ABC Extra – Omnipresence and the Sacramental Union

August 2, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Every time I teach on a text which sets forth the Lord’s Supper, I am always amazed by the “theological heavy lifting” that needs to be done.  The debates over the Supper have raged so hot for so long that I always find it necessary to address these debates, all the while, trying to proclaim the clear words of Christ.  Such was the case in the Adult Bible Class that I taught this weekend on Mark 14:22-24: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ He said to them.”  The crux of the debate over Jesus’ words rests on His statements, “This is My body…This is My blood.”

In Adult Bible Class, I outlined three main positions that have been taken concerning Jesus’ words, “This is My body…This is My blood.”  The first is the position of Transubstantiation which contends that the bread and the wine turn into the literal, real body and blood of Jesus and, thus, the bread and the wine are no longer present in the Sacrament.  The second is the position of Symbolism which asserts that the bread and the wine are only symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood and Jesus’ body and blood are not literally, really present.  The third is the position of the Sacramental Union which explains that when Jesus declares, “This is My body…This is My blood,” His body and blood becomes really, literally present along with the bread and the wine.  The Lutheran position is that of the Sacramental Union.

While I spent a fair amount of time addressing the position of Transubstantiation in Adult Bible Class, I wanted to spend some time addressing the position of Symbolism in this blog.  Interestingly, the main objection of those who hold to a Symbolic view of the Sacrament is that Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven and so His body and blood cannot be on earth on church altars worldwide.

Lutheran theologians have traditionally responded to this objection by asserting a Christological tenet known as Genus Majestaticum, which states that since there are two natures in Christ – a human nature and a divine nature – the divine nature can affect the human nature in such a way that the human nature can do things which it would not otherwise be able to do. For example, a mere human could not walk on water, but because Jesus was both divine and human, He could.  Or, a mere human could not rise from death, but Jesus, as both God and man, did!  Luther used this understanding of the two natures in Christ to argue that even though Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, His body and blood can still be on Christian altars because He, as God, is omnipresent, even if other humans are not, and indeed cannot be, omnipresent.

Luther’s primary antagonist in this debate, the great Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, responded to Luther’s use of the Genus Majestaticum by saying that Christ’s body would then be in every piece of bread and even every corner of nature.  This, of course, is pantheism and is a pagan, not a Christian, conception of God.  Thus, according to Zwingli, Christ’s body and blood could not be with the bread and the wine.  Luther’s response to Zwingli’s accusation of pantheism remains one of the finest defenses ever of the doctrine of the Sacramental Union in the Lord’s Supper:

It is one thing if God is present, and another if He is present for you. He is there for you when He adds his Word and binds Himself, saying, “Here you are to find Me.” Now when you have the Word, you can grasp and have Him with certainty and say, “Here I have Thee, according to Thy Word.” Just as I say of the right hand of God: although this is everywhere, as we may not deny, still because it is also nowhere, as has been said, you can actually grasp it nowhere, unless for your benefit it binds itself to you and summons you to a definite place. This God’s right hand does, however, when it enters into the humanity of Christ and dwells there. There you surely find it, otherwise you will run back and forth throughout all creation, groping here and groping there yet never finding, even though it is actually there; for it is not there for you. So too, since Christ’s humanity is at the right hand of God, and also is in all and above all things according to the nature of the divine right hand, you will not eat or drink Him like the cabbage and soup on your table, unless He wills it. He also now exceeds any grasp, and you will not catch Him by groping about, even though He is in your bread, unless He binds himself to you and summons you to a particular table by His Word, and He Himself gives meaning to the bread for you, by His Word, bidding you to eat Him. This He does in the Supper, saying, “This is My body,” as if to say, “At home you may eat bread also, where I am indeed sufficiently near at hand too; but…when you eat this, you eat My body, and nowhere else. Why? Because I wish to attach Myself here with My Word, in order that you may not have to buzz about, trying to seek Me in all the places where I am; this would be too much for you, and you would also be too puny to apprehend Me in these places without the help of my Word.” (AE 37:68)

Luther does not deny that Christ’s omnipresence allows Him to be everywhere at once, even, in my favorite line, in “the cabbage and soup on your table.”  But this matters not to Luther.  What matters to Luther is not just that Christ is present, but that Christ is present “for you.”  For when Christ is present “for you,” He is present with His promise of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  And He is present in such a way in Communion, even as He promises:  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  Christ has promised to be present with the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of our sins.

The point of all of the above “heavy theological lifting” is finally very simple:  We can be comforted by Communion because Christ’s body and blood are as close as the bread and the wine.  And as I mentioned in Adult Bible Class, that closeness is precious.  Because whereas our sins against God and our betrayals of God separate us from God, He promises to come close by means of His holy meal.  And I would have Communion no other way.  For when I receive Communion, this is what I desire – to actually commune with God.  To have Him close.  And I know He is.  For He has promised it.

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