Sermon Follow-Up (8/15/21): Eucharistic Presence
This past Sunday, our Gospel lesson took us to John 6:51-59, in which we find Jesus’ uncomfortably specific words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. As we discussed in the sermon, the connection with the Eucharistic meal is impossible to miss.
One thing I was trying to emphasize in the sermon is the objectivity of Christ’s promise in the Supper: that He truly gives us the communion of His body and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine. How this happens is to us a mystery, except to say that it is accomplished by the incomprehensible work of the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus truly present to us.
One thing that our Reformed tradition has always emphasized is that, whatever it means for Jesus to be present in the Eucharist, His “local” presence at the right hand of God cannot be denied or compromised, because to do so calls into question His continuing humanity. To be human includes being embodied, and a body has its place.
This led, at times, some Reformed theologians to downplay the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. If Jesus is present in heaven at the right hand of God, how can be, or in what sense is He, truly present in the Eucharist? (I’m glossing over a whole bunch of debate and background questions, metaphysical and theological, but this is very basically where a lot of historic debate centered.)
I do not believe (and I’m not the only one!) that Jesus’ ascended, local presence in heaven and His real presence in the bread and wine are mutually exclusive. The same Holy Spirit by Whom the eternal Son was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by Whom Jesus was raised on the third day, is certainly capable of giving us Jesus’ body and blood as our true food and drink in Communion. We believe this by faith.
As I mentioned in the sermon, the Lord’s Supper teaches us that faith is not merely an intellectual exercise. We receive Jesus by faith, and at the Table, that faith is exercised by eating and drinking. The 39 Articles of Religion state that “the Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner.” That’s to say, as we’ve seen, that it is given supernaturally, not in the same manner in which we eat ordinary food. As Luther says (see below), “no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees or chews any other flesh.” This is a spiritual (or, Spiritual) and heavenly reality, but no less real and true.
There are many other questions and areas of discussion around the Supper that we could speak of. And, as we’ve talked about before, fixating on the question of Christ’s presence is not the point of the Eucharist biblically. It has become the major point of discussion that it is through historical debate. The “point” of the Eucharist is (1) the communion in Jesus’ life through His body and blood and (2) the formation of the faithful as the ecclesial body of Christ in the world. We who are many receive the one bread and one cup, and are thus made one with each other.
Below are a number of historical statements on the Eucharist from our Reformational tradition, some of which I shared on Sunday. I don’t mean to indicate, by these, that what I have said represents the Reformed position on the presence of Christ in the Supper; you could easily find statements from Reformed confessional documents and theologians, including Calvin, that would seem to downplay what is said below. Calvin himself is not always completely consistent with his Eucharistic theology. But, what I hope to show is that this realist approach to the Eucharist is well within the Reformed tradition, at least in nascent form, and is ready to be developed.
The Wittenberg Concord, a document accepted by Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and Martin Bucer (i.e. an early Lutheran/ Reformed consensus):
“I. We confess, according to the words of Irenaeus, that the Eucharist consists of two things, one earthly and one heavenly. Therefore they think3 and teach that Christ’s body and blood are truly and substantially present, exhibited, and taken with the bread and wine.
II. And although they deny that transubstantiation occurs and do not think that a local enclosing [of Christ’s body] in the bread occurs, or that there is a lasting conjunction [of the two] outside of the use of the Sacrament: nevertheless they grant that, by means of sacramental union, the bread is Christ’s body, that is, they think that, when the bread has been offered, Christ’s body at the same time is present and truly exhibited. For outside of use, when it is preserved in a box [the pyx], as is done by the papists, they think that Christ’s body is not present.
III. Next, they think that this institution of the sacrament has power in the church, and does not depend on the worthiness of the minister or of him who takes it. Wherefore, as Paul says, even the unworthy eat, they thus think that the Lord’s body and blood are truly offered even to the unworthy, and that the unworthy take, where Christ’s words and institution are maintained. But such people take to their judgment, as Paul says, because they abuse the Sacrament, since they use it without repentance and without faith. For it was designed for this purpose, in order that it might bear witness that Christ’s benefits are applied to those who repent and raise themselves up by faith in Christ, and that they are made Christ’s members, and are washed in Christ’s blood.”
“The same body which Christ has offered as a sacrifice is extended in the Supper.”
“... He feeds His people with His own body and blood, the communion of which He bestows upon them by the power of His Spirit.”
“And this is the wholeness of the sacrament, which the whole world cannot violate: that the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God’s elect believers. At the same time, it is true, however, that, just as rain falling upon hard rock flows off because no entrance no entrance opens into the stone, the wicked by their hardness so repel God’s grace that it does not reach them. Besides, to say that Christ may be received without faith is as inappropriate as to say that a seed may germinate in fire.”
Martin Luther: “‘He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body;’... And yet it remains absolutely true that no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees or chews any other flesh. What one does to the bread is rightly and properly attributed to the body of Christ by virtue of the sacramental union.”
French Confession of 1559 (heavily influenced by Calvin): “Although He is is heaven until He comes to judge the world, we believe that He gives us life and nourishes us with the substance of His body and blood. This takes place in the unfathomable and incomprehensible power of His Spirit.”
The Scots Confession of 1566: “Notwithstanding the distance between His glorified body in heaven and mortal [humanity] on earth, yet we must assuredly believe that the bread that we break is the communion of Christ’s body and the cup which we bless the communion of His blood.”
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith. The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”
T.F. Torrance: Real presence is "... the real presence... of the whole Christ, not just the presence of his body and blood, nor just the presence of his Spirit or Mind, but the presence of the actual Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified, in his whole, living and active reality… How he is thus present is only explicable from the side of God, in terms of his creative activity which by its very nature transcends any kind of explanation which we can offer… he is present through the Spirit, not that he is present only as Spirit, far less as some spiritual reality, but present through the same kind of inexplicable creative activity whereby he was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the grave."
Sinclair Ferguson, describing Calvin’s Eucharistic theology: “Christ comes to his people in the very body in which he was incarnate, crucified, buried, resurrected, and is now glorified… In the Supper… we commune with the person of Christ in the mystery of his hypostatic union; we do so S/spiritually, i.e. through the power of the Spirit.”
I hope this is all helpful to you! As I said Sunday, please feel free to bring any questions or discussion to me!