Scripture informs us clearly that those who receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in faith are nourished by the body and blood of our Savior (1 Cor. 10:16). That is why church tradition overwhelmingly affirms that more than a bare memorial is occurring when we eat the bread and drink the wine. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, the sacrament refreshes our souls for eternal life (Q&A 75).
As with baptism, this does not mean the sacrament automatically benefits its participants spiritually. Furthermore, our view of the Lord’s Supper does not mean that the sacrament is inevitably a means of grace as long as we do not consciously and intentionally refuse Christ’s blessing at His table. It is not enough to come to the Lord’s Table in a neutral manner, as if that were even possible. Instead, we need active faith in Jesus and His promises as we partake of the sacrament to be nourished and empowered by Him. As in every sacrament, participating in an unworthy, faithless manner causes this means of blessing to become a curse to us (1 Cor. 11:29–30; see Num. 9:13; Jer. 9:25–26; Rom. 2:25–29).
What does it mean, however, to eat Christ’s body and drink His blood? Question and answer 76 of the Heidelberg Catechism address this issue, which continues to divide the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theological traditions, among others. The catechism turns to today’s passage to answer the question. Jesus tells us that He is the bread of life who fully satisfies our hunger and thirst (John 6:35). He does this through our faith in Him, for He says that we gain eternal life only as we look on Him and believe in Him (v. 40). The Lord’s Supper truly nourishes us, but it does not do so through providing a different kind of grace than is available through Christ’s other appointed means. We do not gain benefits from the Supper because we are chewing human flesh and drinking human blood, for that is not what is literally happening. Instead, we benefit from the Supper because we trust in the Savior. We receive grace and strength to help us persevere as we believe that Jesus endured the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood for us. Our souls are sustained unto eternal life as we affirm that Jesus will never cast us out if we come to Him in faith and repentance (v. 37).
At our conversion, we make a decisive break with sin and come into the safety of Christ’s fold. Still, there is a sense in which we must continue to come to Him every moment of our lives. As we actively believe in the gospel each day, we are sustained unto eternal life. One way we tangibly confirm and express our belief in Jesus is through the Lord’s Supper, and we can come to Him for sustenance in the sacrament by faith alone.