What is the Sacrament of the Altar? “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and drink” (Small Catechism).
Yes, when you eat the bread and drink the wine, you eat and drink His actual body and blood. Why? Because Christ said, “This is My body, this is My blood” (Matthew 26:26-28). How does it become His body and blood? We have no idea; we simply take Christ at His Word for it just as we take Him at His Word that we receive eternal life for believing in Him (John 3:14-16). Many say Lutherans believe in consubstantiation, but in truth we reject consubstantiation because, like transubstantiation, it tries to explain how the elements become Christ body and blood when the Scriptures don’t explain how it occurs. We don’t use any fancy term other than “real/true presence” because we do not confess some mystical procedure that makes the elements His body and blood; we simply take His Word for it while letting it remain an unfathomable mystery (for that is just what “sacrament” means—mystery).
And just as Paul said, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). This is why Lutherans practice closed communion—to protect those from drinking judgement upon themselves for failing to discern the bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood.
The real presence of Christ in the Supper has always been the teaching of the Church, even all the way back to the late first-century, “They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 6.2). (Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was martyred during the reign of Trajan in AD 98-117. The date of his birth is unknown, but I estimate somewhere in the late 60s because historically, men were not ordained as priests and bishops until they were thirty. So, he could’ve been born around the time of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul [AD 68], the Gospel of John having been written around eight years before the reign of Trajan.)
Why is the Lord’s Supper so important to us Lutherans? We’ll discuss the benefits of the Sacrament in a later column, but we believe, teach, and confess that the Lord’s Supper is how Christ delivers the fruits of what He accomplished on the cross—that His body and blood, broken and shed on the cross back then, is given to you in the Supper in the here and now. You and I cannot transport ourselves back to the crucifixion of what He accomplished on the tree; therefore, He has given us the mystery of the Holy Supper to deliver the fruits of the tree of the cross to you and me.
Just as He Himself said, “I AM the living bread that came down from Heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and also, the bread that I Myself will give on behalf of the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51; my translation). He is talking here of the crucifixion. Then He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has life eternal, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day; for My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him” (vv. 53-56; my translation). This is what occurs in the Sacrament of the Altar, that we may receive eternal life.