I love Communion. I think we undervalue it – possibly because we often seem to place more emphasis on what it isn’t than on what it is. We try to delineate our definitions more smoothly than (I think) Scripture does itself, lest we trample on a piece of Sacramentology for which our forbears of the English Reformation gave their lives, by appearing too ‘Catholic’. Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m saying this as a conservative evangelical Protestant. A New Calvinist, no less. But I’m not scared of how I might ‘look’ if I speak of my convictions. We Protestants and Catholics share the heritage of the Early Church, if we would claim to be one catholic (universal) body of Christ, and the zeal of the Early Church for the Lord’s Supper is not to be sniffed at. I understand where the theological boundary lines lie. I can’t claim that I have the whole truth as I proceed, but I’m not going to hold back purely for the sake of tribalism.
My thought at Communion this evening was this: what a great sense of assurance that we have, when we are mandated to appropriate the body broken for us and the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of many, by taking them into ourselves as bread and wine. There’s little room to doubt whether Christ’s death on the cross can really bring salvation when we stand before the Communion table – Jesus made the promise at the Last Supper and embodied it in a sign, and taught us not only to love that sign as we love the sign of the rainbow, but to take it into ourselves bodily and digest it. There really are few bolder ways to appropriate something as your own, than to incorporate it into a consumable of some sort and to eat it. If ever you needed assurance that Christ’s blood was meant for you, struggling believer, then the Communion table should remove all doubt. There, you don’t just see your covenant membership articulated: you pass it through your lips and taste it and swallow it.
Moreover, when we consume that sign, we’re acknowledging that Jesus’ body broken for us, and his forgiveness-conferring blood, are our spiritual staple food and drink. We keep on consuming Christ’s body and blood, at his Table and in Spirit and in the Word, and we do it to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Until he comes again, Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out, will never cease to be our sustenance in this life no matter how advanced we are in our spiritual walk, as we were commanded to drink of the cup until Christ comes again. He pointed to his flesh and called it bread, and he pointed to the bread and called it his flesh; he called his blood “true drink”, and he called the cup of wine, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Would we tire of this bread, as the Israelites tired of the Manna that rained down on them, and demand ‘meat’ instead? What, pray, could we conceive this ‘meat’ might be but something bound to bring us to ruin? It would seem paramount to tempting God’s wrath if we implied at any moment that his grace, secured for us by what Christ has done (that is, with his body and blood on the tree), were not sufficient for us, as they were sufficient to the Apostle Paul though he had a thorn in his flesh.
Matt Redman puts it beautifully:
I used to sympathise with people who complained about ‘leaving Christ on the cross’, because crucifixes seemed oppressive Catholic things to me, and we preached the Resurrection life. But now I think differently. The empty tomb may well be an apt depiction of the triumphant Christian life, as some like to say who claim that they have ‘moved on’ from a Cross-centred identity, but the tomb is not where Christ is, and it is Christ whom we worship and model. All the same, Christ is risen, they would say: we do not keep him on the Cross, for he is not there. Maybe so. Yes, I will concede that geographically speaking Christ is not on the Cross. But if he’s not on the Cross and not in the tomb, then where in fact is Christ? Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. What is he doing there? Making intercession for sins. By what? By his blood. How? By his death – which happened on the Cross, when he became a curse for us. Ah, they might say, that’s his blood – but that was poured out 2000 years ago! The body that died on the on the Cross isn’t the same one as the one he has now, is it? He left the old broken one behind and got a new one – right? Indeed he did, it seems. And his Resurrection body, albeit apparently new, was no less than perfect for the fact that it had the same holes in the hands and side as the old one did. You cannot separate Christ from his wounds: even the Resurrected flesh bore the marks of Christ’s affliction for us on the Cross, and surely if it was perfect with the marks, then the marks participated in its perfection, and it would thus have been imperfect without them. This is to say that though Christ was Resurrected, he clearly did not ‘move on’ from the Atonement that he made. He might have ‘sat down’ at the right hand of the Father, but that didn’t mean that he stopped making intercession by his blood. Even at the end of the age, when time ceases, the angels will sing of Jesus, “Worthy is the Lamb” – the name ‘Lamb’ enshrining him for all eternity in his identity as sacrifice.
We can have Christ without depicting him on the Cross, but we can never have Christ without the wounds by which we are healed. What good is an empty tomb – or even an empty cross – if it wasn’t for the sin-bearing body and the wrath-appeasing blood, broken and poured out on the Cross where he died? It was what Christ achieved that we bring to remembrance when we go on taking our Communion elements until Christ returns as commanded; it is this blood which forgives us our sins, and bids us die, and provides the ballast that raises us and keeps us raised. Even as a risen child of God – a child of God living the Resurrection life – I cannot wander from the Cross where that body was broken and that blood was spilled, because the wounds from that breakage and spillage did not disappear from Christ’s body even when he took on a new one in his own Resurrection life and sat at the right hand of the Father in glory. Besides this, if I neglected to sate my heart daily on the Bread of Heaven and quench my thirst on the True Drink, then I fear I’d starve and thirst to death.
In a mystical way, the Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s wounds feel nearer to my heart and my soul in a real way. I think we do the Eucharist a disservice by saying it is “just” a symbol, and has no further significance. For between the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, there is a textual unity; a poetics of bread and wine, body and blood that is repeated throughout Scripture. Now, when a poetics or a textual unity like this is found in merely human literature, we say that the bread and wine are just ‘metaphorical’, or a ‘figure of speech’ – and if the Bible is merely human literature, we can claim that they are ‘just’ a symbol. But can a unity like that be ‘just metaphorical’ or ‘just a symbol’ and have no function in the realm of the ‘real’, when ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ and ‘body’ and ‘blood’ constitute words uttered by the Mouth that makes concepts into things of real significance just by giving them utterance? The utterance doesn’t need to make them into material things: it is only a naturalistic worldview onto reality that says that a thing cannot be ‘real’ if it is not ‘material’. If the property of the Mouth of God is that its Words create things and bring things about by speaking them, then to my mind, the unique ‘creation-engendering’ power of this Word would necessitate that the symbol and the thing symbolised must be equally ‘real’: for both were spoken into being by this same creator Mouth. ‘Real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’. We are Christians, not naturalists. Jesus is a concrete, material man, but his work is spiritual. God the Father is not material, he is Spirit, and we worship him in Spirit and in truth. But for the fact that he is Spirit, he is no less real than the woman sitting at home typing these words to you now.
If Christ said “this is my body”, then textually, spiritually, it is, as it has been declared so, by the voice that brings about what it utters. He gave the declaration utterance, so in every sense that matters spiritually in accordance with his purpose and aims, the broken bread was his body. Again, it is not that I would want to go into an essentialist description of precisely what it is chemically: I don’t think this is required. Again, I say that ‘real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’ if it can yet mean ‘spiritual’, whatever we understand ‘spiritual’ to mean. As a ramification of this thought, I don’t think we even need to decide whether to define the bread and wine as either a symbol of the real thing, or the real thing thing itself, to determine whether it is ‘real’ or not. Whether the bread and wine are chemically and physically the body and blood of Christ, or whether they merely represent it, is immaterial (no pun intended): it is declared to be what it is declared to be, and the word that declares it is more powerful to create, and engender, and set in motion than any living creature that walks on the earth besides the Son of Man himself, and is capable of doing so in many more ways and modalities than the industry of any human being alone. Whatever the act of ‘being’ of these Communion elements looks like, if the Word binds that act of ‘being’ into existence, then so it must be, even if its ‘being’ is of a different order than the sort of ‘being’ that most things perform. Between the conventional mode of ‘being’, and the conventional mode of ‘non-being’, I believe that there is fillable space. If quantum physics has shown that even material objects can be and not be something at the same time, and that they can be in two places at the same time, then it’s not too far a stretch to propose that spiritual things can be when they don’t appear to be in a material sense. It is a question of there being different modes of ‘being’; different levels of reality. At what did Balaam’s donkey baulk before it showed itself?
As well as being and non-being, we may also perceive there is an alternative to the binary distinction between ‘symbol’ and ‘thing symbolized’. It might be helpful to think about it in the way we think about states of righteousness. There is an alternative to the binary distinction between righteous and unrighteous. For besides these two things, righteous and unrighteous, there is ‘counted righteous’. That is, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, we are ‘counted’ righteous through faith, even though we ourselves are not personally righteous. Now, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, can the bread and wine not also be ‘counted’ as the body and blood of Christ, even though they remain bread and wine? Can they not be statutory tokens of the things they represent, acting as and on behalf of them in substitute for them, and having the efficacy of the same in what they are appointed to do?
I’m not claiming to have the truth here. I’m not outlining a new theology, and God forbid that anyone should pick this up and base their practical belief system on it without any further study or consideration. I don’t want to make trouble for anyone; it’s just an idea that has been rolling around inside my messy, over-populated head. In truth, it’s one that I’d like to discuss. Until then, I would feel privileged just to be heard.