Symbolic Communion = Symbolic Jesus

By Graham Glover

This is my body.

This is my blood.

It’s really quite simple. Body. Blood. Not a symbol. Not a representation. Not a quaint memorial. It’s real, corporeal, and physical. It’s what Jesus says it is.

For the readers of the Jagged Word, I can hear your collective “sigh”. Nothing new here. What’s the big deal? A lot actually. Maybe more than we realize.

Although I’m pretty sure most of the Jagged Mafia are members of church bodies that believe in the true, physical presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, this belief is not shared by many Christians. You know this. We all know it. Sadly, there are countless Christian denominations that do not believe these words of Jesus. They ignore them, distort them, and/or reject them. And in so doing, they reject Christ Himself.

Yes, you read that correctly, the rejection of the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a rejection of Christ.

To deny that the bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ is to deny Him who gave this sacrament to the Church. To reject the belief that at the altar we come into the physical presence of our Savior – that when we feast on the consecrated elements, we are feasting on Him who died and rose for us – is to reject the faith we claim to have in the One who instituted this meal.

Which is why those who hold to a symbolic understanding of Holy Communion ultimately hold to a symbolic understanding of Jesus. And if you have a symbolic Jesus, you have no faith. You have no forgiveness. You have no grace. You really have nothing at all. You most assuredly do not have Christianity. What you have is a symbolic faith, rooted in a symbolic god.

Again, you know this. We all know it.

But so often many are quick to ignore this heresy. (And it is a heresy. A most heinous one at that.) In our noble efforts to be ecumenical, to find common areas of agreement with our Christian neighbors, we set this particular difference aside as though it is an insignificant disagreement between Christian communions.

This however is not the case. It should never be lumped into a generic pile of friendly differences among believers. It’s far more important. It’s of primary importance. For it defines what it means to be a Christian. So much is at stake in this doctrine. While it may not be the doctrine on which our faith rests, it’s close. Maybe more than we realize.

So as our Lenten sacrifice continues, take some time today to consider the importance of this teaching as you consider how our Lord offers us His grace, how He forgives. His grace is real and substantive, not symbolic and spiritual. His grace became flesh. His grace was shed. It’s a grace found in the Eucharist, in His Body and Blood. A grace offered for us at His altar. A physical grace that literally is Jesus.

21 comments

  1. I don’t suppose anyone around here knows how “not-really-present” folks deal with 1 Cor. 11:29; because that seems like “not discerning the body” to me. I’m sure there is an explanation. I just don’t know what it is.

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    1. Don, I wish I had an answer for you. As you know, I work alongside many Protestant clergy that reject this teaching. For a group that also claims to believe the Holy Scriptures are inerrant, I am at a loss for words in understanding them.

      Like many things, I think they are reacting against anything that resembles Roman Catholic teaching, but the Scriptures are so clear on this that it defies reason to reject the belief that Christ is physically present in the Sacrament.

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      1. I’ll bite. Barnes Notes sums it up pretty good:
        “Not discerning the Lord’s body – Not discriminating” μὴ διακρίνων mē diakrinōn between the bread which is used on this occasion and common and ordinary food. Not making the proper difference and distinction between this and common meals. It is evident that this was the leading offence of the Corinthians (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:20-21), and this is the proper idea which the original conveys. It does not refer to any intellectual or physical power to perceive that that bread represented the body of the Lord; not to any spiritual perception which it is often supposed that piety has to distinguish this; not to any view which faith may be supposed to have to discern the body of the Lord through the elements; but to the fact that they did not “distinguish” or “discriminate” between this and common meals. They did not regard it in a proper manner, but supposed it to be simply an historical commemoration of an event, such as they were in the habit of observing in honor of an idol or a hero by a public celebration. They, therefore, are able to “discern the Lord’s body” in the sense intended here, who with a serious mind, regard it as an institution appointed by the Lord Jesus to commemorate his death; and who “distinguish” thus between this and ordinary meals and all festivals and feasts designed to commemorate other events.

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      2. If it’s just a discernment of a different meal, why does he say “discern the body?” It is obvious enough that we can’t sense that in any physical way – it looks to all of our senses like bread and wine. But Jesus said it is his body, so can’t we consider (probably better discerned by faith as the Holy Spirit works in us) that it is so (or not so), with all of the implications that such a thing does? He says it is necessary to do that, and there is a penalty attached. That idea alone makes it something sacred and a thing to be treated as such. It ain’t just food.

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    2. Context. The entire chapter, if not the entire book must be read.

      20 Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, 21 for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

      33 So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment.

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      1. I just read 1 Corinthians, my take is different, we must prepare for the sacraments of the Lord’s supper by confessing our sins 11-29 and 34. It is HE that speaks and tells us how and what to do. You all study much more than the average person, and I admit that I am rusty at my old age of Luther’s Catechism but I confess that as I prepare for the alter and Sacrament of the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, He is ever present in my body. Thank you for this interesting blog.

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      2. The whole context is bread and wine of a Eucharist, spoken outright to be the body and blood of Christ, and designed for specific purposes for us to eat and drink. It would be entirely unworthy to treat such a thing as a house party. Still, it says and I say again, “discern the body,” not discern the meal.

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  2. I don’t know about the physical part myself. I just know what the Bible says – “This is…” and the necessary discernment of it. I’m not much concerned with the “how” of presence; just that it “is” a reality – sacramental maybe?

    One of these days I’m going to have to go find out the specifics of the argument – perhaps from Calvin’s writings. Most of the other stuff I’ve noticed doesn’t hold any water, rhetorically. Any suggestions?

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    1. Don, I like how you note that we ought not concern ourselves with the how, only with what our Lord says. This is why Lutherans push back against Rome on transubstantiation. Rome is very much concerned with the how. Luther(ans) rest comfortably simply proclaiming what our Lord does.

      Luther’s disagreement with Zwingli culminated in the Marburg Colloquy. Calvin tried to find a happy medium between Luther and Zwingli, but like Zwingli, continues to reject the corporeal presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

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      1. Thanks, Graham. I’ll take a look at that. Paying attention to the words is something Norman Nagel beat me up with regularly. If you stay with the words, it’s hard to lose the argument – even with yourself.

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  3. Maybe it is not to have all the answers but to have faith and believe in the Word. I FEEL Jesus when I take the body and the blood. Thank you Graham for your blog today. Lent is a perfect time for all Christians to read the Word, not to know why or how but to have faith and allow Jesus in.

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  4. We are called to a ” child like faith” not a challenging faith. Thank God for His LCMS inspired doctrine we can share – He speaks as we learn to discern!

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  5. This article clearly points out something that has been vexing me ever since I became Lutheran. Namely, why do we count Protestants as our brothers and sisters, since they reject the Real Physical Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? The Fathers most certainly would *not* have counted them as Christians. What is the difference today? Some say “they don’t know any better.” So do people “who don’t know any better” who reject the Trinity get a free pass, too?

    I’m really having trouble understanding why we consider them our brethren when we rightly believe that the Eucharist is an essential doctrine.

    Help me out here, Lutherans.

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    1. Josh, perhaps the question is to what extent do we consider those who reject the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be part of the church catholic? To reject the physical presence, while clearly a heresy, does not necessarily make one an unbeliever. It makes one heterodox, for sure, but I think we can still call them Christians (even as they reject the Christ who said, “This is my body.”).

      My concern is more with those who confess this doctrine rather than those who reject it. In other words, those who reject it have already alienated themselves from orthodox doctrine. For those who rightly confess the physical presence, we are wise to constantly remember how important this doctrine is. We cannot dismiss it. We cannot neglect it. We must constantly return to it, both in teaching and in practice.

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  6. // This is my body.
    This is my blood.

    It’s really quite simple. Body. Blood. Not a symbol. Not a representation. Not a quaint memorial. It’s real, corporeal, and physical. It’s what Jesus says it is. //

    Well, as always, what is the “this” being referred to?! It is, of course, the elements of the supper. What were the elements of the supper? Traditionally, the contents of the meal have been referred to as bread and wine. People, of course, ate and drank more than just that, but the labels are good representatives. Good “symbols” as it were. Both the metabolic and symbolic views of the elements in the Lord’s Supper have a long provenance in the church. So, calling your side “the one right true thing” and disparaging the other side is simply partisan.

    The limitations of symbolism are well stated by those who hold to a metabolic view, that the scriptures offer a relatively strong statement or identification of the elements with Christ’s body. But the limitations of metabolism are clear also: they require a doctrine of the ubiquity, a doctrine that Christ’s body is multi-present (if not omni-present). But this is a doctrine with no explicit scripture support. So the partisan “my side is better than yours” that ignores these significant issues simply cannot be commended.

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    1. borgan, this isn’t a “my side” vs. “your side”, this is Scripture vs. false interpretation. This is orthodox teaching vs. heresy. As a friend noted on his FB post in response to this article:

      Ignatius of Antioch and Ireneaus of Lyons both spoke about this heresy being being perpetrated by the Gnostics in the second century:

      “When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the Body of Christ…how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God…which is the Body and blood Of Christ.” Ireneaus, “Against Heresies 5.2.2-3”

      “”Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.” Ignatius “Letter to the Smyreneans, paragraph 6”

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  7. Graham, Graham, Graham…
    Wow! Dogmatism reigns here! OK, let me temper this down a little…
    This I agree with…
    “To reject the belief that at the altar we come into the physical presence of our Savior – that when we feast on the consecrated elements, we are feasting on Him who died and rose for us – is to reject the faith we claim to have in the One who instituted this meal.”
    No, of course I do not believe the bread and cup become, literally, Jesus. He has come to me in the person of the Holy Spirit. I do believe that there is more to communion than symbolism though.

    I believe the table of communion is an expression of a believer’s faith through which he demonstrates his acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ for his redemption, acknowledges his part as a sinner that led to Christ coming, and anticipates the return of the Lord one day to claim His own. In so doing, as a congregation, we share our faith in fellowship with one another.

    There is a spiritual sharing in the body and blood of Jesus when we do this in His remembrance. As you reach to take of the bread and the cup, we think of this and remember that we, as individuals had a part in His death, it was our sin that put Him there. Also, as a community of believers, together we do this as a body to say that we are united in our faith in our Redeemer!

    I would more likely fall in line with Calvin’s thoughts on this…real presence, not tied in with the elements. These are vehicles God uses to come to us, the important thing is a worthy reception by faith, made possible by the work of the Spirit. There is, in the elements of the bread and the cup, signs that Christ is truly present with us now

    Thoughts?

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    1. Mike, Mike! I wish we were debating this in the gym or on a long run! We clearly disagree on this, but this shouldn’t be a surprise for an Independent Baptist and a Missouri Synod Lutheran!

      I’m glad to hear you cite Calvin in this dialogue. It’s been interesting to see Baptists become much more Reformed/Calvinistic in their theology over the last decade or so. To that end, I think you have a different view on the Sacrament of the Altar than other Baptists.

      Obviously, there are varying degrees to which Christians understand what it means for Christ to be present in the Sacrament. Even among those who believe in the physical presence (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans) there is disagreement. So, the fact that you and I are having this conversation, is, I think, very encouraging.

      But, I also think we Christians need to be honest with one another on how much we disagree on this doctrine and how this disagreement informs our understanding of who Jesus is, how He continues makes Himself known, how His grace is given, and what importance the Church ought to place on the Sacrament of the Altar. So, let’s clear the air, you and I do not agree on how Christ is present in the Sacrament. Period.

      While you do not hold a purely symbolic understanding, the fact that you do not believe, teach, or confess that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, puts us in very different theological camps.

      However, your strong language on the communal aspect of the Sacrament is spot on, and is why you and I have agreed over the years that we ought not commune with those we are not in fellowship with (i.e., those of differing denominations). This view is often not always shared in the greater Protestant world, and I think that is shame and a betrayal of what the Sacrament is, namely, not just an individual thing, but a communal one.

      My post was direct, I know. But even though we disagree here and even though I think this disagreement should mean more than it seems to in inter-Christian dialogues/relationships, you remain my brother in Christ. Now, for the sake of our Lord, simply confess what He says!

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    2. JGP, I would like to interject a bit about what you’re saying. You are talking a lot about what we do to receive the thing that is offered. I suggest that you should look at it as the thing given, what Jesus did, and said, and is doing. He says it is his body and blood, without elaborating on the details of how that it so – except it is what he said (not a lot different from “Let there be light”). You either believe him or you don’t, eat it and drink it or not. He’s the one broken and poured out and gives this means to receive the benefit of it, especially forgiveness (as he also said). It is rather physical on our part (eating and drinking physical objects); important for us somehow, but fully understood by Jesus alone. There is also a spiritual component, because believing is important, too. I can’t see any good reason to explain what Jesus didn’t say about it, like symbol or heavenly or even physical, like those things are exclusively needed – he didn’t explain it that much. Can’t we just be satisfied with “is” and the enclosed gifts?

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  8. Graham and Don, thanks for your gracious responses and spirit of seeking truth! I think one other aspect that may be a point of difference is in our understanding of the purpose of the Communion. As in, we are told to do it, as oft as we do it, “in remembrance.” For our practice that means we do it as a reflection of what He has done for us and made available, that is salvation, redemption, and we do it as a humbling reminder of our own part in the sin that He paid for, and we do it as a rejoicing reminder that He is coming again!

    Obviously, this is not quite the same as the sacramental avenue of grace (I hope I am not misrepresenting by those words) that you all practice. For us it is celebration and reflection over the grace which we have received through Him. Though, as I indicated above, I do believe He is present and involved in the act of worship itself.

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  9. If this is true, it will only be preserved intact, and in perpetuity, in Rome.

    Beyond Her threshold it will forever be bled by a thousand cuts.

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