How to learn to touch again

A short history of Holy Communion – a sacrament of touch in a time when we cannot. [Article]

Michael Flynn

Some years ago my son asked me what I thought was the most controversial part of the Bible. I told him it wasn’t what you’d expect. People today will say it is reconciling the poetry of Genesis 1 and 2 with our current ideas of evolution; others will point to what I think are self-serving criticisms of the gospels or unhinged interpretations of the book of Revelation or complaints about alleged genocides in the commands of Moses. Historically though the most controversial text in Biblical interpretation (over which much blood has been shed) is one word Jesus said: ‘is’. In short, what did Jesus mean when he said at the Last Supper “This is my body.”?

My son replied something like: “So, even though Jesus taught with parables and metaphors, even though he was physically standing there holding the bread… some are saying this is one time, the one time when he was speaking completely literally.” Which I thought was a pretty sharp observation for a young bloke.

“Yep, that about sums it up.” I said.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17f the Apostle Paul is trying to set the crazy town church of Corinth on the right track about how they conduct their worship. He is especially concerned they are making a mess of what we call the Lord’s Supper. In fact they are doing each other more harm than good in this because of divisions amongst them based on income and status. That is why Paul says that whatever meal they are having when they get together, it is not the Lord’s Supper (11:20). He then goes onto give them the classic instructions on how Jesus did it and how we, in humility are to imitate Jesus’ humility. He also warns the church that in getting our fellowship wrong at this point we are sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (11:27).

In Paul’s writings ‘the body of Christ’ often refers to the church (1 Corinthians 12:27, Romans 12:5) but here and in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, I think Paul is deliberately ambiguous about what it means to recognise (or discern) the body of the Lord. Because the Corinthians have been called by God into fellowship, communion, participation, presence with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord (1:9) he means both the presence of Christians (the local gathered church) and the presence of Jesus are received in taking the bread and consuming wine together in a local fellowship in the way Jesus commanded us to (11:23, 10:17). His point is you cannot have Jesus without the church or the church without Jesus (John 15:1-8).

The word church at times may mean the universal church that spans time and space and is spread throughout the world (1 Corinthians 12:27, Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 4:1-13). Yet in the Corinthian passages above Paul has drilled down to the local congregation having specific problems at a specific time and place in Corinth. It is the personal local expression of the universal church Paul wants them to discern. The personal is the universal (eg. Revelation 2 & 3).

No one who has read either Paul or Jesus will be surprised that Jesus’ presence and the life of his followers are intimately linked (Matthew 18:20; John 17:20-26). What may be a surprise is when Paul is arguing against Christians participating in sacrifices offered to idols he tells us in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians what the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper represent:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake in the one bread.”  

1 Corinthians 10:15

Again, participation with each other’s lives is woven together with participation with the life of Jesus communicated in the Lord’s supper.

Paul’s warning to the early church on the use and misuse of the Lord’s Supper had a profound effect. Carefulness began to surround the meal which became reduced to a symbolic (not actual) meal to avoid the abuses and subsequent illnesses seen in Corinth (11:30). Over the years this carefulness accumulated the trappings of veneration – both for the elders who were allowed to celebrate the meal and for the elements of the meal themselves. By the 1100s, this veneration was consolidated in European Christianity by using Aristotle’s ideas to describe how the bread and wine could become literally the body and blood of Christ. By the middle of the 1500s this was formalised into the Roman Catholic idea of Transubstantiation – the outer form is the bread and wine, the inner form is the body and blood. A priest is said to literally handle the body and blood of Christ during the Mass and to be re-offering Christ in sacrifice at each celebration of the Lord’s supper. Of course, at least one problem with that is that Biblical writings suggest it profoundly misunderstands what was accomplished on the cross of Jesus (Hebrews 10:11-18).

During the same century three other views of the Lord’s supper emerged. In essence they were all attempts to explain what Jesus and Paul had meant by ’This is my body’ and ‘Is not the bread we eat a participation in the body of Christ?’.

One idea, still popular amongst many free churches today because if fits well with both our modern and individualist mindsets, is that the Lord’s supper is only a memorial, a symbol. To be sure it is a serious and solemn symbol, like ANZAC day is to many Australians. It is a revered reminder as Jesus indicated (1 Corinthians 11:24,25) but the objection is it seems to be a reduction of what the New Testament teaches about the Lord’s Supper.

Another idea, retained mainly in Lutheran churches, is that a real bodily presence of Jesus is found in the bread and wine, though the bread and wine remain what they are. The classic objection to this is that Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:22, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 4:14).

A third explanation, stemming from Geneva and the English reformers (and arguably earlier in St. Augustine and the church Fathers) allows for the Lord’s Supper be a memorial of Jesus’ death for us but also a participation in the life of God through this memory of Jesus’ death. A communion with God. Here the bread and wine remain bread and wine, yet when they are received by a local congregation who are reconciled to each other in Christ, who are reconciled to God by trust in the promise of Christ’s death, then the bread and wine communicate to them the presence of Christ and his Father by the action of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-21). We know that the Holy Spirit allows us to participate now in the life and power of God through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:9-17). The Lord’s supper is simply another of God’s promises to be with us, but, like baptism, it is a promise in physical form. As with all God’s promises we still need to receive this by faith in his word. 

You will find this idea quietly embedded in the communion Liturgy of the Anglican Church and more openly declared in the 39 Articles and catechism of our church. 

This may seem like merely interesting history but it gives us clues on how we are to think about the church and our worship during a time of pandemic. What is core and what is at the edges, what God is patient with and where we need to take particular care. I think it will also help to answer the question of how we as believers come together again after our time of isolation. How we may learn to participate together in the life of God in Christ.

How we may learn to touch again.