Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

The late, John Webster, wasn’t just a Christian theologian par excellence; he was also a pastor. The following comes from part of a sermon he gave on Maundy Thursday. A major thrust of his sermon was to remind the parishioners that Holy Communion is not something that re-enacts or re-presents the death of Jesus Christ; indeed, as Webster presses, the Eucharist is a memorial event wherein we, as the Church, remember the already finished work (in the perfect tense: my insight) that Jesus alone accomplished once and for all in the givenness of His life for the world. As Webster presses this point, and rightfully so, he offers a beautiful description of what, in the history has been called: the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’). Here Webster is underscoring the idea that what God in Christ has done, has been done; indeed, what has been done God alone could accomplish on our behalf. I found Webster’s rendition of the ‘wonderful exchange’ edifying, and so I want to share it with you now. 

What was done there and then? What is it about the Lord’s death that the Eucharist proclaims or testifies? Isaiah, whose Servant Song provides the bass line of our thoughts this Holy Week, tells us that the wounding and bruising and chastising of the Servant is “for our transgressions” (53:5). The cross of Jesus, celebrated in Holy Communion, is the climactic event in which God acts to win the world back from the darkness and misery of sin. In some way, the death of this one changes the entire course of human history; it intercepts and breaks the whole course of human wickedness; henceforth, because of what this man does and suffers, nothing can be the same. Why not? Because in this little scrap of an event one Friday afternoon, this unremarkable bit of human evil, God takes our place. He enters without reserve into the reality of our situation—into our situation, that is, as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God. 

But God does not leave us in the hell we have made for ourselves. In the person of Jesus his Son and Servant, he comes to us; he takes on his own back the full weight of our alienation and estrangement; he freely submits to the whole curse of our sin. He takes our sin upon him, and in so doing he takes it away, fully, finally, and conclusively. And of all that—of that miracle of grace on Good Friday—this evening is a memorial, the memorial of that his precious death. 

That was what was done. It was done not by us, but by God himself in the person of his Servant and Son. And it was done by God alone. Because reconciliation is thus God’s work, God’s exclusive work, then this sacrament in which we remember the cross of Christ is also God’s work. Here, in this assembly at this table, God is at work. And God’s work here is to present to us, to make present to us, what took place on Good Friday. We don’t make Good Friday real by re-enacting it, or by thinking and feeling about it. God in this sacrament declares to us what Good Friday made true: that he is our reconciler; that sin is finished business; that we can repent because God has forgiven; that the promise acted out in the death of Jesus stands for all time and for each human person. In this memorial, God turns us backward; but he also makes present to us the limitless power of what the Son of God suffered. The God who was at work there and then is at work here and now, proclaiming to us his promise of cleansing, acceptance and peace.1 

The Apostle Paul describes the ‘wonderful exchange’ this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8.9). Webster brings out so many rich insights in his telling of what in fact unfolded in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following clause, in particular stands out to me: “as those who have damned ourselves, who have cut ourselves off from life and put ourselves into hell, all because we made up the lie that we can be human without God.” This is the depth dimension of the Evangel. What it genuinely means to be human is to be human before (in and from) God. To declare that ‘we’ can be human devoid of God, devoid of a coram Deo life, is indeed: Hell!  

Holy Communion is to remind us, moment by moment, that we are not our own; and that if we persist, indeed, perdure in the lie that we can be our “own man or woman,” that we will only dissolve into an abyss of hell. But Christ has entered into that deep abyss, and by the life which is in His blood, we can truly experience what it means to be human before God; indeed, to be human is to be in union and fellowship with God. This is who Jesus is for us, and what the Eucharist is to continuously remind us of until it is finally consummated in the eschaton as that finally comes in the Eschatos of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Maranatha  

1 John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 61-2, Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Holy Communion: Remembering that Human Life is in Christ’s Blood

  1. Hello, Thomas. I could easily become Anglican (ACNA). I have many good friends who are Anglican (pastors etc)—mostly in the UK. As you know John Webster was an Anglican. Altho my only hangup is that I am credo rather than paedobaptist. 🙂

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  2. Indeed! and Amen. I am not my own… I am bought with a price… through the blood of His own Son! Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

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  3. I am sorry but I just don’t understand terminologies like credo and paedoBaptist. I finally looked up traditionalist and provisionist. I am 86 years old and born again, love scriptures but I am too old to know all of these seminary type terminology’s. I enjoy reading everything but my short term memory has just got up and left to where I don’t know. “ for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 1 Cor 13:9-10. I was saved at age 28 and I had to have my Bible recovered and rebound a few years ago. Thankfully it is onion skin paper.

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  4. I don’t know what to tell you. Glad you love Jesus! But there is a place for learnedness and its language in the Kingdom; indeed a central place.

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