All existing church traditions have teachings on taking Communion, also called taking The Lord’s Supper. And while I have been baffled by the many denominational traditions regarding the Lord’s Supper, my intention is not to foster rebellion in your tradition, but to provide the clear direction scripture and scripture alone gives us, shed of centuries of tradition. Specifically, this is for those of you who are new to the faith and do not understand what Communion is. Those who are set in their tradition, please read this in the spirit it’s given, with love and grace.
Communion Commutes Grace and Salvation???
Speaking of grace, some religious traditions say grace is imparted through taking communion, while others say salvation. Some even say children cannot take communion. Some traditions teach the bread and wine are transformed literally into the flesh and blood of Jesus, which points to odd conclusions when you consider what happens after your body digests the food and releases the waste. These suggestions weren’t lost on ancient theologians either, as they debated just what happens through the Lord’s Supper.
Many traditions involve sharing the same cup that has received a blessing, and others pass out tiny thimble-sized cups of juice and itty-bitty crackers, even dipping the crackers in the juice so as to take both at the same time. Unbelievably, wars have been fought over the theological differences regarding the Lord’s Supper. That’s just crazy. Maybe just as crazy as I am for undertaking this topic.
John 6 Is Not About the Last Supper
Many traditions link the Lord’s Supper to Jesus’ teaching in John 6: 16 – 59. In this passage, Jesus says the key to eternal life is coming to him and believing in him. Doing so satisfies us spiritually, as eating bread and drinking wine satisfies us physically.
Moreover, just as eating bread and drinking wine imparts life to our physical selves, so does coming to and believing in Jesus impart eternal life to our spiritual selves. And because the spiritual impacts the physical, belief in Jesus will lead to the resurrection and transformation of our mortal bodies into immortality.
No where does Jesus suggest we should eat bread or drink wine with this in mind. No where does Jesus say drinking wine or eating bread imparts eternal life, grace, or anything else. It’s a sermon illustration. In fact, it doesn’t even take place during the Last Supper or anywhere near it!
In John, the Last Supper occurs in John 13, and in John’s account, there’s no reference to the meal referring to the New Covenant or taking bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus.
The Beginning of the New Covenant
Partaking in bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus at the Last Supper is described in the other Gospels, and Paul, who gives instructions regarding taking Communion, refers to Luke’s account in Luke 22:14-20. In that account, during an actual dinner, Jesus breaks some bread and passes it around. He said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After they had eaten, he passed around a cup of wine, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Jesus is drawing a clear connection to the confirmation of the Old Covenant. In Exodus 24, the people of Israel sacrificed a bunch of animals in preparation of the Covenant between them and God. Moses took half the blood of the animals sacrificed in large cups. The other half, he threw on the alter. Then he read the Book of the Covenant to the people of Israel. This covenant was one Law, to be upheld by performance of works. The people heard the words and responded “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do, and we will listen.”
Then Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people of Israel, and said, “Look, the blood of the covenant that Yahweh has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Thus, the people agreed to the terms of the covenant with God, binding them into one family like a marriage.
For Jesus, the New Covenant’s blood isn’t just sprinkled on the people, it’s consumed by them. It doesn’t confer grace or salvation. It’s a memorial meal.
Many people celebrate important dates with a meal. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, while recalling the Pilgrims. Americans celebrate the 4th of July, while recalling the Declaration of Independence and the continued struggle for freedom over the years. Many people celebrate birthdays with a meal.
Jesus wanted us to remember the New Covenant with a meal. And of course, central to the New Covenant is the Cross.
Paul’s Instruction: Don’t be Divisive!
Paul gives instruction regarding this in 1 Corinthians 11:17 – 33, but to understand the instruction, we need to back up to 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul begins a long discussion on how to handle certain issues of disputes causing divisions among Christians. In chapter 8, the issue is dealing with eating meat sacrificed to demons, a real concern to the Christians surrounded by demon-worshipers who sold meats in the marketplace. Paul basically says, “Who cares? If it’s a challenge for a Christian who is weaker than you, then don’t do it. Otherwise, what’s the big deal?”
Paul: “Pay Your Leaders”
This leads to his explanation in chapter 9 about why he could receive financial support to pay for his own food from the church. His reason is because, as directed by the Law of Moses, the Hebrews brought certain sacrifices to Yahweh, and the priests used the sacrifices as their food and financial provisions. This food sacrifice was not the “atonement,” however, but rather “a peace offering. Thus, Paul reasoned from this Old Testament example, those who serve God by proclaiming the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Paul explains that he hasn’t taken up his rights to be supported, probably because in the culture of the Roman Empire, to receive financial support implied a patronage situation. (Elsewhere in the New Testament, when Paul received financial support from a church, he went out of his way to say the support really originated from God, because he wanted God alone to be his patron, not the church).
Paul: “Don’t Commune with Demons”
Paul segues in Chapter 10 as why it was important for God’s people to remain in communion with each other and with God, and not with demons. He implores us to remain loyal to Jesus and in community with other Christ followers, and in that culture (and ours), communing with others often occurred at meal times. But, he argues, don’t make a big deal about the meal when a nonbeliever invites you to dinner, unless they invite you specifically to engage in a communion meal with a demon. While we should always put other people ahead of ourselves, he says, this doesn’t mean doing do so at the expense of communing with demons.
Paul: “Commune with Believers, but Don’t be Sexually Seductive”
Moreover, Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, when Christ-followers come together in a community with other believers, they should dress modestly so as to not reveal their sex organs. He specifically mention the freedom women have in Christ, stating their freedom doesn’t mean they should engage in culturally-unacceptable sexually seductive behavior in public worship, thus causing divisions or distraction in the body of believers from communing with the Lord. That leads, Paul says, to communion with devils.
Paul: “Commune with the Lord and Believers, but Don’t be Divisive”
Instead, commune with the Lord, which leads to his discussion on taking Communion.
Paul implores the body of believers to take the Lord’s Supper in such a way that doesn’t cause divisions or create distractions in the body of believers. The Lord’s Supper was an actual supper: a feast. Some of the wealthy were showing up early to the Lord’s Supper, gorging on the food and getting drunk on the wine, while humiliating the less fortunate, which are signs of the Domain of Darkness, not the Kingdom of God.
All of this created division in the body, even bringing demonic oppression.
Paul calls the church to eat the Lord’s bread and drink from the Lord’s cup as a means to remember Jesus’ death on the Cross, which sealed for us the New Covenant and thus, allows ever present communion with God, who now dwells in our hearts as individuals and in our midst as a corporate body of believers.
The power isn’t in the bread or wine, but in the presence of God in us and with us.
Thus, just like the peace offering, taking communion isn’t related to grace or salvation but to community amidst the rule and reign of God. The focus is to remember the Lord’s death until he returns. As the Kingdom of God expands to fill the earth and ultimately Jesus returns, consummating the age with another Lord’s Supper: the marriage supper of the lamb held in celebration of the Kingdom’s work in preparing a bride for Jesus.
Paul: “Discern What is Causing Division in the Family and Fix it”
Paul concludes that we should not take Communion in a unworthy manner, but should examine ourselves and discern the body, to avoid being judged by God with sickness and death. The church tradition I grew up in assumed this meant we should look at our inward selves for unconfessed sin, and then confess it so that it can be forgiven before taking communion. While looking at our inward selves for hidden sin is never a bad idea, this is an example of forcing an idea onto the text that isn’t in the text.
Paul never describes confessing sin or making sure we are right with God in this passage, because Jesus’ work on the Cross makes us right with God by dealing with all sin (past, present and future) through sealing us in the New Covenant.
Paul has already described what issue needed to be discerned and judged: the manner in which the feasting that was part of the Lord’s supper was being conducted and abused.
Taking communion in an unworthy manner, Paul said, means taking too much food so that the less fortunate go hungry, getting drunk on the wine and humiliating others. In other words, “discerning the body” means to look within your community of believers at what is causing division in the body of Christ, not your individual self. What are the needs in the congregation? Are people being neglected or humiliated?
Paul then turns his thoughts to on getting rid of divisions in the body of believers by launching into his three-chapter long essay on spiritual gifts.
So how are we to take communion?
Far be it from me to correct the practice of countless churches. In my own church, we corporately take communion by consuming a thimble of juice and munch on a tiny cracker, all pre-packaged conveniently for us. We stand, consume the elements and we recall the Cross and the New Covenant, usually in the context of a worship service.
Once, in a class at my church, the instructor had several large baguettes and big cups of juice. He ripped off large chunks and poured the cups full, passing them out for Communion. It took me five minutes to chew up the bread and drink from the cup, all during a corporate worship service recalling the New Covenant sealed through Jesus’ shed blood on the Cross.
At first, I found it awkward. That was literally the first time in more than 30 years that I have not had a tiny cracker, which dissolved in a single crunch, and a less-than-a-shot of juice. The act of chewing the bread caused me to contemplate the Cross and Covenant even longer. I think that was the point.
Imagine how much more we could contemplate the New Covenant sealed on the Cross if we engaged in an actual supper when we took the thing called the Lord’s Supper as an actual meal or even a feast. When you do so, consider the body of believers, that there are no divisions, no factions, and that the less fortunate are cared for. Make sure you are in unity. Don’t give the enemy any recourse, any way to slither in and bring sickness or death. The act of communion is to recall the chief mechanism for God’s releasing the Kingdom of heaven on earth, so let’s not take it in vain.
Don’t Argue. Don’t be Divisive!
I don’t suggest ceasing from the different religious traditions of corporately consuming a cracker and juice weekly, quarterly, or whatever schedule your local church chooses. To argue with tradition is to be needlessly divisive.
AND we can expand our thinking regarding what constitutes taking the Lord’s Supper. Many churches foster community and unity in their own body through regular picnics or potlucks. It would be unthinkable at a potluck to allow the rich to feast and the poor to go hungry. The church simply needs to focus the attention of the congregation on the Cross, and they usually do so through mentioning the Gospel in some form or fashion while blessing the food. That is taking the Lord’s Supper.
Americans love to eat. We get together to remember the nation’s founding through grilling out on the Fourth of July. We get together to remember the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving. We get together to remember Christ’s birth during the Christmas season. We even celebrate the New Year through food and fellowship. Many families make a point to have a Sunday meal together.
Families and friends in the faith should make a point to gather together in a family meal, perhaps on Sunday after church. Turn the television off, put the phones away, and eliminate other distractions, and simply direct attention to the Gospel and then eat up. Maybe even have an empty chair nearby for Jesus. Who knows… maybe he’ll actually sit there with you. That, my friends, it sharing the Lord’s Supper.
Foot washing image source: Horne, Charles, and Julius Bewer. The Bible and Its Story: Gospels–Acts, Matthew to Apostles. Vol. 9. New York, NY: Francis R. Niglutsch, 1909.
Last Supper Image Source: Horne, Charles, and Julius Bewer. The Bible and Its Story: Gospels–Acts, Matthew to Apostles. Vol. 9. New York, NY: Francis R. Niglutsch, 1909.