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07.16.17 Arguing Over What’s Not There Acts 1:6-11 Sermon Summary

by on July 17, 2017

Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language which doesn’t require the utterance of the verb “is.” This means that what divided the Reformed Presbyterians from the Lutherans was a debate over a word Jesus probably didn’t even say.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s baptismal theology applied to communion
  • Zwingli and Luther on the word “is”
  • Zwingli’s three arguments
  • Luther’s perspective, including his famous illustration
  • Some ways Presbyterians might have gone, but didn’t

The reason Ulrich Zwingli rejected the arguments against infant baptism was because he realized baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. As circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, as it included children, was administered once, and was administered on the basis of a communal faith, so baptism was to include children—boys and girls.

Zwingli also applied this thinking to the sacrament of Communion. For him, the bread, wine, and participation in communion, was a covenantal sign—but ONLY a sign. These were meant to be prompts, reminders, or substitutes only, NOT vehicles of grace. Today the language we use is “means” of grace. Zwingli denied this.

Thus, for Zwingli, when Christ says “This is my body,” “is” doesn’t mean is: “Is” means “signifies” or “represents.”

Not so for Luther. Luther was a literalist with God’s promises. For him, “is” means “is.” Jesus promised what the communion element “is,” and Luther believed it. His problem with communion was with the official Roman Catholic explanation of how Christ is present, which is called “Transubstantiation.”

Transubstantiation came from the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. It is based on Aristotelian philosophy. It distinguishes between the way things appear to us through the senses, and the way things are in their essence. The appearances are referred to as “accidents,” and the essence is referred to as the “substance.” During the Mass, when the Priest recites in Latin Jesus’ words from the New Testament, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”), the accidents of bread and wine remain, but the substance changes. In other words, they appear to us as bread and wine—feel and taste and smell as such—but what they actually are is the body and blood of Christ.

(This is where magicians came up with the phrase, “Hocus pocus.” It comes from the medieval experience of laity knowing the bread and wine were changed with the priest’s words, but not hearing or understanding the words fully.)

Luther was offended that the church would depend on Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, to explain this divine mystery. “We don’t need philosophy,” Luther would say. “We only need faith.” “Is” means is: you either believe it or not.

So Zwingli and Luther were at an impasse over the word “is,” again, over a word Jesus likely didn’t utter.

Zwingli made three arguments. First, these words of Jesus were spoken while alive, at the Last Supper. There’s no way Jesus could be literal because his death hadn’t happened yet. His body and blood were still alive and contained with him. The original bread and wine could not be his body and blood.

Second, Jesus is presently at right hand of God—ONLY at the right hand: He couldn’t be present in the bread and cup or at the table also. Acts, Hebrews, Paul, and some of the Gospels all agree that Jesus was raised to God’s right hand. Here, Zwingli is the literalist.

Third, Zwingli argued from a verse in the “Bread of Life” discourse of John 6. Even though he denied this passage is about the Eucharist, he nonetheless seized on verse 63: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” For Zwingli, it is the words that matter, and our response to the words, not the accompanying material symbols. It is remembrance and faith, not flesh, blood, or eating that counts. Communion, like Baptism, is a sign, a badge, a marker ONLY. Christ himself is not presently active.

For Luther, Christ is not limited by the flesh. Because Christ is both human and divine, and because God is Spirit, Christ also is not limited by the flesh. He can be in two places at once—at God’s right hand, and with the bread and wine of communion—just as God could be in the Old Testament sacraments, just as in the waters of baptism. The clearest example of this possibility is the Incarnation itself: God was with us in Christ, but also in heaven.

Luther used a famous illustration to make his point. Imagine a horseshoe placed deep in hot coals, so deep you are not able to see the horseshoe. It is still distinct from the coals, but it is in, with, and under the coals. After a while, you remove the horseshoe. It glows hot with the fire of the coals, which appears in, with, and under the horseshoe. The two realities are distinct, but they also appear as one. So, Luther argued, the body and blood of Christ is in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine, just as the bread and wine are in, with, and under the body and blood of Christ. (This way of explaining the dual reality of the bread and wine came to be called consubstantiation—two substances at the same time.)

In 1529 Philip of Hesse called Luther and Zwingli to a colloquy at his castle at Marburg. He was interested in uniting the two reform movements because the Holy Roman Emperor was finally fixing his sights on the Protestant reformers. An alliance would strengthen their position against the Emperor. The two parties agreed on 14 out of 15 articles—all except how to describe the presence of Christ at the Supper. From that time until the last century, the Lutherans and the Reformed would be separate reform movements.

Why, given Zwingli’s way of thinking about things, didn’t we Presbyterians go the way of the Baptists? They didn’t retain the language of “sacraments” and “means of grace,” but instead talk of “ordinances” that we observe because Christ commanded them.

Or why didn’t we go the way of the Quakers? They don’t use any material elements at all—not water for baptism or bread and wine for communion. They simply cogitate on the realities symbolized by these elements.

Or what does Jesus mean when he says he will not partake of the bread and wine “until the kingdom of God comes”? When does that kingdom come? Is it only at the end of the world? Or sooner? These are the matters we will take up next week.


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