Lutheranism 101

Session Seven: Holy Communion


This Sacrament, also known as the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, may be thought of as “God’s way of hugging us.” Jesus shares the promised blessing: “This is My blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

While this Sacrament doesn’t play a huge role in Scripture, we know that it did in the earliest church. Christians cherished this Sacrament and included it in their Sunday worship.

Let’s carefully look at the relevant Scriptures here…looking carefully at what it says (and doesn’t say)…

Matthew 26:26-29, “While they were still eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body.’ Then He took the cup, (wine) gave thanks and offered it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many of you for the forgiveness of sins. I tell, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine (wine) again until I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-29, “Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you, do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, He took the cup saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, do this, as often as you drink it, remembering me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner is guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

Real Presence!

Historically, this has been one of the most treasured teachings of Christianity. As we look at the Scriptures, a straight forward, “at-face-value” reading of the texts embraces that the meaning of “is” is “is.” Jesus says “This IS my Body… this IS my Blood.”

We believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist, fully, “for real” and this is the essence of the doctrine of Real Presence. We accept this “at His word” and as mystery. We don’t attempt to get into the physics of all this (we just don’t go there). We just accept what the texts clearly state and as Christians always believed.

We don’t believe we are being cannibals (an early charge against Christians, showing even non-Christians realized that Christians believed Christ is being received; it’s not figurative) and we realize that it doesn’t look or taste like anything other than bread and wine, but we take Jesus at His word – and leave it at that. We don’t get into the questions of HOW or WHEN or WHY – we just accept that the word “is” means exists, present, “there.” And when Jesus is there, well lots of good stuff is there!

But while not specifically a part of our doctrine, we do not deny that bread and wine are present, too. As we look at the Scriptures, we see that after the Consecration, we find the realities referred to as bread, wine, body and blood – all FOUR, without any distinction or differentiation, and thus we just accept that all 4 are “real” and “there.” The focus, of course, is entirely on the Body and Blood (so we speak of it as such). It is only the bread and wine that our senses perceive, but our faith perceives much more! The Eucharist is not just bread and wine, it is also Jesus! This is the doctrine of Real Presence.

The Voice of the Early Church Fathers

“The Eucharist is the very flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).

“’Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his very own flesh and pours out his very blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children.” St. Clement of Alexandra (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3 [A.D. 191]).
“Do not regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures, 22:6, 9).[A.D. 350]
“When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the [Eucharistic elements] after their reception of grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit not merely according to their nature. We ought not regard [the elements] merely as bread and cup, but as the body and blood of the Lord.” (Catechetical Homilies 5:1 [A.D. 405]).

The Newer Catholic View….

Real Presence was the view from the earliest Christians, and is still the doctrine among Lutheran, Orthodox and many Anglican and some other Christians. And it’s still doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church eventually introduced another concept called “Transubstantiation.” Technically, the unique Catholic dogma of Transubstantiation (1551) does not replace Real Presence (since, again, Real Presence is simply the affirmation that Christ is literally present) but adds to it.

The Catholic Dogma of Transubstantiation in a sense rejects 2 of the 4 realities spoken of in the biblical texts – the bread and the wine. Transubstantiation states the bread and wine were converted into the body and blood (in a very specific sense and way) and thus cease to exist in any real or full sense (Catholicism says they exist only as an “Aristotelian Accidents”); the Catholic Church now speaks only of the “appearance” of bread and wine “remaining” but insists that the bread and wine are not really, fully “there.” The bread and wine were “transubstantiated” into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Transubstantiation was a common view but not dogma in Luther’s day, one that Luther and the Luther fathers did not embrace. Lutherans and Catholics agree (passionately!) on Real Presence but disagree on Transubstantiation. Lutherans find this view to be textually baseless (again – the Bible says “is” not “converts” and the Bible speaks equally of FOUR things after the Consecration – Body, Blood, bread and wine). Lutherans find this to be a classic case of just going too far, applying too much human “stuff’. It does nothing to affirm Real Presence (indeed, it might undermine it).

Lutherans simply don’t get into scientific or philosophical theories here (much less make them dogma). We simply embrace that what is said is literally true: “IS…. BODY, BLOOD, BREAD, WINE… FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.” We just accept that. All of that. As mystery. Letting God have the last word.

The Newer Protestant View…

Transubstantiation requires a split interpretation of the texts whereas 2 realities are taken literally and 2 are taken figuratively (essentially explained away) in spite of no textual indication for such a distinction. The 16th Century reformer Zwingli did the same thing, only embracing the bread and wine as “real” and the body and blood as not “real,” requiring the same split interpretation of the texts, the same need to explain away 2 of the 4 things the Bible speaks of after the Consecration.

Zwingli argued that since Jesus is in heaven, He can’t be here (revealing a misunderstanding of the Two Natures of Christ). So, he argued, Jesus obviously cannot be present in the Sacrament. What He (and Paul) literally said cannot be possible. It violated his (wrong) view of the Two Natures of Christ and his “science” view of reality. Thus, since Christ would be wrong if He literally meant what He said, He must have meant it figuratively. Not only does this opinion violate Scripture but also 1500 years of Christian faith and belief.

Many modern “Evangelical” Protestants (especially in the US) eventually embraced Zwingli’s view. It affirms the bread and wine are “real” but the Body and Blood are not; the Body and Blood are “present” only in some symbolic or figurative sense.

While Lutherans find the new Catholic essential denial of the bread and wine as pretty irrelevant (they don’t really matter), we find the typical Zwinglian/Evangelical/Protestant denial of the Body and Blood much more troubling – Jesus does matter! Lutherans believe we should leave it as the glorious mystery the Bible presents, letting God have the last word. It doesn’t matter if our brains can explain things scientifically. What matters is that our faith embraces the Mystery of Christ’s presence. Lutherans stick with the ancient, biblical affirmation of Real Presence – adding or subtracting nothing from it.

Real Blessings!

Besides the obvious blessing of Christ’s presence, we also receive the assurance of His love, presence and forgiveness! Where Christ is present, blessing is present!

“What blessings do we receive through this eating and drinking? That is shown us by these words: ‘Given’ and ‘poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ Through these words we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in this sacrament. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” [Luther’s Catechism. Holy Communion. Second.] “How can eating and drinking do such things? It is certainly not the eating and drinking that does such things, but the words ‘Given’ and ‘poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words are the main thing in this sacrament, along with the eating and drinking. And whoever believes these words has what they plainly say, the forgiveness of sins.” [Luther’s Catechism. Holy Communion. Third.]

Participating in the Sacrament

Participation is not the “wide open door” as it is with Baptism. The texts reveal that is it not appropriate for all to participate. It states, “Let a man examine himself.” And it warns that it can be done to one’s own harm.

Historically, the following have been considered to be appropriate guidelines:
• Baptism and faith in Christ. The Sacrament is for Christians (Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 10:21, etc.)
• Examined for faith in Christ as our Savior and for repentance (1 Corinthians 11:28)
• Acknowledge Christ’s presence (1 Corinthians 11:29)
• Desire forgiveness and strength.
• Forgiving toward others (Matthew 26:28)

Note that there is no expressed age requirement, although “examining oneself” would seem to exclude the very young and suggests some formal training and education regarding the faith and the Sacrament. Historically, the appropriate minimal age has varied a lot – and still does; Scripture is silent on this and so are Lutherans. The common current practice among American Lutherans today is either “First Communion” in the third to fifth grade (generally 8-10 years old) or after Confirmation (generally 13-14 years old). There’s no right or wrong practice on that (and both are welcomed in the LCMS). Customs vary among congregations.

When worshipping at a congregation other than our own (even if in the same denomination), it’s very wise to speak with the pastor beforehand concerning participating in the Sacrament there. If possible, it’s best if this done before that Sunday (perhaps by phone or email) or at least come early for worship and ask to speak to the pastor. IF the advice is to not participate, don’t take that personally! The pastor is simply fulfilling his role as teacher and counselor… and noting that views and practices regarding the Sacrament vary. If not participating, we are still welcome to come forward (arms crossed) to receive a blessing.