VI. This Is My Body

The phrase, "This is my body," would seem about as simple and direct as a phrase could be. Yet, simple and direct as it seems, the church has regularly taken it for a saying of most complex and heavy import. Ordinary bread must in some way come to operate as a transformative, incarnational vehicle of the spiritual/mystical body of Jesus Christ (whatever that may be). The phrase is simplicity itself; its intention is anything but. However, the correlation between simple phrase and simple meaning could be preserved--simply by sticking to the Passover model. The pattern there is that, in the course of the meal, as different items (different reminder-signs) are brought into play, the children of the family are cued to ask, "What is that? What's it for? why are you doing what you're doing with that whatever-it-is?"

Following this model, Jesus’ statement would then be the proper wording for the father’s (Passover presider's) answer: "This is a so-and-so meant to remind us of such-and-such." (And in Jewish Passover, the "so-and-so" would at one point in actuality be a matzo, a portion of unleavened bread.) (See Markus Barth, op. Cit., pp. 13-14.] Yet even when understood as Passover haggadah (liturgy), Jesus' simple "This is my body" still presents big difficulties. The accounts' Greek word for the pronoun "this" is not what would normally be used for the referent "bread"--and so leaves open other possibilities. Also, in that Jesus was likely speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew, his sentence would have included no word the equivalent of the "is" in "This is my body." Again, there is room for other possibilities [Barth, p. 16].

Fortunately, there seems to be no difficulty with the word "my"--so let's initiate our study by going to the operative noun, "body." We need to note first that Jesus’ biblical/Hebrew understanding of that word would not be the equivalent of what we normally mean by "body." For us, "body" speaks of "constituent substance," the "stuff" of which something is composed. "Body" is that of our makeup which is "weighable" (unfortunately, most often weighing out as "too fat"), "the carcass of the critter" (to put it most bluntly). The usage of Jesus and the Bible would be much more holistic and inclusive. For him, "this is my body" would be much closer to saying, "This is my person; this is my self." "Body" would include the totality of constituent stuff, mind, feeling, and even behavior-pattern--anything and everything that goes into making me "me."

I once met a portrait painter who explained that his method was to study his subjects--not merely to ponder their appearance but to watch them in action--this to the point that he could identify those special quirks or mannerisms that made them "them" and differentiated each from any of their fellows. It might have been a way of smiling, of lifting an eyebrow, of tilting the head, of crooking a finger. The artist then built his whole portrait around the one feature. Reading "body" this way, it would seem highly unlikely for Jesus to say that a mere piece of bread (any piece of bread) might well serve for all time as a reminder-sign of who he was in the totality of his work and person, a reminder-sign of his "body," a reminder-sign that would "body him forth" to the minds and experiences of his followers. It would make much better sense if he had in mind--not simply the bread in itself--but the total group in its total action of a table fellowship culminating in his breaking bread with them. It is this action-pattern in its fullness that will well serve as a Passover reminder-sign of who Jesus was in the fullness of his body.

It makes much better sense to read Jesus so than to take him as saying that a bit of consecrated bread can in some way be made to transform into a spiritual equivalent of his substantial body tissues. Being aware that this was an actual Passover meal, one of the disciples might well have taken the cue and asked, "What does this communal breaking of bread mean, of what is it supposed to remind us?"

Came the haggadah answer: "This is my body. The communal breaking of bread is a reminder-sign of myself. After tomorrow, once you have witnessed my actual giving of my body to be broken for you--after that, you will well understand the appropriateness of the sign and will never again be able to participate in the table fellowship of this broken bread except in remembrance (stark and immediate remembrance) of me."

We later will return for another angle on the word "body"; but let us first pick up the terms we just glossed over. We have seen that Jesus' "this" (in "This is my body") more likely referred broadly to the total event of Jesus' breaking bread in table fellowship with his disciples--to this rather than narrowly to the substance of the bread in and of itself. Yet even insistence upon the narrower interpretation does not at all prohibit the Passover-reading of the bread's being a reminder-sign. After all, Jewish Passover does use bread precisely as such a sign--although a reminder-sign of the escape from Egypt rather than of a person who gave himself bodily to be broken on a cross. However, there is no reading of "this" that will amount to support for taking the bread to be sacramental mystery.

Our Greek NT texts do have an "is" word in "This is my body." Yet Markus Barth points out that Jesus' original Aramaic saying in the upper room would not have followed that construction. Barth then comes up with a quite convincing method for our discovering what word Jesus would have intended. We will soon get to that; but it should first be observed that even going with the word "is" hardly mandates that the sentence must read: "This bread is identical in substance with the stuff of my physical constitution."

Not at all; our use of the word "is" is flexible enough that, within the proper context, we could say, "This bread is my body," and have confidence that hearers would understand that to mean "This bread is the symbolic equivalent of my body; is a representation of my body; is a metaphor of my body; is a reminder-sign of my body." In effect, neither with the "is" word in or out is the sentence forced to mean that this bread is identical in substance with the stuff of my physical constitution. We certainly do not recognize any such dictate when it is the case of Jesus saying, "I am the door."

However, Barth’s approach is much more relevant and constructive than any argument over the word "is" will ever be. Barth goes to Paul’s account of the Supper in 1 Cor. 10: 16-17 [Barth, pp. 33-42]. Paul makes the statement a question--yet, turned around to be a version of Jesus' bread-word, Paul's would read: "The bread is communion with the body of Christ." Now, with this being the NT's earliest written account of the Supper, certainly Paul must be granted at least as good an understanding of what transpired there as that coming from any of the later Gospel writers. And surely Paul wanted this solemn report taken as his best effort at clarifying what Jesus meant by his upper-room bread teaching.

There where our English word is "communion" (or "participation") Paul’s Greek word is "koinonia"--and koinonia more usually is translated "fellowship" than "communion." Earlier, of course, without even having Paul's "communion/koinonia" in mind, we were explaining the last supper in terms of Jesus' "table-fellowship/koinonia." Now, to learn that Jesus' bread-word was probably talking about "communion/fellowship"--well, that gets everything into one package and all as it should be.

Barth is strong on the point that koinonia always designates a quality of intrapersonal fellowship between and among personal beings. It is never used to identify impersonal or inanimate vehicles in their role of bridging the gap between personal beings. Thus communion/koinonia" is something much more alive, dynamic, personal, and two-way than is the "communication" accomplished by means of letters, TV sets, or priestly-consecrated bits of sacramental bread. Surely, the bread of the upper room had reference to what was then and there going on between Jesus and his disciples--rather than to mystical practices by which human religion might later exercise itself. In this regard, then, we must note a seemingly insignificant change in language between Jesus' initiating the Supper and Paul's reporting of it. Most frequently, I suppose, the switch is understood as Paul's bringing new ideas and insights into the gospel. Yet the case can just as easily be made (and this is my preference) that Paul had a very keen understanding of the Supper--and so saw himself to be expounding Jesus rather than introducing inventions of his own. And who is qualified to say that Paul was wrong?

Jesus said, "This is my body." Paul has it, "This is (communion/koinonia in) the body of Christ." Most often, I would guess, we take "my body" as an individual reference to that one total person we know as Jesus of Nazareth. His "body" is solely his own and no one else's. Just as often we probably take "the body of Christ" as denoting that corporation (the plural constituency) of those who have joined themselves to Christ. We take the "my body" idea as being Jesus' expression in the upper room and "the body of Christ" idea as being Paul's invention some time later.

Yet it could have been Paul's personal understanding that Jesus (who was explicit that his is the body that was "given for you")--that he saw the "individual" and the "group" connotations as being so closely and necessarily related that he wanted the term "body" to speak both ways at once (which idea Paul may have been the first person sharp enough to see).

After all, Jesus' personal "body" had hardly shown its worth or achieved its destiny until it had been "given for you"--in such way as to create "the body of Christ." And there was no way that there could ever be a "body of Christ" apart from Jesus' giving "my body" in the creation of it. Neither meaning of "body" can go very far on its own; the two are very much meant to be paired. And it could be that Paul is reading Jesus just exactly right when Paul connects this pairing with the Lord's Supper.

This, Paul most decidedly does--and not so much with the Supper as a whole, but quite specifically with the bread (which just happens to be the topic presently under consideration). We have already examined 1 Cor. 10:16 with its "The bread that we break, is it not a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ?" Well, which body is referred to? Most clearly, the koinonia-body which is the faith community. Yet certainly the personal "my body" of Jesus is not absent. No, it is the two of them together that are identified with the bread of the Lord's Supper.

Reading on, Paul's next verse strengthens our interpretation: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." The "one bread," is of course the "my body" of which Jesus spoke. Yet it is through this singular "my body" that "we who are many" find the koinonia that makes us the plural "one body" of the "one bread." There is no way of making a hard and fast distinction between the singular body of Jesus and the plural body of Christ; both are represented in the one dominical word: "This (bread, or the breaking of bread with you) is my body."

Paul’s saying here also contains the seed of a crucial idea which perhaps first is made explicit in the eucharistic prayer found in the Didache (perhaps the earliest Christian liturgy preserved outside the NT): "As this bread was scattered on the mountains [in the form of growing grain, of course] and yet was gathered and made one, so too may thy church be gathered together from the corners of the world into thy kingdom." Paul's "we who are many are one body" surely implies the Didache's idea of gathering together the scattered many in the process of making them one. (Note, too, the eschatological reference of Lord's Supper bread-making being a work of the on-coming kingdom.)

Actually, the whole line of thought will trace back directly to the upper room. Even if nothing else, that last supper indubitably (because of its timing) was a unique instance of Jesus’ "table-fellowship." Yet that quality of fellowship is just what Paul intends with his word "koinonia/communion." And, he proceeds, the bread of that night's table-fellowship signalizes Jesus' giving of his "personal body" to be broken for us--precisely that we might be drawn into that koinonia/communion which is the table-fellowship Jesus knows as his "corporate body." Finally, for the fact that that bread of "communion in Christ's body" was broken for and offered even to Judas, this "opening of the table" certainly envisions an ingathering of "we who are many [various and scattered]" yet on the way to becoming "one body, for we all partake of one bread."

My point is that everything Paul has to say can be shown as deriving from Jesus’ last supper on the night when he was betrayed. Thus, Paul can be accepted for what he presents himself as being--namely, an expositor of Jesus rather than an innovator using the Supper to introduce his own theological ideas. In his other eucharistic passage of 1 Cor. 11:17-34, Paul pretty much confirms what he already has said. His version of the bread-word (1 Cor. 11:24) is in good agreement with his own report of the previous chapter and with what all three of the synoptic Gospels give us. Perhaps the one new contribution here is 1 Cor 11:29, where Paul opines that the one most critical element in celebrating the Lord's Supper is that we "discern the body." Now what the total Pauline context simply will not allow is that we take "discern the body" to mean "perceive that what had started out as plain bread, at the priest's word of consecration, had actually been transformed into something quite other, namely, the body of Jesus Christ." Paul nowhere says one word suggesting that such is what he had in mind as "discerning the body."

No, if he was being at all self-consistent, what he would have to mean is that "discerning the body" entails your realizing that you, in your very own self, are part of that body of Christ--right along with all these brothers and sisters with whom you must be dealing both now during the Supper and at other times. You also have to know and remember how it was you came into the status of "body of Christ"--know how little you merited it and how much Jesus wanted you to have it even so, wanted you to have it no matter what the cost to himself. Finally, you need to know what it means truly to act conformably to your status of "body of Christ." So, in the earlier part of the passage, where Paul is chewing out the Corinthians for the atrocious way they behave in their observance of the Supper, he could have put the matter precisely in these terms: "You show absolutely no discernment of the body." In a churchly, sacramental setting, "taking communion in the body of Christ" carries with it no ethical or behavioral demands at all. However, when the demand is that of "discerning the body" while engaged in "the koinonia/communion of the body of Christ," the case is altogether different.

Perhaps a word should be said about how "bodies" (of the "body of Christ" sort) are constituted and how they are supposed to perform. Such a "body" consists of a group of followers gathered around a leader who is their "head." The intent, then, is that the "body" in its corporate life show forth the same character, the same pattern of behavior, that the "head" has demonstrated in his individual life. This way, by looking at the "body" in its performance, bystanders should be able to get a quite reliable picture of the "head." And what Paul said about "discerning the body" gets to the very heart of the matter. In fact, "body" and "head" should not even be thought of as separable. The head is not truly "head" until it acquires a "body" through which to work; and of course, a body without a head cannot truly be called a "body" at all. So, a happenstance visitor should be able to stumble into a church and, with a little keeping open of his eyes, come to the conclusion that he was witnessing the body language of a body whose head was Jesus Christ. In some churches, of course, the reaching of that conclusion might take a while.

Paul in effect says that the very best place for seeing the church's "head" is at the spot where it is doing its best job of being "body"--that spot being, of course, the Lord’s Supper in which kononia/communion in the body of Christ is the whole point of the meeting. Yet obviously the church members themselves must first discern that they are the body before visitors will have any chance of discerning the head who is revealed in that body.

Indeed, my guess is that when Paul talks about our eating the bread and drinking the cup in such way as to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. ll:26)--my guess is that he is not even thinking primarily of verbal proclamation. Rather, "Be so discerning of the body that the body's actions (both at the table and apart from it) become a proclamation more powerful and more convincing than any proclamation of mere words."

Consider that, if "discern the body" means "contemplate the communion bread," there is not much anyone could ever learn from doing so. If, however, it means "be body in a form of table fellowship that awakens the discernment of visitor-participants," then there is a great deal to be learned by everyone involved. Consider, too, that according to the churchly understanding, the Supper provides a religious rite by which the Priest can make Christ present (what is called "the Real Presence") in a form that can then be communicated to an individual church member by an actual transfer of substance. The rite, of course, can be done for as many individuals as is wanted; yet in and of itself the transaction requires but three:

  1. the Priest;
  2. the Real Christ he makes present in the bread; and>
  3. the Communicant.

I suppose if one were careful to read no further than Jesus' word, "This is my body," it is possible to call this churchly interpretation "biblical." Yet if Paul be allowed to get hold of that word "body" (with its koinonia/communion), the churchly understanding surely doesn't rate as much of a "discernment" of it.

In the churchly mode, the Priest has priority as the one who invokes the real presence of Christ, then to transmit it to the Communicant. In what we are making so bold as to call "the biblical mode," Christ is prior as the One really present long before any of the rest of us even thought of getting there, the One who ij present and can make himself really present just however and whenever it suits him--no priestly help wanted. It is this Christ then who invokes us (rather than our invoking him)--who invokes and invites all sorts of people from here, there, and everywhere. He invokes, invites, and ingathers people to his table-fellowship, his koinonia/communion. And it is here, in this setting, we are able for the first time to do full justice to the bread-word, "This is my body." Without at all denying the essentiality of Jesus' giving his personal body, we can use that very act for the explaining of this new and truly full-bodied "body of Christ."

Which way do you think it was when the Master gathered his disciples and said, "How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer"? My guess is that Paul comes on to read Jesus just as he would want to be read. We have yet to deal with what I call "the silent thread of the bread/body theme." I grant that, out loud, the idea of "covenant" is related only to Jesus' cup-word. In fact, what we just wrote as "bread/body" in this other case would be written as "cup/covenant." Yet I am convinced that "covenant" belongs just as truly to the "bread" as it does to the "cup."

We have throughout this book been toying with a scriptural "body" tradition which we have not to this point made explicit--but should do so now. I am not offering to trace it in detail all the way through the Bible; but here we go with a hop, skip, and jump.

The line begins with Gen. 2:24--"Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one body" (translators of the OT use the English "body" about as often as "flesh" to represent that key Hebrew term; the one is just as correct as the other). The idea we are after is "body" in the rather uncommon sense of "that community which is produced by separate individuals (the two, the several, the many) gathering into a corporation that functions as a single entity. It will not be necessary to ferret out all the OT does with this idea--though I will suggest that, where our study of "covenant" found a strong interest in "peoplehood" (in Israel's being "a people"), there we were at least right next door to this concept of "body."

Then comes Jesus, on an occasion of intense table-fellowship among a tight-knit company of disciples, saying, "This bread (or perhaps, this communal action involving bread) is my body." We already have seen at least Paul (if no one else) understanding Jesus to have intended this concept of "body." Consequently Paul proceeds to call the bread "a koinonia/communion in the body of Christ" and then say that "we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread." And finally (as already seen) the early-church liturgy preserved in the Didache makes the idea most specific: "As this bread was scattered on the mountains and yet gathered and made one [body], so too may thy church be gathered together.

The social concept of "the several" (the individual plural) transcending their individualism (but not "individuality") to be formed into "the one body" (the community of a corporation singular)--this idea is consistent throughout. And regularly "bread" stands as the metaphor of this bodybuilding process.

So now I ask you: What does Scripture identify as the essential bonding action that keeps the ingredients all hanging together as one loaf--the individuals hanging together as one body? Surely, from Gen. 2:24 onward the answer is covenant. "Covenant": what else could it be? What I am suggesting (yes, a bit more than "suggesting") is that the eucharistic bread has just as good a "covenant genealogy" as does the eucharistic cup. The only difference is that, in the biblical texts, the actual word "covenant" is associated only with the cup and not with the bread. Yet the "covenant idea" is pervasive in any case.

Now we ought not fail to admit that, in our immediately preceding chapter, we found Paul being just as eager to relate this idea of "covenantal union," of our becoming "one in Christ"--just as eager there to relate it to the water of baptism as he is here to the bread of the Supper. "So which is to be, Paul? Where do you mean to come down--with the water or with the bread?" My own feeling is that Paul is not as easy to corner as one might think. His answer can quite consistently be: "Both. The two are not as completely redundant as you take them to be. For those being baptized, their baptism signalizes the initialization of their union with Christ and his body--while, for those partaking of the bread, the Supper signalizes the on-going life of the body.

"You might notice (Paul could continue) that my baptismal emphasis is more upon the individual's experience of union with Christ (of which the inevitable next step is corporate union in his body)--while my Supper emphasis is upon the discerning of that corporation body (which could come into being, and can continue in being, only as individuals individually come into union with Christ). Both emphases are there because I wanted both there." Yet the bread on the one hand and the cup on the other are not redundant, either. No, each speaks to a different aspect of covenantal theology, and thus can our understanding be all the richer for pondering both. But the cup (as we shall soon see) speaks of how it was the New Covenant came to be initialized and set in motion. The bread (as we now have seen) speaks of how that same New Covenant, through table-fellowship, on a continuing basis works at the building up of the body of Christ.

And of course, all this holds together only within the framework of that traditional Jewish Passover which was a covenant meal of dedicated "remembering." Everything we have discovered thus far "fits"--and I don't think there is to be found any other frame of reference into which everything would fit. It is becoming more and more apparent that the Lord's Supper (along with baptism) does in fact represent Jesus’ own best and most deliberate exposition of his gospel.