Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Real Presence of Christ

Last Wednesday was the last in our series of Lenten Studies on the Eucharist.  We were looking at the different approaches to the Eucharist developed at the time of the European reformation and then thinking about how we understand what is happening in the Eucharist when we celebrate it today.

It has become customary to contrast the Roman Catholic belief with the approaches of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and despite some of the limitations of this approach and the generalizations that it leads to, this approach does have the merit of defining four broad views of the Eucharist.

The Roman Catholic view we discussed last week.  Essentially, at the start of the 16th century, Roman Catholics believed in the sacrifice of the Mass and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.  It was this that the reformers in their different ways were reacting to.

All three reformers were agreed in rejecting the idea of Christ being sacrificed in the Mass.  They also rejected the restriction of communion to one kind, that is to the bread, for the laity.  After this, as is well-known, there was much disagreement.

Luther was nearer Roman Catholic Church in the way he believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.  While rejecting transubstantiation, he developed an idea that was much like it.  Transubstantiation is the belief that the outward appearance of the bread and wine remain the same, but that the substance, the inner reality, are changed into the body and blood of Christ.  Luther suggested, as an alternative, consubstantiation.  In this the outward appearance of the bread and the wine remain the same, as with transubstantiation, but the substance, the inner reality, is BOTH that of the body and blood of Christ AND the bread and wine.  Luther was extremely insistent on the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the sacrament and took the word 'is', when our Lord said at the Last Supper, 'This my body' and 'This is my blood', quite literally.

Zwingli in his rejection of Roman Catholic teaching went to the opposite extreme and opposed any real presence of Christ's body and blood in the bread and the wine.  In his initial teaching, at least, the Lord's Supper was for Zwingli a symbolic meal.  The word 'is' for Zwingli in our Lord's words at the Last Supper meant, 'This signifies my body' and 'This signifies my blood'.  There is evidence of a more positive view of the Lord's Supper in his later teaching, but it is fair to say that Zwingli and Luther fell out over this in a big way with the result that Protestants were to be seriously divided over the meaning of the Lord's Supper, a division which remains to this day.

Zwingli's view has been caricatured as belief in the real absence of Jesus, which is unfair to Zwingli, but not to many of those who followed him.  It is a reminder that it is one thing to say what you are against, another to say what you are for!

It is to Calvin's great credit that he spent so much time in his writings trying to develop a positive doctrine of the Eucharist, focusing as much on what was happening as on what was not.  Like Zwingli, Calvin rejected the idea that Christ is in anyway physically present in the bread and the wine and so disagreed with Luther and his followers on this.  Furthermore, he was not afraid to say so!  Calvin, however, also worked hard to reach agreement over the meaning of the Lord's Supper with those who succeeded Zwingli and followed Zwingli's teaching.  His efforts were met with some success.

Reading Calvin, what comes across, to me at least, is that the Lord's Supper meant something to him on a more than intellectual level.  You get the impression that the Lord's Supper is very much part of his spiritual life and that without it he would feel spiritually impoverished.  He is not just writing in a theoretical way about Christian doctrine, but about something that is central to his experience of the Christian life.  This explains why for Calvin frequent participation in the Lord's Supper is so important.  Calvin alone in his day believed that the Eucharist should be celebrated and the sacrament received by believers on a weekly basis.  The Lord's Supper is something that for Calvin truly matters.

While Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ is not physically present in the bread and the wine, he rejected any idea that the bread and the wine were empty symbols.  He says that what they 'represent, they also present'.  He believed that Christ's body and blood are truly offered to us in the sacrament and that when we partake of the sacrament by faith, we spiritually feed on the body and blood of Christ.  Christ is thus really present in the sacrament albeit spiritually by faith.  We can describe the bread as Christ's body and the wine as Christ's blood because that is what they represent and what they offer the believer who by faith wants to feed on Christ.

I have said here before that for me this is the most helpful way of looking at the Lord's Supper.  If I may be so bold, however, I think I would like to go a little farther than Calvin at least in trying to explain our use of language.  At the reformation, the argument was very much over whether Christ's body and blood were present in the sacrament.  Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, some such as Luther said they were present physically and some such as Calvin, spiritually. There is still, however, a tendency to suggest that we must literally eat Christ's actual body and drink his actual blood whether we do this physically (Luther) or spiritually (Calvin).  Where I think Zwingli was on to something was in feeling uncomfortable with this understanding of the Biblical language.  I think his own understanding went in the wrong direction, but he is right to ask what the language means.

Surely the language of eating and drinking Christ's body and blood is metaphorical, that is, that what we are being invited to do when we are offered the body and blood of Christ is to participate in the benefits that Christ's death and sacrifice have obtained and made possible for us.  To focus on eating the body and drinking the blood whether we do this physically or spiritually is surely to stop at the sign and not to move on to where the sign is pointing.

Not for one moment do I want to suggest that nothing is happening in the Eucharist.  I believe absolutely in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and, to put it bluntly, that Christ is offered to us in the Eucharist in a way that he is not offered to us elsewhere.  The bread and wine by representing the body and blood of Christ, are presenting to us all the benefits of Christ's passion.  What we are being offered is not simply Christ's body and blood, in whatever sense, but an intimate communion with the person of Christ himself made possible by the body and blood of Christ.

In other words to stop at the idea of eating Christ's body and blood, perversely, is to limit the presence of Christ in the sacrament.  When Christ said in John 6:57 'whoever eats me, will live because of me' he meant far more than 'whoever believes in me will live because of me', but, surely, he also meant more than 'whoever has bite of my flesh and sucks my blood, will live because of me'.  Surely what he is referring to is a union between himself and the believer that is so real and intense that only the language of feeding on him is powerful enough to express it.

For this reason, I have no problem whatsoever in saying that, in the Lord's Supper, I eat Christ's body and drink his blood, but in saying this what I am saying is that Christ is so really and truly present that I am able to encounter him and receive him in way that transcends all speech and doctrine.

As Calvin said, 'I would rather experience it than understand it.'

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