Chapter Five

Holy Communion as a Means of Grace

Grace upon Grace:
Sacramental Theology in the Christian Life.
By: Gregory S. Neal
Available from Koinonia Press
or online at

The focused efforts of study, research, and intense spiritual inquiry, which went into my graduate theological education at Duke University Divinity were exhilarating for me. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I was pushed and pulled, prodded and expanded, far beyond the limits of what even my wildest imagination could have possibly conceived. Those were years of deep personal growth, and on the whole they were both wonderful and trying. Staying up late into the night — and, frequently, all night long — reading and writing, researching and studying, memorizing paradigms and conjugating verbs, arguing and debating, thinking and articulating concepts, all taxed me to the very limit of my endurance.

The amazing depth and diversity of advanced intellectual disciplines which the clergy are required to master en route to their ordinations sometimes goes unnoticed among those who have not had the experience of jumping through the hoops of a Board of Ordained Ministry. To put it simply, it’s not an easy row to hoe. I know that some ministers miraculously managed to breeze through their seminary or graduate school years with little, if any, intellectual pressure or emotional growth. They did what was required, but very little more. They produced adequate work, passed all the exams and wrote all the papers, but only infrequently generated outstanding or original work.

Now, granted, not everyone is, or even should be, an intellectual all-star; there is substantially more to the ministry than being able to expound upon the intricacies of Philosophic Theology, Systematic Theology, or the conjugation Greek verbs. Some of the best clergy I know, some of the most effective ministers, are among those for whom Seminary and academic studies were of little importance or interest. However, striking a balance between mind and spirit is the objective of the graduate seminary, and sometimes even the most careful student can lose that balance. I speak from personal experience, having myself frequently gone off the deep end of academic pursuits. Others, like me, excelled in academia, but rarely allowed the experience of theological education and spiritual formation to affect them in an internal, emotional, personal way.

I can remember watching as a good friend and fellow student — a brilliant scholar — waltzed his way through a heart-wrenching program of Clinical Pastoral Education, oblivious to all the pain and anguish because, as he put it, "I don’t need to learn anything new about myself. I just want to teach. All these feelings will just get in the way." This attitude saddened me because I knew this fellow would miss out on so much that would help him to understand and aid his future students. And, it frightened me because I knew that I was quite a bit like him. Had a special mentor, professor, and friend not guided me with much wise advice and counsel, I might have had the same attitude and experience. As it was, the studies and the emotional growth were difficult, painful, and frequently draining of physical and spiritual strength; I lost months and months of sleep on all-nighters … and, I enjoyed it all immensely.

Of course, one might say that it was my own fault that my seminary experience was so exhaustingly difficult. I didn’t have to study Latin, Greek and Hebrew, nor did I have to take all those upper-level Ph.D. courses. But, I thought that if I was going to be at one of the premier Theological Institutions in the country, I should at least take advantage of it. (Is my bias showing? Go, Blue Devils!) And, so, I knocked myself out physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

To keep myself healthy while under this stress I did the only thing that I could do: I got away and recharged my spiritual batteries. Every week, usually for just a couple of hours but sometimes for as many as one or two days, I would escape the campus of Duke University and travel across the town of Durham, North Carolina, to a monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. St. John’s House was a beautiful, wood frame, 100+ year-old, three-story manor which was surrounded by a lovely, sculpted, well-kept yard and garden. It was, truly, the perfect place to lose oneself when the pressures of study, life, and spiritual formation got too heavy. Along with a number of other ministerial students from Duke Divinity, I went there each and every Saturday morning to worship, receive Holy Communion, and become re-energized for yet another week of academic excellence in the classroom, and a weekend of ministerial excellence in my student pastorate.

Throughout the week, amid the rigors of study and self-discovery, I would find myself looking forward to those Saturday morning worship services. Even despite the fact that I could and did worship every day at the Divinity School, where I received the Eucharist in York Chapel, I quickly discovered that I craved the liturgy, thirsted for the Word, anticipated the holy silence, and longed after the Blessed Sacrament. It was as if I had become addicted to the means of grace which that wonderful monastic community made available to me. The monks, and their religious devotion, became the fuel for my spirit in a deserted land. Without these Saturday mornings, and the grace and peace of our Lord’s real presence that they furnished me, I don’t think I would have emotionally or spiritually survived.

I can remember stepping through the door of St. John’s House on a misty, overcast, chilly Saturday morning, my mind filled with clutter and my spirit ill at ease; only to be met by the warm embrace, the love and acceptance, of one of the monks of this special community. Brs. Paul, Gross, Eldridge, David, Bob, Brian … it mattered not; they were all so very welcoming to my fellow seminarians and to me as we sought the presence of Jesus. It was like leaving behind the weights of the world, the pressures of existence, the fears and anxieties of life, the stresses and strains of academic achievement, and entering the bliss of heaven.

We came, week after week, in search of God’s grace, and we found it. We found it in a community of monks, in their love and service, in the Holy Scriptures, and above all in the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion, all of which they celebrated daily and of which we were warmly invited to partake. The bread and wine, the Word and the community, the prayers and the blessings … these means of grace quickly became the fuel for my spiritual and intellectual life. Indeed, they became so important for me that even to this day, if a week goes by in which I do not receive the Sacrament and worship within a community of faith, I feel empty … empty and in need of the inner presence of my Savior. This is what the many means of grace, and especially the Eucharist, do in my life.

The Blessed Sacrament makes known to us, through simple elements of bread and wine, the abiding love and real, life-transforming presence of Jesus Christ. Communion is the wonderful gift of the very life of God, which empowers us for Christian love and service. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Harmon Smith, used to say that Communion is "the most significant moral act of the Church." By this, we took him to mean that through the Sacrament not only are we all united together as one body in Christ Jesus, but that the moral, spiritual center of the Christian life depends upon the grace which comes to us through the Sacrament. I believe this professor to have been correct. Through the Sacrament, the Body of Christ is both established and empowered for service in and to God’s world. Through the Sacrament, we receive our unity, our calling, and the strength that we need to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. If this isn’t the root and identity of Christian morality, I don’t know what else might qualify.

The Principle Question

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it,
and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
--Luke 24: 30-31

Holy Communion … the Eucharist … the Lord’s Supper …the terms that we use for the "Holy Meal" all reflect its character as a means of grace. Take a moment to think about each term. When we speak of the Sacrament as being "Holy Communion," what we are doing is highlighting the unity that we receive through it. When we eat and drink of the elements, we are brought into a "holy communication" with God and are made one with each other in the Body of Christ. When we use the term "Eucharist," we highlight the powerful joy and the spirit of thanksgiving that we receive through the transforming grace of our savior. When we receive the Eucharist, we celebrate the feast of joy and offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of the presence of Jesus in our lives. And, finally, when we use the term "the Lord’s Supper," we lift up the truth that this Holy Meal is really God’s gift to us. It is his meal, not ours, and we are honored to be invited to receive it along with his disciples. Just as Jesus blessed and broke the bread in Emmaus and the Disciples’ eyes were opened to his real presence, so also today we are invited to his meal to have our eyes opened to his real presence in our own lives. It truly is "the Lord’s Supper;" it is his supper, in which he gives himself to us.

Through these three common terms we can see and know the meaning of the Sacrament, and its nature as a means of grace for the life of the Church. And that is our principle question in this chapter. How is the real presence of Jesus communicated to us through this principle means of grace, and what does this wonderful gift mean for us all?

Frequently it is said that there are many different ways to understand the meaning and role of the Lord’s Supper for the life of the Church. This is both true and false. It is true in that there are many different ways to think and talk about the Eucharist; it is false in that these many different ways can all be reduced to two fundamental approaches. We will begin with the one that is popular among those who reject the very means of grace/sacramental concept that this book is all about, and then we will proceed to the approaches of Sacramental Christianity.

Memorial Representation

"This is my body, which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me."
--Luke 22:19b

Communion as just a memorial meal is the viewpoint first articulated by Zwingli. It is the point of view held by the Baptists, the Church of Christ, and many other related or similar denominations. Some see the meal as simply a reminder of the Last Supper, and hence there is nothing at all going on in the act that isn’t understood to be happening apart from the act. This idea is sometimes called the doctrine of the "real absence" of Christ, and as such it reflects a radical point of view that even Zwingli himself would not have appreciated.

Others see the ordinance as having at least some degree of sacramental character, although instrumentality is still totally rejected. The Church, as it gathers around the table in faith, is understood as receiving divine grace directly from God, and not through the instrumentality of the elements of bread and wine. Essentially, the table has become irrelevant; the elements could be exchanged for pizza and beer or coffee and donuts, and God’s grace could still be discerned to be falling upon the gathered people of God.

Regardless of its form, Memorial Representation places the focus upon the believer and the believer’s response of faith, rather than upon God as the giver of divine grace. God is not thought of as being an actor in the ordinance at all. We are the actors in the sacrament. This is the cardinal difference between the Sacramental and Ordinance approaches to the means of grace in general, and to Holy Communion in particular. While the Sacramental approach views the means as having an instrumental nature, the Ordinance approach rejects the instrumental concept and focuses upon the role of the human in performing or "acting out" each of the means. Rather than being the means by which we receive God’s grace, they become the means by which we express our faith. While the expression of one’s faith is both an outgrowth and a form of the grace we receive, the Sacramental response is that the Ordinance approach robs the means of their essential role as the instrumental conveyers of Divine favor. And, yet, this is the approach of Ulrich Zwingli and the "iconoclastic reformers" of the Reformation period.

Zwingli’s objection to a means of grace understanding of the Lord’s Supper is rooted in his theological objection to the idea that created matter could cause or convey divine attributes. Indeed,

Zwingli was reluctant to acknowledge any other causality than that of God, the first cause. Hence, the very notion of sacramental causality was offensive to him.

For Zwingli, it was a fundamental flaw in reasoning to assign to created matter attributes that only divine matter could contain. Spiritual things could not be mastered, contained, or controlled by physical things. To localize the divine within a physical substance was to limit or attempt to control the divine, and for Zwingli that was heretical. Hence, he opposed the means of grace concept at its ontological core: for Zwingli grace comes to the believer directly, and only directly, from God. The means do not cause, nor do they even convey, God’s grace, though they do help to remind us of God’s promise; the means do not empower or enable our faith, though they do help to reinforce our faith.

According to Zwingli, the Sacramental approach to the Lord’s Supper fails to make the proper distinction between divine and human nature. Divine nature is ubiquitous — God is everywhere — while human nature is limited and cannot be everywhere. This was true for Jesus in his life on earth and, indeed, is still true for Jesus today in Glory. While Zwingli admitted that Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, could easily be understood as being spiritually or symbolically present in the sacrament, he denied that Jesus could be bodily present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Why? Because Jesus’ body is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. Being a human body, it could only be in one place at one time. Hence, since the Body of Jesus is in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, it cannot also be in the elements of bread and wine on millions of Altars throughout all of space and time. Jesus can be said to be spiritually or symbolically present, but not really or bodily present. As Zwingli himself said:

Omnipresence can pertain to the deity alone and may in no way be communicated to the human nature. His body after the resurrection cannot in any way be ubiquitous like the deity; according to the divine nature, he is everywhere.

Hence, when Jesus says in the context of the Last Supper, "this is my body," Zwingli and the other Ordinance theologians will argue that Jesus did not mean this literally — the "is" should be taken as meaning "signifies" rather than as asserting the identity which is proclaimed. To rephrase Jesus in Zwinglian terms: "This signifies by body," not, "This is my body."

At first glance, this does appear to make a certain amount of sense. After all, during the Lord’s Supper the flesh was still on Jesus’ bones and the blood was still in Jesus’ veins; if his body and blood were intact, how could bread and wine also be said to actually be his body and blood? Likewise, now his bodily presence is in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, and hence by its very human nature it cannot also be in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. For Zwinglians, the bread and wine can be said to "signify" the presence of Jesus, but neither can be said to actually be the real presence of Jesus.

One of the strongest critiques of Zwingli’s argument against the Real Presence of Jesus can be seen precisely at its christological foundation. While Zwingli accepted the Nicene profession of Jesus as being fully human and fully divine, when it came to the controversy over the Eucharist his desire to deny sacramental presence required him to accept incipient Nestorianism. Essentially, Zwingli’s approach forces a division between the divine and the human natures of Jesus, something which is a no-no when it comes to orthodox Christology.

…with Zwingli there is [the threat] of Nestorianism, in which the two natures fall apart from one another…

At first this might seem like a minor problem, but it is not at all minor; if followed to its logical conclusion it can be a very serious theological error. To claim that Jesus is spiritually present, but cannot be physically or "really" present, is dangerous for it assumes that Jesus does some things as God but not as a human being, and other things as a human being but not as God. This division is the very essence of Nestorianism.

Nestorius had not intended to launch a heretical movement; indeed, his dispute with Cyril of Alexandria was really not about theology but, rather, about personalities and misunderstandings. Nevertheless, those who followed and modified the teachings of Nestorius soon developed a heretical movement that, in many quarters, can be recognized in the Church today. Nestorius attempted to answer a very simple question: since Jesus is God, is it proper for us to say that the Virgin Mary is "The Mother of God?" (otherwise known as the theotokos, or "God bearer.") Most people who want to deny this title for Mary will say something like: "Mary was the mother of Jesus as a human being, but not of Jesus as God." This is known as Nestorianism. Full-blown Nestorians likewise argue that Jesus didn’t suffer and die on the cross as God, but only as a human being. They argue that Jesus worked miracles as God, walked on the water as God, raised the dead as God …did all his miraculous signs as God, but not as a human being. As a human being, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, grew hungry, wept, ate and drank, and prayed. All of his bodily actions were human, while all of his spiritual actions were divine.

This division of labor between Jesus’ human and divine natures is the theological essence of Nestorianism. It divides the human nature from the divine nature and, in so doing, it divides Jesus’ salvific acts in his death and resurrection from us. Put simply, if Jesus suffered and died on the cross only as a man, with the divine nature not participating in his passion, then Jesus’ death only had meaning and significance for him. It takes the consubstantial character of Jesus’ humanity and divinity — their acting together in all things — for the benefits of his sacrifice to reach us. This means that it is impossible, when using orthodox theological terms, for us to say that Jesus did something as a human being but not as God. He did everything as both God and as a human being. Hence, when Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, and fed the five thousand, both his divine nature and his human nature were present and active.

Likewise, when Jesus wept, was tempted in the wilderness, suffered and died on the cross, and was raised from the dead, both his human and divine natures were present and active. This is not "Patripassianism," for it is not God the Father in his fullness who died for us, but only God the Son in his consubstantial humanity and divinity as Jesus of Nazareth, who died. God experienced death for us in Jesus Christ; the "Father," the first person of the Holy Trinity, did not die. Neither is this "Monophysitism," for it recognizes the reality of the two separate yet consubstantial natures of Jesus: full humanity and full divinity.

?This is the kind of confusion that can result from Zwingli’s approach to the question of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. A division and delineation of ability between what Jesus as God can do as opposed to what Jesus as a human can do will, inexorably, lead to a division of the salvific acts of the human Jesus on the cross from the salvific nature of God. While not intended, this is the result of the claim that Jesus is not present in the sacrament because human nature cannot be everywhere.

?Periodically, one sees Methodists asserting that the Zwinglian approach is identical to John Wesley’s because Wesley harshly criticized both the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran approach to the doctrine of the Real Presence. This assertion is mistaken for, as we will subsequently see, Wesley was steadfastly opposed to the Zwinglian approach. While it is true that he wrote, in a 1732 letter to his mother,

…we cannot allow Christ’s human nature to be present in it, without allowing either con- or transubstantiation.

attempts to make this statement mean that Wesley rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence are greatly mistaken. Wesley’s protestant disdain for Transubstantiation didn’t cause him to reject Real Presence; rather, it caused him to reject any terminology which affirmed our Lord’s bodily presence in Communion.

At the danger of being branded a heretic by some of my fellow United Methodists, I believe Wesley to be both somewhat mistaken as well as somewhat misunderstood. His error was in assuming that bodily presence must entail either "consubstantiation" (Martin Luther’s approach) or "transubstantiation" (the Roman Catholic approach). There is a third alternative, as Wesley well knew — his brother’s Eucharistic hymns are replete with it: "holy mystery."

Also, Wesley’s assertion that the human nature of Christ cannot be understood as being present in the sacrament is frequently taken out of context — both its immediate context in particular, and the context of Anglican Systematic Theology in general. Put simply, Wesley never claimed that Jesus’ humanity and divinity were in any way divorced in their activity. Such would have been a clear violation of historic Chalcedonian Theology, and that was something that Wesley was loath to do.

John Wesley, being an orthodox Anglican in his christology, affirmed that the human nature of Christ is said to act by virtue of the divine nature, while the divine nature is said to act by virtue of the human nature. This is, essentially, correct. Both natures are present, one by virtue of the other. In the Eucharist, Wesley affirmed that it is the divine nature of Christ that makes Jesus really present. Hence, while he squirmed at the idea of bodily presence, it is at best a fine line of distinction between Jesus being present through his divine nature and Jesus being bodily present.

The Sacramental approach to the nature and function of Holy Communion, and particularly the idea of sacramental presence, will consume a significant portion of the remainder of this chapter. For now, suffice it to say that the Zwinglian/Memorial understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion has been the minority opinion throughout much of the last two thousand years. Most Christians have had a means of grace/Real Presence understanding of the Eucharist, and it is to this approach that we will now turn.

The Real Presence

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
-1 Corinthians 10:16

Real Presence is the approach to the Sacrament maintained by those denominations that affirm the concept of instrumental means. Holy Communion is a true, efficacious sacrament through which we are granted the strength, the transforming presence, and the life-changing grace of Jesus. Throughout the history of the Church, when the great theologians have expounded upon the nature of the Sacrament, the concept of the Real Presence of Jesus has been the approach which has predominated. Indeed, it’s exceedingly difficult to find any major — or even any minor — figure from the first fifteen hundred years of the Church who spoke about the Sacrament in terms other than real presence. It was, simply, an assumed concept.

Put simply, while it is true that St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t formulate the formal doctrine of Transubstantiation until the sixteenth century, it is also undeniably true that the concept of our Lord’s Real Presence has been around for at least fourteen hundred years longer. It stands as, by far, the most ancient way of understanding the nature of the Sacrament.

Take, for example, the stark literalism of St. John Chrysostom who, while preaching a sermon on the meaning of John 6 sometime during the year 390 A.D., said:

[Christ] has made it possible for those who desire, not merely to look upon Him, but even to touch Him and to consume Him and to fix their teeth in His Flesh and to be commingled with Him…

It’s hard to get more literal than this. The imagery is graphic, to say the least, but not any more graphic that Jesus’ own words in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Another example of graphic, real presence language, and one which comes from about the year 110 A.D., can be seen in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote:

I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.

Even the highly metaphorical Origen, writing in A.D. 248, strikes a remarkably literal note with:

Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: "My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink."

The important point to be gathered from these several references is that graphic language that affirms the real presence of Jesus is not limited to the later development of medieval Roman Catholicism. Quite the contrary, the idea that Jesus is really made present in, through, and by means of the sacramental elements of bread and wine is ancient indeed, predating all later attempts at explaining how Jesus is made really present.

The Roman Catholic understanding of the Real Presence is governed by the doctrine of Transubstantiation, which teaches that the Holy Spirit falls upon the elements of bread and wine, transforming their substance into the literal body and blood of Jesus. The bread actually becomes his flesh, and the wine actually becomes his blood, while both still retaining the look, smell, feel, and taste of bread and wine; the substance of the bread and wine — wheat and grapes — is transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. In this way, then, Roman Catholics believe that, when one receives Holy Communion, that person can be said to be receiving the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, and all the grace that his divine presence brings.

With its formulation by St. Thomas Aquinas, Transubstantiation became the Roman Catholic way of articulating the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Over the centuries it has received a significant amount of criticism from Protestants, Anglicans and Methodists included. Indeed, in the Articles of Religion we find a significantly harsh indictment of the concept:

Transubstantiation, or the change of the substance of bread and wine in the Supper of our Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

Interestingly enough, even some recent Roman Catholic theologians have recognized a degree of difficulty with the very idea of "substance" in their doctrine. For example, Englebert Gutwenger, author of the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia of Theology, has attempted to reformulate Transubstantiation thusly:

The meaning of a thing can be changed without detriment to its matter. A house, for instance, consists of a certain arrangement of materials and has a clearly established nature and a clearly established purpose. If the house is demolished and the materials used for building a bridge, a change of nature or essence has intervened. Something completely different is there. The meaning has been changed, since a house is meant to be lived in and a bridge is used to cross a depression. But there has been no loss of material.

Gutwenger goes on to assert that this can be seen as an analogy for the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. Through the prayer of consecration, the bread has been changed from something which was natural into "the dwelling-place and the symbol of Christ." This new way of looking at real presence may make the Roman Catholic approach substantially closer to the several various Protestant Catholic approaches, and it is certainly less objectionable — though how the Anglican theologians would have interpreted such a re-articulation of the Roman Catholic theory is a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a real material change is still assumed by Roman Catholic Eucharistic Theology, and this change is still articulated in the terms of Thomistic Transubstantiation.

So much is Transubstantiation identified with Real Presence that some Roman Catholics, along with many Protestants (frequently from the Zwinglian perspective), have a difficult time separating the way Roman Catholics affirm the Real Presence from the concept in general. What must be recognized, and what has been recognized in the many conversations between Rome and other denominations, is that real presence is a common affirmation of faith. Its truth, as a concept, is not dependent upon just one formulation; there are several accepted ways of talking about the Real Presence.

While many Lutherans have changed their thinking concerning the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the traditional Lutheran approach is still Consubstantiation. Essentially, the idea is that with the bread and the wine comes the real body and blood of Jesus. Martin Luther spoke of the sacramental bread of Holy Communion as being fleischbrot ("fleshbread"), which he understood as being a new single substance formed out of the two substances of bread and our Lord’s body. For Luther, the real presence of Jesus is enabled by the ubiquity — as a shared virtue with divinity — that the human body of our Lord has in glory. He believed that the bodily presence of Jesus is made real and effectual within the elements of bread and wine, and by this real presence the believer receives the grace and peace of Jesus’ love.

Clearly, Luther’s formulation of Consubstantiation affirms the Real Presence in a way that is no less real and no less grace-filled than Transubstantiation. It is simply the traditional, historic Lutheran way of speaking about how Jesus is really present in the Sacrament. The idea of holy mystery is still present, for how the Holy Spirit causes the addition of the body and blood of Jesus to the elements of bread and wine is left open for various interpretations. It simply happens.

Something similar can be said regarding the Calvinist approach to the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion. It is true that the concept of sacramental instrumentality is sometimes doubted in Calvinism due, in large part, to the fundamental nature of the doctrines of limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the overall importance of predestination in their system. However, John Calvin’s belief regarding the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is sound and beyond question. His own words are too eloquent to paraphrase:

Now if anyone asks me how (de modo), I will be ashamed to admit that the mystery (aracanum) is too sublime for my intelligence to grasp or my words to declare: to speak more plainly, I experience rather than understand it. Here, then, without any arguing, I embrace the truth of God in which I may safely rest content. Christ proclaims that his flesh is the food, his blood the drink, of my soul. I offer him my soul to be fed with such food. In his sacred supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine: I have no doubt that he truly proffers them and that I receive them.

Essentially, the Calvinist approach is one of a spiritual real presence. This should not be misunderstood as being a lack of actual real presence, however, for Calvin linked the spiritual nature of Jesus’ real presence with the deeper reality of divine sovereignty. Jesus is present in the sacrament, in an efficacious way, through the holy mystery of God’s almighty power. The disagreements among the various Calvinists regarding the instrumental nature of the sacrament as a means of grace has left Calvinism open for severe attack on several grounds, however Calvin himself was clear: Jesus is really present, even if he couldn’t articulate how Jesus was present. This is, essentially, the position of the Presbyterians, as well as of some (but not all) Reformed Churches.

Ironically, the same is true for the Anglican/Methodist approach, which affirms that the presence of Jesus Christ is real, but refuses to adopt any particular way, mechanism, or theory as to how his presence is real ... it simply is. This similarity in affirmation has led some Wesleyan theologians, particularly Rob L. Staples, to assert that Wesley’s Sacramental Theology is essentially Calvinist in nature. As I shall demonstrate, this conclusion is seriously in error. Yes, Wesley shared much of Calvin’s awe for the mystery of Jesus’ presence, but Wesley’s affirmation of the Real Presence stems from his Anglican sacramental roots, with all of the nuances and contradictions that his Anglican heritage could be expected to bring with it.

A good illustration of the Anglican/Methodist way of speaking about the Real Presence can be seen in the wonderful Wesley Hymn, "O the depth of love divine." It begins with:

O the depth of love divine,
the unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
how the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people's hearts
with all the life of God!

Firstly, it should be noted that, for Charles Wesley, the method by which the elements convey the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is a total mystery. Hence, Wesley wrote the words, "who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys;" which, in current-day English, would more correctly be phrased, "who shall say how bread and wine conveys God into us!" No one can really say. Many Christians have their own ideas and opinions; many Churches have their own theories. The Roman Catholics have their own theory, and the Lutherans have one too, but like John Calvin, the Anglicans and Methodists make no official proclamation as to how Jesus is made present in the sacrament. In his hymn, Wesley is asserting that all the various explanations and theories are, essentially, human ways of trying to affirm what is fundamentally believed by all of those concerned (i.e., those who affirm real presence).

Secondly, it should be noted that the elements of bread and wine convey — one might even say "contain," although such language might draw the ire of those who are on the lookout for Roman Catholic terminology — the flesh and blood, the real presence of Jesus. I find it interesting that Wesley used the word "transmit" to describe the conveyance. If we think of that word as we understand it today — as the ephemeral sending of information via electromagnetic waves — we can begin to see the depth of the meaning behind the statement that the elements "transmit" to us the flesh and blood of Jesus. Just as your telephone sends your voice from your end of the line to the other without becoming your voice, so also the elements transmit the grace of Jesus to the believer when the believer eats and drinks with faith.

The second stanza continues these thoughts:

Let the wisest mortals show
how we the grace receive;
Feeble elements bestow
a power not theirs to give.
Who explains the wondrous way,
how through these the virtue came?
These the virtue did convey,
yet still remain the same.

Firstly, we should note that the elements have no virtue in and of themselves to convey the "power not theirs to give." It is a total and eternal mystery how God conveys the divine grace, either through prayer and the reading of Scripture or through the act of faith in eating and drinking bread and wine. It is all a mystery of God’s self-giving love, and of no merit to the vehicles which convey the grace.

Secondly, we should note that the elements of bread and wine do truly convey the real divine presence of Jesus Christ, and "yet remain the same." The bread remains bread and the wine remains wine ... their substance, according to the Anglican/Methodist approach to the sacraments, is not in any ontological way transformed; and yet, Christ is still truly present to and for us when we eat and drink with faith. The strength of this affirmation can be seen articulated even in the Articles of Religion, where it actually says regarding the question of how Jesus is present:

The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.

It must be pointed out that, from time to time in the past, this article has been tragically misunderstood. Thanks to the ambiguity of language which states that the body of Christ is received in the sacrament: "...only after a heavenly and spiritual manner," it has been taken to mean that the presence of Christ is not "real," but rather only "symbolic." This, however, is a total misreading of the article, and fails largely due to a lack of understanding regarding the ontological nature of things. Put simply, things that are "heavenly and spiritual" are believed, by the Christians who framed the Articles of Religion (and by me) to be more real than things that are earthly and carnal. To say, therefore, that Jesus is received in a "heavenly and spiritual manner" is to actually say that his presence is received in a way which is more real than the physical reception of the elements of bread and wine.

For Anglicans and Methodists, the reality of the presence of Jesus through the sacramental elements is not in question. The real presence is simply accepted as true. The question does still remain, however, as to whether we should only say that the elements "convey" the real presence, or if it is possible for us to in some way affirm them as also being the real presence. And, is there a difference between affirming the elements as being, mysteriously, the real presence, and affirming bodily presence?

Of particular note among the Anglican theologians, John Wesley had significant difficulty in affirming the bodily presence of Jesus in the sacrament. The real presence was certainly affirmed, and Wesley was eager to assert that the elements are the real presence of Jesus in an ontological fashion that goes beyond our comprehension. However, motivated by his mother Susannah’s 1731 letter on the topic, Wesley took the position that to affirm bodily presence of Jesus in the sacrament one would also have to affirm either Consubstantiation or Transubstantiation, and either affirmation was objectionable to him.

I believe that Wesley was mistaken. If we affirm the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament as a mysterious working of the Holy Spirit, then logically nothing restricts us from affirming that the same may be equally true for the idea of the bodily presence. The question of ubiquity, which was so very important when it came to Zwinglian theology and Luther’s approach to real presence, is entirely beside the point. The human nature of Jesus has access to the ubiquity of our Lord’s divine nature, and while Wesley never affirmed the sharing of attributes from Jesus’ divine to Jesus’ human nature, nevertheless such a conclusion is theologically sound and in keeping with Anglican theology in general. It is a fundamental interpretive error to assume that Wesley would agree with Anglican Christology in every way but this one. And so, Jesus’ human nature can be said to share in the attributes of the divine nature just as readily as the divine nature shares in the attributes of the human nature. Therefore, the bodily presence of Jesus — a problem for Wesley, who was confronted with the elaborate con- and transubstantial theories — need not be a problem for us.

One way of thinking about this can be seen in the way in which many Christians affirm that the Scriptures contain the Word of God. The Bible doesn’t have Jesus within it … and, yet, it does! The Communion doesn’t have Jesus within it … and, yet, it does! Jesus is the Word of God, incarnate in human flesh; the Bible is the word of God, incarnate in human language; the Sacrament of Holy Communion is the word of God, incarnate in bread and wine.

This conception of the Sacrament can be seen affirmed in the Eucharistic prayers that are common among both Methodists and Anglicans. For example, in the Book of Common Prayer we find the following consecration in Rite 2, Prayer A:

Sanctify them [the gifts of bread and wine] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace….

Prayer B contains a consecration which is, fundamentally, the same as this one. In Prayer C, however, the consecration reads even more clearly:

Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.

While it may not be a surprise to most Episcopalians that such a clear affirmation of the real presence of Jesus can be found in their Eucharistic prayers, it may come as a real surprise to some United Methodists that similar, equally unambiguous, language can also be found in the UM Hymnal. For example, Word and Table I, the prayer of consecration reads:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

The language of these three Eucharistic prayers is unmistakable. In prayer to God, Sacramental Protestants of the Anglican and Methodist families are calling on the Holy Spirit to fall upon the elements and "make them be for us the body and blood of Christ." This is not symbolism. This is not signification. This is not magic or superstition. This is real presence … the real, divine, and bodily presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It could be understood as Transubstantiation, though such is neither implied nor intended here by either Anglicans or Methodists. It could also be Consubstantiation, though again such is not the intention here. Here we find, with beauty unexplained, the real presence of Jesus being proclaimed. It is a presence that makes real for and within us the life-giving grace of God. For, as is articulated in both the Episcopalian and Methodist prayers, the body of Christ in the Sacrament makes us the Body of Christ for the world.

This affirmation of the real presence of Jesus can also be seen in the words of yet another wonderful Wesley Hymn: "Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast."

Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God,
and eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Of all the affirmations of the real presence of Jesus Christ that might be cited from Anglican and Methodist theologians and authors, this is among the strongest. It proclaims that Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine is real, and that when we eat and drink the sacrament we are receiving the grace which is able to save us from our sins. The aspect of this stanza which strikes most Protestants, however, are the words from its final line: "…and eat his flesh and drink his blood." Protestants simply don’t talk like that! Or, so I’ve been told.

I’ll never forget the first time I assigned this hymn to be sung in a little country Church. It was a wonderful congregation filled with many blessed, intelligent, hard working and deeply loving people. They had greeted me with open arms. They had even accepted my little idiosyncrasies. I had been pastor there for only half a month, however, and so I had not yet realized that their sacramental understanding wasn’t much deeper than "Let us break bread together on our knees." This is not at all an insult; it’s just that, as I quickly discovered, we spoke a different language.

The first stanza of the hymn didn’t bother them, and neither did the second. Oh, sure, they had never sung this one before — as I had been told by all 12 of them, at least two dozen times, before the service that morning — but they were giving this new hymn a rousing first-time try. That is, they were until the end of the third stanza.

I sang the fourth and fifth stanzas of the hymn on my own, even the pianist had quit playing, and as I looked up I noticed that all eyes were upon me, jaws had fallen to the floor, and eyebrows had been raised to the rafters. They simply couldn’t believe, as I was later told, that such a hymn could even be in their hymnal, and much less that I would have them sing it! Several of the congregation members were painfully polite to me the rest of that morning, and that evening I had a most interesting phone call from my District Superintendent.

"They said you were teaching Popish doctrine."

"Oh?" I replied, trying to suppress a chuckle.

"Yes. They said you had them sing a hymn that talked about eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. Did you?"


"Why did you do that?"

"Well … it’s in their hymnal."

"Our hymnal? The 1989 UM Hymnal? That’s impossible."

"No, not at all. Look at number 616, the third stanza."

I sat in silence while the District Superintendent got down his hymnal and flipped through the pages until he came to the proper hymn. After a moment, I heard him mutter, "Well, I’ll be…. You’re right. I never noticed this before."

Neither have many other UM clergy. And, yet, these words have been in this Wesley hymn since Charles penned it in 1747, and has been in Methodist Hymnals since 1786. It is very hard to get more graphic or more literal than: "And eat his flesh and drink his blood." We are called to "taste the goodness of our God," an image which further brings home the aspect of divine presence in the sacrament. Likewise, we are called to "partake the Gospel feast," and, in so doing, "be saved from sin," and "in Jesus rest." This means that the sacrament is far more than just a memorial meal. It is a means of grace, a way through which we are saved and a source of holy comfort. All of this is part of what we mean when we speak about the Blessed Sacrament being a means of grace. But it doesn’t stop here. The fourth stanza reads:

See him set forth before your eyes;
behold the bleeding sacrifice;
his offered love make haste to embrace,
and freely now be saved by grace.

Again, the imagery is powerful. "See him set forth before your eyes"! On the Altar, before us, rests the "bleeding sacrifice" of our Savior’s real presence. And, through receiving the sacrament we "embrace" the "offered love" of Jesus, and are "saved by grace."

This embracing of our Lord’s offered love is our response of faith to the promises of Christ. Wesley, in yet another Eucharistic Hymn, speaks about the role of faith in our reception of the real presence of Jesus in Communion.

FATHER, thy feeble Children meet,
And make thy faithful Mercies known;
Give us thro’ Faith the Flesh to eat,
And drink the Blood of CHRIST thy Son;
Honour thine own mysterious Ways,
Thy Sacramental Presence shew,
And all the Fulness [sic] of thy Grace,
With JESUS, on our Souls bestow.

These words are no less shocking than in those of the previous hymn, while also being quite a bit more clear as to how Jesus is made known to us in the sacrament. Indeed, it is ironic that, for a theologian who had significant difficulty with the bodily presence of Jesus, Wesley was still quite willing to utilize graphic bodily terms for the real presence of Jesus. "Give us thro’ Faith the Flesh to eat, And drink the Blood of CHRIST thy Son" illustrates, clearly, that the sacramental presence, manifested in the fullness of God’s grace, comes to us when we eat and drink the elements with faith.

This theme — that of faith as the portal through which we discern the real presence of Christ — is continued in the second stanza of this hymn, where we offer ourselves to Christ:

Father, our Sacrifice receive,
Our Souls and Bodies we present,
Our Goods, and Vows, and Praises give,
Where’er they bounteous Love hath lent,
Thou can’st not now our Gift despise,
Call on that all atoning Lamb,
Mixt with that bleeding Sacrifice,
And offer’d up thro’ JESU’s Name.

When we approach the Altar Table to receive the sacrament, by faith we are presenting our very selves to Jesus as a sacrifice for his ministry. We trust in God’s grace, and expect that we will be transformed into the Body of Christ. Indeed, this idea echoes the graphic words of St. John Chrysostom, who affirmed that through receiving the sacrament we become commingled with Christ.

The idea of faith being involved in our discernment of the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament is nothing new, nor is it unique to Protestant thought. It is an ancient Catholic concept, not all that different from the conception which was articulated by the North African Bishop, St. Augustine, who, preaching in A.D. 411, had this to say on the real presence:

What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ and the chalice is the Blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith.

Clearly, Wesley follows in a very ancient, long-standing stream of thought on the nature of the real presence of Jesus. By faith, we discern the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and the cup.

If there was ever any question as to the nature of the sacrament as a means of grace, as a way of receiving the real presence of Jesus, there shouldn’t be anymore.

Scriptural Foundations

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,
and I will raise them up on the last day….
-- John 6:54

What are the Scriptural justifications, if any, for the concept of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion? This is a valid question, and one that deserves serious consideration. Frequently, one is apt to hear Zwinglians and other Memorialists say that the Scriptures do not support an understanding of the Sacrament as being anything more than a memorial meal; they cite the words of Institution — and particularly the phrase "Do this in remembrance of me." — as if such were sufficient to demonstrate that the Sacrament is nothing but a memorial. While it is true that memorial aspects are very much present in the Blessed Sacrament, it is nevertheless true that far more is going on in the meal than just a memorial. This can be seen both in the Church’s dogged persistence in affirming the doctrine, as well as in the many ringing affirmations of personal experience, like Calvin’s, which have prompted many Christians to proclaim the doctrine of Real Presence even if their minds could not comprehend the "how." But what, if anything, can we discern through Scripture concerning the nature of Holy Communion?

In the Acts of the Apostles, for instance, we find a couple of references to "the breaking of bread" as being a central part of the worship life of the early Christian community. Unfortunately, in Acts we are told next to nothing about the nature and significance of these Communions. However, it is clear from Acts 20:7 that a worship service, with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, was observed on Sunday:

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.

It appears from the context of this passage that meeting on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the Eucharist was the usual practice for them. Indeed, from the context of the passage it seems evident that Paul is simply taking the opportunity of the Lord’s Day celebration to meet with the church and do some essential teaching. It is quite unlikely that this experience of Communion, which occurred at Troas in Asia Minor, differed either in meaning or in practice from the sacrament which Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians. We can, therefore, confidently assume that in Corinth the Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper on Sundays, and that this was intended to be a time for scriptural interpretation and theological discussion.

Paul’s only surviving teachings about the meaning and nature of Holy Communion can be found in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and in 11:17-36. In the first passage, we find the Apostle warning the Corinthians about the dangers of accommodating themselves to the infamous idolatry of their city.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing 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. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with 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 demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

The Apostle is addressing the specific situation of the Corinthian Christians, who lived in a city where both Judaism and Christianity were extreme minorities and where there were a plethora of pagan religious institutions. In the midst of this setting it was expected that a gentile, in the course of engaging in economic, social, or political discourse, would partake of pagan religious feasts and practices. For example, completing a business contract might involve making a sacrifice at a pagan temple to "cement the deal."

Likewise, attending a social function might involve feasting on a sacrificed bull from a pagan temple. Or, being involved in city politics might well involve partaking in the ritual practices of the pagan temple which oversaw a particular social function. To put it simply, good gentiles in Corinth were expected to involve themselves in the religious life of the city. Paul is saying that such an intermixing should not take place, and he is doing so based upon an argument from analogy. Essentially, he opposes involvement in pagan religious feasts because those cultic meals were understood as a partaking in the life of the beings in whose honor they were held. Christians should not participate in such religious functions because, in the Eucharist, they already partake of the life of Jesus Christ.

This is a crucial point; the analogy that Paul makes assumes that a real conveying of the life of Jesus occurs in the Eucharist — without such an understanding of the real presence of Jesus, the analogy collapses. Hence, it can be concluded that Paul believed that Christian worship, in which the Lord’s Supper is eaten, is a means of communicating the real presence of Jesus to the worshipper.

Also apparent in this argument is the essential idea that to partake of Christ is to partake of the very life of the community of faith … the "Body." As Paul wrote, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body." The common loaf of bread is understood to stand for the ontological unity of all Christians, everywhere. We are made one through the partaking of the bread of heaven, the sacrament of the body of Christ. If we are one with each other in Christ Jesus, we cannot also be one with other communities of faith. We must partake only of the Body of Christ.

The next passage finds the Apostle addressing several serious irregularities in the Eucharistic practices among the Corinthian Christians:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took 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. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

In this passage we find Paul affirming, with words that are hard to deny and must have been equally hard for the Corinthians to hear, that the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament and in the community of faith must be discerned. Indeed, failure to discern the presence of the Body of Christ is the very essence of what it means to partake in an unworthy manner, thus opening oneself to judgment.

This is why a personal examination prior to Communion is such a common practice in nearly all Christian communities. This is not a time to beat on oneself; it is a time of careful inner discernment, with our eyes focused intently upon Christ as our source of salvation and sanctification. When I engage in such a personal examination, I find it a good time to look within myself and at my own need of God’s grace. It’s an opportunity to make my own confession of sin to Christ, as well as being an important opportunity to work on breaking down any barriers, any estrangements, which I may have built up between myself and the person next to me in the pew. To properly discern the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I must first discern the presence of Jesus in my neighbor and in myself.

While this has already been said, it merits repeating. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-33 have nothing to do with being worthy to partake of Holy Communion. Unfortunately, the way the passage reads in the King James Version has led some to think that this is speaking about one’s worthiness. In the KJV, the verse in question reads:

For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

To put it simply, this does not mean that we have to be worthy, or sinless, or even have all our sins confessed, in order to partake of the sacrament. "Worthy," in this passage, is used as an adverb, not an adjective, and, as such, it modifies the act, not the actor. The manner of partaking is in question, not the one who is partaking. What we are called to examine is our focus as we partake. Are we focused on the love of Christ, upon his wonderful grace and the forgiveness that we have received from him for our sins, or are we focused, with gnashing teeth, upon the person several pews up whom we can't stand and wish weren’t in our church? Are we focused on Jesus, or are we thinking: "I’ve gotten rid of all those sins, and now I'm worthy to come to the table ... unlike those sinful jerks over there!"

These are the kinds of examinations that I believe Paul is really talking about. Are we recognizing the real presence of Jesus in our midst? Are we recognizing the Body of Christ within our fellow believers — even those we don’t like? Or, are we denying the Body of Christ? Are we denying the real presence of Jesus? Are we denying the saving and transforming grace of our Lord? While these examinations do have an important personal dimension, the worthiness — or sinlessness — of the individual believer was never the question. The simple fact is that no one is worthy to receive the consecrated elements of our Lord's Body and Blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Indeed, we come to the table precisely because we are unworthy and are in need of being made worthy by the blood of the Lamb. All we have to do is receive, in faith, focused upon the love, mercy, grace, and real presence of Jesus in the Body of Christ before us and around us, and we will be receiving worthily. A confession of sin, and the self-examination that comes before such a confession, is an excellent way of doing this.

Through Holy Communion we proclaim the Lord’s death. We also proclaim our own death to self. When we partake of the elements, we receive into ourselves the means of grace which, working through our faith, unites us to the Body of Christ. We recognize our own radical need of grace, our lack of self-sufficiency, and the presence of Jesus within ourselves and within the community of faith. Communion becomes our sharing in the very Body of Christ, which is manifested for the entire world in God’s people. Essentially, the Eucharist and the Body of Christ — the church — are inseparable.

?Moving on from St. Paul, let’s take a moment to look at the Gospel of St. John. Alone among the Gospels, it does not record the words of Institution. While the Last Supper does take place within the narrative account, in the place of the sacrament we find the institution of a foot washing ritual — a ritual which has every characteristic of being a sacrament, or at least a means of grace. Rather, the entire Gospel is, in many respects, an exposition upon the meaning of the Blessed Sacrament … especially the sixth chapter:

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

This has been a troubling passage for many Protestants. It is a "hard reading" — hard for us and hard for those who first heard it. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" That is precisely what those who reject the concept of Real Presence — and even many who do accept Real Presence — ask. How can Jesus give us his flesh to eat when his flesh and blood were on his bones, and now resides in glory? Through the last few centuries some Protestant scholars have suggested that this teaching refers not to the Sacrament of Holy Communion as a means of grace in particular, but to the whole work of Christ Jesus on the cross, giving himself for the redemption of all creation. After all, it is our Lord’s grace which feeds our hungry souls. Regardless of the interpretation, the Evangelist is highlighting the ontological place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.

Indeed, the use of traditional Eucharistic language in John 6 demonstrates how completely the fourth Gospel depends upon sacramental terminology to communicate its interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus. In one respect, this is appropriate for, as several Eastern Orthodox theologians have reminded us, Jesus Christ is our Sacrament. Nevertheless, it surely doesn’t hurt to take note of the Eucharistic language in John 6. "Bread" and "eating," "blood" and "drinking" … these are all Christian sacramental terms, containing in their usage the anticipation of Eucharistic practice. For the author of John’s Gospel to lean so heavily upon such blatantly Eucharistic language really highlights the importance of the sacrament for the life of his community.

In the above quoted section we find Jesus saying that, "… the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This is fairly literal, and quite difficult. When those who were listening confronted him concerning his meaning here, he was offered a wonderful opportunity to explain himself with: "No, I mean that I am like the bread of heaven." But, no, Jesus doesn’t soften his words at all. Quite the contrary, he makes them harder: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life." Now, granted, when his disciples complained about the difficulty of the saying, Jesus did assert that "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." John Wesley, like many before and since, latched on to this statement and in the light of it asserted:

This whole discourse concerning his flesh and blood refers directly to his passion, and but remotely, if at all, to the Lord's Supper.

Our Lord’s death and eternal life is, certainly, reflected throughout the verses of John 6. And yet, even recognizing this and focusing in on this interpretation, Wesley did recognize that there might well be a place for understanding the Lord’s Supper through John 6. I believe that both approaches are correct. We can only understand the sacrament through the context — the interpretive lenses — of our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. And, likewise, we can only experience the real presence of Jesus when we open ourselves to our Lord’s death with the willingness to die to ourselves so that we may live in Christ.

Any understanding of John 6, the passion of Christ, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion would be incomplete if this were the only focus of interpretation in this chapter. It is not. In addition to the use of Eucharistic terminology, several other images were present: in John 6:4 we find that the Passover was near and, in John 6:11, Jesus gives thanks before distributing the loaves. Both point to the Eucharist and the death of Jesus. Essentially, the feeding of the multitude is symbolic of the heavenly banquet in which we will join in glory. Jesus is the heavenly food of the banquet, the "marriage supper of the lamb." He is the bread of heaven, and he nourishes his body, the Church, with his real presence. And, as such, even this reflects strong Eucharistic concepts.

Who or What is Transformed?

All of this leads us to two questions. Those who come from the Sacramental perspective might find them helpful. Firstly, "who is transformed in the sacrament?" And, secondly, "what does Jesus’ real presence mean for us?" I believe that both approaches to the nature of Holy Communion — Real Presence and the Memorial Representation — have elements of truth to them. From the side of Real Presence, I believe that the important point is that the Eucharist is a real, efficacious means of grace, through which Jesus is made truly present in a transforming, substance changing way. When believers come to the table with faith and receive the bread and wine, they are receiving into themselves the grace of God which transubstantiates them.

In other words, I affirm that there is an ontological transformation of substance in Holy Communion. I do not believe that it is in a literal transformation of the bread and wine but, rather, through the bread and wine comes a transformation of the congregation ... of the body of believers. We are transformed — transubstantiated, if you will — into the Body of Christ. We may still look, smell, and probably even taste like mortal human beings, but we are really no longer individual Christians . . . we are part of the Body of Christ. And this, essentially, points out where those who affirm Memorial Representation are also correct: the radical transformation that God’s grace works is, in the end, within the believer and within and through the community of Faith.

Throughout the history of the church, and for Protestant Catholics as well as Roman Catholics, Holy Communion has been the means of grace through which we are re-membered to — brought back into membership with — the Body of Christ. The reality of Jesus’ divine, grace-giving presence in the Sacrament of Holy Communion must not be minimized. It is his presence which gives that eternal meal its power in our lives.

* * *

I can remember sitting in the simple, uncomplicated, comfortable little chapel at St. John’s House in Durham, North Carolina, on Saturday mornings, quietly reflecting upon the week which had passed me by as I smelled the incense burning, sang the Gloria, and listened as the scriptures were read. Those were moments of knowing the real presence of Jesus. Brother Paul would give a sermon which reached down into the very depths of my soul, and God would speak to me words of comfort and peace … words which would sustain me in the long hours of study and reflection in the week that was to come. Following the prayers, we would join the monks around the Altar for the Great Thanksgiving and Holy Communion, sure in our confidence that, with eyes and hearts of faith, our Savior was there to meet us. To this day, the memories of these experiences frequently flood my soul as I stand behind the table in my own Sanctuary and pray the liturgy with upturned hands. In those holy moments, I praise God for those wonderful men of faith, and for their ministry, which has so impacted my own.

I remember Brother Brian. He looked every bit the part of a "Friar Tuck," and so we often called him "Father Elmer Fudd" for his perpetual grin, infectious sense of humor, and the simple fact that his singing voice sometimes reminded us a little bit of that cartoon character. And, yet, Brian was anything but a cartoon character. He had a sharp wit that wouldn’t quit, and an even sharper mind, which could explicate Scripture and define Christian doctrine with the greatest of ease. He took everything he did in ministry with deep seriousness, and would happily take time out to explain why such-and-such was done this way, and not some other way.

Of the many things that Brother Brian taught me, none speak as loudly as his beautiful insights concerning the humanity and universality of the clergy. I’m not sure if he realizes it, but the reality of my call to ministry was renewed many times by just watching him preach, iron sheets, celebrate Holy Communion, clean dishes in the kitchen, play with the monastery cats, and lead retreats. "Ministry is not something separated from life," Brian liked to say. "For the Christian, ministry is inseparable from life. Indeed, Greg, ministry is your life. Live it well."

One Saturday morning, following the Eucharist, a friend of mine and I stayed in the chapel to help this brilliant, though sometimes mischievous, monk clean up and prepare for noonday prayer. As we were helping him consume the left-over Communion elements, my friend got up his courage to ask, "Father Brian, what do you whisper to the bread before Communion when you place it on the table? ‘Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit?’"

Brian, his most serious face on full-force, shook his head and said, "Oh, no! No! It did hurt! When Jesus hung on the cross and took our sins upon himself, it hurt him very much." Then, with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin on his face, he added, "But the bread doesn’t have any nerve endings."

We never did find out what those whispered words were.

© 2000, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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