Bible: Literal, symbolic — or both?

May 27, 2019 by

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“Take, this is my body”: These words are the crux of contention, the source of division for any hope of a shared communion practice in the universal church. What did Jesus mean? Did the bread become his body, transformed into a true corpus, real flesh, in this moment? Or did Jesus mean this as a metaphor, a way for us to think about a life of unity?

Florer-Bixler

Florer-Bixler

Or perhaps there is another way to interpret these words.

While we don’t find a New Testament affirmation that the bread of Jesus becomes his literal or even metaphorical flesh, the pages of Scripture unfold to reveal a people made into the living body of Jesus Christ on Earth.

In 1 Corinthians, following a lengthy description of the church as multiple parts of one body, each essential and gifted in their own way, we read these words: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27).

When people ask me what I believe about communion, asking me to plot myself on the line from literal to metaphoric, I usually respond, “both.” When I hear the words of Jesus in Mark, when I imagine the bread passed from hand to hand, to each disciple, the word echoing — “this is my body” — it is the act of eating itself that forms the literal body of Christ sitting around the Passover meal.

I have taken communion in hundreds of places with thousands of people. I have received bread and juice from a packet handed to me in my seat in an amphitheater church. I have received communion at camp, sitting on the top of a mountain. I’ve had communion with evangelicals in Korea. I’ve shared the cup around a circle at an urban Mennonite church in Philadelphia. I’ve taken the bread from the priests whose ecumenism outweighed the dictates of their Catholic tradition of an exclusive Eucharist.

In these moments, in each wafer or tortilla or sliver of bread I remember the confusion of those outside of Mark’s Passover room, those who continue to find themselves puzzled about this Jesus. Religious leaders, soldiers, the crowds, Pilate — they cannot grasp who this Jesus is.

But at the Passover meal, among his followers, Jesus speaks with clarity who he is. “This is my body.” It is an act that transforms, eating together, coming into the fullness of Jesus’ body in the people of the church. “This is my body.”

And in the eating of the bread we become the body of Christ — from Appalachia to Hong Kong, from the capital of Kenya to the suburbs of Toronto. “This is my body.”

Our Mennonite congregation makes a pledge of love the week before we gather at the table for communion. On those Sundays, the weight and hope of our promises rings through the air as we stand and affirm that becoming the living body of Jesus on Earth means something must happen to our lives.

Will you love God before all things? By God’s grace, I will.

Will you love and serve your neighbor and lay down your life in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ? By God’s grace, I will.

Will you practice mutual admonition toward your siblings, speak and hear the truth, seek peace with those whom you have offended, repent of what causes harm to your neighbors, and seek the good of your enemies? By God’s grace, I will.

The pledge of love is the one 16th-century practice, handed down to us from Balthasar Hubmaier, that consistently appears in our worship. When we say these words, I am reminded of the gift of the Mennonite church, its life ever unfolding in the world, drawing into communion those for whom unity should be impossible.

As we eat, so we become. “Take, this is my body.”

Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament  (Herald Press, 2019).


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