A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


The Real Presence in the Eucharist

This study discusses the following topics:

A visitor to our Laudemont Ministries web site emailed to ask our views about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. How is the reality of the life of the risen Jesus Christ conveyed to the worshiper through the ceremonial action of participating in the bread and the cup? We thought it might be useful to share our response with other visitors to the site.

Common Views of the Real Presence

Before attempting an interpretation of the concept of the Real Presence, let us attempt to summarize four common views relating to the question. As we understand them, they are the following:

The Doctrine of Transubstantiation. This concept holds that the bread and wine actually become changed into the body and blood of Christ, made available for the faithful today although retaining their outward form as bread and wine. Transubstantiation, or metousiosis, is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view. Christ is not re-sacrificed, since there is only one sacrifice of the cross, but his sacrifice is re-presented at the altar when the elements are consecrated.

The Doctrine of Sacramental Union. In this understanding, sometimes inaccurately called Consubstantiation, Christ's real presence is communicated in the Eucharist not in the elements, but along with them in a spiritual sense. The substance of the bread and wine does not change, but they are the vehicles for the communication of Christ in the life of he worshiper, "in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine." This is the historic Lutheran view. Others, including some Anglicans, hold a variation of it with the focus on the mystery of how the outward and visible signs of bread and wine can convey the spiritual reality of Christ.

The Memorial Concept. In this view, the action of the assembly in observing Jesus' ordinance of the Lord's Supper is a means of helping worshipers to remember his death on the cross and making it more vivid and personal for each one. This is the view of most Reformed or evangelical groups. Here the question of the "real presence" in the Eucharist is more or less moot, since the risen Christ is always present by the Spirit in the life of the committed Christian. (Of course, adherents of the Transubstantiation or Sacramental Union views also believe this. But for them the rite of the Eucharist has special significance in enabling and furthering the Christian life.) Nevertheless the act of receiving the elements must be done in repentance and faith for the worshiper to receive any spiritual benefit.

The Metaphorical Concept. Here the action of the Eucharist is interpreted metaphorically, as a statement about the life and values of the gathered community, however that community might be defined. This view is common among "liberal" churches (e.g., Methodist or United Church of Christ). Since members of these groups typically do not believe in the resurrection of Christ in the same sense as the adherents of the above three views, in this view also the issue of Christ's Real Presence does not really come up. In actuality many Anglicans, Lutherans, members of historic Reformed bodies, and Catholics may hold a metaphorical view while officially professing one of the views described above. [ Return to index of topics ]

Exploring a Scriptural Understanding

While one can never avoid a certain amount of personal and cultural bias, we may attempt to restrict our interpretation of Christian truths to what can be gleaned from phenomena occurring in Scripture. We are not comfortable when the discussion appears to "go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6). Therefore we must confess that we find ourselves in complete accord with "none of the above."

Concepts such as transubstantiation, consubstantiation (sacramental union) or memorial are not biblical concepts. They are the attempt of Christian theologians to explain, in a later Hellenistic or Western philosophical and rationalistic environment, that which in Scripture is not presented as a doctrine but as an experience of God, an event through which he makes himself known.

Let us look, first, at the narrative of Jesus' institution of the Lord's Supper in the Gospels. We note that, in distributing the loaf and he cup, he says, "This is my body ... this is my blood." In the original Aramaic in which he must have spoken (as in Hebrew also) such a phrase typically lacks the copulative verb, which English supplies with the word "is." Therefore he would have said something like "This my body ... this my blood." It is going too far to stress an equivalence between the elements and the body and blood using the words of Jesus in English translation.

Jesus had not yet been crucified and raised and was still with his disciples in the normal sense of one living person being with his friends. That which he was distributing to them could not have been literally his body or blood. Nor would his presence have had to be communicated to the disciples along with the "elements," since he was personally present already.

As for the idea of memorial or remembrance, when we hear those words today we visualize a person remembering in his mind that something took place in the past. On the other hand, Jesus at the Last Supper spoke not of remembering as an individual intellectual exercise but of his followers recalling him into their midst through their corporate action of sharing the bread and the cup after his death. That is the force of the Greek word anamnesis used in the Gospels to translate whatever it was that Jesus said in Aramaic.

So the biblical meaning of Jesus' action at the Last Supper, and of the church's subsequent action in the Eucharistic rite in obedience to his directive, has to be sought elsewhere than in post-biblical constructs such as transubstantiation, sacramental union or memorial. This, of course, has weighty implications for our understanding of the force of his presence in the Eucharist.

For that matter, even the question of Real Presence is not a biblical question. It would never have occurred to the apostles, and others to whom the risen Christ made himself known, to ask whether or not his presence was real, however it was experienced. Although biblical people, in a Semitic culture, understood the difference between truth and falsehood, the idea that something could be "real" as opposed to "unreal" — especially in the modern scientific sense in which unreality is equated with nonexistence — was not a category of thought with which they worked. Even an illusion was real, in the sense of a real falsehood or deception. Everything is real. The only question is, a real what? [ Return to index of topics ]

Eucharist and Covenant

Let us look now at several more passages in Scripture that throw light on what the early Christians thought was happening in the Lord's Supper. First, consider Jesus' own words, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24). Jesus clearly made a connection between his action at the Last Supper and the covenant God had made with Israel on Mount Sinai as recorded in Exodus 24. In that narrative, after Moses has the people make sacrificial offerings to the Lord, the text continues:

Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words" (Exod. 24:7-8).

What Jesus is doing in the Last Supper is instituting a ceremony for the renewal of the covenant by those who will be faithful to God's calling of Israel. These faithful are the Lord's true people, in contrast to those who had rejected his call for renewal of the covenant, and who as a result would on the next day agitate for, or accede in, Jesus' crucifixion.

The Last Supper, then, is a parallel to the meal that seals the covenant in the Bible's narrative of the events of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 24 we read that Moses led the elders, the representatives of the people, up the mountain where they took part in a ceremonial meal (verse 11). It is probably no accident that Jesus chose to have his disciples ascend to an upper room (Mark 14:15) to share the Last Supper, in direct imitation of the Sinai event. [ Return to index of topics ]

A Meeting with Christ

But from the Sinai narrative we pick up another nuance that sheds light on the question of the Real Presence. The Sinai covenant was not a memorial, but a meeting of the people with the Lord in which his presence was visible (in some way) to the participants. The elders on Mount Sinai "beheld God, and ate and drank." In the same way the Lord's Supper, as the meal celebrating the covenant, is to be a meeting with the Lord. Jesus indicated that he would be recalled into the midst of the disciples whenever they "did this." Making, or renewing, a covenant would imply that in some way both partners in the covenant are present. Therefore there must be a sense in which Christ is present in the Lord's Supper along with his people who are renewing their pledge of faithfulness to him.

In this connection, recall the words of Paul in his description of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:25-26. First he repeats the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke 22:19: "In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'" Then Paul adds, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

This last phrase is usually interpreted to mean that the Lord's Supper anticipates the return of Christ. In our opinion, that is only half the story. New Testament usage of the Greek term achris, translated "until" or "unto," suggests that it carries a stronger force than simply indicating a time relationship. It seems also to indicate the establishment of a condition that brings about a subsequent event. It is used, for example, in Revelation 12:11, "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death." Here the meaning is that, by maintaining their faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ, the Christian martyrs have established a condition leading to their own death. So when Paul writes that when we observe the Lord's Supper we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes," he is suggesting that when we partake of the bread and wine, symbolic of Christ's death on the cross, we are doing something that brings about his coming into the midst of his people. [ Return to index of topics ]

Sharing in the Body

Let us look at another place where Paul comments on the Lord's Supper, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."

Here Paul is stating that the cup and the loaf are more than a picture of Christ's death on the cross. The sharing of the cup and loaf are indeed a participation in the blood and body of Christ. The Greek word is koinonia, which has no exact English equivalent. It is translated as "sharing," "participation" or "communion." But, again, it has a stronger meaning than these words might convey. It means a mutuality of life at a level of deep trust — in other words, at the level of a bond uniting the partners in a common life.

Paul focuses on the metaphor of the body, and it is clear that the body he has in mind is not the literal body of Jesus but the body of his worshipers who are sharing in the common meal. Those taking part in the meal are united into one body through their sharing of the common loaf, or bread. In this sense, Christ is present in the Eucharist through the sharing of the bread amongst those who are faithful to him. But it is not the bread itself, but the action of sharing it, that brings about this oneness of the body of Christ.

Once again we see that the Lord's Supper enacts and renews the covenant relationship between the Lord and his people, and among his people because they are all bonded to the Lord as his servants. For this to happen, the Covenant-Giver must be present. Yet Christ is present not in the elements of wine and bread as such but in the corporate action through which his community shares this covenant meal.

So, in a word, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not something that can be captured by a formula or defined in a precise relationship to the elements of the Eucharist. His presence is known to his followers not in the food that is provided but in the action through which he shares table fellowship with them — just as, in the narrative of the two disciples who encountered Christ at Emmaus after his resurrection, "he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:35).

In a related note, the very early Christian document known as the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles views the bread of the Eucharist as emblematic of the gathering of the church into one body. The document instructs the president of the assembly, in giving thanks over the bread, to say, "As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever" (Didache 9:4). [ Return to index of topics ]

Getting Specific at the Table

Nevertheless, the specific foods are important as a link to the real story of a real man who distributed real food — the fruit of the field and the vine — to real people at a specific time and place in the history of salvation. It would not do to substitute other foods in the Eucharist, as has sometimes been tried, or to do without the elements altogether as some groups have. For this would tend to extract the Lord's Supper from its concrete context and send it into the realm of the ethereal.

Christ died upon a rough wooden cross, the instrument for the tortured execution of a rebel against the ruling establishment. His covenant is with a community of imperfect, flesh-and-blood people contending with the issues of life "where the rubber meets the road." His bond is not with some vague or disembodied abstraction of an idealized humanity. However we understand Christ's Real Presence, it is known in the concrete and not in the abstract. It is known in the elements of bread and wine that embody this concreteness.

When we ask, then, about the relationship between the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the presence of Christ in the gathering of his people, we are taken into the realm of sign and symbol. A symbol is different from a metaphor. The Lord's Supper is not a metaphor — the comparison of one thing with another. The "meaning" of a metaphor depends on what the interpreter sees in it, or wants to make of it for purposes consistent with his own philosophical focus or world view. For someone who thinks the death of Christ on the cross is too offensively specific to apply to all times and cultures, for example, the Eucharist could be interpreted as a metaphor for the generalized, humanitarian love we all ought to have for everybody whatever their life style or cultural orientation. But this is not what we mean by understanding the bread and wine of the Eucharist symbolically.

An effective symbol always partakes in that which it symbolizes, and is in fact a bearer of that reality. The Eucharist does not stand for something else; it is the bearer of the gospel of Christ's death as the sacrifice of the covenant, and is enacted with the same concrete symbols he used in the historic fulfillment of his mission to restore and extend that covenant. When we gather at the Lord's Table we are confirmed as partakers in that covenant, as though we ourselves had been present with Jesus' disciples in the upper room. [ Return to index of topics ]

Real Presence, Then and Now

The Eucharist is a re-presentation of the events of salvation through which we are incorporated into the story of the people of God. This principle of re-presentation is the same as that enunciated by Moses when Israel, a generation after the exodus from Egypt, was about to enter the land of Canaan. In repeating the words of the covenant he declares to the people, "Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day" (Deuteronomy 5:3). If Jesus gave the Lord's Supper as the meal that seals his disciples in the new covenant, and if we observe the Eucharist in obedience to his directive as our act of faithfulness to the same covenant, then he is present with us in the same way he was present with those of old to whom he was "known in the breaking of bread."

For additional teaching on this topic, see Dr. Leonard's sermon "Known in the Breaking of Bread" on this web site.