What happens when Christians receive communion? Is it an object lesson that helps us remember what Jesus did for us on the cross? Is it a symbolic meal that expresses believers’ unity in the body of Christ? Is it a personal time of prayer and reflection? Or is the Lord’s Supper all of these things yet so much more?
How we answer those questions will, to a large measure, depend on the theological tradition from which we come. In the Reformed tradition, we have understood the New Testament to teach that the Lord’s Supper is a true means of God’s sanctifying grace that sustains the believer’s faith by feeding him with the body and blood of Christ in heaven.
What is received in the communion meal?
Writing to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul explains that the communion meal had a deeper and more profound significance than many of the Corinthians – some to their own peril – had realized. Far from being an empty ritual, the Lord’s Supper allows the believer to commune with the risen and exalted Christ in heaven. Warning them against the idolatrous practice of frequenting sacrificial meals in pagan temples (a popular custom in the city of Corinth), Paul reminds the members of the Corinthian church about the nature of the Supper: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation [Greek: koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10.16 ESV) It was naïve for God’s covenant people to assume that they could participate in pagan religious meals – even if only for cultural purposes – and also participate in a holy meal that affords koinonia with the body and blood of Christ himself. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor 10.21-22 ESV)
The word koinonia in verse 16 means far more than mere fellowship. It also highlights our union with and communal sharing in the actual body and blood of Christ. There is both a vertical and horizontal dimension of koinonia. The vertical dimension is our koinonia with the physical and glorified Christ in heaven (v.16). The horizontal dimension is our koinonia with one another in the church (v.17). The vertical dimension is the basis of the horizontal dimension. To put it another way, we enjoy life in the body of Christ (i.e. the church) because we receive life from the body and blood of Christ as he gives himself to us in the communion meal.
This view of receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper was codified in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. For example, we confess in Article 35 of the Belgic Confession (1561) that
as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths, by which our life is afterwards nourished, we also do certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life…We err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. Thus, then, though Christ always sits at the right hand of his Father in the heavens, he does not cease to make us partakers of himself by faith. This feast is a spiritual table, at which Christ communicates himself with all his benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both himself and the merits of his sufferings and death: nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of his flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of his blood. (Bold emphasis mine.)
Thus, the question of what is received in the Lord’s Supper is not a debate between Lutheran and Reformed Christians. Both believe and confess that it is a true means of grace whereby we receive the body and blood of Christ for the spiritual nourishment of our souls. It is not a mere reminder of a divine gift; it is a divine gift.
How and Where is this received?
Before we answer the important questions of how and where the body and blood of Christ is receive in the communion meal, a little church history will be helpful.
The early church understood that somehow – albeit mysteriously – the believer receives the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This is one of the reasons why the early church practiced weekly communion: it was understood that the Supper is a real means of grace for the Christian. In the Middle Ages (that period from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century), the doctrine of transubstantiation began to develop in the west. This is the belief that, during the Lord’s Supper, the elements of bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ during the mass. The word “transubstantiation” comes from a distinction made by the ancient philosopher Aristotle who said that all things can be divided into its substance (what a thing actually is) and its accidents (what a thing appears to be). Applying this distinction to the Lord’s Supper, the Roman Catholic Church developed the teaching of transubstantiation: the substance (but not accidents) of the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. In other words, the elements still look, taste, and smell like bread and wine, but, in their essence, are supernaturally changed into our Savior’s body and blood. This doctrine was mentioned in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council, but did not become official Roman Catholic dogma until 1551 at the Council of Trent.
Two early Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), sharply critiqued this doctrine. Yet, they did so from different perspectives. For Luther, the Roman mass amounted to an act of works-righteousness since it carried the notion of offering Christ to God in a Eucharistic sacrifice, and then getting something back from God in return. Zwingli, on the other hand, was primarily concerned about idolatry in worship, which the Roman mass seemed to promote given the adoration of the host.
In 1529, Luther and Zwingli met for a colloquy in the German city of Marburg in an attempt to bring greater unity to the German and Swiss wings of the Reformation. Both men agreed that the communion meal is not a sacrifice. They both agreed that Christians should partake of the Supper for their spiritual benefit. Where they disagreed, however, was on the matter of what was received. Luther affirmed that the body and blood of Christ are received in the Supper because Jesus said of the meal, “This is my body” and “this is my blood” (Matt 26.26-28). Zwingli denied this on the grounds that Christ ascended into heaven where he remains until the Last Day. For Zwingli, the Supper offered the believer a helpful commemoration of the death of Christ, but did not communicate the body and blood of the Lord to the one who partakes.
It is important to understand that, for Zwingli, the body and blood of Christ are not that important for the Christian now since Christ is omnipresent in his divinity. He held to a dualistic view of spirit and matter. For example, in one of his writings he said, “For faith springs not from things accessible to sense nor are they objects of faith…Faith draws us to the invisible and fixes our hope on that.” In other words, for Zwingli, it is Christ’s divinity that matters, not his humanity. He even went so far as to say, “Christ is our salvation by virtue of that part of his nature by which he came down from heaven, not of that by which he was born of an immaculate virgin, though he had to suffer and die by this part.” Thus, Luther and Zwingli not only had different views of the Lord’s Supper, they had different views of the person of Christ. Sadly, this left the Protestant Reformation divided on the doctrine of the sacrament.
John Calvin (1509-1564) came along a little later. Whereas Luther and Zwingli were first generation Reformers, Calvin was a second generation Reformer who had the advantage of reflecting on Luther and Zwingli’s debate at Marburg as well as their writings. His position on the Lord’s Supper, which we find in his Institutes, commentaries, treatises, sermons, and reflected in the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism (1563), was, like all of his theology, based on careful exegesis of the Scriptures. But it was also shaped by the famous disagreement between Luther and Zwingli in 1529.
Against Zwingli, he affirmed a true feeding on the very body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This put Calvin much closer to Luther than to Zwingli. Along with other leading Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Martin Bucer, and Wolfgang Musculus, Calvin affirmed with Luther the statement distinctio sed non separatio (distinct, but not separate). He refused to separate the sign (the bread and the wine) from the reality it signified (the body and blood of Christ). Yet, contra Luther, he did not confuse the sign with the reality it signified.
This brings us to the questions of how and where do we receive the real body and blood of Christ in the communion meal. Calvin and the Reformed tradition have understood the New Testament to teach that Christ gives himself to us as our food and drink by the agency of the Holy Spirit when we receive the sacrament in faith. Says Calvin, “The Spirit makes things which are widely separated by space to be united with each other, and accordingly causes life from the flesh of Christ to reach us from heaven.”
A Glorious and Mysterious Act of the Triune God
It is not that Christ comes down from heaven in the Lord’s Supper, but rather that the Spirit causes us to commune with the body and blood of Christ when we receive the sacrament in the Divine Service. As Michael Horton has put it, “Because of the Spirit, who unites us to Christ in the first place, there can be a real communication of Christ’s person and work to the church (pace Zwingli), yet without bringing Christ down to an earthly altar (pace Rome and Luther).” It is the Holy Spirit who makes it possible for believers on earth to receive the whole Christ in heaven, which is where our Lord has remained since his ascension (Luke 24.51; Acts 1.9-10; Heb 4.14). It is in heaven where Christ not only reigns, having “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1.3), but also serves as our great high priest, “a minister in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb 8.2). It is there in the true tabernacle, where Christ has “seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2.6), that he properly feeds and nourishes us with his body and blood, even as we receive the bread and wine on earth.
This is a glorious act of the Holy Trinity. God the Father renews his covenant with us, announcing his promises to us in the gospel of his Son, with whom we then commune in the covenant meal by the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is a great mystery, and we must avoid the temptation to rationalize or explain what God has kept hidden from us. Yet, what God has revealed we joyfully believe, namely, that Christ gives himself to us in the communion meal every week.
The Holy Spirit provides this meal to us each week to increase our faith in Christ and strengthen our assurance of salvation in him. As we receive the bread and wine in faith, our hearts are lifted up to heaven where we are seated in the heavenlies. Our souls are nourished by the body and blood of Christ as we enjoy konoinia with him. When we come to his Table, the Lord Jesus says to us: “I have given Myself for you! Take, eat, remember, and believe. I have given My body to preserve your souls to eternal life and raise your bodies from the dead. I have shed My blood for a complete forgiveness of all your sins. I am present with you now in my Word and sacrament. Come and receive!”
The fact that Christ feeds our souls with his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper should cause believers to desire this meal frequently. Christ has given this meal to us to give us relief from our doubts, temptations, and anxieties. The early Italian reformer Benedetto da Mantova put it this way:
When the Christian feels these anxieties [doubt, temptation, fear], let him return frequently to celebrate the holy sacrament with a good heart and with stout courage. Let him receive it devoutly. Let him say in his heart and answer his enemies thus: 'I confess I have deserved a thousand hells and eternal deaths because of the great sins I have committed. But when I reflect on this heavenly sacrament which I receive now, I am assured of the forgiveness of all my past misdoings and of my atonement with God for all time.
If I look to my own deeds, there is no doubt that I must acknowledge myself to be a sinner and condemn myself. Nor will my conscience ever be quiet if I am tempted to think my sins are pardoned because of my good deeds. But when I look to the promises and covenant of God, He assures me of the forgiveness of my sins by the blood of Jesus Christ; I am certain of this, for he has made promises and covenants which cannot lie or deceive. Through this steadfast faith, I become righteous by Christ’s righteousness. 
The Lord’s Supper is not an empty ritual or just another opportunity for Christians to do something in worship. It is nothing less than Christ giving himself to his people as our food and drink. God has publicly declared his peace treaty with sinners through the proclamation of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments. So come, believing and repentant sinners, taste and see that the Lord is good!
 Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, 214.
 Ibid., 204.
 John Calvin, “The Best Method of Obtaining Concord,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, vol. 2, trans. Henry Beveridge, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 578.
 Michael Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 129.
 Benedetto da Mantova, Il Beneficio di Cristo, 1543. Translation mine.