And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:19).
What are we doing here? What did Jesus do in that Upper Room that night? What is this Holy Communion that we celebrate? I want to talk to you about what I think it is, and what I think it isn’t. And the way I want to get at it is to examine Jesus’ words, “This is my body.” It might sound like a simple sentence, but there is more to it than meets the eye. There are two questions I want to explore. The first one is: what is His body? And the second is: What did Jesus mean by “this”? This what?
The common answer to the second question is that He meant the bread. The bread is His body. And the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiantion comes from this understanding, which leads to a huge problem: how can bread be or become a body? The Catholics explain it by the miracle of transubstantiantion, and the Protestants deny any such miracle. When I was 12 or 13 it occurred to me that the only way for the Communion bread to become a body was by the miracle of digestion. The atoms of the bread actually become the atoms of my body through digestion. And in fact, digestion is every bit as much a miracle as transubstantiation—and more. because digestion is actually real.
But is that what Jesus meant? Was He talking about the bread? Well, of course he was, but He was not talking about the bread alone. He was talking about the context or wholeness (holiness or set-apartness) of the bread. What is the context of the bread? This is! And what do I mean by “this”? This what? Let me suggest that Jesus meant that the context of them sharing bread was the this that He indicated. And this includes everything that is immediately present, and everything that is involved in the sharing of the bread.
The fact is that there would be no bread were it not for the context in which bread is shared. Bread is not a natural product of nature. It must be created—made. It is a product of human culture. It involves planting, growing, harvesting, winnowing, grinding, mixing and baking. Eliminate any step of the process, and there would be no bread. Bread is the finished product, but the product and the process are one. Sure we can talk about the different elements of the process, but without them all, there would be no bread. They are all part of the bread. And all of this simply produces the bread that Jesus then put into a special context that night in the Upper Room.
The context of the Upper Room is the central element of Christianity—Communion or the Eucharist. There is a pattern or procedure involved in the Communion service. And we are so familiar with it that it goes unnoticed for the most part. Jesus set the pattern: He “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” He gave thanks, broke the bread and passed it out. And as He did these things He said “this” is my body. Let’s look at the procedure, first, and then the context.
He gave thanks, the Greek word is eucharisteō (which means thankfulness), from which we get the English word Eucharist. The Eucharist is not the bread, it is the thanksgiving. The Eucharist is the central element of Christianity that we share in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is not mere bread or wafer, but is thankfulness. We give thanks to God for Christ, and we give thanks to one another for one another. The central element of Communion that is shared among believers is a thankful heart. The bread is simply a prop. I don’t mean that the service of Communion is theater. Or do I? Shakespear said, “All the world’s a stage.” But if this is true then how is the Communion bread a prop? “Prop: An object placed beneath or against a structure to keep it from falling or shaking; a support.” The bread of Communion keeps the structures of Christianity from falling. It is the central support, like a floor joist or ceiling beam. It holds the structure together and keeps it from collapsing. This is the bread we break. This is our participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16).
What about His body? Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic. And the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And the Greek word used for body is sōma. There are two Greek words that are translated as body—sōma and sarx. Sarx is sometimes translated as flesh and means the literal meat of the body. Sōma is more subtle. Unlike sarx, sōma can indicate a group of people closely united into one society. And Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ, and plays these two words against one another in a variety of ways. The body of believers is the body of Christ. The many different bodies of believers compose the one body of Christ.
So, when Jesus said “This is my body,” He was speaking of His church, His sōma, His followers. This gathered people, those who share the Eucharist, those who give thanks—to God and to one another, for God and for one another—are the body of Christ. Your body is the means of your life. Apart from my body, I have no life—even in heaven! In heaven we will have heavenly bodies. We have no life apart from our bodies. And so it is with Jesus Christ.
So, is Jesus Christ actually present in the Eucharist, in Communion? That is the central question that divides churches—Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Reformed. Is Jesus Christ actually present in the sharing of the bread? I want to suggest an answer to that question. But you will only understand it inasmuch as Christ is real in your life. If Christ is not real in your life, then Christ is not present in the Eucharist. If you have no thankfulness to share, then Christ is not real. But if you—in the plural, you all—if y’all, you as the body of Christ, if we are not full to overflowing with thankfulness to God for Christ, and to one another for one another, then Christ is not in the breaking of the bread, because there is no Eucharist apart from thanksgiving. But we don’t cause Christ to be present by being thankful, rather Christ’s real presence causes genuine thankfulness.
The question of whether Christ is actually present in Communion is not an academic question that I can answer for you, or Tom can answer for us. It is not an intellectual question. It is a real question, a practical question—a question that only the people of God can answer. It is not something that the Pope or the leaders of the various denominations can answer, but it is a matter for the people of God. It’s not a matter of whether Christ is present—He most certainly is. The only question is our thankfulness. Can He be seen in our gathering?
The really good news of the gospel is that the reality of Christ in the Eucharist does not depent upon you and I to make it true. Rather, Jesus Christ already made it true. He has already done it. It’s a done deal. We don’t have to do it. Even if none of us in this room believe it, it is still true. God’s truth in Jesus Christ does not depend upon us to understand it, or to understand it right, or even to receive it. It’s true whether we understand it or receive it. We don’t make it true by receiving it.
Rather, it receives us. We don’t accept the truth of Christianity by believing it. It doesn’t become true when we believe it or because we believe it. It’s true whether or not we believe it. God, who is Truth itself, accepts us because Christ paid the price. His sacrifice bought our forgiveness, and that forgiveness is already woven into the history of this world. People don’t have to believe it in order to receive it, they just have to stop kidding themselves, stop fooling themselves, stop lying to themselves. It’s a fact. This is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not true because we believe it, but we believe it because it’s true.
Listen to it: This Is My Body