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Builds Strong Bodies

“I grew up in a home where we believed in miracles.  We took the Bible literally—or at least we said we did.  We called my grandmother, with just a smidgen of pride, a ‘prayer warrior’ (wince) because she was known as such a strong and steady person of prayer.”

These are the words of a colleague, shared over coffee.  He was out of work and his marriage was tenuous, but holding.  The rather somber mood was lifted when he said “My wife and I wandered into a Lutheran Church.  We’ve been going regularly.  I think weekly communion saved our marriage.  Maybe saved my life.”

Of course, I like the sacrament.  Given my druthers, our congregation would celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.  But as much as I like and appreciate the sacrament, I had never heard someone claim that it had, possibly, saved his life.

When he was too broken and confused for the words of worship to mean much, somehow the Lord’s Supper, with its tangibility and objectivity, nourished him.  It gave him strength to carry on.  No matter what did or didn’t happen in worship at that Lutheran church, he received Jesus in the sacrament.

Wonderful story, no doubt.  But it took this friend to point out the strange and sad irony of being raised in a miracle-believing, biblical-literalist, prayer-warrior family, where the sacrament was devalued, virtually shunned.  The attitude was almost “Look away.  Pay no attention.  Nothing going on there!”

Wouldn’t you think that people who see a world filled with miracles, who expect their neighbor’s short leg to grow and their aunt’s cancer to recede in response to prayer, would find it plausible that God could actually come to us through bread and grape juice?  Couldn’t the God who rained down fire on the dripping wet altars at Mount Carmel rather easily transform, in some very real sense, grocery-store white bread into Christ’s body—or at least in something that truly does feed the soul?

“This is my body, broken for you.”  To a biblical literalist that would seem like a pretty straightforward statement.  Apparently it was to Luther at the well-known Marburg Colloquy of 1529.  The other option is to get Clintonesque and say “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”  Why are the people, who deep in their bones are distrustful of anything about their God being equated with or demoted to a symbol, the very same ones who are oddly quick to dismiss the sacraments as anything more than a glorified object lesson?

And for people who deeply believe in the power of prayer, simply to request “Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us the communion of the body and blood of Christ” seems like setting the bar pretty low.  You hardly need to be a prayer warrior to ask for that.

I’m not pushing for a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament, let alone a Roman Catholic perspective.  And I know the history, not simply of the Reformation, but also how the anti-Catholic animosity only increased over time.  But until this colleague put it so simply, I had never realized how incongruous that so many Christians who are not so otherwise, become minimalist, low-expectation, anti-miracle, rationalists when it comes to the sacraments.  Both of them, actually.  

Can the sacraments save your life?  I suppose that miraculously, by the power of prayer, and as declared by scripture, they can. 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks for this post, Steve. Very intriguing irony indeed. Readers, for another wonderful story of someone who would definitely say that the sacrament saved her life, I highly recommend Sara Miles's memoir *Take this Bread* (Ballantine, 2007). For her, the sacrament led to her conversion and to her founding a huge food pantry ministry in San Francisco. Fascinating, well-written, compelling story.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Thanks for this post. Continuing engagement with the Word, and participation in the sacrament, have been life-saving for me — but that's another story.
    I want to comment on the version of the epiklesis that you quote. Specifically, "the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us the communion of the body and blood of Christ." I don't have an older copy of the liturgy with me, but I do believe it used to be "the bread which we break might be to us the communion of his body, and the cup which we bless may be to us the communion of his blood." Or something like that — in any case, body and blood were, I believe, split. The current way of putting it just confuses me. "the communion of the body and blood of Christ." That sounds like his body and blood are somehow fused — as if Christ's body and his blood were somehow in communion with each other. It's a syntactical issue, compounded by the "be to us" — as though the bread and cup somehow have a communion with each other, which somehow becomes for us the fusion of Christ's body and blood — well, it all just breaks down somewhere into something less than a sacramental use of the language.
    I honestly think that the sense has more to do with participation, in an almost economic sense. Something like, "that the bread we break bread may be to us our share in the body of Christ, and the cup we bless may be our share in his blood." I use the word "share" as a shareholder in a corporation (corpus?) would use the word. I gain a share, I have a stake in, I participate in, this other entity, which brings definite benefit to me. Spiritual benefit? Sure. Physical benefit? Yes. Emotional/psychological benefit? Definitely.
    Of course, the analogy breaks down — the language of the market has definite limitations — but I keep searching for, and not finding, language that conveys this sense. (BTW, 'share', of course, bears the connotation of 'sharing'….) But I suppose this should not be surprising for one who marvels at the sacrament, more than understands it.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I often say that orthodox Reformed people in miracles, but never in church. That we do not complete the syllogisms, that sacraments, in both the Belgic and the Heidelberg, are "signs" and "signs" in John's Gospel are "miracles," is hard to explain, and there must be powerful historical and philosophical reasons to look at (such as done by the epilogue to The Constructive Revolutionary by W. Fred Graham). I would say too that the sacrament saves me every week. Seems to me like looking up at a bronze serpent on a pole. Thanks for this.
    And yes, Paul, when and why was that changed from Howard's original words to the version in Rejoice?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Make that first sentence, "I often say that orthodox Reformed people believe in miracles, but never in church."
    I also often say that it's wise to profreed your comments before post them.

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