Andrew, on the blog Reformation 500, is a Protestant and an old online buddy of mine, going back several years. In a comment to his post “This is My Body Pt 2“, Andrew writes, “When [St. Paul] says ‘the bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ’ it sounds to my ears more like the Reformed understanding. Why otherwise would he not have said ‘the bread that we break, is it not the body of Christ’?”
In another comment he says, “There is no reason to think a literal eating of Christ would be salvific.”
I disagree on both counts.
In the verse Andrew cites (1 Cor. 10:16), the word “participation” is the Greek word koinonia. This same word is used throughout the New Testament to refer to the fellowship of the saints:
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (koinonia), and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship (koinonia); that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” Gal 2:9
And also to our communion with God and with Jesus:
“God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship (koinonia) of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Cor 1:9
“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship (koinonia) with us: and truly our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” 1 Jn 1:3
And even the communion of marriage:
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion (koinonia) hath light with darkness?” 2 Cor 6:14
But in the context of the verse in question, koinonia refers specifically to the kind of communion you have when you eat what is offered in sacrifice. When you eat what is offered, you become a partaker or a participant in the sacrifice:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (koinonia) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion (koinonia) of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers (koinonos) of the altar? What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship (koinonos) with devils.” 1 Cor 10:16-20
From the context, it’s clear Paul is saying that those who eat the “bread which we break” and drink “the cup of blessing which we bless”, are thereby made partakers or participants, not merely of Christ’s body and blood, but of Christ’s body and blood offered in sacrifice; just as the Israelites who ate of the sacrifices of the Old Covenant altar became participants in those sacrifices.
Let’s now consider Jesus’ words in John chapter 6:
“For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” Jn 6:33-35.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:51.
“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” John 6:53.
John 6, of course, goes on and on in that vein. What I want to point out here is this: We all agree that Jesus’ sacrifice, which saves us, was his offering of himself in the flesh, on the Cross. We also agree that we must have communion or fellowship (koinonia) with Christ, and when we are in communion (koinonia) with Christ, we are also in communion (koinonia) with the Father and the Holy Ghost. And of course, when we are in communion (koinonia) with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, we are also in communion (koinonia) with each other.
But how is this communion or fellowship (koinonia) attained? We would all agree that it comes through faith. But what we read from St. Paul indicates that it also comes through eating the “bread which we break” and drinking “the cup of blessing which we bless”. Eating and drinking the bread and the cup are a koinonia in the body and blood of Christ — in the same way that eating of the Old Covenant altar was a koinonia in those sacrifices. So eating the bread and drinking the cup makes us koinonos in Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood.
Now if Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood saves us, and we become koinonia with Christ’s body and blood by eating and drinking the bread and wine, and therefore become koinonia in Christ’s sacrifice, does this shed no light on Christ’s words, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you”?
If you become koinonia in a sacrifice by eating the thing sacrificed, what then are we eating when we become koinonia in Christ’s sacrifice?