A good question: This is my body. Really?
One question, four answers
‘The Supper is special, not miraculous’
In Holy Communion, we should neither give too much, nor too little, importance to the bread and wine (or grape juice!). We give too much when we say that the bread and wine are something other than bread and wine. We give too little when we fail to acknowledge that bread and wine represent something which sustains us. They represent the food which sustains us physically, while also pointing us to something beyond physical sustenance. I do not believe that the bread and wine are miraculously transformed, physically, into Jesus’ body and blood. But that does not mean that the Lord’s Supper is not a special meal.
The Supper is special because it was inaugurated by Jesus and he told his followers to share in a similar meal. Regardless of how the act itself might have changed after his day, we share bread and wine, primarily because Jesus told us to do so. It is in that sense an ‘ordinance’, something we do in response to Jesus’ command…
Robert Pope is Vice Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge
‘They took Jesus at his word’
At first sight, Jesus’ words to his disciples over their last meal together before his death were neither obvious nor helpful. ‘No, Jesus,’ we might think. ‘That is not your body, just a piece of bread.’
But it would not, for the disciples, have been as startling as it is for us. Jews, like Christians until recent centuries, lived in a richly symbolic universe. They were used to things ‘standing in’ for other things; they lived in a world in which mundane or ordinary objects or events were taken to manifest, participate in, or reveal, higher and greater realities. This deep sense of symbolism is intrinsic to the concept of sacrifice. At the centre of their Passover meal was the lamb of sacrifice, which really became the gift that ‘redeemed’ them, that delivered them from slavery. The next day Jesus would really become that lamb of sacrifice; the night before, he prepares his disciples to recognise and understand what he is going to do – he himself will become their Passover, their deliverance. He identifies himself wholly with the Passover bread, bread which is broken in sacrifice, and which feeds the bodies of the delivered people as they set out to the Promised Land.
But what does ‘symbol’ mean here? Debates about the meaning of those words have fuelled some of the deepest divisions in Christian history, but it’s important not to miss the fact that until the Reformation, it never occurred to Christians to think that the bread of the Eucharist was ‘just’ a symbol. They took Jesus at his word. He did not say: ‘This is like my body,’ but ‘This is my body.’…
Carmody Grey is Assistant Professor of Catholic Theology at Durham University
‘Jesus is the self-offering God’
Jesus said: ‘I am the bread of life.’ John uses symbol and sign to develop his theology, so what is he saying to us here? Clearly the word ‘bread’ is not merely referring to an item of food. John is talking about spiritual food to sustain our earthly life and to prepare us for another life with Jesus in heaven in the resurrection of the dead. The bread of life is a relationship with God where our hunger is satisfied. But how do we get to receive this gift of real life? This is where faith comes into its own because we believe in God who presents Jesus as the self-offering of himself.
‘Eucharist’ means a thanksgiving. What are we giving thanks for? We are giving thanks for the life Jesus chooses to share with us as we become his body here on earth. Why is Jesus so important? If Jesus was just a nice man who went around doing a few miracles 2,000 years ago, you might wonder what the big deal is to be incorporated into the mystical body of this man. However, if this first-century human being is also God and the creative power behind the universe, it makes every bit of sense in the world…
David Isiorho is parish priest for Charlestown, Par and Tywardreath, Cornwall. His book Mission, Anguish and Defiance was published by Wipf and Stock in September 2019
‘It is a covenant-making event’
My Baptist perspective on the Lord’s Supper does indeed deny the literality of the phrase ‘This is my body’ and the transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine. However, the Lord’s Supper is more than a memorial of a past event narrated in the New Testament. For, through these symbols of bread and wine, the risen Christ continues to be encountered. As the theologian Paul Fiddes puts it: ‘Christ uses the Eucharist to presence himself.’ The Eucharist is therefore a dynamic event which enables Christ to be present with his people. A typical Baptist understanding of Eucharist emphasises God’s grace in revealing himself through this sacrament and an understanding of it as a covenant-making event. We emphasise this latter feature by using the explicit covenant language of 1 Corinthians 11 in our eucharistic liturgy.
The lockdown, in which the community of believers can no longer gather together, has generated some interesting discussion about how to continue our practice of sharing the Lord’s Supper. There is some diversity of Baptist opinion here (as diversity also characterises Baptist debates about the Lord’s Supper across the centuries!) This diversity is in part due to the high level of autonomy given to local church congregations. My own church continues sharing the Lord’s Supper together online, each of us supplying our own bread and wine (although actually, Baptist churches usually provide a non-alcoholic alternative to wine)…
Christine Joynes is Tutorial Fellow in Theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford
This is an extract from an article that was published in the June 2020 edition of Reform