Some years ago, I, as a Lutheran, was invited to write about the Lord’s Supper in Tabletalk, a magazine with mostly Reformed readers, which was doing special issue on the sacraments. I didn’t want to argue, just explain what Holy Communion means and can mean in the life of a Christian. I offer it to you, whatever your theology, for Maundy Thursday:
As far as I know, I am the only Lutheran who writes regularly for Tabletalk, so please bear with me. Inviting a Lutheran to write about the Lord’s Supper is like asking a grandmother if she has any pictures of the new baby. So much affection for the subject matter can easily outpace other people’s interest. However, the Lord’s Supper is at the heart of a Lutheran’s piety. Calvinists too, as well as other Protestants, are rediscovering their own sacramental heritage, which has become somewhat forgotten. We Lutherans have never lost the Reformation’s emphasis on the sacrament, so perhaps this description of what it is like might prove helpful.
I do not intend here so much to argue for the Lutheran theological position on the sacrament, but rather to describe — in a way that I hope is helpful for non-Lutherans who are also trying to regain an evangelical sense of the sacrament — what it is like to believe in it. I will then make some cultural connections, showing why the Reformation emphasis on the sacrament is a bracing tonic against today’s highly-internalized pop-Christianity.
At the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, that great debate over the Lord’s Supper between Luther and Zwingli, Dr. Martin took a piece of chalk and wrote on a table: “This is my body.” In answer to Zwingli’s long philosophical discourse, Luther whipped off the tablecloth and pointed to those words. For Luther, the conviction that the bread and wine of Holy Communion are the body and blood of Christ was a matter of trusting God’s Word. Since the Bible says, “This is my body,” he would not countenance any arguments designed to prove “this is not my body.” As at Augsburg, so at Marburg, Luther was saying, “Here I stand” on the Word of God.
Lutherans are puzzled at the resistance from so many other Christians at their conviction that the Lord’s Supper involves “the real presence of Christ.” Calvin had no problem affirming Christ’s true presence in the Lord’s Supper, but he did not understand this in terms of corporeal presence. Luther, who always encouraged Christians to look outside of themselves rather than within themselves to know God, believed in Christ’s objective presence through the objective Word of God that consecrates the elements. Another sticking point was whether an unbeliever receives the corporeal body of Christ. Calvin would say no. Luther, citing 1 Corinthians 11:27–30, would say yes.
By the way, in this ecumenical forum, let it be known that Lutherans, according to their official statements of faith, reject “consubstantiation.” We do not believe that the body and the bread, the blood and the wine, constitute a new and unique substance. We reject all such philosophical attempts to parse this miracle, insisting that we must simply accept the biblical language without interpretation, that the bread and wine are still bread and wine and also the body and blood of Jesus.
But, for Luther, the Lord’s Supper is not just about the real presence of Christ. “The main thing in the Sacrament,” Luther teaches in The Small Catechism, are the words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Specifically, the words “for you.”
Whereas Rome taught that the rite of Holy Communion was a good work, man’s offering of Christ up to God, the Reformation reversed that. The Lord’s Supper is about Christ offering Himself — His body broken on the cross and the blood that He shed for the forgiveness of sins — to us. That is, the Lord’s Supper embodies the Gospel.
Many Christians look for signs and miracles. But there is no more miraculous sign than what happens during Holy Communion. Many Christians look for a religious experience, but there is no experience as vivid as tasting. Evangelicals talk about receiving Christ, something that happened way back at their conversion. But in the Lord’s Supper, as we are brought back to the Gospel again and again, we can continue to receive Christ.
Contemporary Christianity tends to be all internalized — a matter of my feelings, my inner life, and my personal opinions. People look inward for their salvation, with some health-and-wealth preachers urging the members of their congregation to “have faith in yourself.” But the Reformers — Calvin as well as Luther — stressed how salvation is extra nos, outside ourselves, accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Contemporary Christians tend to be all spiritual. They often scorn the physical realm, even as they indulge their sinful flesh, reasoning like Gnostics that what they do with their bodies does not affect their spirits. They often construe God as a being primarily inside their heads, and they treat Jesus like some imaginary friend. The Reformers rejected such Gnosticism.
Recovering the Lord’s Supper can remind all Christians that their faith is grounded in objectivity, in a God who created matter and became incarnate in history, in a Christ who redeemed us by giving His body — not just His “spirit” — in a bloody sacrifice.
What we do in our bodies and in our physical, mundane lives does matter, both for sin and for grace. When we eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, Christ nourishes us both spiritually and physically, uniting us with His body on the cross and the body that is His church. When we drink the wine, Christ’s cleansing blood courses through our veins, such is the thoroughness and the intimacy of our salvation.
Gene Edward Veith, This Is My Body, Tabletalk, November 2006.