What Is Communion All About?


Message given by Larry Eubanks, August 14,2016, First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

Mark 14:22-24

This was the Passover meal that they were eating. “They” being the Twelve, which is how the gospel writers like to refer to them. We sometimes think there were only twelve disciples, but in fact there were many more. Some had abandoned Jesus, but these twelve weren’t merely the only ones left out of them all. There were more disciples who were still with him, mainly women. We see them at the cross, and 3 days later at the empty tomb.

But for now, there’s these twelve, which is the important point: there were twelve, as in the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They represent all of Israel.

Which works, doesn’t it? Because though they still call God their God and Jesus their Lord, that’s about the only way they act like disciples. They’re actually pretty bad at being disciples. A disciple is literally one who learns, and yet neither the disciples nor Israel ever seemed to learn anything.

I mean, Israel walks through the sea like it was desert sand, and then watches as the sea closes on the Egyptian army, and the next thing you know they are worried about what they are going to eat and drink, as if that would be difficult for a God who just did the parting-of-the-Red-Sea thing.

And then they start longing for Egypt again. “Back in Egypt we had plenty of food and water.” What? Really?

In the book of Judges you have this cycle where Israel would sin, God would punish them, they would repent, God would restore them.

And then they’d sin again. And God would punish them again. And they would repent again. And God would restore them again. Over and over and over. At some point the reader thinks, “What a bunch of idiots!” What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Okay, so they weren’t idiots, they were just insane.

So now you have the Twelve disciples following Jesus all around, watching him pull off miracle after miracle, and one day they’re in a deserted place—all the gospel writers make sure we know they’re in a deserted place; think Israel in the Wilderness—with a whole bunch of people, five thousand to be exact, and the Twelve say, “Send them away, we can’t feed them, there’s not enough food.”

As if that would be a problem with God. So Jesus feeds them with a little bit of food from a little bit of a boy. And there’s baskets of food left over, Twelve to be exact.

Sometimes a number is more than a number.

I love that in Mark, just two chapters later, they’re in the exact same situation, this time with fewer people—four-thousand instead of five-thousand.

The Twelve come to Jesus, and you’d think they’d say, “Hey, you know that thing you did with the five loaves and two fish and the five-thousand? Do it again, that was really cool.”

But, no, they say, “How can anyone feed this many people with bread in a deserted place?”


So the Twelve represent all Israel, especially how dull and stubborn and arrogant and unbelieving they were.

There’s a lot of representing going on in the gospels. The Jews were used to that. They are sitting around a table sharing Passover with each other, a meal in which everything represents something.

It’s not just symbolism—the Passover Meal isn’t just symbolic. In a sense the Passover Meal is meant to recreate the experience. So instead of something just symbolizing the bitterness of their slavery, they actually eat bitter herbs so that they experience bitterness. It’s not the same thing as slavery, but, still, they experience bitterness. They live it out.

Instead of something symbolizing the Passover Lambs that were sacrificed in Egypt, they actually cook lamb and eat it, just like the Hebrew slaves who were going to have death pass over them.

So it’s more than symbolism. These things represent something else; they lead you into the experience of the thing they represent.

So Jesus takes the bread of the Passover, he blesses it and breaks it and gives it to them. “This is my body,” he says. Then he takes a cup of wine. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

What happened that night was passed down from person to person after the resurrection, and as they came to understand Jesus and who he was, details were added to the story, not to embellish it but to bring out the meaning, much like spices bring out the flavor in food. By the time it gets to Paul, he’s heard it slightly differently than Mark.

First, in 1 Corinthians 11:25 he says that Jesus took the cup of wine after the supper. This is the cup of Elijah. The Hebrews believed that Elijah would herald the arrival of the Messiah and the new kingdom that he would establish in Israel. So they invite Elijah to the table, and pour him a cup of wine.

But the redemption of Israel hasn’t occurred yet, so the cup goes undrunk.

It’s this cup that Jesus takes, and they all drink it. Get it?

The other thing that Paul says was told to him was that Jesus said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” He is invoking Jeremiah and his promise of a new covenant:

Jeremiah 31:31-34:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Once again, Jesus is saying, “The time that everyone has been waiting for has come.”

See, the Passover isn’t just about remembering the past; it’s also an anticipation of the future. Passover is a promise, and Jesus says that promise has been kept.

In his body. In his blood. This is my body. This is my blood.

A symbol, a re-creation? Yes, but also a promise.

Now, somewhere along the lines they started taking this stuff literally. Not the promise, which should be taken literally, but those words.

“This is my body. This is my blood.”

Somewhere along the line somebody said, “Oh my gosh. This is the body of Christ. The blood of Christ. Not just symbolically, but literally.”

They began teaching that when the priest took the bread and said some magic words that no one could understand—remember, this is Latin long after Latin was no longer spoken and understood by the common person; the only ones who still spoke it and read it and understood what they were speaking and saying were the clergy—that when they spoke these magic words, the bread actually became the body of Jesus.

Still looked like bread, felt like bread, tasted like bread—but it’s not! It’s the actual body of Christ!

And the wine, after the magic words, became the blood of Christ. Still looked like wine, smelled like wine, tasted like wine—but it’s not! It’s the actual blood of Christ!

If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s…not a duck! Not if a priest speaks Latin over it.

This is called the doctrine of transubstantiation, and it was the belief that was taught in the church for over 500 years and is still taught in the Catholic church today.

It wasn’t the belief of the earliest Christians. Jesus is clearly sitting at a table that is heavily symbolic and representative. Every Jew knew that the charoset wasn’t really the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves to build Egypt’s storehouses, that it was a brown fruit paste that resembled mortar; they knew that the salt water really wasn’t the tears of the Hebrew slaves.

Why would someone then start to claim that it wasn’t symbolic at all, that it really was, somehow, magically, mystically, the real body of Jesus and the real blood of Christ?

Well, imagine that you are a simple European peasant. You go to mass, and this man—it has to be a man, it can’t be a lowly woman—comes out wearing these ornate robes, and he speaks in a mystical, magical language that only other priests can understand. He speaks mystical, magical words over bread and over wine, and you are told—this part you are allowed to understand—that the bread has been mystically, magically changed into the actual body of Christ! And the wine has been mystically, magically changed into the actual blood of Christ! And everyone nods their head in agreement, even if they don’t understand.

What would you think about the man who did all of this? You’d think that he was a mystical, magical man. A priest looks like a man, talks like a man, feels like a man—but he’s been somehow changed into a special kind of man, the kind that can turn bread into flesh and wine into blood.

That is one cool dude. Don’t mess with that dude. He speaks for God.

Get it? It’s a power play. Medieval clergy vying with princes and kings for control over the people and the land. It’s like the person who says, “God spoke to me and I really believe that you ought to do….” Well, can’t disagree with that. I rather resent it when people do that to me in an effort to get me to go along with their agenda. They may truly even believe it, but sincerity is not reality. Just because you sincerely believe it’s so doesn’t make it so.

So beware pastors who proclaim, “The Lord spoke to me and revealed…” I would never do such a thing. In fact, the other day the Lord spoke to me and said, “I can’t stand it when people make me say all sorts of things—don’t you ever do it!”

And I’m like, “Word.”

The Protestant Reformers, guys like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, came along and decided they didn’t want to play into these power plays, and they rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation.

“Look!” they said. “It’s just bread. It’s just wine.”

And the Baptists all said, “Wine!”

The king has no clothes. They pulled the curtain back and revealed that the wonderful wizard of Oz was just a guy after all.

It’s just bread. It’s just wine. It’s just a symbol.

We don’t do very well with things that are just symbols. We like it when something really happened. This is the struggle that many Christians twist themselves in knots over.

Adam and Eve—did it really happen, or is it just a story?

The parting of the Red Sea—did it really happen or is it just a story?

The miracles of Jesus—did they really happen, or are they just a story?

As if stories aren’t powerful and symbols don’t have the ability to represent something that is more real than just what happened to someone long, long ago in a land far, far away.

It’s just…juice. It’s just…bread.

It must be kind of disappointing as a kid to hear your pastor say over and over, “This is my body broken for you,” and “This is my blood of the covenant,” like it’s really, really special, so special that you’re not allowed to have any until you are old enough to speak the magic words and enter the magical waters of baptism.

Then they get old enough and pray the prayer and get dunked, and they take communion for the first time.

“This is my body! This is my blood!”

And it’s just…bread. And grape juice.

We Protestants lost something when we removed the veil and eliminated the mysticism from communion. Something was lost, but it’s not that the bread stays bread and the juice stays juice.

Because, see, they really do get changed into the body and blood of Jesus.

This is my body.

This is my body.

This is my body, the body of Christ.

The body of Christ.

The body of Christ.

In the New Testament, what is the body of Christ? Who is the body of Christ? You are. We are. What does Paul say? His letters, in Corinthians, in Ephesians, in Colossians, over and over he says it: “You are the body of Christ.”

And though it’s symbolic, it’s also literal. Paul really means it. When flesh is infused with the Spirit of Christ, which is real, not symbolic, when we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we become the Body of Christ—not each of you individually, but us, the church—we are the body of Christ!

So when we eat this bread, what happens to it? It gets broken down and digested, and it turns into muscle and bone and ligaments.

And when we drink the juice, what happens to it? The fluid gets turned into tears and sweat—and blood.

They get changed into the body and blood of Christ.

That’s why, among the many things this rite is called, we call it communion. Something very powerful that happens when we get together and let the Spirit of Christ have control, and he guides and directs his Body to be his witnesses.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”

Until he comes again—in flesh and blood.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / dwags

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