By Scott Giger
The Lutheran understanding of communion is very simple to understand. It is simple to understand in the same way that the national tax code and baseball statistics are simple to understand.
Communion is a classic case study in Lutheran theology, the hallmarks of which are 1) forgiveness given as an undeserved gift, that was 2) paid for by the death of Jesus, and involves 3) unresolved tension between two seemingly contradictory points. In the spirit of Lutheran theology, here is a primer.
First, let’s look at thumbnail sketches of what other denominations believe. We will start with the Roman Catholics. The teaching of Roman Catholics on communion revolves around something called “transubstantiation.” This is the belief that the bread and wine undergo a substance change and become the body and blood of Jesus. One might ask why bread and wine are still tasted. They are still tasted because they are “physical accidents.”
The word “accident” in this case is a philosophical word that refers to something acting outside of its realm of being. So, the body and blood are there; the bread and wine are tricks, mere accidents.
Think of a chair. A chair is paint, metal and plastic – it could be other things, but stay with this for now. If the paint, metal and plastic were said to become a “chair,” then “chair” would be its essence, its being.
That “chair” is all there is. To say that you still feel metal and plastic would be to say that those things are “accidents,” they do not by themselves display the properties of a chair. One cannot take any old metal and call it a chair, that resembles this chair.
Now that we understand our chairs better, let’s get back to communion. For the Roman Catholics, when the Words of Institution (“On the night when Jesus was betrayed…”) are spoken, and often a bell is rung, the bread and wine cease to exist; they are “transubstantiated,” physically and completely changed into the body and blood of Jesus.
“TRANS-substantiation” — the substance of the bread and wine changes.
The Romans Catholics would emphasize the words that Jesus speaks, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” During the mass, the priest then offers the body and blood of Jesus to God the Father as a “non-bloody sacrifice” for the forgiveness of sins. Notice the direction here is from us toward God.
With a basic understanding of Roman Catholicism, we move to the opposite end of the spectrum. This is the realm of many non-denominationals and Baptists. These denominations teach that communion is a memorial meal.
At this meal, the participants eat bread and drink wine only; there is no body and blood presumed to be present. The emphasis is on the words of Jesus, “Do this often in remembrance of me.” The remembering is seen as a way to re-live the events of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Sharing this meal is (merely) remembering the benefit of communion, as there is no forgiveness actually offered in the meal itself.
Memorial Meal Only – we remember Jesus as we eat, but nothing really happens.
With these two extremes in mind, we can plot other Christian denominations on the continuum. Eastern Orthodox churches practice “consubstantiation,” meaning that there is a substance change of the bread and wine into body and blood, but there is also a remnant of the bread and wine that remains with it. Thus the prefix “con-“ meaning “with.” They might be considered the first step toward the center from the Roman Catholics.
“CON-substantiation” – the substances of bread/body and wine/blood are both present and distinct.
The Methodists and Wesleyans believe that the faith of the receiver ascends into heaven during the memorial meal and lays hold of Jesus, thus creating an added benefit to communion beyond a simple remembrance. They might be considered the first step toward the center from the non-denominationals.
Rather than explaining all the different beliefs of Christian denominations on communion, we will now turn our attention to the Lutheran position. With a nod to the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans believe that Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” are formative. When Jesus speaks these words, he literally means that his body and blood are present.
We turn to the writing of the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 10:16), “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”
Elsewhere Paul will speak of receiving the Lord’s Supper falsely as a sin against the very body and blood of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:27). Therefore, we conclude that Jesus’ body and blood are truly present in communion.
However, Lutherans vary from the Roman Catholics in that we do not believe that there is a substance change in communion. We focus instead on his real presence as being understood by faith – we do not turn to philosophical terms like “accident.”
Furthermore, we acknowledge that our senses and reason can mislead us. We might turn to Biblical accounts such as the disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening (Luke 24:13-35). Though these disciples knew Jesus, they were kept from recognizing him. Their senses betrayed them. However, once the Word of God was opened to them, their faith believed and they “saw” him. Communion is very similar. Our faith informs what our sense cannot perceive.
We are not done, however. We also believe that we receive bread and wine at communion. Our reason tells us this. We buy the wine and the bread. They are ordinary, plain. When we eat them; we taste that they are ordinary!
Real Presence – Jesus’ body and blood are truly present in, with, and under bread and wine, for the forgiveness of sins.
So we nod toward the non-denominationals and agree that we receive bread and wine. We agree that we are doing this to memorialize an actual event in history. We differ though in that we believe that the body and blood of Jesus are hidden under the bread and wine. In other words, bread and wine are the veils behind which Christ’s body and blood reside.
So, at communion we receive body and blood, bread and wine. All four things are important, even necessary.
For Lutheran, this results in a meal that Jesus himself prepares. We are fed these four things for the forgiveness of our sins, just as he said, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins!”
We do not need to offer Jesus’ body and blood as a sacrifice; they have already been offered. Instead, we receive the real present body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Notice the direction: from God to us!
Is it body and blood, or is it bread and wine? The Lutheran answer is, “Yes.”
Is it a meal at which we remember what Jesus has done for us, or a meal at which we actually receive forgiveness? For a Lutheran the answer is, “Yes.” It is unresolved tension between two seemingly opposing points that is only understood by faith in Jesus.
Communion is a “sacrament,” a holy thing, that God uses to come among his people and give us the forgiveness of sins earned by Jesus. Though the understanding might be difficult, the effects are wonderful!