… and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24 NIV)
Jesus gave bread to his disciples and said, “This is my body.” Agreed, but in what sense is the bread of holy communion the body of Christ?
On one end of the spectrum, there is the view that the bread changes its essential nature when the celebrant offers it to God in the course of the Eucharist. It still looks like bread and tastes like bread, but its essence has changed. It is no longer bread; it is Christ’s body. It’s not a piece of Christ (like a piece of meat), but Christ himself. That’s why the Eucharistic host can itself be adored and worshiped apart from the act of eating it. To adore the bread-like object is to worship Christ because it is Christ. The presence of Christ in the consecrated host is so miraculous that eating and drinking almost fade into the background.
On the other hand, among those who actually observe communion as something more than a love feast or a fellowship meal, are those who believe that the bread is nothing more than bread. If communion conveys a spiritual benefit, it is solely in its encouragement of believers to contemplate the death of Christ. Receiving communion is a little like watching a movie or a play with audience participation. It helps believers think about the cost of their salvation and appreciate what Jesus did for them. Except for the fact that Jesus directed that we observe communion, a good sermon or musical performance might have the same effect.
Somewhere between these two positions are Luther and Calvin (who didn’t agree with each other) … and me. Here’s what I think.
With the bread of the sacrament, Christ promises to nourish those who have been born from above in the waters of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit. He nourishes us by giving us himself in the form of bread and wine, and thus unites us to all his saving work on our behalf. When we celebrate communion together as the church, the bread which we eat in faith maintains our life-giving union with Christ and his church, In that ongoing union we continue, not only in the forgiveness of sins, but in fellowship with God, love for our brothers and sisters, growth in holiness and anticipation of the age to come. God does not do this by transforming the bread into something else, but simply through faith in the word of promise that Jesus gave the disciples.
That’s a complex set of sentences, so let me boil it down to two words: nourishment and union.
There is a difference between physical and spiritual nourishment. Please note that as I use these words, physical and spiritual are not two completely separate things. The spiritual encompasses the physical.
The word “physical” describes the part of our nature that is essentially a biological machine. The physical body needs certain things to function correctly.
When I use the word “spiritual,” I am talking about human beings in their totality. We are biological machines, to be sure, but we are also thinking, feeling, self-aware creatures who can experience awe and beauty, love our neighbors, worship God and make conscious choices about our lives.
A healthy diet is important human existence, but as Jesus said, human beings don’t live on bread alone. When we eat and drink the holy meal with faith in Christ’s promise – “this is my body, given for you” – Christ nourishes that part of us that bread cannot sustain.
Jesus’ body and blood are spiritual food, not physical food. When we eat and drink at the communion table, we are not eating a Jesus-burger and washing it down with a Jesus- shake. I don’t think Jesus meant, “Here is my flesh for you to digest in your stomach.” For one thing, when Jesus first said “This is my body,” he was still using all the meat on his bones. More significantly, the body of Christ is not processed by the digestive system.
Bread and wine are physical food that nourish the physical body. Christ’s body and blood are spiritual food that nourish the spiritual person, God’s new creation in Jesus. Christ’s body and blood are spiritual nourishment for men and women reborn to bear the image of Jesus.
When we eat and drink together in faith, Christ nourishes that part of us which is born of the spirit. He helps us thrive, grow and stay healthy as God’s people.
Jesus said “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (John 6:55). Jesus’ body and blood are real food, real nourishment, not the food necessary for ordinary life, but absolutely essential for eternal life (John 6:53-54). They are nourishment because they connect the believer with Jesus’ sacrificial offering of himself on the cross. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
Why should bread and wine confer this spiritual benefit in a way that other things don’t. Why do I need to eat the Eucharist to receive this benefit? Can’t I just receive it by feeding on Jesus in my heart by myself? Can’t good preaching or singing feed my spirit? Can’t fellowship without the Eucharistic trappings nourish my soul? Or how about Christian service? The Gospel of John never mentions Jesus’ words of institution, but it does talk about Jesus’ humble act of washing feet. Can’t love and service feed my sprit? How important can bread and wine be?
There are many good and beneficial Christians can do for the sake of spiritual growth, but they do not do what communion does. Rather, I should say, God does not ordinarily do through them what he ordinarily does in the sacrament of communion.
In communion, Christ nourishes us with spiritual food because he says he will. “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.” It is his body because he promises that it is.
Notice that this isn’t about changing the essence of the bread in any way. The celebrant’s words don’t change the bread into the body of Christ. The words of institution simply recall that Christ promised to feed us with his body and blood whenever we receive this bread and wine as his church. The words call for faith on our behalf. If anything gets changed in communion, it’s us!
To be practical for a moment, it’s bread and wine before we share communion. It’s still bread and wine after we receive communion. It’s even bread and wine when we eat it and drink it. But, for those who receive it in faith, it is also the body and blood of Christ.
Union with Christ
“This is my body” because, through it, Jesus nourishes us with himself in a unique way. How exactly does this happen? Ordinary food is processed by the body and turned into the nutrients the body needs. Spiritual food works not through digestion, but through union.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain (μένω) in me, and I in them. (John 6:56)
Later in the same gospel, Jesus says:
Stay joined (μένω) to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. (John 15:4-5 CEV)
As the fourth gospel sees it, remaining connected to Jesus is the means by which Christians live and produce fruit. Just as the root nourishes the branch, so Christ nourishes his own. As John tells it, eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood is the means he gave us to remain united to him.
Paul even more explicitly sees union with Christ in the bread and wine of communion.
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation (κοινωνία) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16 NIV)
The real union between Christ and the communicant at the table is so real that it is possible to a sin against the “body and blood of the Lord” through misconduct.
…. whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:27 NIV)
Those fellowship of the Lord’s table establishes an exclusive bond among the participants, and the Lord will brook no rivals.
… the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? (1 Corinthians 10:20-22 NIV)
Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned about the metaphysical processes involved in the sacraments, but his entire argument in I Corinthians is based upon a “high view” of the sacrament of the table. In a very real way, the bread and the wine participate in the body and blood of Christ, as do those who share the fellowship of the table.
In my view, God’s grace is powerfully present in the sacrament of the table. Christ continually gives himself to us in the form of broken bread and a sip of wine. He nourishes our spiritual lives as we remain united to him. As the sacrament keeps us united to Christ, we also remain united to his saving work on our behalf through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Through the grace of the table, repeated week after week, year after year, our lives and hearts are transformed. The words and actions of communion become part of us. Most of all, if we are what we eat, then we become more like the one we worship.