The words of institution in context and the impossibility of the real presence in the Lord’s supper

If Jesus simply meant the bread was in some sense like his body and the wine like his blood, his words were somewhat less clear than under a more literal reading. However, Jesus often used figurative and even cryptic speech in other contexts. While it is improbable that his words of institution were more cryptic than those instituting the original Passover, it’s not impossible. The alternative, that his human flesh and blood were in, with, and under the bread and wine, is simply impossible, for it violates all our thoughts of what it means to be human. Sherlock Holmes observed, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Eliminating the impossible real presence would then leave us with the improbable truth of symbolism to be deciphered.

After all, Jesus was a Rabbi giving a farewell address to his disciples. So perhaps it would be natural to make the words by which he instituted the supper for remembering him more symbolic, as most sects do. In that case, we would expect him to cryptically institute a new Passover meal before expecting him to promise the impossible, the true presence of his human body and blood with the bread and wine to orally eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. A cryptic memorial meal, while initially improbable, sounds very reasonable, very acceptable, very predictable.

But Jesus was not reasonable, acceptable, or predictable enough to avoid the death sentence. He was true God in human flesh and blood—the God who walked on water, the God who called the dead to live, the God who spoke natural and demonic powers into submission, the God who can turn stones into true children of Abraham and make camels walk through needles, the God who astonishes us with what is clearly impossible. It is that God who handed his disciples bread, calling it his body, and wine, calling it his blood, inviting them to eat and drink. That is exactly what they are to do in remembrance of his death until his glorious advent.

The God who does the impossible did not speak so ambiguously that his words are to be subjected to fallible judgments of possibility and probability. His word is truth, imparting forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe.

Acknowledgment. Helen E. Jensen provided valuable feedback on a draft.