Again, thanks for your perspective Dan. JJP
photo courtesy of Timothy J. Ritter