While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)
One of the smallest words in the English language can be one of the most expansive: the word “is.”
When we as English speakers read the Bible we need to take care that the message in Scripture doesn’t get lost in our translations. Many thoughts expressed in the Hebrew or Greek languages are difficult to pin down in English. The English word “love” for example, has many shades of meaning depending on the context- “love” as in, “I love this fish sandwich,” or “I love art,” or “I love the human race,” or “I love you and want to marry you,” use different meanings of the same word. Hopefully nobody wants to marry a fish sandwich- but here is the difficulty of translation.
We must be careful when we read and interpret Scripture, and be mindful of the translations we use, especially if we do not speak or understand the original languages. We need to be sure we understand what the writers meant and that the translations are saying what God was saying through those writers. The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to guide us if we ask Him for help in rightly interpreting and applying God’s Word.
There isn’t any confusion on the meaning of the word “is” as Jesus used it when He said, “Take and eat, this IS My Body,” and “Take and drink, this IS My Blood.” The word “is” means exactly what Jesus said.
The Sacrament of the Altar – or Communion- in the Lutheran understanding, takes Jesus at His word. He IS present in, with and through the bread and wine. When we partake of the Sacrament (the Word combined with the physical elements of bread and wine) we are taking in and taking part in His Body and Blood.
In some traditions Communion is merely taken as symbolism- something you do because Jesus did it at the Last Supper, but for Lutheran Christians the Sacrament of the Altar is much more than just sharing a piece of bread and a shot of wine or grape juice.
Martin Luther wrote extensively on the value of coming to the Communion table, and the importance of remembering that the ability to share in the Body and Blood of Christ is a gift of grace to us. While it is good for us to come to the table understanding why and what benefit it is for us, we can’t really completely “be worthy” or “get it.” We have to trust that God is at work in and through the elements, and that we are worthy because Jesus said so, because He is the one extending the invitation to “take and eat.”
Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar!
Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink. And as we have said of Baptism that it is not simple water, so here also we say the Sacrament is bread and wine, but not mere bread and wine, such as are ordinarily served at the table, but bread and wine comprehended in, and connected with, the Word of God.
It is the Word (I say) which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ. For it is said: Accedat verbum ad elementum, et At sacramentum. If the Word be joined to the element it becomes a Sacrament. This saying of St. Augustine is so properly and so well put that he has scarcely said anything better. The Word must make a Sacrament of the element, else it remains a mere element. Now, it is not the word or ordinance of a prince or emperor, but of the sublime Majesty, at whose feet all creatures should fall, and affirm it is as He says, and accept it with all reverence fear, and humility.
With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and say: If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? etc., I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger. Now here stands the Word of Christ: Take, eat; this is My body; Drink ye all of it; this is the new testament in My blood, etc. Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word or regard it without the words, you have nothing but mere bread and wine. But if the words remain with them as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ. For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism
The simple answer to why we take Communion is because Jesus IS present. He is one with the elements that we consume, and He becomes part of us. In the Sacrament of the Altar, we literally take Him in.