Lectionary Texts: First Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:47-58
Very high on the list of FAQ’s in the Church is this: what happens up here and why? What should I believe about it? Why is it of such paramount importance? Why should I not be casual about it, even about skipping it altogether? Why do some people, especially Roman Catholics, believe that they must never miss it? What did Jesus mean when He transformed the Passover meal into the Last Supper and commanded us to do it as a perpetual memory of Him? And what did Jesus mean when He delivered the Bread of Life discourse in John 6? It sounds so disarmingly literal!
This week and next, we are going to wrestle with these incredibly important matters that are absolutely central to our faith and worship, matters than which there is very little of greater importance for us to understand and practice as followers of Jesus Christ, matters of such great significance that they are viewed by many as essential to our salvation and by most as indispensable for our growth in sanctification, and matters that, to our detriment, have divided the Church over the centuries. On this mysterious teaching there have been at least six principal positions. To review them briefly:
- Transubstantiation: the view that the bread ceases to be bread and the wine ceases to be wine other than in their appearances, their “accidents;” both are changed in “substance” to become the very physical Body and Blood of Christ, while the bread and wine are annihilated. This is the present view of the Roman Church, first debated in the 11th century but not fully articulated until the 13th century.
- Consubstantiation: This is said to have been the position of Luther, though herejected the terminology to his deathbed. Those who hold this enigmatic doctrine teach that the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine; but that during the Eucharist, the true, natural substance of the Body and Blood of Christ coexists alongside the substance of the bread and wine. The believer receives both the bread and Christ’s Body, both the wine and His Blood, together yet separate
- Sacramental union: This is Luther’s actual position. He taught that in the Lord’s Supper the bread and the wine are present in a natural manner while Christ’s true Body and Blood are present in a supernatural manner, not confined to a particular space. Luther believed in what he called the ubiquity of Christ’s Body: that it could be everywhere at once, both in heaven and on earth. In the sacramental union the consecrated bread is united with the ubiquitous body of Christ and the consecrated wine is united with the blood of Christ (“in, with and under”) by virtue of Christ's words of institution (“This is My Body, this is My Blood”), and not by the recipient’s faith. The result is that anyone eating and drinking these "elements," the consecrated bread and wine, truly eats and drinks the physical body and blood of Jesus as well. Lutherans believe to be Biblical the doctrine of the manducatio indignorum ("eating of the unworthy"), i.e., that even the unworthy eat and drink the very Body and Blood of Christ, but they partake to their condemnation. The Body and Blood of Christ are materially present, not only spiritually present, and are received orally by all.
- The denial of any special presence. This view, wrongly attributed to Zwingli though held by many of his followers, holds that the Eucharist is a bare commemoration of the death of Christ, and that the bread and wine are mere symbols or tokens to remind us of his Body and Blood. This is the view of many evangelical churches. A variant of this is known as the “receptionist” view, that is, that nothing at all happens unless and until the recipient believes that the Body and Blood of Christ are being spiritually received. This variant is actually somewhat closer to Calvin’s view, though not the same
- Sacred Mystery: This is the official view of the Eastern Orthodox Church. While it teaches that the bread and wine do become the Body and Blood of Jesus during the consecration by a priest, they do not define how this sacramental mystery happens. The sacrament is withheld from all non-Orthodox Christians, as historically has been the case in the Roman Catholic Church with non-Catholic Christians. But no Orthodox person may partake of the Eucharist without preparation through confession, absolution and fasting.
- The real spiritual presence: This seems to have been the doctrine of nearly the entire Church until the 11th century. As it’s the teaching of the Anglican Church and of Calvin and many others of the Reformers, it has 1500 years in its favor. The bread and wine are received naturally as bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ are received spiritually. Christ’s glorified Body remains corporally in heaven, but by the Holy Spirit it is made present and mediated to us in the Sacrament.
Because this is the view of our Church, we need to look into it more deeply and discover its roots in Scripture and in the teaching of the Church. According to Jeremy Taylor, a prominent 17th century Caroline divine,
“The result of the doctrine is this: it is bread, and it is Christ’s Body. It is bread in substance, but Christ in the Sacrament; and Christ is as really given to all that are truly disposed (AH: by faith), as the symbols are: each as they can be; Christ, as Christ can be given; the bread and the wine, as they can be given, each to the same real purposes to which they were designed; and Christ does as truly nourish and sanctify the soul as the elements do nourish the body.” (Jer. Taylor, On the Real Presence, sect. I. 4, slightly “updated” language by AH).
In this view, the very life and power of Christ are received by faith, while the unbeliever partakes to his condemnation. So when we say, “The gifts of God for the people of God; take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on Him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” we are remembering Him as He commanded us to do, as Zwingli taught; but also spiritually we are partaking of His very Body and Blood as mediated to us by faith through the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit, as Calvin taught. Yet we are not physically, carnally chewing on Him as in the Roman view (and also, perhaps, in Luther’s own admittedly ambiguous view). As John Jewell, the first and greatest apologist for reformed Anglican faith, wrote in 1562, “We do not touch the Body of Christ with teeth and mouth, yet we hold Him fast, and eat Him by faith, by understanding, and by the Spirit.”
Thomas Cranmer, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to whom we are chiefly indebted for many of our Anglican formularies, maintained a doctrine nearly identical to that of Calvin [and before him Bertram, aka Ratramnus (died c. 868)]. Cranmer wrote:
“I say, as all the holy fathers and martyrs used to say, that we receive Christ spiritually, by faith with our minds eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood: so that we receive Christ’s own very natural Body, but not naturally nor corporally.” “It is my constant faith and belief that we receive Christ in the Sacrament, verily and truly. My doctrine is that He is by faith spiritually present with us, and is our spiritual food and nourishment, and sits in the midst of all those who are gathered together in His Name; and this feeding is a spiritual feeding and a heavenly feeding, far surpassing all corporal and carnal feeding, in deed and not in figure only.” “I say that the same visible and palpable Flesh that was for us crucified, &c. &c. (AH: born of the Virgin, suffered, crucified, dead, buried, raised, glorified, ascended), is eaten of Christian people at His Holy supper. The diversity is not in the Body, but in the eating thereof; no man eating it carnally, but the good eating it both sacramentally and spiritually, and the evil only sacramentally, that is, figuratively” (Remains, III. pp. 5, 288, 289, 340. See also II. p. 441, IV. p. 16).
What can we make of all this? First and foremost it must be emphasized and accepted that the Eucharist is the central act in almost all Christian worship from the earliest days of the Church as described in the book of Acts to the present. Why? Because we do it in obedience to the command of Jesus Himself to do this in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19, I Corinthians 11:24, 25). Sadly, Satan has made significant inroads in the Church to create numerous divisions, first by separating the Western or Roman Church from the Eastern or Orthodox Church in the 11th century, then by separating the Reformed Church from the Roman Church in the 16th century, then by dividing Protestants into a variety of staunchly defended positions. The only area of verbal agreement is with the term, “Real Presence,” which is generally agreeable to Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox, solely by virtue of its breadth and uncertainty of meaning.
What do we believe and teach to be true to the Word of God and the faith we have received through the Church, as expressed in the catechism of the ACNA (To Be a Christian)? I believe that all we need to affirm is found in the words of the Post Communion Prayer as it is given, not in our liturgy from the Church of England, but in the new ACNA Texts for Common Prayer. Some of you know this prayer well enough to say it with me by memory. For the rest of you, I have included it on the bottom of your page of lectionary readings for today:
Heavenly Father, we thank You for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of Your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and for assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of Your Son, and heirs of Your eternal Kingdom. And now Father, send us out to do the work You have given us to do, to love and serve You as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. To Him, to You, and to the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Look with me at the key phrases in this wonderful prayer. It says everything that we need to believe about the Sacrament. The Eucharist provides the “spiritual food,” not just the physical food, that nourishes and sustains us, the daily food for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. It also represents our communion with the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, of Whom we are “living members” and heirs of God’s eternal Kingdom. And we are assured of these truths through what we term the “holy mysteries.” These always will retain an element of mystery that demands and defines our faith.
What does it mean that the Eucharist is shrouded in “holy mysteries?” The American Heritage Dictionary defines “mystical” as something “having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.” This is the sense in which we use the word, not in some vague New Agey way that suggests non-reality or something that cannot be verified by any of our senses, including the spiritual, but in the Biblical and particularly Pauline sense of something that once was hidden but now is being revealed.
Our best example for today is indeed from John 6, where Jesus Himself refers to the manna given in the wilderness as an incomplete and temporal foreshadowing of His own Body given for our eternal sustenance, the very Bread of Life. The word “Manna” is thought to mean “What is it?” Moses responded, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat” (Exodus 16:15). Note two things: that this bread is mysterious, and that it comes from God. And so, when Jesus tells His listeners in Capernaum that He Himself is the Bread of life also sent down from Heaven by the Father, He makes the connection and also presents to them a mystery that remains mysterious to this day.
Now we should be able to see more clearly than ever why it is that we call our faith both incarnational and sacramental. The Word that was made human flesh in Bethlehem is now made flesh once again in the Holy Eucharist and in us as members of His Body. In that sense we must agree completely with Luther about the ubiquity of the Body of Christ. Yet we also can agree with Calvin and others that His glorified Body resides physically, or corporally, in heaven, but spiritually in us and, in a greatly heightened sense, in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist where He is truly present, both spiritually and sacramentally, to all who believe, by the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit.
Thus the incarnational and sacramental mystery of the Eucharist also extends to the mystery of the Church as Christ’s Body corporately, which is precisely why gathering together constitutes the Church while no single individual is the Church. Alone we are incomplete. This is precisely why Jesus Himself said “I am the Vine and you are the branches” (John 15). And, even more compellingly, He said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Of course by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit He is ever present with each of us. But in the clear sense that the Church as the mystical Body of Christ is made up of complementary members without all of whom it cannot exist (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), much less function as intended by God, so Jesus is more truly present with 2 or 3 corporately than He ever could be with only one.
When we share in His Body and Blood, as He promised to us in His own words, we are experiencing in the present all that it means to be partaking in, participating in, fellowshipping with Him in all His fullness, as a foretaste and guarantee of all that awaits us in our eternal life. This is what Paul was describing in I Corinthians 10:16: “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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (ESV). All these English words, “partaking, participation and fellowship,” as well as “sharing” (NASB) and “communion” (KJV) are used to translate a single Greek word, “koinonia,” and this rich cluster of meanings was absolutely foundational to the Eucharistic theology of Calvin and all the Reformers who came under the influence of his teaching, directly or indirectly.
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. 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. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the Bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this Bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58).
When the Host and the Chalice are raised up and some people say the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” it does not mean that we have accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation that most Protestants find repugnant. It does not mean that any priest has performed a magic act. What “happens” at the altar is what God Himself does and He alone. The priest simply says the words and performs the actions.
But it absolutely does mean that in these moments when the consecrated Host and Chalice are elevated, we are acknowledging that here we are drawn the closest to our Savior Jesus Christ that we ever can be. It does not mean that the bread and wine have ceased to be bread and wine; but it does mean that they have been blessed, consecrated and set apart for a holy purpose. It’s not that they have been changed; it’s rather that we are to be changed by our participation in Christ’s Body and Blood.
John Jewel wrote that it “was not Christ’s meaning that the wheat bread should lay apart its own nature, and receive a certain new divinity, but that He might rather change us” (Apology, Part II, 21). As Richard Hooker wrote, “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” And, with Jewell, he wrote that by Christ’s “divine power” and by the grace and supernatural efficacy of His Body and Blood added to the natural elements of bread and wine, there follows “a kind of transubstantiation in us, a true change both of soul and body, an alteration from death to life” (Laws, V.67.11). My prayer, every week, is that you and I all will be changed each time we come to this altar to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, and that as changed persons we will leave this place to love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 These two words (Latin virtus and efficacia) are found in many ancient discussions of the Eucharist, and they are frequently used by Calvin, Hooker and other Reformers. N.B. Virtus is used to translate Gr. dunamis and means “power,” not “virtue.”