Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lets get physical. . .

Reality is too often shaped only by the senses -- what we can see, smell, taste, or touch.  Often even hearing is not accorded the same grasp of reality as what the eye beholds, the nose smells, the tongue tastes, or the skin feels.  Even for Lutheran Christians, physical reality is too often limited to the what the senses perceive.  So it is easy for Lutherans to approach the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar with a sort of high church Protestant view.  Many do not find much difference between Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli on this issue and so some Lutherans (the ELCA) have made eucharistic concords with groups that have not recognized or defined Christ's presence the way Lutherans have and do.  It is not church dividing -- at least so say those who believe the presence is more in the eye of the beholder than in the bread and wine.

Therein lies the rub.  Lutheran spirituality often tends to be Word oriented (and ever more feeling based) instead of the classical Lutheran orientation in the means of grace.  Lutherans buy popular books by evangelical authors and do not find in them much different from their own estimation of things -- especially in the area of sacramental theology.  But we have ended up drifting away from the vibrant sacramental understanding of our Confessions and from the robust baptismal and eucharistic spirituality of our forbears.

Nowhere does this become more evident than in the way we approach the presence of Christ in the bread and cup.  Having grown up in an era when some of our pastors had been taught and turned out somewhat receptionist in their thinking, there is not much of the sacrament when the real presence seems tied to the moment of reception.  Never mind that the Confessions are clear that the Body and Blood of Christ are distributed and eaten and drunk.  It is safer to confine Christ's presence to the moment of reception.  Then you do not have to deal with the messy issues of dropped hosts or spilled cups or reliquae.

Then there are those who insist that the presence of Christ is spiritual only.  In our fear of munching on flesh and bone we have shied away from the idea that you are chewing on the flesh of Christ.  In this respect it has become for some an unnatural eating and drinking that happens not with the lips or the mouth but with the mind and heart.  It is definitely less messy to feed on Christ by faith in thine heart than it is to deal with such things as consecration, real presence, spills, and leftovers.  Never mind that the Formula of Concord insists that Paul teaches not only the sacramental union, but also a physical union, namely, that the communicants receive the body and blood of Christ orally (manducatio oralis ), and that the unbelievers truly receive the body and blood of Christ  (manducatio in- dignorum) (SD, VII, 60). To be sure, the Confessions attempt to avoid misunderstanding, and distinguish this "oral  or sacramental eating" by saying that it is not a "coarse, carnal Capernaitic manner, but in a supernatural [above nature], incomprehensible manner" (SD, VII, 63; cf. also 127; and Ep., VII, 42).

As Herman Sasse put it:  Luther was right when he indicated that it is impossible to understand one part of this explanation literally, [and] another part figuratively. One cannot say, “take and eat” are to be literally understood, “this is My body” is figuratively to be understood, and “for you” is again to be literally understood. These words are a unit; they are the gospel itself.

Lets get physical.  Lutherans may disagree with the explanation of that presence that Roman Catholics use (transubstantiation) but we also refuse to be defined as holding to consubstantiation.  We are bound by the Word of Christ who insists that His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink and, as St. Paul insists, that such eating and drinking is a full participation in the body and blood of Christ.  We do not locate the moment of the consecration and Christ's presence to a syllable but to the Word.  We insist that the Sacrament is neither given for nor can we have confidence in Christ's presence without the intention to complete the usus (eating and drinking) and therefore we do not adore Christ in the elements outside the Divine Service as a substitute for the eating and drinking which Christ commands in His Word.  We

The Lutheran Confessions affirm, "[Christ] was speaking of his true, essential body, which he gave into death for us, and of his true, essential blood, which was poured out for us on the tree of the cross for the forgiveness of sins" (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII, 49). In the SD VII, 75 it says, “The true and almighty words of Jesus Christ which He spake at the first institution were efficacious not only at the first Supper, but they endure, are valid, operate, and are still efficacious so that in all places where the Supper is celebrated according to the institution of Christ, and His words are used, the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed, and received, because of the power and efficacy of the words which Christ spake at the first Supper.” And to our contention that the bread remains with the body and the wine with the cup, we turn to our common history for voices to affirm that which transubstantiation rejects: Certainly the sacraments of the body and blood of Christ are a divine thing, through which we are made partakers of the divine nature; and yet the substance or nature of bread and wine does not cease to be.-- Pope Gelasius De duabis nature. In Chr. Adv. Eutych. Et Nestor. Patrology IV, 1:422

The Lord's Supper was instituted for us Christians to eat and to drink.  Our confidence in Christ's presence in and with the bread and the cup is based upon Christ's solemn word and promise (Words of Institution).  We do not speculate about how or attempt to define the nature of Christ's presence except to say what it is not and what it is as Scripture tells us.  We refute those who would dilute the Sacrament by spiritualizing what takes place and we refuse those who would dilute the Sacrament by deriving benefit from anything other than the eating and drinking of the faithful as Christ clearly says.  Christ's presence is real, it is physical, it is located in the bread and wine (not the believer to the exclusion of the elements themselves), and it is a full koinonia in that body and blood of Christ where we receive the forgiveness of sins.

To quote a beloved father, St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Doctor of the Church: Let us submit to God in all things and not contradict Him, even if what He says seems to contradict our reason and intellect; let His word prevail over our reason and intellect. Let us act in this way with regard to the Eucharistic mysteries, and not limit our attention just to what can be perceived by the senses, but instead hold fast to His words. For His word cannot deceive.

We Lutherans are guided too much by our fears of being misunderstood or sounding too Roman Catholic so that even the very words of our Confessions become alien and strangers to our voices today.  This problem keeps us from knowing and enjoying the full, rich, and blessed gifts which Christ gives to us in this Holy Sacrament.  We sometimes sound as if the real absence would be easier for us to deal with than the blessed Real Presence of Christ who does what He promises and delivers to us what His Word insists for us, for the forgiveness of our sins, for the strengthening and nourishment of His new life in us by baptism, and for the seal of our eternal life which this Eucharist anticipates.


Dr.D said...

You are pointing directly at the major problem that afflicts American Christianity today, namely, a loss of true faith. Most still pay lip service to the faith, but few, very few, really believe. When push comes to shove, we will see exactly how few there are. It will not be pretty.


Joseph Bragg said...

No one seems to take note of the real problem...that women's ordination would be considered for a vote, and even worse that few even question that such issues can be decided by a democratic vote. Doctrine by vote seems to be the accepted and unquestioned rule in Protestantism.