Though all Christians from the earliest times to the present engage in the rite that we know as the Lord’s Supper, there is a lot of diversity in how it is understood and practiced in today’s churches. A major reason behind the differences is that in each of the places in the Bible where the first Lord’s Supper is described (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-26, Luke 22:17-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) it is clear that Jesus is dispensing the bread and wine that was part of the Jewish Passover (seder) meal that He was observing with His disciples, yet Jesus refers to it as His own body and blood. So which is it?
In the Roman Catholic faith, it is believed that the bread and wine are transformed by the words and actions of the Priest into Jesus’ actual body and blood, and thereafter only have the physical form of bread and wine. This belief, called transubstantiation is closely connected with an understanding that each time the Mass is celebrated, it is a sacrifice joined to Christ’s death on the Cross in the sense of being a continuation of the same event. Thus, the Catholic Mass is a sacrifice of Jesus’ actual flesh and blood that confers God’s grace and forgiveness.
In some Protestant churches, the understanding is at the other extreme: the bread and wine are regarded as ordinary foodstuffs that are merely symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, and the observance is a meditative meal of commemoration and remembrance. In that understanding, the bread and wine have value only as a reminder of what Jesus accomplished when He died for us – the meal itself has no intrinsic power other than as it inspires the hearts of those who participate in it.
Lutherans insist on a middle ground: though we acknowledge that the elements are physically bread and wine and remain so, we also take seriously Jesus’ words when he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Please don’t ask us to explain precisely how this can be – how ordinary bread and wine can at the same time also be truly Jesus’ body and blood, since we simply don’t know HOW this works. It is a mystery whose reality lies outside our human experience. Some think that sounds like a ‘cop out,’ but in today’s world, when physicists tell us that 95% of the matter and energy present in the known universe remains invisible and inexplicable to us, it should not be surprising that there are a lot of things about God’s reality that we don’t understand!
Lutherans call this distinctive belief the ‘real presence,’ by which we mean that though we know we are ingesting bread and wine (we’re not cannibals after all – though the early Christians were sometimes accused of that!) we are simultaneously experiencing the actual presence of Jesus who is truly entering us “in, with, and under the bread and wine” (as Martin Luther famously put it). We’re not alone among Protestants in our assertion of Christ’s real presence, though some tend more to a ‘spiritual presence.’
We Lutherans (along with Roman and Orthodox Catholics and a number of other Protestant churches) recognize Holy Communion (along with Baptism) as a Sacrament, that is, a ‘sacred rite’ through which God conveys forgiveness of sin and eternal life in heaven to all who believe (thus, a ‘Means of Grace’). For all of us, this sacrament, which was commanded by Christ Himself, is recognized as the central way in which He continues to be involved in His earthly Church, not just as a fond memory, but as an actual living and active presence. When we receive His body and blood into our own bodies we are receiving forgiveness of our sins and nourishment to live lives of faith and service. We don’t however, ascribe this outpouring of grace to anything “magical” about the bread and wine itself, to any special powers of the Pastor, or even to the spiritual “worthiness” of the recipient. Rather, it is the power of God’s promises, sealed in Jesus’ death on the cross and confirmed by His resurrection, which we receive through this simple meal. The Gift is freely given to all baptized sinners who come to the altar with a contrite heart, recognizing His presence, and seeking His forgiveness.