Conflict over Communion

Conflict over Communion
Hoc Est Corpus

Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, I Corinthians 11:23-32

One of the great fights at the time of the Reformation, if you can believe it, was over the communion service.  There was a Latin phrase that had been in use for a thousand years and more.  The phrase in Latin was “Hoc Est Corpus.”  In English it is simply “This is my body.”  They are the words that Jesus spoke on the night of that very first communion meal when he met with his disciples. There were the words used in the communion services practiced throughout Christendom.

But when the reformation took place, the meaning of the words came under furious debate.

  1. Transubstantiation Mark 14:22-24, Matthew 26:26-29, John 6:53-58

The part of the church that we now call Roman Catholic took one position.  It was called transubstantiation.  This simply meant that when the bread and the wine were consecrated by the priest, the very elements were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.   They took the words of Jesus very literally.  He said, “This is my body”, “This is my blood.”  Therefore, in some supernatural way, they were changed.  So, when we partake of the elements, we actually partake of the divine nature.  Now the elements appear the same and taste the same, but in reality, they have been changed.

When some of the worshippers then heard the Latin phrase, “Hoc Est Corpus” and understood that at that moment they were changed, they saw magic taking place. This is the origin of the phrase “Hocus Pocus”.  The phrase now used by magicians and conjurers to supposedly change one thing into another.

  1. Memorial Luke 22:17-20,  I Corinthians 11:23-26

But there were some who had left the Church of Rome in protest.  The protesting people of Holland were led by a man name Uldrich Zwingli.  He wanted nothing to do with magic or with the miraculous.  He wanted nothing of superstition or sleight of hand.  He said the communion elements do not change into anything else.  They stay bread and they stay wine, and all the words we can speak will not change them.

The elements are simply audio-visual aids intended to help us remember.  The service is more like a memorial service in which we remember the life laid down for us so long ago.  It is almost the same thing that we do at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month each year to remember those who laid down their lives for us in war.  At a communion service, we remember, lest we forget, what Jesus did for us on the cross, and so we eat the bread and we drink the wine as an act of remembering.  The communion service serves as a string around the finger that helps us remember.

  1. Consubstantiation

In Germany the protest against the Roman domination of the church was led by Martin Luther.  He listened to the leaders from Rome on the communion question and felt uncomfortable.  He listened to Zwingli of Holland and knew he could not agree with him either.

He wanted to take the words almost as literally as did the Church in Rome.  But he did not like Hocus Pocus either.  So, he proposed a solution that is called Consubstantiation.   This position said that the presence of Jesus Christ is with the elements. (The Chalcedon Formula reads, of one substance with the Father as touching his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as touching his manhood; but the nature of both are retained.) The idea is that in the service of communion, the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine, coexist in union with each other. Luther illustrated it by the analogy of the iron put into the fire whereby both fire and iron are united in the red-hot iron and yet each continues unchanged.

The presence of the resurrected Christ is above, beneath, beside, around and through the elements, but the bread and the wine are not changed in any way.  But when I partake of the bread and wine, I partake of Christ simultaneously.  So the bread and the wine carry the real presence of Jesus Christ to my life.

  1. Sign and Seal

In Geneva, Switzerland another reformer, John Calvin, got into the debate.  He did not like the Roman Church’s response.  It was too magical.  He didn’t like Luther’s response because it leaned too close to the Roman viewpoint. But he did not like Zwingli’s view, whom he thought went too far in the other direction.

So John Calvin writes, “The  sacrament is an aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel…an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his goodwill toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety towards him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.[30]

So, he said the communion elements are a sign and the seal of God’s grace.  That means that the elements are both reminders, a sign, of God’s grace, but the elements are also vehicles of God’s Grace.  God meets us in the sacramental moment.  God uses the means to convey his grace to us.

  1. The Quaker’s position

There was a fifth group during this time of the splintering of opinions.  The Society of Friends, the Quakers, wanted nothing to do with sacraments as such.  Many felt the whole thing was superstitious nonsense.  They refused to baptize, and they refused to offer communion to their people, but instead urged their people to hold spiritual communion with their Lord without the props, which they felt no better than idols. These symbols were a distraction at least and better avoided. God is present everywhere and those with eyes “take off their shoes” says Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for “Earth is crammed with heaven…”

Later, for different reasons, they were joined by the Salvation Army in shunning the sacraments and ordinances.

  1. Transignification

In more modern times, now that we are away from the heat of those arguments, we are able to look at the issue more dispassionately.  There is a sense in which each group was correct in part.  The Roman Catholic church was right in their desire to take Jesus at his word.  They  were right that the bread and the wine were changed.

But Luther was right too.  Christ was present in those very moments during a service in the power of His resurrection.  Zwingli was right that it was a service for remembering what Christ had done.  John Calvin listened and tried to blend the strengths of each position.   Each group was right in what they affirmed.  But wrong in what they denied about the other’s positions.

But how do we explain the words “Hoc Est Corpus” in modern imagery and language.

The Roman church said, there is a change in the substance.  But the word “substance” has many meanings.  It can mean “material stuff”, for instance; I am not just an idea, I have substance.

But when we talk about the substance of the debate, then we mean the very heart of the argument.  We mean the very essential element of what we speak about.  “The substance of the argument was different than he had understood.”  So when the theologian said, “The bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ” they were not intending to say that we end up eating bleeding flesh in a cannibalistic sense, which would be horrendous.  Instead the very nature, the significance of the bread and wine has changed.

Some years ago, the Canadian flag came into dispute.  The flag was flown upside down.  The outrage was instant.   But why all that fuss over a bit of cloth?  Because it is more than a piece of red and white material. When red cloth and white cloth are cut into the shapes of the maple leaf, and the cloth becomes a flag, it is not just cloth anymore.  Though the scientist in testing it would say, “Just cloth.  nothing more.” But 30 million Canadians would say, “give me a break!”  It is the flag of our country and know that the substance they had defamed was not material substance, but Canadian honour.

More than 50 years ago Amy and I were wed.  I gave her a wedding band that she wears to this day.  It cost very little in those days when Gold was $35 an ounce.   If a scientist were to inspect it with the question, what is the essence of this thing, he would say gold of a certain caret.  That’s all. nothing more.   But if Amy were to take that gold ring and fling it into the Welland Canal, she has not just thrown away a $100 item.  She may be throwing away our marriage.  She is not just jettisoning a piece of jewelry, but she may be discarding me, insulting our marriage and doing terrible hurt to me.  The ring is more than gold.  When it was placed on her hand, it changed its essence. It was transformed.

On the night of the betrayal, Jesus took bread, something common to most meals.  He took wine.  Something present in Mediterranean countries as a normal beverage, and he reinterpreted their meaning.  He changed them forever.  When these common table elements are used in a communion service, they are more than bread and wine. They become the meeting place of God and man.  They are the very means whereby God Himself may engrace my life, advance the work of His Spirit, and where the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son cleanses me from my sins.

The Eastern Orthodox Church  

The Western church patterned its communion service on The Gospel accounts of that first communion service in the upper room, and on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which attempts to stop the abuse of communion.  It became a penitential service.  Forgiveness of sin was the focus. It was a solemn time.

The eastern church based their communion services on the life of Jesus spent with his 12 disciples, and the resurrection accounts where Jesus eats meals with his friends. After the resurrection they broke bread with joy. It was the resurrected Jesus who met with them in the power of the holy Spirit. It was joyous celebration that He was present with them. 

The Eastern part of the church said, “Hoc Est Corpus?” What are you talking about?”  Then they said, Jesus is not in the bread or the wine, he is in the room.  His feet are under the table with ours. Where 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, there he is, among us. He does for us, as he did for the early apostles: he meets with us in person. He wants to have a meal with us and fellowship with us and share life with us. So the East said the resurrected Jesus Himself is present by the Holy Spirit and having a meal with his people is one of his favourite things!

But whatever view we hold; the entire Christian Church knew enough about the significance of the Communion service to think it worth a great debate.  They knew they were not making a mountain out of a mole hill.  They were saying to people like you and I, “Do not take the communion service lightly.  Do not abuse the opportunity.  Do not flagrantly play fast and loose with the sacred.  The bread and wine are not a mini-coffee break.  They are part of a set of moments when God and his people intentionally come together in a trysting moment and focus on the salvation provided by Jesus Christ.


I must come to conclusion.  The question arises, do we need to understand the “how” of communion?  Do we need to solve this dilemma of the scholars?  I believe it is helpful to think about the matter, but I would want to be cautious in presuming I understand the mystery of God’s workings.  (By the way, the world “sacrament” is the Greek word for “mystery”)

So the question arises, how much do I need to know to be able to benefit from the sharing in a communion service?  I suspect very little.  I need to know two things only.

  • First, I need to know about my sin, and secondly, I need to know about his forgiveness.
  • First, I need to know about my weakness, and secondly, I need to know about his offer of strength.
  • First, I need to know about my tendency to selfishness, and secondly, I need to know about His desire to cleanse me from all unrighteousness.
  • First, I need to know enough about myself, and secondly, I need to know enough about God, to know that the one who knows me best, loves me most.
  • Then if I am aware of my need and His infinite kindness in Christ, that may be enough understanding to take part in every celebration of the lord’s Supper.