A respectful, bright young high school student asked me yesterday if Baptism and the Eucharist were not merely symbols.
The first thing out of my mouth, I suspect more or less unconsciously (I've never answered in this way before) was:
"When Paul talks about Christ being 'in us' or about 'putting on' Christ does he mean to invoke a metaphor or a reality? Does Jesus really make his home in us by the Spirit or do Christians, when speaking in this way, generally mean that Jesus lives in us only symbolically?"
This hit home — for him, for thirty young adults, and for me.
Before his good question, I'd been talking to a philosophy class about Romans 6:3-4:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Does Paul mean to say that we really participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by Baptism? Is that participation a reality like the water itself or just poetic? Should we spiritualize this event or is something real happening to the water and to us?
Someone might say, "Have we really died, have we really been buried?" but they would be missing Paul's point: something real — something mysterious but not merely symbolic, something tangible that transforms our persons, body and soul — has happened for us and in us.
We also spoke about Paul's questions in 1 Corinthians 10:16:
“When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ?”
Paul's questions are inspired by the realism of Jesus in John 6:54-56:
“[A]nyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”
Jesus and Paul teach that we participate in the blood and body of Christ by the cup we bless and the bread we break.
These sacraments, and we Christians, share by grace in the mystery of Jesus Christ himself, in which matter and spirit, flesh and divinity, are truly one Person. Jesus invites all flesh to share in his divine life by grace, not as a mere token of himself but as his actual body in the world.
When we lose a grip on the physicality of God in Jesus Christ we can undermine the reality of his presence in bread and wine (“this is my body which is broken for you”...“this cup is the New Covenant in my blood”) and his presence in every believer ("Christ in you, the hope of glory") — a real presence that has a purpose not only for us but for the renewal of God’s world.
Are we a symbol of the body of Christ or are we really Corpus Christi, broken and shared for the life of the world?
Everything depends on our answer.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.