Throughout recorded history, the meaning of the word "is" has been debated and questioned. This is not simply a phenomenon in English. The meaning of the word "is" is questionable in any and almost every language.
While at the Marburg Colloquy, Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli (among some other theologians of both the German and Swiss Reformation Traditions) sat down to discuss their differences and see if they could come to an agreement. On all points they could agree except one: what Jesus' words in tonight's Gospel mean. Zwingli argued for a representative view, similar to how one would use a family picture and say, "This is my family." Luther, on the other hand, argued differently, saying, "The word 'is' means 'is' in the literal way that one uses for common speaking at the dinner table."
The two men would argue the many points over and over again, always coming back to the word "is." Zwingli would always express a representative point of view. Luther would lift the table cloth and point to the phrase he had etched into the table top: "'Is' means 'is'." Despite agreeing on many points, because the two men could not agree on this one point, Luther is said to have told Zwingli that they, in fact, did not agree on any point. The German and Swiss reformation traditions were not in fellowship with each other.
Of more recent history, a former president once stated in a deposition, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Most of us, I'm sure, have an idea of what he was talking about. However, the same principle is at work here as was at Marburg so many centuries previous.
Hear again the word of the Lord:
And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you."
This is the Word of the Lord. That is to say, this isn't merely representative of what the Word of God says and said in the upper room, this is literally what was spoken by the Word of God in all of His fleshiness as can be found in the Word of God written down for our benefit.
For our benefit... Therein lies the institution of this precious meal. Jesus, as we heard nearly a month ago, was nearing the end of His journey to the cross. He and His disciples were in Jerusalem for the Passover, and not merely another Passover like the one the year before or the year before that or as had been celebrated over the centuries since that day in Israel's history before they were allowed to leave Egypt. No, this would be the Passover, when the only-begotten, beloved spotless Lamb of God would be sacrificed once-for-all.
Now, He and His disciples are about to eat the usual meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread...of bitter herbs and wine. He will take that meal of bread and wine and turn it into something more. No longer will it be only a memorial of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt; no longer will it be only a memorial that on one night of Egyptian captivity, God's angel of death went throughout all of the country of Egypt and struck down the first born male of every house and animal, unless the blood of a lamb was found on the door posts and lintel. No, that Passover is about to find fulfillment. Now, this meal of bread and wine will be a life-giving meal for those who receive it with faith in these words: "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin."
Receive what? Jesus says, "Take this bread and eat it, this is my body...take this cup of wine and drink it, this is my blood." And the question of what "is" means probably came to the minds of those first hearers. Doubtlessly, it was also explained, for it is also explained to us elsewhere in Scripture:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?...Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
The bread received in this most holy Passover meal is the communion of the body of Christ, a common unity—that is to say, the bread and body of Christ share the presence of what is received in the Lord's Supper—the bread is a fellowship, a participation, in the body of Christ. Likewise, the wine received is the communion of the blood of Christ, a common unity—that is to say, the wine and the blood of Christ share the presence of what is received in the Lord's Supper—the wine is a fellowship, a participation, in the blood of Christ. The communicant receives both bread and body and wine and blood. "Is" means "is:" the bread is the body, but it is also bread; the wine is the blood, but it is also wine. There is union there—in, with, and under. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.
Funny thing that word "is." It works both ways. Grammatically, verbs of being require complete agreement in subject and object: I am he, this is she, bread is body, and wine is blood. So, one could also say he is I, she is this, body is bread, and blood is wine.
So, when Jesus took bread and gave it to His disciples saying, "This is my body," He truly meant His body, in the flesh, conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. It's the body that grew into that 12 year-old who stayed behind in Jerusalem and taught the teachers. It's the same body that went into the Jordan river to be Baptized by His cousin, John. It's the same body that went before Pilate, was flogged by his soldiers, and was nailed to a cross to die. It's the same body that was laid in a tomb, rose again on the third day, and is now seated at the right hand of God in glory. To eat of the bread is to eat of Christ's body, to eat of His birth, life, and death, to eat of His resurrection and ascension. "For as often as you eat this bread..., you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
It works in reverse, too. Christ gives us His body as bread—His body is bread in the Lord's Supper. Now, bread is the food of daily living. But, He is the Bread of Life, born in Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, the very true and living Manna, or Bread, from Heaven. "I am the living bread which came down from heaven," Jesus said. "If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world." He gives His body as bread in His death: "For as often as you eat this bread..., you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
And, when Jesus took the cup and give it to His disciples saying, "This is my blood," He truly meant His blood, which coursed through His arteries and veins, carrying nutrients throughout His body, transferred to Him from His mother Mary while in the womb and absorbed from what He ate, sustaining His life. It's the same blood He shed on the eighth day out of the womb. It's the same blood that poured from him when He scraped His knee or cut Himself in His step-father's workshop. It's the same blood shed when the cat-of-nine-tails tore open His flesh and when the nails and spear pierced Him. It's the same blood that still coursed through his arteries and veins as He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, to His disciples in the upper room, and to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, and that still now courses through His arteries and veins while seated at the right hand of God in glory. To drink of the wine is to drink of Christ's blood, to drink of His birth, life, and death, to drink of His resurrection and ascension. "For as often as you...drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
It also works in reverse. Christ gives us His blood as wine—His blood is the wine in the Lord's Supper. Wine is the drink of celebration. Wine is used to celebrate a marriage, and is here drunk as blood as a foretaste of the celebration that is the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom. His blood is the new wine put into new skins, shed once-for-all to bring about the messianic time of redemption—the new age promised by and looked forward to by the Law and the Prophets. He gives His blood as wine in His death: "For as often as you...drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
"How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?" the Jews asked. "How can this Man give us His blood to drink?" they could also have asked. Jesus answered:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.
We get back to the benefit of the eating and drinking. Christ gave His body as bread—gave the bread as His body—and His blood as wine—gave the wine as His blood—for the forgiveness of sins. He won that forgiveness by His life and death—by His life of perfect obedience to the Law of God where we could not and would not be perfectly obedient, and by His death on the cross, sacrificed in the place of those—of you and me and everyone—who could not and would not be perfectly obedient. His death is a life-giving death, and the benefits of that death are given and received in the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood. "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me."
Those who deny that Christ's death is something to be proclaimed—that Christ's death did not win forgiveness of sins—have no part in this meal. Those who deny that "is" means "is"—who deny that His flesh is food indeed and His blood is drink indeed—have no part in this meal. Those who deny their sinfulness have no part in this meal.
The question of worthiness comes up. He is truly worthy who has faith in these words: "Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." What was given? Bread as body and wine as blood—body as bread and blood as wine. He is truly worthy who believes Christ gave and shed these in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. Sadly, and I can speak from first-hand experience, many today view the reception of the Lord's Supper as a right, regardless of worthiness. So, the rail is opened to all who step through the doors, regardless of faith or contrition. Of them, the Scripture says, "whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord."
So, how does one know that they are truly worthy? They should ask themselves, "Am I a sinner? Did Christ die for me? Do I trust that Christ died and gave His body and blood for me on the cross and would now be giving it to me in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar?" That is to say, they should ask themselves, "Do I have faith in these words: 'given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins'?"
Christ instituted this Sacrament of the Altar, He said, "Do this in remembrance of Me." So, when we do this, for as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we remember Him, we "proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." Therefore, we gather today and every Lord's Day to proclaim His death—to remember Him—to gather at His table and receive the benefits of His death for us: forgiveness, life, and salvation. We gather together, trusting Him and His Word, and receive that which is His gift to us: body as bread, bread as body and blood as wine, wine as blood.