Procession in Sydney, Australia, 2015

According to the Roman Catholic church calendar, today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, the day on which the church celebrates the sacrament of the Eucharist. In Roman theology, this Eucharist, which to you and I looks like a wafer of bread, is the actual body of Christ, transformed, or in the terminology of the doctors of theology, transubstantiated, into that very thing, that substance.

It was perhaps this doctrine more than any other that precipitated the Reformation of the 16th century. The Lutherans rejected it, substituting for it the doctrine of consubstantiation, in which the body of Christ, while really present, is present alongside the actual bread, while not changing its substance. The Calvinists went farther, rejecting any notion of the physical presence of Christ’s body in or around the bread, instead arguing for its spiritual presence, by means of the work of the Holy Spirit. Finally, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and kindred groups argued for the pure symbolic nature of the bread as Christ’s body, without any argument in favor of a real presence.

This controversy still determines divisions between the various “denominations” of the Christian church. But it should never have come to this. No, things should never have gotten this far – because they rest on a profound misconception regarding the character of the sacrament known variously as the Eucharist, Holy Supper, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. Indeed, the focus on the nature or substance of the bread as used in this sacrament completely misses the point as to what the sacrament is actually about.

Let me explain. And get straight to the point. Where in the Bible does the nature of the bread (and wine, which, while also part of this story, will be left out of the discussion to avoid redundancy) get discussed? The focus has been on Christ’s words of institution on the night He was betrayed: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26: 26). And the debate then centers on the meaning of the word “is.” Does “is” mean that the bread in some way actually becomes the body? Luther thought so. This was for him beyond question.

But what a diversion that is. With regard to this celebration, this Last Supper of the Lord, the composition of the bread is not the point at all.

When Paul quotes these words of Christ, he follows them up with the words, “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11: 27–29).

What is Paul getting at?

First, participation in the Lord’s Supper needs to be worthy participation (“whosoever shall eat this bread… unworthily…”). Unworthy participation means participation without proper evaluation of its meaning. The Greek is derivative of anaxios, failure to attach the proper value to the sacrament, which is the Lord’s body.

To avoid this, secondly, the participant needs to “examine himself.” The Greek root is dokimázō, “test and approve,” thus inward examination to discern whether or not one actually is participating worthily or unworthily, whether or not one is attaching the proper value to the Lord’s body.

Thirdly, to participate unworthily is, in Paul’s words, “not discerning the Lord’s body.” Discern: from diakrinō, thorough investigation by means of which the matter at hand is brought to full awareness.

What this means is that the Lord’s Supper is no game, no passive habit, no mere tradition. It demands total awareness of what it is about, with severe sanctions attached for those who participate without the requisite self-investigation, proof, valuation of what is going on with it. “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself…. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (verses 29, 30). Physical, debilitating judgement is the consequence where this warning is not heeded. There are physical sanctions attached, just like there were in the Old Covenant. In this regard, nothing has changed.

And is the point in Paul’s admonitions the makeup of the elements? Was Paul saying that we needed to have the proper doctrine of the bread when we participate? The theologians would almost have us think so. But when we look at the context of this passage, we see something entirely different. Not discerning the Lord’s body has nothing to do with the wrong doctrine regarding the substance of the bread; it is the failure to realize that partaking of the bread makes the participant one body with all the other partakers of the bread. The body is not the bread, it is the partakers of the bread. Not discerning the body has to do, not with the elements, but with the participants.

What is it that upset Paul so much with the Corinthians’ version of Holy Supper? Some of the wealthier participants were setting up shop, having a grand old time with an extensive meal, while others, not so wealthy, not so upstanding, were being shunted off into a corner, forced to watch with hungry eyes. Paul is livid, and understandably so. “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not?” (vv. 20–22).

The rich were despising the poor. They were dividing the body (v. 18). This is what it meant to eat and drink unworthily, to not discern the Lord’s body. It is that they did not discern that they were one body with those despised, or at any rate neglected, have-nots.

Therefore this is what it means not to discern the body. Luther said something similar about the church: “Denn wir, die zusammen kommen, machen und nehmen uns einen sonderlichen Raum und geben dem Haus nach dem Haufen einen Namen.”[1] Which is to say, we who come together form and take for ourselves a special space and give the house a name according to the people gathered there. The church is not the building; the church is the people gathered in the building. By the same token, the bread is not the body of Christ according to His literal flesh, it is His body according to His bride, those with whom He has become one flesh, for the church is both body and bride.[2] His body is His people. To divide His people, for one member of the body to diminish and denigrate another member, is to cause Him pain and to instigate His righteous anger.

Therefore, “my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another” (v. 33), which is to say, wait for one another, give each other room, give each other time, make room for one another in your hearts. This is discerning the body: “But speaking the truth in love, … grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4: 15–16). It is a joint venture in which every part needs every other part, every member needs every other member. That is what it means to discern the Lord’s body. And that is what the sacrament is all about.

Celebrate Corpus Christi? Fine, but don’t celebrate the elements, celebrate the members of the body the elements bring together in unity, “that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17: 23).

[1] Geist aus Luther’s Schriften: oder Concordanz der Ansichten und Urtheile des grossen Reformators über die wichtigsten Gegenstände des Glaubens, der Wissenschaft und des Lebens, Volume 3 (Darmstadt: K. W. Leske, 1830), p. 47.

[2] “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church “ (Ephesians 5: 31–32).

“Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 7–9).