Today was World Communion Sunday and thus I preached a message about the Lord’s Supper at Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church. A video of the service is available on this page. The basic message was that we are feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood when we partake of the bread and cup. This is an issue that has divided Christians when it should be unifying Christians–largely due to the divergent views of how to understand what is taking place. The prepared text is below. As usual, the point with the line through it wasn’t stated until later in italics. I’ve preached on the larger 1 Corinthians passage before, which is available here if you’re looking for more. I’ve also written elsewhere about the Lord’s Supper: here and here.
Today is World Communion Sunday. All over the globe people who trust in Christ Jesus are feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood. But many push back when we characterize communion in such a way. This isn’t new. When Jesus spoke in John 6 about us feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood, the religious leaders from Judea pushed back. They grumbled that He can’t be the bread of life that came down from heaven because they had met His parents. They mocked Him asking, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Thus they suggested it was impossible and insinuated that He is crazy. In the second century, cannibalism was one alarming accusation made against Christians. Eventually professing Christians became so uncomfortable with the idea of feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood that some started explaining away such language as metaphors and began speaking of the sacrament as symbolic. During the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli and others stressed a symbolic view arguing Jesus meant, “This signifies My body.” But even Zwingli said, “Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper” and again, “that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religious, believing, and pious heart.” However, many professing Christians today would claim we don’t really feed on His flesh and drink His blood. And most modern commentaries—including those by Evangelicals—say John 6 has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper. So communion remains one of the most serious theological conflicts within Christianity despite how it is meant to unite us with all of our sisters and brothers in Christ. And yet Jesus really gives us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. He gives us more than just loaves of bread and fruit of the vine—He gives us the bread of life and the new covenant in His blood. Resist the urge to push back and listen:
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
a normal service of worship, we do this.
said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
- The word “remembrance” is a worship word. For the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” Instead of “remember,” Deuteronomy 5:12 says, “Observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy, as YHWH your God commanded you.” A remembrance or an observance is the language of a service of worship. It is also no accident that the Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me—therefore, go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20). The other major thing Jesus taught them to observe was the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” (Furthermore,…)
- The “this” that we are to do is an adaptation of a particular worship service—Passover. So Jesus takes a couple things from the Passover seder and reinterprets them. The word seder means order—that is, the passages that describe the institution of the Lord’s Supper are descriptions of an order of worship. Paul told the Corinthians the traditional order of worship for the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a highly stylized meal with lines that are read to explain the elements. This is at the center of Paul’s discussion of the chaos at Corinth. What they were doing wasn’t the Lord’s Supper because it wasn’t following this order of worship. This is one of the ways that the Lord’s Supper—like the Passover—isn’t an ordinary meal. (But one question confronting us is this: How can we connect these passages of institution to the reading from John 6? How do we get from the Lord’s Supper is part of a service of worship with an order of worship to the Lord’s Supper is feeding on Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood? Is it enough that Jesus says, “This is My body” when breaking the bread and “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” when pouring the cup?)
we realize that “remembrance” isn’t merely a mental exercise
but a spiritual experience, we get closer to seeing what Jesus
means by “do this.”
- The people of Israel understood the Passover seder was a spiritual experience. Generations of Israel yet unborn at the time of the first Passover described themselves as people who personally had been there whenever they did the Passover seder. They “remembered” the Passover when they observed it. They didn’t just recall things about an event that happened long before their own conception as children in their mother’s wombs. They experienced it afresh by participating in that act of spiritual worship. (In the same way,…)
- We who believe in Jesus spiritually experience something in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. We can say yes to the lyrics, “Were You There?” By faith we become bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh—united with Christ. We are in Christ so we “remember” His death and resurrection. Our minds cannot recall being there since we weren’t yet born, but we have a spiritual experience of it. (But what exactly are we experiencing when we eat the bread and drink the cup? And how? Jesus said, “This is My body” when breaking the bread and “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” when pouring the cup. What do we do with these words and actions of Jesus? What happens when we do this in remembrance of Him?)
- Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
faith, when we do
the Lord’s Supper in
remembrance of Him we
feed on His
flesh and drink His blood but this is a
stumbling block for many.
- Jesus made several shocking statements—indeed, He especially offended many with talk of feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood in John 6. At first they were ok with Him saying, “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Many said that they wanted this bread. But then Jesus said things like, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger; and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). And like this, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (John 6:51). In retrospect, this is an obvious reference to Christ’s death. But undeterred by how uncomfortable He was making the people listening, Jesus ratcheted up his rhetoric with phrases like this, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you,” and, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink” (John 6:53, 55). These were very offensive ideas. The Torah of Moses prohibited eating meat with the blood in it. But here Christ was comparing eating His flesh and drinking His blood to coming to Him and believing in Him. This same Torah told them about the manna the fathers ate in the desert but He kept observing that the fathers ate it and died but whoever feeds on His flesh and drinks His blood will live forever. And as you might expect John 6 continues, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted him by the Father.” 66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” The text goes on to even name Judas Iscariot as the one who would betray Him. Jesus had said earlier that we cannot really come to Him unless the Father draws us to Jesus (John 6:44). Thus the Father didn’t draw Judas Iscariot to truly come to Jesus (cf. John 6:64-65). However—by faith—we who have heard and learned from the Father (cf. John 6:45) can feed on Christ’s flesh and drink His blood. Drawn to the crucified Christ by the Father, we can come to Him and believe that He died for our sins. I’m paraphrasing what Jesus said—you can see it there for yourself. (Now I’ll admit that the modern commentators are right that this passage nowhere explicitly mentions the Lord’s Supper. The most obvious allusion to it is that the passage is discussing feeding on Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood while talking about the one who would betray Him. I think that Jesus brings up the betrayal here because Jesus is intentionally alluding to His institution of communion, the context of which is that He instituted the sacrament “on the night when He was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23). But even if that’s not persuasive enough for you let me put it this way: First, the Lord teaches us in John 6 that the Lord’s Supper is not absolutely necessary for us to feed on His flesh and drink His blood. We feed on His flesh and drink His blood when we come to Him and believe in Him. Second, if that’s true then when we partake of the Lord’s Supper with faith we are feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood. Indeed, the rather shocking language of feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood that Jesus uses for us coming to Him and believing in Him becomes much more concrete and real with the Lord’s Supper. As someone once said, “Eating is believing.” After all, Jesus said, “This is My body” when breaking the bread and “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” when pouring the cup and “Do this in remembrance of Me.”)
- As offensive as hearing that to come to Jesus and believe in Him is to feed on His flesh and drink His blood, it is much more offensive for people today to hear that the Lord’s Supper is really feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood. Of course, the former is easier to dismiss as merely a metaphor. Discussing such phrases, Zwingli appealed to John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” He argued that this supported a symbolic interpretation—that you don’t physically feed on Christ’s flesh and drink His blood but rather it is a metaphor for Spiritually feeding on Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. Here’s the thing though: that doesn’t make it any less true. Allow me another example: Jesus says in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” On one level being born again is a metaphor for what the Spirit does for the person who comes to believe in Christ. But on another level, it is simply a Spiritual reality—you really are born again or born from above or born of the Spirit. Calling it a birth is technically a metaphor but you truly are born again. You are Spiritually born again. The same applies to Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). The Lord’s Supper is truly feeding on Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. It is technically a metaphor—but it is true Spiritually (with a capital S for the Holy Spirit). You are really Spiritually feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood. Roman Catholicism argues that the bread and wine transform into Christ’s body and blood. Classic Lutheranism argued that the elements are accompanied physically by Christ’s body and blood. However, our Reformed Confessions consistently say that we don’t feed on Christ and drink His blood physically—because His body is in heaven and not physically everywhere—but we do feed on Christ’s body and drink His blood Spiritually. That is, the Holy Spirit draws us up into communion with Christ. This is the best interpretation. After all, Jesus had not yet died when He first said, “This is My body” when breaking the bread and “This cup is the new covenant in My blood” when pouring the cup and “Do this in remembrance of Me.” So He wasn’t referring to eating His physical body and drinking His physical blood, but they could really, truly, Spiritually feed on His flesh and drink His blood. In a normal service of worship, we do this. By faith, when we do the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him we feed on His flesh and drink His blood but this is a stumbling block for many. Yet unlike the perishable bread that fed the five thousand, this bread nourishes us unto eternal life. Praise God. Amen.