Ancient Practices (#6) - The Sacred Meal
The Power of Accountability

The Controversy of the Sacred Meal

Partaking in the Sacred Meal links us with brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world today and in an unbroken line right back to the very first disciples of Jesus over 2000 years ago.

Yet, sadly this meal has become a major source of division and disunity within the church of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries. There has been great controversy and even bitterness and division around the very practice that should be source of love and unity. Both sides have burnt people at the stake for believing the wrong things.

NT Wright, in his excellent booklet The Meal Jesus Gave Us, tells the following story ... (p.59-60)

“Two men are sitting in a castle in southern Germany. They are aware of being on the leading edge of something new, something bigger than both of them. They want to get it right. They argue. They disagree. Eventually one of them dips his finger in his beer-froth and writes some words on the table. The other cannot agree. They go their separate ways, disappointed. 

The men are Luther and Zwingli; the year is 1529; the place is Marburg. The dispute is about the presence of Jesus Christ in the Communion, the Eucharist, the Mass.

Both agreed that the Roman Catholic Church had got it wrong with its doctrine of ‘transubstantiation.’ People often misunderstood this. Within the prevailing philosophy of the Middle Ages, physical objects had outward manifestations and an inward ‘substance,’ a reality deeper than that which you could touch and see. So, while the bread still looked, tasted, smelt and felt like bread, its ‘substance,’ this mysterious inner reality, had changed so that it was actually Christ’s body.

Luther disagreed, but not by much. He held on to the idea of an inner substance, and said that the substance of Christ’s body and the substance of the bread were both present. Zwingli went much further. The bread remained bread and that’s all there was to it. At best it could ‘signify’ Christ’s body; it could be a signpost pointing to it, but it wouldn’t in any sense ‘be’ the thing itself. Luther’s strong point was what Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This is my body.” He wrote in Latin in beer-froth on the table: Hoc est corpus meus. He underlined est: this doesn’t mere ‘signify,’ it is Christ’s body. The Lutheran (predominantly German) and the Reformed (predominantly Swiss) Churches have disagreed on the matter ever since.

Meanwhile, less well known than either, a learned man was agonizing in the background. Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Latin. Johannes Oecolampadius knew more Hebrew and Aramaic than either Luther or Zwingli. He knew that in Jesus’ sentence there wasn’t a word for “is.” Translated literally from Aramaic, Jesus’ words were: “This – my body.” The space represented by that dash between the words is too pregnant for logical analysis. Clearly some deep connection is intended, but you can’t put it into a mathematical formula, still less into a test-tube (as some rationalists used to suggest).

… what mattered was that those who came to the Lord’s Supper … in true faith really did 'feed on Christ.' They really were nourished by the person, the presence and the love of Jesus. How that happened, the theological chemistry or it if you like, wasn’t important and probably wasn’t knowable either.”

How funny and yet how sad that these two men argued over the word "is," a word that, after all, wasn't even in the sentence Jesus used! How easy we too can argue and disagree over matters and issues that really aren't worth losing our love for each other over. May this sacred meal once again become a tradition that unites all followers of Christ around our planet, regardless of our differences. In Christ alone. 


Thank you so much for sharing that. I have wondered about it a great deal lately. God bless you.

Thanks Mark for raising this awareness.

Luther feared having the living person of Jesus Christ disappear from the Lord's Supper. Zwingli feared the superstition of suggesting that Christ's people bite their Lord and chew on him during the communion service. Luther accused Zwingli of an empty celebration. Zwingli accused Luther of cannibalism.

Because of Mark's initiation, I found "The Council at Marburg" so much more interesting (


I don't think that we can contain Luthers sentiment to an argument over the word 'is' - or middle aged paradigms of 'substance'.

There is mystery in the Supper (as a means of Grace) that connects us with Christ that needs to be recognised - it is more than an act.

A recgonition that this meal was the Lord's Body was practiced by early Christians - to their detriment as they were accused by their enemies of practicing cannibalism!

What most present Christians seem to be unaware of, is that the Cup and the bread that Jesus spoke of, were both parts of the traditional Passover meal, in which there were (and still are) four cups. Each had a name. The third cup ( we know it was the third one, because the bible tells us that it was after they had eaten the main meal) is called the cup of Redemption. This is no coincidence, but part of God's use of symbols in operation. The bread is the unleavened bread they were commanded to eat on this night, again symbolizing the total sinlessness of the Messiah. Jesus was NOT initiating a NEW meal, but rather pointing out to his disciples (all Jews), that whenever they ate that bread and drank that cup, they were to be remonded of Him and how He perfectly fulfilled the meaning of the Passover meal in totality. That doesn't mean that we can't celebrate communion whenever we want to, but we should ALWAYS be aware when we do so, that it is a remembrance, not some magical, mystical, experience where the substance of the wine and bread become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. Such teaching is pagan and against the commandment not drink blood. Jesus never once broke the Law of Moses and He would never have advocated that the disciples do so. Therefore the words can only be metaphorical, not literal. Sorry for the long post.

Allan lets take it back a step ... what did JESUS say...?

"Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:53-54

Communion is a means of Grace. The bread and the wine are unchanged elements, but Christ's presence by faith is made spiritually real in and through them.

This is a sacrament - not just a 'charge your glass and remember the good times' toast by people gathered at some prolonged wake. :-)

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