Some of the Symbolism of Holy Communion
Sunday, August 1, 2021 at The First Congregational Church of Marshalltown, Iowa
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.”
• Introduction-Parallel to the ground in Tennessee
When I was in seminary and I took a group of Middle School students to Tennessee for camp. This included rock climbing, the only time in my life that I partook of the sport. As part of our training, I had to climb a rock face ten feet or so above the ground, plant my feet against the cliff and stand up so I was parallel to the ground below. Then I had to let go of the rope, becoming completely dependent upon it to keep me from falling. I think that is the point of the passage today, that we are utterly dependent upon the Lord, and Holy Communion symbolizes that point, among many others.
• Set the stage
To set the stage, Jesus has a lot of attention paid to Him with His wise teaching and the miracles that are part of His ministry, but now He reaches a point in which His ministry begins to decline. People start to have trouble understanding what He said. Some found Him disturbing and offensive, and they left. At one point, Jesus even asked His own disciples if they were going to leave Him too. Peter replied, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s interesting that in this age in which churches as so concerned about growing and reaching people (and they have a point) we discover that the ministry of Jesus had seasons in which it grew rapidly to include many people, but it declined rapidly too, and many people stopped following Him. Holy Communion looks back at some of the words He said at that time.
At the heart of all this controversy were the words of verse 53: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.'” Cannibalism would have repulsive to the people of that day, and today as well. Both Old and New Testaments forbid the consumption of blood. Even the Passover Lamb, that most sacred of sacrifices, did not involve the blood of that lamb. The people who first heard these words must have understood that they were symbolic, but the truth they symbolized still disturbed them. In Hebrew idiom “flesh and blood” meant “the whole man”. In
other words, when Jesus called upon the people to “eat His flesh and drink His blood” He was calling upon them to be completely dependent upon Him; to trust His words as truth regarding salvation and all things spiritual; to reckon that their very life and breath was dependent upon Him. They had to life in themselves, they could not exist without Him. In the Apocrypha, Wisdom is depicted as inviting people to “eat of her”, that is to learn from her and to depend upon her to live and live well. Jesus was making a similar claim, and it was a bold one. The passage did not anticipate Holy Communion as much as Holy Communion looks back on these words and acknowledge that they are true.
The application for this passage is to use the Sacrament of Holy Communion to make a statement to God, that you own your dependency upon Christ. We can do nothing without Him, even the breath and the heartbeat and the brainwave are dependent upon Him. We can do nothing without Him but with Him all things are possible. We are fortunate to have an excellent water system in this town. What if we didn’t have it? What if we did not have access to clean water at all? That is a lesser dependency than our dependency upon Christ. Some of the greatest passages in the New Testament are about this truth. This includes my favorite verse: Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
This also includes my favorite verse to pray for other people: Ephesians 3:14-19 “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height-to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that You may be filled with all the fullness of God.
One of the greatest truths in all of Scripture is that we are utterly dependent upon Christ, who, in turn, is utterly dependable. It is in the heart of great promises of the New Testament. The Sacrament of Holy Communion looks back to this truth and acknowledges it. Jesus said that if we did not eat His flesh and drink His blood we have no life in us. It’s a graphic statement, but what it symbolizes is true, and that is part of what is meant by the Sacrament of Holy Communion.