On October 2, 1529, two spiritual giants of the Protestant Reformation met face to face for the first time in Marburg, Germany. They met at the invitation of Philip, landgrave of Hesse, in an attempt to reconcile their differences over the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. The Mar burg Colloquy, as it has come to be known, accomplished little in the way of reconciliation. In fact, it contributed toward the continuing divisions of the Protestant movement.
Luther had come from Wittenberg, the center of his influence in Saxony, and Ulrich Zwingli had come from Zurich, the center of his reforming work in Switzer land. Hovering in the background, but not present, was John Calvin, whose reformation influence was felt first in Geneva and later in Strasbourg, France.
Before Zwingli entered the conference room, Luther, the stubborn preacher-theologian from Germany, had lifted the cloth covering the conference table and scrawled in chalk the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum, "this is my body." Later, during a heated moment in the debate, he flipped the cloth away and pointing dramatically, cried: "As the text of our Lord Jesus Christ is there, I cannot set it at nought, but must confess that the body of Christ is there."
The debate, which raged around the interpretation of the Lord's words "This is my body," has not ended. Countless volumes have been written concerning the manner and mode in which Christ is present in the Lord's Supper. Roman Catholics say a change occurs in the substance of bread and wine so they actually become the real flesh and blood of Jesus. Those who follow Zwingli say that Christ is present only symbolically, that bread and wine are but physical symbols of His body and blood. Calvin's followers say that Jesus is spiritually present in the Lord's Supper, that the bread and wine simply point to a reality beyond themselves. Those who follow Luther rest on a literal understanding of "This is my body" and say He is present in, with, and under the bread and wine because He says so.
Theologically this issue still divides Christianity, and theologians have made much of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, examining and reexamining them in their attempt to make a Zwinglian, Calvinist, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic out of the apostle Paul. They have tried to answer these questions: If Christ is present in the Eucharist, how is He present, and in what mode does He manifest Himself?
Certainly 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is Paul's great statement on Communion. But when we read it today, we see it through the spectacles of a particular theological tradition, with presuppositions and preconceptions already formed by various doctrinal traditions. It is hard to let Paul speak for himself. But let's try.
Several questions need to be answered. Why did Paul insert this passage on the Lord's Supper at this point in his first letter to the Corinthians? Can we legitimately assume that Paul was consciously formulating a theological doctrine that would answer for all time the mode and manner of Christ's presence in Communion? If so, that raises another question: What relationship does the Communion passage have with the preceding verses in which he talks about Christians coming together to eat a common meal? Furthermore, does the key to our understanding of Paul's statements concerning the Lord's Supper actually lie in the preceding verses? The context would seem to indicate that it does.
The answers can be discovered by examining the issues with which Paul was dealing. He was writing to a group of new converts in the process of emerging from paganism as the new community of Christian believers. They were struggling with the question of how to live as Christians in the midst of a pagan culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that as Christians some of their former pagan practices crept into their life and associations.
In pagan society one of the most prominent social activities was feasting. People would gather for nothing -more than an orgy of eating, at which time they would lie about great low tables and gorge themselves on immense quantities of rich food. From the Romans they had learned how to eat much, make themselves vomit, and then eat some more.
Evidently the tradition of feasting had been carried into the life of the new church community, where it developed into what became known as a love feast or agape meal—the first Christian "potluck." Members brought dishes to a central place and shared a meal; those who had much were supposed to share with those who had little. Paul does not criticize the "potluck," but he does rebuke the congregation for separating into cliques; this was counter productive to the whole idea of the love feast. The rich would eat with the rich and often the poor would go without. Bitterness, envy, and selfishness resulted. Often the eating was done to excess, and some went so far as to drink themselves into drunken stupors. The important thing had become the eating and not the fellowship and sharing. It was so bad that Paul was persuaded to say that they "despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing" (verse 22). * At this point he launches into his great statement on the Lord's Supper, something he had "received from the Lord" (verse 23).
Paul was not dealing with a theological issue, but with a practical issue of Christian living, Christian social behavior, and worship. He was not formulating a doctrine of the presence of Christ in Communion. He doesn't discuss at all how Jesus is present in Communion. He simply repeats the Lord's words, saying, " 'This is my body,'" and "This cup is the new covenant in my blood'" (verses 24, 25).
When you read the words of the Lord in connection with verses 17-26, certain words jump out of the text and take on special significance. For example, "do this" in connection with the broken bread, and "do this, as often as you drink it" in connection with the poured-out wine. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (verse 26). This last statement is in connection with the believers' personal participation in the communion service, as are the previous two.
Where is the emphasis? Is it on how Christ is present in Communion? Or is it rather on how the worshiper is present in Communion? "Whoever . . . eats ... or drinks ... in an unworthy manner will be 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. ... if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged" (verses 27-31).
When we take the entire context of the eleventh chapter into account, Paul appears to be saying that the same spirit of sacrifice, of sharing, of giving that Jesus demonstrated ought to characterize the worship life of God's new people. He is saying that Communion provides a unique opportunity for the realization and manifestation of the life of Christ to reveal itself in the fellowship of His people, the church. This is especially true of the foot-washing ceremony, which, according to John 13, where it is the major emphasis, is a vital part of the Christian Communion celebration.
Therefore, the problem is not with the presence of Christ or the manner in which He is present when Communion is celebrated. The witness of Scripture is that He is present. Ellen White, in her monumental work on the life of Christ, makes no attempt to answer the question of how Christ is present in Communion. She simply bears witness to the fact that He is present. She writes: "Christ by the Holy Spirit is there to set the seal to His own ordinance. He is there to convict and soften the heart. . . . For the repentant, brokenhearted one He is waiting. All things are ready for that soul's reception. He who washed the feet of Judas longs to wash every heart from the stain of sin."— The Desire of Ages, p. 656.
The problem is not with the presence of Christ in Communion. The problem is with our presence. The Word of God says we are to eat and to drink. As often as we do this we are to examine ourselves and so eat and drink. The emphasis is on the activity of Communion; on the corporate presence of the church, the body of Christ; on every member sharing in that worship experience of fellowship with the Lord.
The command of our Lord to "do this," to regularly celebrate communion, is not satisfied when a certain time is set aside for that purpose by the denomination or a local pastor. It is satisfied when you and I are present, when we are really present in body, soul, and spirit; in faith ready to share the spiritual blessings of giving and receiving and sharing.
The apostle Paul is not saying, "Believe this about Communion." Rather, he is saying, "Do this about Communion." To believe the right things about Communion and not participate in it is contradictory. It is illogical and actually constitutes a denial of what one says he believes. When a church member is consistently absent from the Lord's Supper, he may be saying loud and clear to the rest of the church, "I really don't believe what God's Word says about Communion."
To be sure, much more can be said about Communion. We can most definitely arrive at a theological understanding; after all, our faith must be an informed faith. But it is possible to glean this one important truth from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34: Our presence is as important as Christ's presence because if we are not both present, there is no communion.
Furthermore, the mode of our presence is important. We must be present not just physically, but spiritually and symbolically. Our presence at Communion symbolizes our faith and trust in the Saviour. It is in our physical confession that we recognize ourselves as sinners who stand in the need of cleansing and of divine grace every day. It is the acknowledgment that we participate not only in the physical dimensions of life but also in the great controversy between good and evil that rages not only cosmically but also in the inner man.
Our participation in Communion pro claims that we are really present in faith and in surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (verse 26).
" All Scripture references in this article are from
the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1952, 1971 by the Division of
Christian Education of the National Council of
Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.