Picture Language


"Picture language." That's what many people inside and outside of Christianity say the Words of Institution are. Communion isn't really Jesus' Body and Blood but picture langue. The wafer and wine are to remind you, to symbolize to you, to represent for you the Body and Blood. Just like a picture represents but is not the real thing, so Communion bread and wine picture Jesus for you.

Okay, so how come it's not? To answer that, we go by what Jesus says not what I think, you think, or anyone else thinks. Jesus says Communion is the "new testament in My blood." A testament is a will. No one uses picture language in a will. If I wanted to leave a son of mine a shotgun that I called "old blue," the lawyer wouldn't let me say, "and I leave old blue to" John. "Old blue" is picture or figurative langue. I would have to specify not just the gauge and model, but even the serial number. Why? Because in a will you have to make sure everyone knows what you're leaving. Jesus does. He's leaving His disciples His Body and Blood.

Secondly, Jesus can't be using picture language because He says it's a communion not just of bread and wine but of His Body and Blood. 1 Cor. 10:16 says, "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?" You have no doubt do you that when you are taking Communion you're sharing in real bread and real wine? Paul says it's also a sharing of Christ's real Body and Blood.

Thirdly, we know it's not picture language because Paul says that the person who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily is not guilty of sinning against bread and wine but "guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord." Can you charge me with a crime for tearing up your picture? Can a court judge me guilty for beating up a person not really present? Can I go to prison for sinning against an effigy, an image of even a famous person?

Okay, let's assume Jesus is just speaking in pictures when He takes bread in His hands and says, "This is My Body," and He takes a cup of wine in His hands and says, "This is My Blood." What good what that do? A picture may be a very precious thing. In the days before digital photos, when fleeing hurricanes in New Orleans, the one thing everyone took was pictures. A picture can be precious, valuable, and even comforting but it's no substitute for the real thing. When grieving for his beloved wife C. S. Lewis wrote, "I want Joy, not something that is like here. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and obstacle" (A Grief Observed, 76).

Narcissus became so enamored with his own reflection that he couldn't look away and so starved to death. Pygmalion would have done the same thing with the ivory woman he carved had not Venus had mercy on him and changed her into a real woman. Jesus had even more mercy. He gives His real Body and Blood to start with not a picture, not a reminder, not a statute.

Return to what Jesus says. He says the Bread that He gives is the same Body given for you on the cross. He says the Cup that He shares contains the same Blood that He poured out there. Tomorrow do we only remember a picture? Was the real Body of Jesus nailed to a cross or not? Was that real Blood dripping from His head, hands, feet, and side? If what is here is merely a picture than He could not have really gave His Body and Blood on the cross because He says what He gives here is what He gave there.

There more sophisticated picture/ representative/ symbol crowd say: "Of course on the cross Jesus physically gave His Body and shed His Blood, but here He does it spiritually." They separate the physical from the spiritual making two Jesuses. On the cross they have Jesus present both physically and spiritually, but on His Table He's only present spiritually. Parse that. Study that. What good would it do to have Jesus here only spiritually? I need Jesus to suffer physically and spiritually for my sins because I am a sinner physically and spiritually. I need that forgiveness delivered not just to my spirit but to my body. I need Jesus physically and spiritually in both places.

I wish I had one of those big screens common to movie theaters, sports arenas, and now "churches." I would show you that there are a lot better pictures of Jesus giving His Body and Blood for sinners than a thin wafer and red wine. Rembrandt's, Dali's, even Picasso's utterly abstract Cubist rendition of the crucifixion allow the mind to form a better picture of what Jesus did for us sinners than bread and wine can ever do.

But Holy Communion is not picture language at all, and thanks be to God that it's not. As I said earlier, I need the real thing because my sin and sinfulness is really, intimately connected to this flesh and blood body of mine that exists in real time and space. My sin and sinfulness is not like the picture of Dorian Gray. Some image of me is not aging because of sin, is not diseased because of sinfulness, is not rotting because of what I do with my hands, speak with my mouth, think with my brain. No it's these hands, these lips, this brain that needs redeeming, saving, forgiving.

You've been sick before; you've had infections. What would you think if a pharmacist showed you a picture of an antibiotic? "Oh that makes me feel a lot better." How about if you went to the ER with a broken bone and they showed you a picture of a doctor who could put a cast on you? The people who are content with picture language communion think they are being more spiritual than we who are satisfied with nothing less than the Body and Blood of Jesus on our altars, in our mouths, in our bodies. See how spiritual these people would be with pictures of pills and doctors.

Catarina de San Juan was a 17th century saint in Mexico. When she died at age 82 her life was considered so holy and miraculous that people rushed the funeral litter tore away the funeral shroud to tear flesh, rip hair, or even break fingers to have some of the divine they thought came from her (1493, 411ff.). You can't of course get any of the divine from a mere mortal no matter how holy and miraculous their life was and no matter how much of their flesh and blood you ate or drank, but neither can you get any of Christ's Body and Blood except where He says it is for you. He didn't tell you His Body and Blood could be found for forgiveness in the holy land or even in heaven but in Holy Communion.

Listen to how St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was born about 5 years after Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper and died about 10 years after St. John, describes Communion in physical not pictorial langue. He calls Communion medicine, an antidote, a real thing that places us in Jesus. Hear him in his own words, It is "is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 20, 2).

One of the last promises Jesus made was to be with us always even to the end of the ages. Where else does this happen more poignantly than in His Supper? Da Vinci saw this. He painted the Lord's Supper as if it was a meal taking place in his own time, and it was. When Jesus tells us to do this "in remembrance of Me," He isn't saying "in memory of" as you would look at a picture to remember someone. No, "in remembrance of Me" means to recall Him, to apprehend Him in the present (Paul, Davies, 108).

You catch this truth in the alternate Thanksgiving we chant during Lent which are Paul's words. "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come." The meaning of "till" is not just a statement of time. The idea of "so that" pulsates in them. You do show the Lord's death so that He comes (In the Name of Jesus, 192). In every celebration of the Lord's Supper Golgotha becomes once more a here and now event not through our remembering, or our picturing, but through Jesus' Words of Institution. His words don't tell us that by breaking bread and pouring out wine we are remembering what He did on the cross. His Words tell us what this Bread and this Wine are here and now: His Body and Blood (Ibid. 172).

Here in 2014 is the Body and Blood of Jesus that did right every thing your conscience accuses you of having done wrong and every thing you really have done wrong. You eat and drink this Body and Blood and you're to believe that Jesus' holiness of life becomes yours in reality not in some imaginary way. Here in 2014 is the Body Jesus gave up to suffering, damning, and dying to pay for your sins. Here in 2014 is the Blood Jesus shed to cover every one of those sins. Eating this Body and drinking this Blood you are to believe that your sins are as surely and really forgiven in 2014 A.D. as Jesus surely and really died for them in 30 A.D.

Look at a picture as long as you want and only in the realm of magic will it change you. In the real physical world it's different. The beautiful red feathers of the European bullfinch will turn black when the bird is fed only hempseed (Whose what? 44). It is what it eats to some extent. Luther said, "If we eat Him spiritually through the Word, He abides in us spiritually in our soul; if one eats Him physically, He abides in us physically and we in Him. As we eat Him, He abides in us and us in Him. For He is not digested or transformed but ceaselessly He transforms us, our soul into righteousness, our body into immortality" (LW, 37, 132).

While the red bullfinch goes black by what it eats, Christians are to believe that by eating and drinking Jesus they are transformed from sinners to saints, from death to life, from earth to heaven. Looking at a picture can take you to another time and place in your mind, but it takes your body nowhere and transforms it even less. Leave the pictures to the photo albums and Facebook. We'll take the real thing; in truth the Real Thing takes us. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Maundy Thursday (20140417); 1 Corinthians 11: 17-32