What happens when we eat, say, a piece of bread?
- Most foods are not bite-sized, so we have to cut it up, tear it apart, or bite off a chunk.
- When we put it in our mouth, we chew it. That breaks it up even more.
- We digest it in our stomach and intestines, breaking it up very thoroughly.
From there, it enters the bloodstream and is carried to every cell in our body.
On the last evening of his earthly life, Jesus broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body” (Matthew 26:26).
Earlier, he had claimed to be the bread of life in a synagogue filled with adversaries and disciples who then abandoned him. His message was the same: people cannot live unless they eat his body.
What we eat in communion
So what happens to the bread we take at communion? In the natural, the same thing that happens with anything else we eat. Spiritually, it matters that Jesus himself broke the bread, for it is not only his body, but his body broken for the remission of sin.
The Lamb of God, to change metaphors, was slain before all worlds. He died for our sin before we were alive to sin. He broke the bread of life and gave it to us. In sin, we broke it further, down to the molecular level, so to speak. When we eat the bread of life in remembrance, it enters the spiritual “bloodstream” and is carried to every part of our spirit.
In the same way, Jesus took the cup, called it his blood, and commanded the disciples to drink it. He had earlier told the congregation in Capernaum that they had to drink his blood in order to live. Under the law, however, eating blood–especially the blood of a sacrificial animal–was strictly forbidden, even though in some kinds of sacrifices God not only allowed but commanded the priests and sometimes even the people to eat the meat.
What happens at communion
What changed? The body of Christ has another meaning besides the bread at communion. The church as a whole is likewise the body of Christ. Apart from the incarnation and the risen Christ, there can be no body of Christ on earth. Under the law, Christ had not come, died, or risen. Within the body, blood cleanses. Outside the body it stains, ruins, and contaminates.
Paul warned people to examine themselves lest they eat and drink judgment to themselves. The judgment fell for not judging the body rightly. Surely in this context Paul does not warn against someone failing to judge his or her own body, but rather the body of Christ–understood both as the bread and the church.
Think of grape juice or wine. When we drink it, it goes through the digestive system into the bloodstream and provides nourishment. When we spill it, we have only a mess to clean up and possibly something ruined beyond all hope of getting clean. So meditate on the body and blood of Christ at communion time in order to drink the blood and not spill it.
What, therefore, does it mean for the church to be the body of Christ? You are one cell in that body. You are what you eat. You eat Christ’s body, the bread of life, as an individual sinner and receive the nourishment as a member of the body of Christ, the church.
Everyone you see in the church is a cell in that body–unfortunately including anyone who has hurt you or offended you. Don’t daydream and take communion absentmindedly. Don’t look across the congregation and remember offenses without forgiving. You want the bread of life to nourish you, not make you sick. You want to drink the blood of Christ, not spill it. That way it will cleanse, not pollute you.