SACRAMENTS OF THE CHURCH -
THE LORD'S SUPPER
There has been as much debate among Christians about what happens in the Lord's Supper as perhaps any single issue since the Reformation. But here, as in the many other areas we have been studying, the real challenge is to be ruled in this matter by the twofold principle that leads to apostolic Christianity: receive all of the relevant Scriptures in a naturally literal manner, and listen to our brethren in the early Church. Once you have decided to submit your mind to the literal and straightforward meaning of the pertinent texts, the doctrine of the Eucharist becomes quite clear. And, as we shall see, the early Church took the Scriptures exactly that way.
WHAT HAPPENED TO JESUS AND HIS SACRIFICE?
In order to understand the apostolic doctrine of the Eucharist we have to understand several things about the transformation that Jesus experienced after His resurrection and return to glory. One of the reasons that so many Protestants have difficulty in receiving the Eucharistic Scriptures literally is that they are trying to understand them only in the light of the pre-resurrection condition of Jesus.
What happened to Jesus?
One of the most commonly given reasons for not being able to accept the Eucharistic texts (e.g., Matthew 26:26-28) in any kind of literal or grammatically natural sense is that it seems to be logically impossible for Jesus to be in heaven and upon the earth at the same time, just as it would have been logically impossible for Him to be in His body of flesh and in the bread at the same time during the Supper. Yet, if we understand clearly what transpired between Good Friday and the ascension of Christ to His throne in glory, we shall be able to make perfectly good sense out of all the Eucharistic passages when they are received in their grammatically natural sense.
We must begin at the Incarnation. Jesus' body, soul and spirit were fashioned to be the bearers of the divine and sinless Son of God; they were, like innocent Adam's, capable of carrying out all the potential within man's original constitution, and they were blessed with all the effects of sinless perfection, divine peace and perfect harmony.
But even though there was no trace of sinfulness, that body with its soul-life was a natural body, not a spiritual body in resurrection glory (cf., 1 Corinthians 15:35-47). Although that humanity could do things that ours cannot, by virtue of its sinlessness and submission to the Father's will, it nevertheless had the limitations inherent in any body, however sinless it might be. In that body, He could communicate His power, truth and good will, and could become a sacrifice for sin; but in that body He had to stay outside of you. He could not communicate His full being into another human being, because of the very natural condition of that body that linked Him to His creation.
It was that spotless humanity that He offered as the perfect and complete sacrifice to make atonement for the ones He would call out of the world. It was that humanity that was divided by death, as we are all divided in our dying: He was severed from His flesh, and that flesh was laid in the tomb. But He took to the place of the departed the same human life-without-its-flesh in which all who had died before Him were living, and He brought to them the proclamation of the paid ransom, that delighted the children of Abraham and sealed the doom of the defiant (1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6). During those few days, the flesh of His divided humanity continued to lie in the grave, preserved in sinlessness. But then God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power (Acts 2:24). The Father brought Him back from Sheol into the land of the living, restoring to Him the flesh of His humanity.
Even then, His was not yet a spiritual body (Luke 24:39). However, on the day of ascension, He was lifted up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight (Acts 1:9). He was then restored to the glory He had left for a time, and now He came back to that glory clothed with a humanity He had not possessed prior to His Incarnation. And the body of that humanity was now spiritual: the last Adam had become a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45). It is in this condition that He now rules and ministers from heaven. And His humanity is not at all limited in the way it was at the time of the Last Supper, when He said, "This is my body." Now He can sit upon a throne at the Father's right hand and fill the universe at the same time. Now He can communicate with a thousand assemblies on Earth at the same time as He is communicating with Peter, Paul and millions of saints in glory. The body of His humanity is now spiritual, sharing in the attributes of spirit, and cannot be imagined in the restrictive way we now experience bodies to exist and communicate. The bodily condition of two thousand years ago no longer exists for Jesus.
What happened to His sacrifice?
Just as we can see a change in the nature of his existence, we can see a change in the nature of His sacrificial activity on our behalf. The fulfillment of His ministry for us was the offering of His sacrificed humanity upon the altar of the cross. This was one unrepeatable sacrifice; but we must remember that He took the blood of that sacrifice with Him into the presence of the Father, and now offers that atoning blood (now glorified) for us continually:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle... And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness...
Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world... He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God... For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified... He, because He abides forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Hence also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 9:11-10:14; 7:24-25).
This tells us that Christ has a perpetual ministry of intercession before the Father with His sacrificed humanity (now glorified). Therefore, if from heaven He makes Himself present to us we will, in that Presence, also be in the presence of that intercessory blood. The historical shedding of His blood was a unique unrepeatable event; but the offering of that blood to the Father on behalf of His elect goes on forever.
If we keep these two understandings before us -- that of the present glorified condition of His humanity and that of His continuing intercession with His sacrificial blood -- we shall be able to understand clearly the Scriptures which follow, and not feel compelled to water down their straightforward meanings.
AT THE LAST SUPPER
And 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 He took a cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28; see also Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20).
Jesus was certainly at this point providing a new covenant counterpart to the action of Moses at the time of establishing the old covenant for Israel:
And he [i.e., Moses] sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!" So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words" (Ex. 24:5-8).
Under the old covenant, which symbolized and pointed toward the future covenant in Jesus, the people were sprinkled with the blood that was identified as the very blood that sealed the covenant. The blood remained external to their inner life. But in the new covenant, the blood had to be applied to the inner man. The life of Christ had to be actually imparted to the spirit, and so Christ identified His sacrificed human life with that which could be eaten and assimilated into a man's inner being: the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The externally imposed blood of the old covenant could only cleanse the flesh; but the life blood of Christ was imparted to the inner man, where it could cleanse our conscience (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The straightforward meaning of these gospel passages -- the meaning that we would naturally derive from them if we were not trained to reject it -- indicates that Jesus was in some manner identifying His body and His blood with the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. We may, of course, need to seek to understand the meaning of those terms "body" and "blood," but whatever "body" and "blood" might ever mean, it is clear that a disciple today must also wind up saying the same thing about the Eucharistic bread and wine that Jesus said of them: namely, "it is His body," and "it is His blood." Jesus' choice of words compels us who claim to be His servants to use the same language that He used, however that language is to be understood. If your interpretation of the meaning of those words causes you to be reluctant to use them, then you should question that interpretation. Those from most Protestant backgrounds will at first feel very strange in using such language, but the desire to obey must overcome the fleshly reluctance.
The fact that Jesus was in His fleshly body should not keep us from taking His words at their face value. First, He is the Son of God and Lord over the entire creation; it is not for us to decree that He could not do something that transcends our human comprehension. It is just as "illogical" to consider Him to be fully human and fully divine at the same time. In all things, we must simply submit to His revelation about what is true, and then seek to understand that revelation. But while we are in the seeking phase we certainly must use the same language He used.
Secondly, we must remember that He was establishing the Supper for a future time, when He would not be in their midst bodily (as He was during that supper). He would not have had to establish His presence in the bread and wine at that point (unless He chose to do so, of course), since He was with them in the flesh.
From our discussion of the present condition of the humanity of our Lord we can see that Jesus is not communicating to us His body of flesh in its condition of two thousand years ago; that condition no longer exists. It is the body of His glory that we participate in, through the eating of the bread and wine of promise. Skin cells, blood cells and organs have undergone a transformation by participating in His glorification, and we can scarcely imagine their present condition. But we can assert with confidence that His glorified, God-bearing humanity is what is being offered to us today in holy communion. In the days of His flesh He could only be loved; but now, because of the spiritual character of His human body, He can not only be loved but united as well to every aspect of our being: spirit, soul and body. Truly, it was to our advantage that He go away (John 16:7).
"IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME"
I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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." In the same way the cup also after supper saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
"Do this in remembrance of me"
This passage is taken by many Protestants to exhaust the meaning of the Eucharist. It is as if to say that in the Lord's Supper the only thing that is going on is a pious remembrance by the believers of that two-thousand year old sacrifice. Now, we ought readily to grant that such a pious remembrance is in fact a very important part of the action of the Eucharist, but upon what intelligent grounds can it be argued that because this aspect of the Communion is true no other aspect is? If someone left a will that bequeathed to you his enormous fortune, with the added stipulation that you read that will every week in remembrance of him, would you interpret that to mean that the only reality in that will was its "remembrance" aspect? I dare say you would not! Rather, you would conclude that that will was to be used in two ways: to authorize your receipt of the fortune, and to serve as a vehicle for remembering your benefactor's generosity. And so it is with the Eucharist as well; in it we are to remember the generosity of our Divine Benefactor, and in it we are also to receive a precious treasure.
"You proclaim the Lord's death until He comes"
This passage is also one that is often tied together with the previous one by Protestants, to argue that the Eucharist is only a "sermon in symbols" of the sacrifice of Christ. But this concept of a Calvary sermon in symbols, while obviously true, need not exhaust the theme of sacrifice any more than "in remembrance of me" exhausts the meaning of His presence. One aspect of the Supper is indeed to announce the death of our Redeemer: the fact of that death, the benefits of that death for His elect, and the awful consequences of that death for the unrepentant. But that proclamation does not preclude additional action in the Eucharist, as we shall see.
Furthermore, the "proclamation" of the gospel with authority is no mere telling of a true story. There is a profound difference between the word of God and the word of human beings. The proclaimed gospel is not man's word, but God's own creative word, which by itself does the saving work within the one who believes it: when you listen to the word of God with a repentant heart, that word actually creates saving faith and eternal life within you by the power of God within it (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The proclamation of the gospel, if received, actually enables the hearer to take part in the redemptive effects of the death and the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 10:17). Therefore, in Paul's teaching of the proclamation of the Lord's death in the Eucharist, he is saying that when that proclamation is received, through the eating and drinking of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:26), one is partaking in the fruit of that atoning death again and again. Keeping in mind what we have said above about Christ's perpetual intercession for us, we can say that through our communion with the body and blood of Christ we are united not only to the effects of His past plea (i.e., Calvary), but to the effects of His present one as well: the two form a unity.
THE REAL PRESENCE OF CHRIST
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing [Greek: "koinonia"] in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread [lit., "loaf"], we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No; but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of the demons [1 Corinthians 10:16-21).
"the cup of blessing ... is it not a sharing,"
"the bread ... is it not a sharing"
I remember the first time that I saw the significance of this statement. I had always understood it to mean, "Is not our drinking of the wine a participation in the blood of Christ." Thus, it seemed to be saying that there was some kind of participation in the glorified body and blood of Christ during the eating of the communion (a thing with which Paul would certainly agree). But when we look closer, we see that Paul was saying something quite specific about the nature of that "koinonia" or participation between the elements and the humanity of Christ. Reread the above text and you will see that his words speak about the bread and wine themselves, not only about the eating and drinking of them. It is the cup itself (i.e., the wine of the cup, of course) that is described as sharing in the blood of Jesus; it is the bread itself, not the eating of it, that "participates" (RSV) in the body of Christ. There are various ways in which "koinonia" can be translated, but all of them must create the idea of being yoked to each other or becoming united. Therefore, Paul is teaching us that the bread "participates" in the (risen and glorified) body of Christ, the bread has "communion" (i.e., "union with") with the body of Christ, the bread is "yoked to" the body (so that where one is, so is the other).
I hope you understand the significance of this, fellow pilgrim. Among other things, it means that Luther's eucharistic teaching was more Biblical than Calvin's. Calvin, as I understand him, taught that at the same time as you ate the bread in this visible realm you were somehow lifted up in a mysterious way to be able to have in your spirit a real communion with Christ: you go up, as it were, but He definitely does not "come down," and in no realistic way could the bread and wine be identified with the body and blood of Christ. Luther, however, by receiving the Scriptures in their natural sense, correctly saw that the very purpose of Communion is to make possible bodily communion with Christ here on earth. The One who in His great love gave sexual intercourse to a husband and wife as a symbol, channel and assurance of their one-flesh union, also gave us the Eucharist to sacramentalize our union with Him.
Jesus said, "where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (Matthew 18:20): in other words, He said that He does "come down" to be with His elect. The Eucharist is, therefore, one channel for encountering such a "coming down" of Jesus, even though His presence is only "seen" by those who have the faith that pierces through the veil (Hebrews 6:19) and can see the invisible things of God.
Receiving this Scripture in its natural and straightforward sense, we learn something very wonderful indeed: When we assemble Jesus comes among us, to preside and minister. Then, when we give thanks to God over the bread and wine, He causes those elements of food to become vehicles of His presence, so that He may communicate to us both Himself and the effects of His priestly intercession. We don't have to have more precision than that.
"Since there is one bread [lit., 'loaf'], we who are many
are one body; for we all partake of the one bread"
Here is another passage whose straightforward meaning says something far too strong for many traditions. The Greek word translated here as "since" (Greek: "hoti") means "because." Either word, however, communicates the same meaning of causation; that is, "it is because there is one loaf that we are one body." Most people seem to read this as if it meant, "we use one loaf because it symbolizes our unity in Christ;" but that meaning is exactly opposite the clear meaning of the text (even though I suspect that Paul would also agree with that concept). What the words clearly say is that the unity of the loaf causes unity in the church, by virtue of our partaking together from that one loaf. Now, when we assemble all of Paul's statements about unity, it is rather obvious to me that he is not teaching some form of magic in this passage: "unity is automatic if communion is from one loaf." That would completely undercut what he was about to say to them in the very next chapter, when he sternly rebukes these very people because of their disunity. Remember, all Biblical promises of blessing presume faith on the part of the recipient(s): to receive a promised curse from the Lord requires no faith, but to receive a promised blessing does. So the blessing of unity about which Paul speaks here is a blessing that is given to those who already trust Christ. Now, whatever else Paul may be saying here, he is certainly saying at least this: God has created the Lord's Supper -- with its "horizontal" communion among the believers and its "vertical" communion with the risen and glorified Christ -- to be a source of unity for the community. This means that if a community of Christian disciples walks in faith and eats the Lord's Supper with right discernment it will experience a pull toward unity more powerfully than if it were to walk in faith and not eat the Eucharist. God has located a blessing in the Supper, so that if properly celebrated and received it actually creates a movement toward unity among the members of the community: hallelujah! The sacraments of God are simply an incarnation of the word of God, the same word of God which itself does its work in those who believe it (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
"Are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?"
We are here being introduced to a very important aspect of the Communion, an aspect that shows us how the Supper connects us to the sacrifice of Christ. In this passage Paul is referring to the sacrificial practice of the old covenant as providing a parallel both with the Christian fulfillment of that old covenant symbolism, and with pagan sacrifices. In each of the three (old covenant, pagan and new covenant) there is a sacrifice offered, a supernatural spirit who receives the sacrifice, and an eating of the sacrifice that binds together the human and supernatural beings. One participates in the sacrifice by eating it. In the case of the pagans, the fellowship (or participation, or yoking) is with demonic spirits. But in all cases there is real participation occurring in the eating.
This eating of the sacrifice so as to participate in its effects is referred to in Hebrews: "we have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat" (13:10). In others words, the writer is saying that we Christians have a sacrifice which may be eaten by us, but not by an unbeliever. Paul's use of this idea of eating a sacrifice, since it occurs in the context of discourse about the Lord's Supper, seems to indicate that he understood the eating of that Supper to be the new Covenant fulfillment and parallel to the eating of the sacrifice under the old covenant. Christ's sacrifice on Calvary is the fulfillment of the various sacrificial offerings of the old covenant, and the Christian Eucharist is the fulfillment of the eating of those sacrifices. Christ offered a single sacrifice, one that is never repeated again (nor does it "mystically" repeat itself, or reappear). Our participation in the benefits of that sacrifice is not only through our personal faith in His redemptive work, but also through the eating of that sacrifice. It is in the Eucharist that we eat that sacrificial Lamb, by our receiving of His now glorified nature. The atoning sacrifice was offered only once, but Jesus made provision for it to be eaten many, many times before He returns. The remembering and the receiving of the benefits of that wondrous sacrifice are accomplished not only through words and through the invisible attitude of faith in our hearts, but also through a participation by eating. Does this sound too carnal, too grossly physical? Then think on John 6...
"My flesh is true food"
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread out of heaven to eat..." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life... I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh." The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" Jesus therefore 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. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:31, 35, 51-56).
It can be accepted without dispute that in this passage the primary meaning of eating the flesh of Jesus has to do with entering into life-giving union with Him through personal faith and obedience. But Jesus was also saying more than that. He said, "My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink," and He had just finished saying that it was His "flesh" and "blood" that would be given for the life of the world. Given what He had said, therefore, He was virtually compelling them to understand that it was the very same realities that were about to be crucified that were to become real food and drink for man. It was because the meaning of "flesh" and "blood" was so clear, and it was because it was obvious that He did not want to be understood to be speaking in poetic metaphor, that for them this statement was difficult to even listen to (vs. 60), and caused some disciples to "stumble" (vs. 61), and even caused many to withdraw from Him altogether (vs. 66). As clear as the imagery was, and as scandalous as it proved to be, if Jesus thought they were simply misinterpreting it by taking it too literally, He surely did not do anything to clear up that "misinterpretation," did He? Not even with His disciples later in private did He take back any of its scandalous meaning. Saying to them then that His words were Spirit and life, and that the flesh profits nothing (vs. 63) was not the same as saying, "I was only using the eating of flesh and blood as a symbol of how intensely bonded I want you to feel with me." All that those words can properly be taken to mean is that the flesh is not able to understand the meaning of what He had said. Many or most Protestants have come to a quite unbiblical understanding of what "spiritual" means, so that to say something must be understood "spiritually" means to them that it is to be understood merely "metaphorically." However, if that were the meaning of "spiritual" we should have to apply the same reasoning to John 3, when Jesus says that we must be born again, of water and the Spirit. A (so-called) "spiritual" interpretation of that statement would mean that there is no real rebirth in what Jesus is talking about, but that one simply will feel as if he were starting life all over again. In both cases, however, to understand Christ's words "spiritually" means to understand that they are mysteries to creatures of flesh, describing a Spirit-caused reality that is beyond the grasp of our fleshly senses, but realities nevertheless. Regeneration is a real birth of a new and real nature: we do not say we are regenerate because we feel like new creatures; rather, we feel like new creatures because we are feeling the presence of that new and real nature. Similarly, understanding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in a "spiritual" sense does not mean that the imagery of body and blood is a mere symbol, but rather that Christ is talking about a Spirit-caused reality, a Reality that lies beyond mere poetry, on the one hand, and the crudities of cannibalism on the other.
The Eucharist is one fulfillment of this command of Christ to eat His flesh and blood (now glorified and spiritualized). That Eucharistic eating is not a carnal act, because the flesh and blood of His humanity are no longer carnal realities, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter. Jesus is teaching us in this passage from John that faith in Him does more than produce a relationship with a person, a person who remains outside of you; rather, true faith opens up all of your humanity (spirit, soul and body) to participation in Him and indwelling by Him. His spirit is for your spirit, His soul is for your soul, and His body is for your body.
When Jesus handed the bread and wine of the last supper to His disciples, telling them that this was His body and that was His blood, it would have been virtually impossible for them not to associate those words with this earlier incident recorded in John, an incident that had produced such a disturbing and divisive commotion and reaction by so many. In the words at the supper, therefore, they were being led to understand that they were now fulfilling that about which He had spoken earlier in John. So also are we, when we celebrate the Eucharist with understanding.
You see, pilgrim, the redemption, sanctification and glorification spoken of in the Scriptures involve not only our spirits and our minds. The reason Jesus uses such "fleshly" language is because our flesh also has a call upon it to participate in the flesh of Christ, to be touched -- even penetrated -- by His perfected, glorified and spiritualized flesh and blood. If the Spirit is somehow involved within our spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17), and within our mind (Ephesians 4:23), it is also true that the Spirit is within and throughout our very bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19). Although the body has the curse of death upon it because of sin, and although it may not become transformed into resurrection glory until it has been sown and raised (1 Corinthians 15:42), nevertheless the body also has a share in this total communion with Christ (even though it of course does not have priority in that communion). Therefore we are not to be shocked that God should tie the things of the spirit to actions of the flesh -- the movement of the body through water is a part of being made regenerate, intercommunion involves eating, salvation involves saying things out loud about Jesus, etc. Perhaps it is because the glorified Christ is the food of the whole man that Ignatius (c. 110 A.D.) called the Eucharist the "medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live forever in Jesus Christ." And for this same reason, Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) reported that orthodox Christianity was in the practice of "announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit;" just as the Eucharist consists of two realities -- an earthly and a heavenly -- "so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity." And Tertullian says, in a stirring passage:
...the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges... The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated;... the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on [its] God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service.
Is it not obvious to you, fellow pilgrim, that the anti-sacramentalism of much of Protestantism is rooted more in emotional reactions from the past than it is in the revelation of God?
"Eating and drinking judgment"
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge [or "discern"] the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
"Guilty of the body and the blood": Paul had, a chapter earlier, reminded them that the bread and wine participate in the "body" and "blood" of Christ; just before this passage, he had reminded them of the Lord's own words -- how He identified the bread and wine as His "body" and "blood;" and then, only one verse prior, he reminded them that in eating and drinking the Eucharist they "proclaimed" the death of the Lord. It is with this background that he now pronounces the solemn warning, "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord," and "he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly." The passage is full of legal imagery: examination, guilt and judgment. One can easily imagine oneself in a court of law; and Paul is saying that if a person is "unworthy" of coming to this festival of grace (i.e., factious, and careless toward the presence of the Lord) then he will fall under the judgment of law: God the judge will hold him guilty of the charge of profaning the body and blood of Jesus -- that holy body and blood that was crucified, risen, glorified and being graciously offered to him as a sign, channel and assurance of holy fellowship. Since Christ has established His presence within the bread and wine, their unworthy reception will be judged as a crime against Jesus (i.e., "the body and the blood"), not merely a crime against bread and wine. When they assembled, Jesus was present among them (Matthew 18:20), and after they had offered prayers of thanksgiving He had united His presence to the bread and wine (1 Corinthians 11:23, 10:16). And yet, instead of worshipping and rejoicing in the very presence of the king of the universe, they ignored His presence among them and within the elements (i.e., they did not judge, or discern, His body rightly), and continued arguing among themselves. It was not, therefore, bread and wine they had profaned, but the body and blood of the Son of God, and they will be judged according to the greater crime. Imagine that you stole a man's briefcase that was full of diamonds: the charge against you would not be over the briefcase, but over the more precious treasure within, wouldn't it? And if in the land of a powerful monarch you were to throw mud at the limousine in which he rode, you would not be treated as one who defiled his vehicle, but as one who defiled the king himself. If we let the words of the text have their natural meaning, this is certainly what Paul is saying here. Therefore, he goes on to say, a disciple must act as his own cross-examiner before coming to communion, so that he will not have to come under God's cross-examination and sentencing: "test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!" (2 Corinthians 13:5). In all of this, the localized presence of the glorified Christ is the presumption of the discussion, whether Paul is talking of blessing, of warning or of judgment.
In working to establish the apostolic doctrine of the Eucharist, one ought to note here that Paul continues to use the terms "bread" and "wine" to refer to that which is consumed. This indicates that "bread" and "wine" are not mutually exclusive with "body" and "blood." When Christ establishes His presence within bread and wine, he does not cause them to cease being bread and wine. Thus, any doctrines like transubstantiation -- which state that the presence of Christ takes the place of the substance of the bread and wine -- are illicitly going beyond apostolic teaching. The apostolic and ancient Christian approach would be to liken the eucharistic presence of Christ to His presence within a human body. During His days on earth He might, like we might, point to His flesh and say “this is my body.” Notice that His human body did not cease being a fully human body of flesh and blood because He had united Himself to it. It did not have to get “transubstantiated” into something other than what it was in order to be His body and blood, did it? Similarly, in the Eucharist He “incarnates” himself once again (as it were), but this time He yokes himself to ordinary bread and wine, making it His body and blood – a vehicle composed of matter through which He accomplishes His purposes on earth, just as He has used ordinary human flesh and blood when He walked among us.
SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE
The texts we have examined, having taken them in their grammatically natural and straight-forward sense, demonstrate that the Catholic-type traditions -- both their dogma and their piety -- are actually closer to the Biblical truth than most Protestant traditions. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions tend to make the reality of Christ's presence negate the presence of the bread and wine; the Protestant traditions, however, tend to negate the very presence of Christ. If I had to be in error I should, in this matter, choose the Catholic one.
Let us trace the chain of events that occur in the Communion, in order to provide as much clarity as possible:
The channel of communication is the Holy Spirit, through whose indwelling Jesus is always present, even though remaining bodily in heaven (e.g., John 16:14-15; 1 John 3:24, 4:13). What enables you to receive all that is offered is faith in His word, a faith that enables you to claim the effects of that Communion in the same way that all promises of God are claimed and received. Poor Eucharistic teaching kills the faith needed to appropriate this gift, just as not knowing what God is offering can kill faith for supernatural guidance or for healing.
Needless to say, the Lord's Supper ought to be treasured as the high point of the Church's worship, and should be celebrated on the Lord's Day (Acts 20:7) and probably oftener (Acts 2:46).
A COMMUNION WITH THE WHOLE CHRIST
The most commonly emphasized aspect of the Eucharist is the personal communion between the believer and the Lord Jesus, as indeed it should be. That is the first and great aspect, but there is a second one that is like unto it (to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer), and almost as important: that is the congregational aspect. A very important reason why the Church is called the body of Christ is because she partakes in all that His own glorified body does. The Church in union with Christ is the whole Christ -- Head and members (1 Corinthians 12:12). Communion with the personal body of Christ must also, therefore, include communion with the communal body of Christ, the Church. And as we have also seen, communion with the Church is effected through communion with a local church. The Eucharist is a fellowship meal for the local community, and for all to participate in it together is a most solemn affirmation of their covenanted union with each other (Luke 22:20). We have already described the radical nature of that union, that service, that submission, that discipline, that common life. To participate in the Eucharist with your community means that you are within the "koinonia" of that body: you share its faith, its common life, its discipline, and are in submission to it and its authority. People are not to walk in off the street with the announcement that they believe in Jesus, and then be admitted to communion forthwith. Communion outside of one's congregation is to be much more of an exception than a rule, such as would be the case of one traveling or studying in another city. If one is an orthodox but "unincorporated" Christian (i.e., one not within such bonds), then he must enter into the fellowship of our body, or of another body with whom we have communion, before he can be admitted to the Communion. I realize that this policy may seem too strict to some, but it is fully consistent with the practice of the early Church (and much of Protestantism until modern times), fully consistent with the Scriptural meaning of the term "fellowship," and quite necessary in order to "be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock" (Acts 20:28). The New Testament letters were written to "incorporated" believers, Christians who were in the fellowship and obedience of a specific apostolic body. We must insist upon the maintenance of that as a norm, with exceptions few and far between.
TESTIMONY FROM THE EARLY CHURCH
As we are about to see, the testimony from the early Christians for two hundred years after the apostolic period (and in subsequent generations as well) agrees with the strong Eucharistic teaching that arises when the New Testament texts are taken in their grammatically natural and literal sense. The following are representative texts, not simply a selection of those that happen to agree with a certain viewpoint.
Ignatius of Antioch (Syria)
Ignatius went to a martyr's death in 112 A.D., as an old man. The following was written in the year he died:
I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who afterwards became the seed of David and Abraham: and I desire the drink, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life ("To the Romans," chap. 7).
They [i.e., heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes ("To the Smyrnaeans," chap. 7).
Justin Martyr (110-165 A.D.)
Although born in Samaria, and spending time in Ephesus, he apparently spent most of his adult life in Rome. The following was written about 150 A.D.:
And this food is called among us "Eucharistia" [i.e., "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 living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh ("First Apology," chap. LXVI).
Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.)
Born and raised in Asia Minor, he became a missionary to Gaul (modern France), where he stayed until his martyr's death. This was written about 180 A.D.:
How can they [i.e., heretics] be consistent with themselves, when they say that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood... But our opinion is in accord with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies when they receive the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, having the hope of resurrection to eternity" ("Against Heresies," IV.xviii.4-5).
He has acknowledged the cup, which is a part of the creation, as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread, also a part of the creation, He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receive the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which flesh is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him... that flesh which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body... [Wine and bread], having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ" ("Against Heresies," V.ii.2-3).
Tertullian (160-220 A.D.)
A native of North Africa, this converted lawyer also spent some time in Rome, before returning to his homeland. He speaks of the "body of the Lord" having "been received and reserved" (i.e., reserved for future communions by those who could not come to the assembly). At another place, he says that "The flesh feeds on the Body and Blood of Christ."
Hippolytus (160-220 A.D.)
This tradition-minded bishop in Rome spent most of his stormy career there, and in his Apostolic Constitutions he described the liturgical and disciplinary practices of the Roman church. The following was written about 215 A.D.
And then let the oblation at once be brought by the deacons to the bishop, and he shall Eucharistize first the bread into the representation (which the Greek calls the antitype) of the Flesh of Christ; and the cup mixed with wine for the likeness of the Blood which was shed for all who have believed in Him... (xxiii.1).
And let all take care that no unbaptised person taste of the Eucharist nor a mouse or other animal, and that none of it at all fall and be lost. For it is the Body of Christ to be eaten by them that believe and not to be thought lightly of. For having blessed the cup in the Name of God thou didst receive it as the likeness of the Blood of Christ. Wherefore spill not from it, that no alien spirit lick it up, because thou didst despise and become guilty of the Blood of Christ..." (xxxii.2-4).
These representative portions demonstrate that the early Church took the Eucharistic words of Scripture quite literally, as they no doubt had been taught to do so by the apostles. While not offering precise definitions of the Eucharist, they clearly understood the bread and wine to have received the impartation of a heavenly reality to it, causing it to become something far more than common bread and wine. And just as Jesus is called God by virtue of the Divinity which indwelt that humanity, so also is the Eucharist simply called the "Body and Blood of Christ" by them, by virtue of Christ's presence in the elements being the higher reality.
There is no hint of transformation of the bread and wine into something else (i.e., transubstantiation), but neither is there any hint of a purely symbolical relationship between Christ and the elements. They were aware that the body and blood of Christ given in communion were for the body and blood of man, not only for his invisible reality (i.e., soul and spirit). This was the teaching of the early church; it was the teaching of the apostles.
This way of reasoning is an important example of the kind of tactic that Satan has most cunningly and successfully used to keep Christians from restoring the fullness of the Scriptures and from reconciling their differences. He whispers into our minds, "Either... or..." when our Father wants us to be thinking "Both... and..." And so we get duped into thinking only in terms of "either God or man," "faith or sacraments," "church authority or individual liberty," and so on, to the impoverishment of our faith. <back>
See Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1958), p. 132. <back>
I.e., the burnt, grain, peace, sin and trespass offerings; see Leviticus 1-7. <back>
I.e., "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit," meaning that our spirit has come alive within us. <back>
Again, we must affirm that the primary fulfillment of this eating imagery is that which occurs when we are first joined to Him through the surrender of faith and baptism. <back>
Ignatius of Antioch, "To the Ephesians," xx.2. The Apostolic Fathers, p. 68. <back>
Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," IV.xviii.5. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. <back>
"On The Resurrection of the Flesh," Chap. VIII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 551. <back>
Among Protestants it is not uncommon to interpret the phrase "discern the body rightly" as if the "body" mentioned were the body of the brotherhood; thus, in that interpretation, the sin being described is the sin against the spirit of true fellowship, not a sin against the presence of Jesus. But given the fact of all these explicit references to the "body" as being Jesus' personal body, is it not obvious that such an interpretation is one being forced upon the text and not the one that naturally flows from it? <back>
We are indebted to Martin Luther for restoring the apostolic doctrine of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus. In the words of his Small Catechism, "In, with and under the bread, Christ gives us His true body; in, with and under the wine He gives us His true blood" (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Co., 1943; p. 195). This way of defining the Lord's presence has come to have the name "consubstantiation." Giving the Eucharist the name of its highest, heavenly reality, we are to call it the Body and Blood of Christ. <back>
Understand that going to the Communion is an implied public confession by you to the community that "my goods belong to your needs," by the community to you that "our resources are committed to your needs," and by all to each other that "we are a single family among whom there will be equality." With that understanding, it becomes obvious that being admitted to Communion is not your right just because you meet your definition of a Christian, any more than an unmarried couple can justify their sleeping together by feeling that their love for each other makes it permissible. The fact that so many Christians today regard it that way is a sign of how "atomized" Christianity has become. <back>
The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 89. The first passage does not explicitly declare a connection between the Eucharist and the Presence of Christ, but it does exemplify how Christians continued to use the language of John 6 with no sense of embarrassment or impropriety: the body and blood of Jesus are for our eating and drinking (see also the passages from Tertullian which follow). Note also how, in the second passage, Ignatius explicitly declares that the Eucharist is the very same flesh and blood that suffered and was glorified. <back>
Ibid., p. 185. This is an impressive statement, made even more so by the fact that Justin had traveled so extensively among the churches, and by the fact that he is explicitly presenting it as the Church's faith and practice (i.e., it cannot be said that he was merely expressing his own opinion). Note how Justin also indicates, in the last sentence, that the Eucharist is understood by Christians as virtually another act of Incarnation by Christ. <back>
Ibid., p. 486. Irenaeus implies that both the heretical and the orthodox believers agreed that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Note also here how this representative of primitive Christianity continued using the language of "bread and wine" in parallel with the language of "body and blood," just as we saw Paul doing in 1 Corinthians 11. <back>
Ibid., p. 528. <back>
"On Prayer," Chap. 14, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 687. <back>
"On The Resurrection of the Flesh," Chap. VIII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 551. <back>
Gregory Dix, ed. The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus (London: S.P.C.K., 1968), p. 40. <back>
Ibid., p. 59. <back>
"A ...caution is necessary in handling the use of such terms as 'symbol,' 'antitype', 'figure', applied to the relation of the sacrament to the Body and Blood of Christ. As Harnack long ago observed, 'What we nowadays understand by "symbol" is a thing which is not that which it represents; at that time "symbol" denoted a thing which in some kind of way really is what it signifies.' The 'symbol' manifests the secret reality." (Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1945), 2nd. ed.; p. 256). It is because of this meaning of "antitype" or "likeness" that Hippolytus can say that the Eucharist both "is" the body of Christ and "is the antitype" of the body. <back>