Jesus understood that his disciples were having a hard time with his teaching. They were saying: “How can we accept this? This is a hard teaching. What does it mean that we must drink his blood and eat his flesh, abide in me and I in you? What does that mean? Jesus was aware that the disciples were complaining and he says to them: “Does this offend you? It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are life”.
Now here is a dichotomy. In his previous statement he says, “They that eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I in them”. But, then he says this: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. It is the spirit that gives life. The flesh is useless”. It’s these two verses that have given theologians fits for nearly 2,000 years, “the flesh is useless”, and “eat my flesh and drink my blood”. There has been conflict, confusion, disagreement and complaining. Throughout history churches have separated. People have put up religious walls that separate them from others that do not share the same theology about “holy communion”.
I think that it’s important that we look at the Great Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist, the Lords Table, and look at the similarities not just the differences. There are 5 different interpretations of how to do the Eucharist Service and what it means. They all agree that we do and practice the Lords Table because when we “celebrate” we also remember the first communion celebrated by
Jesus, and we are instructed to do this together again and again as a church community. It points us to Christ. We all agree on this.
There are variations of theological viewpoints among theologians in the Episcopal Church, just as there are individual variations among Roman Catholic Priests, Eastern Orthodox priests and church leaders of the other major denominations. However, there are official views that most of us fall into. Let’s take a look at the 5 major views represented in Christianity.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that during the mass, at the consecration in the Lord Supper (Communion), the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus, and they are no longer bread and wine but only retain the appearance of bread and wine. This physical and spiritual change is referred to as “transubstantiation”. Transubstantiation is the teaching that during the Mass, at the consecration in the Lord’s Supper (Communion), the elements of the Eucharist, bread and wine, are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus and that they are no longer bread and wine but only retain their appearance of bread and wine. The “Real Presence” is the term referring to Christ’s actual presence in the elements of the bread and the wine that have been transubstantiated. In this view there is a spiritual and physical presence in the Eucharist. That teaching coincides with our teaching that the altar is the central part of the church service and everything else in the service including the sermon, is secondary and supports the central act of the Eucharist. Most Episcopalians also believe in this main emphasis of worship at the Eucharist Table.
The Eastern Orthodox Church shares the view that the bread and wine become the true body and blood of Christ. But, they do not try to analyze it or explain it in transubstantiation terms. They refer to it simply as a “Holy Mystery”. For them the mystery of the holy Eucharist defies analysis and explanation in purely rational and logical terms. The Orthodox tradition does use the term “symbols” for the Eucharistic gifts. It calls the service a “mystery” and the sacrifice of the liturgy a “spiritual and bloodless sacrifice.” In this way they differ from the Roman Church. Most Episcopalians agree that Holy Eucharist is a spiritual and bloodless sacrifice.
The teachings of Martin Luther and the official teaching of most Lutheran Churches is that at the altar there is a real and substantial presence of the body and blood of Christ. The bread and the wine simultaneously co-exist. This coexistence is not two substances mixed or fused together into one substance. There is a sacramental union between the bread and wine and body and blood of Christ. In other words, Christ’s body and blood are present, in, with, under and over the bread and the wine. This is referred to as “Consubstantiation”. Luther explained this view by using an analogy of an iron rod being placed in a fire. Both are united in the red-hot fire, yet both are also distinct. The Lutheran Church rejects the view of “making present” Christs sacrifice on the cross. Most episcopal priests feel comfortable with this view of the Holy Eucharist.
The Presbyterian and Reform Churches are influenced through reformers such as John Calvin and John Knox. They taught that Christ is not literally present in the elements, but He is spiritually present. Reformer theologians like Calvin and Knox taught that those who receive the elements with faith can receive the actual body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, which works through the sacraments. This view is referred to as “Receptionism”. Calvin explained the spiritual presence through the act of communion this way: “The visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift that his body is given to us”. I do believe this is what we teach from our BCP. The visible sign points to the invisible gift of Christ that is given to us. The emphasis by Calvin is receiving the sacraments by faith in your heart with thanksgiving. You hear me say that every week as I invite everyone to the altar for communion with these words: “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving”. This is right out of the Book of Common Prayer.
Most Baptist and Fundamentalist Churches refer to the Eucharist as the Lords Supper of Holy Communion and deny any form of physical or spiritual presence of Christ in the elements. Rather it is a remembrance of Christs suffering and a reminder of His power to overcome sin and death. This view is referred to as “Memorialism”. It was made popular by certain Reformation theologians such as Ulrich Zwingli. The Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated to remember Christ and what he did for mankind. The sacrament of communion is symbolic and points us to Christ. . You will hear me say that often in our liturgy. Everything that we do liturgical is symbolical and points us to Christ.
Unlike Baptism, which is a onetime event, Communion is a practice that is meant to be observed over and over throughout the life of a Christian. It is a holy time of worship when we corporately come together as one body to remember and celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is also a time to remember that we are not alone on our Christian journey. We are surrounded by millions of Christians throughout the world and throughout history. Holy Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving is intended to be the central part of the church service on Sunday mornings and all Festive Days.
Let’s celebrate communion! Amen.