Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)
What do I mean when I affirm that in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, Jesus gives us his body and blood?
I don’t mean that the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into another substance, so that they are no longer bread and wine. The bread is only the body of Christ as it is given and received in faith during the Eucharistic meal. It is wholly inappropriate, then, to set aside some of the Eucharistic bread, as if its essence had been changed by the celebrant’s prayer of thanksgiving. The Eucharistic bread is not to be “reserved” either for adoration or for later use in the absence of an ordained elder.
But I also don’t mean that the elements of the Lord’s supper simply remind us of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. The Eucharistic meal is more than a memorial or a devotional act. Jesus didn’t give us the sacred meal to remind us of history, teach us a lesson, promote religious feelings or as a means of demonstrating our obedience. The Gospel of John, at least, sees it as something more.
“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink,” Jesus says. How are they real food? Bread and wine are food for the stomach. They nourish the body. They are God’s good gifts to sustain his creatures. Similarly, Jesus’ body and blood are God’s good gifts to sustain those who belong to his new creation. They are spiritual food to nourish life in the spirit.
Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus said that flesh gives birth to flesh, but spirit gives birth to spirit. One is born into this world by the ordinary means of procreation and childbirth. Spiritual birth – or birth from above – is solely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Just as ordinary food and drink are necessary for life in God’s good-but-fallen first creation, so Jesus’ body and blood are necessary for life in God’s new creation. The Eucharistic gifts are not flesh and blood in the crude physical sense. Rather, they are the nourishment that God provides for those who are born again through faith in Christ.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” The nourishment that God provides is nothing other than Jesus himself. God does not give us a magical ambrosia, but his own life-giving presence. Baptism is the sacrament of beginning in Christ. Communion is the sacrament of continuing in him and abiding in him and remaining in him. The Eucharist is the life-giving and life-sustaining connection to Jesus himself.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … The one who feeds on me will live because of me.”
The Gospel of John, the synoptic gospels and the writings of Paul all, in their own ways, point to Holy Communion as the way par excellence for Christians to remain united to their living Lord.
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1Corinthians 10:16)
More than private prayer, more than Bible study, more than songs of praise, more than personal mediation, the New Testament authors give us Jesus’ body and blood as the means of spiritual nourishment and ongoing union with Christ.
Why must it be so? Why is communion so essential to the life that Jesus gives?
One line sometimes used in the communion ritual is this:
Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.
Why can’t we just feed on him in our hearts without the taking bread and wine, giving thanks, recalling Jesus’ death and eating the sacred meal? Why doesn’t God nourish us simply through our faith without the external ritual of communion?
Perhaps because the Lord’s Supper is objective, external, historically-rooted and communal in nature, it offers us something that individual, internal experiences never can. It is the bread of heaven because Jesus, to whom the supper unites us, is the bread of heaven. It is Jesus’ life-sustaining body and blood because Jesus says it is.
This is my body. This is my blood. Indeed they are, when I am gathered with Christ’s holy community, recalling his life and teaching and receiving the gifts he gave us in faith that they are what he says they are and they do what he says they do. They are spiritual nourishment for those born into God’s new creation. They are God’s own means for those who belong to Christ to abide in him. Take, eat, and feed on him by faith in your hearts with thanksgiving!