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.