Communion

There is a lot of disagreement about communion. Historically, it has caused many splits in the church – who can take it, what it actually is, who can administer it etc.

This is an attempt to clarify what we understand it to be and what our position is on it.

The Last Supper

Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22).  At a point in the meal this happens:

As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. (Matthew 26:26-28)

In Luke’s version, Jesus tells his disciples to “do this to remember me” (Luke 22:19) and this is where we see the start of the “sacrament” of communion. But that is not really where it starts.

The Passover

Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.  The dominant story of Judaism and the Old Testament is the story of God rescuing his people from Egypt – the “exodus”.  The final act that brought about this rescue was the angel of death visiting Egypt and killing all the firstborn Egyptians.  God had told the Israelites to kill a lamb, eat the meal and smear some of the blood on the doorpost of their houses.

When the angel saw the blood, he would pass over that house and not kill the firstborn.  Hence the Passover.

This meal (and it is a meal) has been celebrated in Jewish homes, as families, ever since.  Specifically, in the annual celebration of Passover, but also every Sabbath as part of the meal.

How is it celebrated?  They eat bread and drink wine as part of the meal, to remember God rescuing is people from slavery.

What was Jesus doing?  He was celebrating the Passover like a good Jew, with his friends.  The twist is that he essentially says, “from now on do this to remember what I have done to free you from sin and death [instead of the freedom from Egypt]”.  He took the Passover meal and he changed the meaning.  He did not start something new.

Communion, then, is the Passover meal, so we should probably look at that in order to understand how communion should be.  We find some instructions for the Passover in Numbers 9.  We learn that it is a family occasion with children and adults included. It was certainly a celebration and it was a feast.

But who could celebrate the Passover.  Everyone.  The children and adults and even foreigners who were staying there at the time:

And if foreigners living among you want to celebrate the Passover to the Lord, they must follow these same decrees and regulations. The same laws apply both to native-born Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.” (Numbers 9:14.)

(The word for foreigners specifically refers to “sojouners” – people who were temporarily living there, as opposed to Gentile converts.)

Communion today

Perhaps it is just me, but I am left scratching my head, wondering how we went from a family celebration meal to which all are invited, to a highly regulated, religious ceremony which excludes all but a few.

One reason for the exclusivity was that, during the time of persecution, it was necessary to ensure there were no Roman spies among them, so there was a rigorous process to get in to the church.  When persecution stopped, however, one wonders why this carried on.

Most people, in justifying an exclusive right to communion, quote Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:

So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. (v.27)

I think we should look at this passage in context.  First, Paul is describing a meal not a religious ceremony.  Secondly, he has spent the preceding verses challenging them about their attitudes to each other.  In his criticisms of the “Lord’s Supper”, specifically, he is dealing with the issue that the wealthy believers (not having to work) are arriving earlier and eating all the food. When the poorer Christians (many of whom were slaves) have arrived after work, there is little or none left.  Paul is challenging this disdain for each other as fellow members of the body of Christ.

For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. (v.29)

His warning is to Christians, because we are the body of Christ that is not being honoured, and he is challenging the lack of love and respect towards each other.

So what?

It is essential that we do celebrate communion because it is about remembering our story and what Jesus has done for us. In the remembering we will have a chance to reflect on our life in the light of the story.  Paul says that “every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again”.  He is actually suggesting that the gospel is being preached through the very act of sharing communion.  So, the more often the better.

While it is impractical to attempt to celebrate communion as the original Passover meal was celebrated at a Sunday service, I do think we can ignore what it was originally, how Jesus shared it and what he actually commanded us to do. We must, therefore, take a lot from the principles of the Passover meal:

  • It was a celebration.

    Not a sombre, religious affair where everyone feels awkward.

  • It was open to all.

    Whoever you are, adult or child, you are invited to join us.

  • It was a social event.

    No one should be celebrating it alone!

  • It was celebrated in families and among friends, not led by a priest.

    Let us all share together and serve one another as the body of Christ as we do so, recognising that we are all priests and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

 

We are celebrating the astonishing story of God working throughout history to bring healing, restoration and life.  We are celebrating the fact that Jesus, through dying on the cross, accomplished the work of freeing us from sin and death forever.

In the light of that we are holding up a mirror and asking ourselves how we are we doing.

That is communion.

©2018 Southampton Vineyard Church