(This is the second post in a series on the ordinances of the church. Here’s the link to the previous article.)
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For centuries, theologians have argued about the meaning of Christ’s statement, “This is my body.” In what way and to what extent is Jesus present in the Lord’s Supper?
The Catholic Church advocates “transubstantiation” which is the belief that the substances of the bread and wine are transformed to the actual body and blood of Christ even though their appearance doesn’t change.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that “The Catholic Church professes that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the priest. Jesus said: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. . . . For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ (Jn 6:51-55). The whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine—the glorified Christ who rose from the dead after dying for our sins. This is what the Church means when she speaks of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharist.”
Lutherans take a more moderate position that is sometimes called “consubstantiation.” This means that the literal body and blood of Jesus are present “with, in, and under” the bread and wine. In other words, the invisible Jesus is present in the visible elements.
Many Protestants adopt a “memorial” or “symbolic” view of the Lord’s Supper. They emphasize not the bread and the cup, but the words of Christ, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” They also understand the elements as analogies. Here’s an example in another of Jesus’ teaching:
“Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’” – John 10:7
Jesus is using the image of a gate to convey the protection and security He offers His followers. The picture is meant to be taken seriously but not literally. Likewise, many Protestant Christians believe that the elements represent or symbolize the person and work of Christ.
Finally, some churches, like the Salvation Army or the Society of Friends (Quakers), don’t recognize the presence of Christ in the elements. Instead, they reject the need for rituals like Communion because the new covenant of Jesus is a spiritual one, transcending the physical realm.
So the debate continues: is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper? I’ve come to believe, however, that the question misses the mark. We have little reason to distrust Jesus. He promised to be with His disciples, and we can take Him at His word!
“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20b
“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” – Hebrews 13:5b
The question is not, is Christ present, but am I present? Do I give God my attention at the Lord’s Supper? He’s not the issue; I am!
“So then, 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. 28Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.” – 1 Corinthians 11:27-31
It sounds like Paul is challenging believers to check the condition of their hearts when they partake of Communion. To do anything less dishonors God and disrupts the ceremony.
“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” – Psalm 66:18 (NKJV)
But this insight overlooks the point Paul is trying to make in 1 Corinthians 11. As the following passages indicate, the apostle was urging the church to care for others. Don’t judge your brothers and sisters in Christ; treat them well.
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” – 1 Corinthians 11:20-22
“Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.” – 1 Corinthians 11:32-34
If the selfishness that characterizes this fallen world infiltrates the church, it will devastate our spiritual vitality and gospel witness.
The question of the real presence is not about Jesus and it’s not about us as individuals. It’s about those around us. If we bless our fellow Christians, the Lord will honor our participation in the Eucharist. If we harm our brothers and sisters, we will damage our credibility and dampen our relationship with Jesus.
So the next time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, contemplate the presence of Jesus, and give Him your whole heart. But remember to love those around you!