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Lecture 34: Communion
Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
Lecture: Lord’s Supper
This is the 34th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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The other widely practiced sacrament of the church is communion. Jesus got together with the disciples before he was crucified for a Sabbath meal. This is now universally practiced in every church as the Lord commanded us to do this in remembrance of him. This gathering was their Passover meal which consisted of unleavened bread which is symbolic of Jesus. It is really astonishing when you look at the Christological tones of the Jewish Passover. Jesus did this, it was the last supper; he took the bread and said ‘this is my body’ and he distributed to the disciples. Then he took probably the third cup of redemptive wine saying that it was his blood. So this is my body and this is my blood. The interesting thing here, there was no mention of the central point of the Passover, which was the lamb. The word comes from Greek meaning fellowship, participation, not so much a mystical participation as it is people coming together, fellowship and thanksgiving, rejoicing and celebrating. You have traditions which include the idea of transubstantiation and spiritual presence. When Jesus said, ‘this is my body’, what was he talking about and what was the presence of Jesus in the communion service? Roman Catholics say that the bread actually becomes the body of Christ, that is, his essence. This is the transubstantiation; the substance actually changes into the body of Christ. Christ becomes present in the elements; this is the Lutheran view. So when we eat the bread and drink the wine, I recognize that the presence of Christ is really there.
II. Meanings and Traditions
A. The Presence of Christ
The more Calvin tradition is that Christ’s real presence is in the spiritual presence in the service as a whole when we do this simple meal together. The boundary between people and heaven is smaller and there is a connection that happens with Jesus, mediated by the Holy Spirit. There is nothing special about the elements themselves. It is just bread or a common meal that we do together. Then for others, it is just bread; there is no presence of Christ as it only looks back to Calvary and Jesus’ death and resurrection. It looks forward to the second coming of Christ and the marriage supper of the lamb. Today, there is no special presence any more than any other time in our lives as Christ is always present with us. So I think the presence of Christ is more spiritual; it is an ordained time when the power of Jesus is really present through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a time of remembrance, Jesus told us to remember what he did; it is a time of fellowship when we do this together. It is a time of connection, singing and confession and it is also an anticipation of the Lord’s second coming. In a real sense we are practicing for the wedding supper of the lamb. So we do this until he comes. So we look back to Calvary, and we look at the present time, at the fellowship and we look forward to the second coming of Christ. This is all part of the communion service.
B. Church Traditions
Some questions: how is Christ present in the service? Is he especially present in the elements or in the service or is it just a remembrance of what has happened or will happen? So, how often should we do communion? In the Brethren tradition, it is done once a quarter and sometimes it is once a year. But for much of my life, we had communion once a month where it becomes part of the service. Many churches now have communion every week, especially in the Free Church tradition. In doing it once a month it becomes somewhat common. Then I ask in a somewhat sarcastic way, how often do you preach? Does preaching become old and routine if we do it every week? Actually in some cases it does but it shouldn’t. So could you do communion every week and have it to be powerful? It has to do with how you allocate the service, not from tradition and the Bible doesn’t give us any type of regulation on how to do it. So who should lead a communion service, a priest, ordained minister, a church leader or any faithful believer? The Bible doesn’t even give us a hint on who would lead such a service. Our church tradition has one of the elders to lead it. Another question pertains to who serves the bread and wine? There is almost always somebody who holds the elements; would it be deacons or elders or any leader or a faithful believer in the church? My wife grew with a church tradition where only the deacons would be responsible for the communion service.
C. Other Church Practices
There was a time in our church where a husband and wife team who were appointed leaders to hold the communion. Some places would just ask for volunteers to do it. And lastly, what is the requirement for participation in taking the bread and wine? Some churches would have closed communion where only members of that particular would be invited to take communion. Then others say only members of an evangelical church can take communion and then others would say that you have to be baptized to take part in communion and finally some would allow anyone that is present to take communion. In our church, we only allow members of good standing to take part. I was explaining to some friends of mine, Catholics who are Christians about communion. I mentioned that they would be welcomed to take communion at my church but I don’t think I would be welcome to take communion at their church. They agreed that I would not be allowed. One of the people from yet another tradition said they would not allow Catholics or Pentecostals to take communion in their church. We ended up in a big long discussion on whether Pentecostals could take communion in a non-Pentecostal church. Another question, what about non-believers who are in the service? Do you say no to them? Would this be rejecting them? So you see that there are all kinds of issues involved in this.
III. The Corinthians
In 1st Corinthians 11:18 there is a common misinterpretation. Paul addresses some of the problems within the church with the rich eating with the poorer members. Paul was being sarcastic in speaking to them. Paul says that if you come together in divisions, then it isn’t the Lord’s Supper for they were not unified. The rich person doesn’t understand the command to share with others. Paul is very upset with this and that is saying it lightly. In verse 27 Paul tells not to eat and drink of the cup in an unworthy manner for if they do, they will bring judgement upon themselves. So Paul is talking about the rich not sharing their food with the poor. Those within the church don’t like the multi-ethnicity of the church. In taking communion most churches encourage you to think about any sin in a person’s life who is taking communion and if there is you should not do communion. But those rich guys thought they were doing great, for they didn’t consider what they were doing as sin. So what most think that if you have sin in your life, you shouldn’t come to the Lord’s Table or in another way, those who are weak with sin shouldn’t approach God; and those who are hardened think they are okay. If you are aware that you need God’s help and God’s forgiveness then go to the Lord’s Table. My way of describing who you invite to the Lord’s Table; I invite people who want to have a meal with Jesus to come and participate. If there is a person who hasn’t made a commitment to Jesus but yet wants to participate in communion, I invite them to do so.
IV. Particulars and Conclusion
So how should it be done? There are many ways: in groups, individuals, as a congregation together. In our church, we have a church wide communion every month with tables where people can come and individually participate. Another question relates to where should you have communion? What about any place where the church gathers or part of the church gathers? What should you use, real wine and unleavened bread or any kind of bread with juice? Should it be a common meal? I like to use unleavened bread and wine, but that is what I like to do but we also have non-alcoholic liquid available, if wine is a problem for somebody. We have people in our church who can’t deal with the idea of drinking wine so that is why we have juice available for them. Another question relates to whether it should be in one cup or tiny cups, individually for people. Are there other sacraments; what about marriage? Is it a sacrament, being a church ceremony in regards to the Lord being present with people? There is also foot washing which few people do. I don’t think this is a sacrament as this was an illustration of Jesus serving and Jesus telling them that they should serve as he serves. Another point, is confession of sin a sacrament? Is it when we confess to the priest? I refer here to any person that you trust as being a priest?