We are taking the time to reflect upon the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As I explained in a previous video, we were about to wrap up a series on Revelation and move into a series on Matthew 26-28. In particular, I intend on teaching about communion (Mt. 26:26-29), crucifixion (Mt. 27), resurrection (Mt. 28a), and commission (28b).
In the previous video, I introduced the subject and why it is important for us to consider. There church’s practice of communion has been dysfunctional since the early church. Today, it would seem that most people error on the side taking the Lord’s Supper too lightly. They minimize its importance. Maybe they don’t ever participate in it. Or maybe when they partake, their minds are not engaged. Oftentimes, the preacher takes no time to explain or fence the table so anyone and everyone present is permitted to take it however they see fit. None of these practices are healthy.
We will cover some of those issues later, but in this video, I simply want to consider the four major views of the Lord’s Supper.
The Views of the Lord’s Supper
This is the Roman Catholic view. They point to Jesus’ words, “This is my body” (Matt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; 1 Co 11:24), and “This is my blood” (Mk 14:24). They determine that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ. During the priest’s prayer of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. However, they borrow from Aristotelian metaphysics to suggest that even though the substance of the elements have been changed, the accidents/species (physical attributes) remain the same. In other words, what appears to be bread and wine, has become something else in reality.
Obviously, Jesus was physically present at the table, but he was holding the bread in his hands. None of the disciples got confused at that point and said, “Wait, are you saying your body literally became that loaf of bread right now?” None of them were thinking that.
It’s like that FDA commercial from the late 80s: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” I can assure you, I was nine-years-old when I watch that, I never thought–“That’s not my brain, that’s an egg!” I understood the egg was being used to represent my brain.
The grammatical term for this is metonymy. The bread is a sign/symbol of Christ’s body, just as the FDA used an egg to represent the human brain. We see several examples of this in Scripture (i.e., the water of baptism = cleansing/regeneration, rock = Christ, dove = Holy Spirit).
Martin Luther challenged the teaching of the Roman Catholic church and corrected a host of theological problems. His view of consubstantiation stresses that the elements remain the elements. He rejected the notion of substance and accidents. No transformation takes place. However, in explaining Jesus’ words, “This is my body”, Luther argued that Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the elements. He used the analogy of an iron that is heated by fire. The iron remains iron, but it is dramatically impacted by its union with the fire. This is the sense in which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. He argued that a sacramental union that takes place in the Lord’s Supper.
The problem with this view is that it requires that the body of Christ be ubiquitous/omnipresent, present everywhere. If Jesus was indeed raised to life and ascended into heaven in his glorified human body, then in what sense can his body be everywhere? In order for consubstantiation to work as Luther explained it, the body of Christ had to be in several places at once (at least wherever the Lord’s Supper was being taken). And if that is the case, then in what sense is it a human body? Humans cannot be omnipresent.
This led to the view of Ulrich Zwingli who took a very different approach. He emphasized Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Co 11:24-25). He removed the sacramental ideas and called it a “memorial”, an act of remembering Christ’s death. He rejected any notion that Christ was present in the sacrament. It is merely a sign and expression of a believer’s faith.
The seems to be an over-correction of transubstantiation. Communion in Christ’s body and blood implies much more than a simple mental exercise. What are the role of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and prayer as it accompanies the sacrament? If this were how they explained the Lord’s Supper, it is difficult to understand how anyone would have accused the early Christians of being cannibals. Yet, in the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote an apologetic response defending that Christians were not practicing cannibalism.
John Calvin seems to provide the appropriate balance. He points to Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church:
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Co 10:16)
“Participation” (koinonia) can also be translated “communion” or “fellowship”. Calvin maintained that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, but it is a spiritual reality. He physically remains seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. So his body is not in the bread and his blood is not in the cup. However, the Spirit of Christ is at work in and through the sacrament and joined to believers who partake by faith in the body and blood of Christ.
It should be noted that Calvin did not reject the memorial idea, but he thought that it said too little. Yes, we are supposed to remember Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for our sins. Without that, the sacrament is meaningless. But we should also emphasize the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It is every bit as real as the physical bread and cup that we eat and drink.
In saying, “this is my body” Christ was declaring that the purpose of the bread had changed to something spiritual. The bread itself had not changed, but Christ consecrates the bread for a spiritual purpose. In the sacrament, Christ truly offers himself as spiritual food so that we might feed upon him spiritually. The sacrament consists of visible signs which convey spiritual realities.