Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship meal’, instituted by Christ for the benefit of his church. He intended it to be a central feature of church life. Communion is one of the two sacraments or ordinances that Jesus gave us as signs and seals of his grace in our lives as believers.
The water of baptism represents the washing and cleansing of Christ and the removal of our sins. The bread and wine of communion represent the continuing life of Christ in the Christian community. We can think of baptism as ‘the sacrament of Christian initiation’ and of communion as ‘the sacrament of Christian participation’. We are not only baptised into new life, we must also continue to participate in that life: communion is a gift from God which gives us that opportunity.
As a sacrament, communion is no mere memorial service; it is a living encounter with the risen Lord. All that Christ has done for us at the cross, and all that we have received from him by faith, is powerfully confirmed and continually sealed as we faithfully participate in communion.
The Lord’s Supper is based on the last meal that Jesus ate with his apostles before the cross; and it soon became the centrepoint of fellowship and worship in the early church, where it was called ‘the breaking of bread’.
Jesus instituted the communion meal during the last supper he shared with his disciples. It was part of the Passover festival. He took aspects of the Jewish Passover meal and invested it with new significance for his followers.
The Passover meal was rooted in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. In Jesus’ day, the meal involved four principle aspects.
- The people looked back – they remembered God’s mercy in delivering them from slavery in Egypt.
- The people looked in – they purified themselves and their homes from anything which was evil or dirty.
- The people looked around – the feast was not a private affair, it was thoroughly corporate. The whole family took part in the meal.
- The people looked forward – they looked forward to the Messiah and his new age and prayed for his coming. It is obvious that the church’s fellowship meal has been greatly shaped by the Passover. All these four elements are present in Communion.
Looking back – a memorial
In Luke 22:19, Jesus told us to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. We are called to remember with thanksgiving God’s grace and mercy in delivering us from the slavery of sin through the once-and-for-all death of Jesus – the true Passover lamb.
Just as the Passover meal was a continuing memorial of God’s saving work in the Exodus, and as the rainbow is a continuing sign of God’s saving work in the Flood, so communion is both a sign and an abiding memorial of God’s saving work on the cross.
But that is not all, for we also re-live our personal application of the cross. The bread and the wine are not empty signs, they are God’s ‘solemn oath’ – the pledge or confirmation of God’s mercy and forgiveness. In a similar way, when we take part in communion, we remember the presence and power of Christ among his people, we celebrate his victory over sin and death, and we claim our part in that activity.
A memorial is also an equally important reminder to God. This means that when we take communion, God is present to fulfil every promise signified by the memorial. Because communion is a memorial, whatever the bread and wine symbolises is available by faith to all who receive it.
At communion, we do not just remember Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we claim it for ourselves, we ‘fellowship’ or share in it. Our physical receiving of the bread and wine emphasises this important truth.
Looking in – preparing yourself
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 underlines the importance of preparing ourselves before communion. Before receiving the bread and the wine, we should examine ourselves, confess what we know to be wrong, and ask God to forgive and cleanse us.
We share the communion meal recognising that it is a sign of God’s grace. We come trusting in Christ’s righteousness and not in our own worthiness. We come in humble repentance, seeking mercy and forgiveness for our wrong thoughts and actions.
This self-examination is not to prevent us from taking part; rather it is to bring us to the meal ready to meet the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart – we can think of it like washing hands before eating.
The nature of communion means that we are encouraged to come with our needs. If the communion is a memorial and participation in the benefits of the cross, we can come expecting our needs to be met. We should expect to be forgiven and restored in our hearts, strengthened and nourished in our faith, renewed in our spiritual experience and healed in our body.
Looking around – ministering to others
Communion is not a private matter, it is ‘the’ expression of the church’s koinonia. All God’s family – the men, women and children of the ‘household’, and any guests and visitors – assemble together to celebrate their communion with each other and God.
We know that the church is a family, and this is the family meal. It is tragic, therefore, that some churches have formalised the fellowship meal into some sort of ritual, that others have lost the sense of festive joy which characterised the Passover, and that many have removed the sense of community.
It is a joy to celebrate communion during an extended fellowship meal in which Christ is central and fellowship with one another is at the heart of the gathering. It offers an ideal opportunity to minister to one another according to 1 Corinthians 14:26. Each person comes prepared to bless and strengthen their brothers and sisters in Christ through a word of encouragement, a prayer or the impartation of a spiritual gift.
Looking forward – expecting Jesus’ return
1 Corinthians 11:26 states that communion is ‘until he comes’. In communion, we look forward, full of hope, to the coming of the Bridegroom, to the ‘marriage feast of the lamb’.
Unlike the Jews, we believe that the Messiah has come, and that his reign has begun. But we know that his kingdom has not yet come in all its fullness, that we are ‘living in the overlap’. This means that we should always be alert and attentive for the return of our saviour. Again, Paul makes this clear when in 1 Corinthians 11:26 that in the communion, we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes.’
At communion, the Anglican liturgy encourages believers to ‘feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. This stresses that communion is food for our spiritual life. In some mysterious way that we do not fully understand, Christ communicates his life to us as we receive the bread and wine. And so we fellowship with him, feeding on him by faith.
The imagery of flesh and blood occurs throughout John 6, and this seems to be pointing towards communion and to the ‘Word of God’ as the fulfilment of the ‘Wisdom of God’ in Proverbs 8:1 – 9:12 who cries, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live.’
While we are right to reject any foolish literal interpretation of physically eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood, John 6, especially in verses 47-57, Jesus shows how central communion is to the Christian life. It is a feeding and fellowshipping in his body and blood; and, by it, Jesus confirms to us his life, his indwelling presence and his provision of spiritual nourishment. This is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul compares communion with the spiritual food and drink that Israel was given in the wilderness.
Jesus stated that the wine represents the blood of the new covenant. In the Scriptures, God’s relationship with his people is often expressed in the form of blood covenants, whereby the blood indicates the binding nature of the covenant: blood is both the pledge and the sign of the covenant.
The New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant, and communion is the meal at which we renew our participation in the covenant: we renew our commitment to covenant obedience and pledge again our loyalty to the Lord. But it is also the occasion when the Lord seals in our hearts the benefits of the covenant and works in our lives to fulfil the covenant promises. We can say that the covenant promises are not just exhibited in communion, they are also executed through communion; and that they are not just modelled in communion, they are also manifested through communion.
As we take the bread and wine we take hold of the covenant promises, we thank God for them, and we enter into everything that the blood has purchased for us.
Unity of the body
Communion also enhances our oneness in Christ. As we share communion, we are drawn together as members of our local fellowship, and we also experience our union with all God’s people in the universal church. We can say that, by participating in communion, we both demonstrate and develop our oneness in Christ: communion is much, much more than a visual aid or symbolic act of unity.
Paul puts this in tremendously strong language when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:17 that we are ‘one body because we eat one bread’, that is, the bread of communion. This means sharing in the church’s fellowship meal is one of the most effective ways we have of developing our cross-forged oneness. This means that communion is as much about fellowship with each other as it is fellowship with God. 1 Corinthians 11 stresses the importance of honouring relationships among believers as part of our preparation for communion. This is what Paul meant by ‘discerning the Lord’s body.’ When we take communion we should consider each other, put away anything which hinders fellowship, and ensure that broken relationships are mended in a godly spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Some sections of the church call the Lord’s Supper, ‘The Eucharist’. This comes from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means ‘to thank’, and refers to Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving or blessing over the bread and wine at the last supper.
Too many communion services are morbid memorials riddled by dry ritual rather than glorious celebrations throbbing with thanksgiving.
When we begin to grasp the true sacramental nature of communion – when we realise all that God pledges and confirms in communion, and appreciate all that we can receive by faith at communion – it naturally becomes an occasion for great thanksgiving in the church.
We must never overlook the significance of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 – 14. In these chapters, he weaves together worship, communion, the gifts of the Spirit and the primacy of love. This suggests that those churches which stress the gifts should also make much of communion, and that the gifts should be an important part of communion.
We have seen that the ‘breaking of bread’, the Lord’s Supper, is central in the life of the New Testament church: it is ‘the’ expression of koinonia – of sharing together with Christ and with each other, and so should be more central in our church life today.
In the communion meal, we gather together to be with each other and the Lord: we remember, we give thanks, we love, we look to the future with confidence, we receive from God, we are strengthened for service, and we build one another up in the love of Christ.
UNDERSTANDING THE SACRAMENTS
Some branches of the Christian Church refer to the sacraments as ‘the ordinances’ of Christ, but they use the phrase in the same way that many Bible teachers throughout history have used the English word ‘sacrament’. This word is derived from the Latin word sacramentum, which literally means ‘dedicated or set apart’. From the 3rd Century, sacramentum was used to translate the Greek word musterion (mystery) which referred to any spiritually symbolic act or object. Whether we use the word ‘sacrament’, ‘ordinance’ or ‘mystery’, the meaning is essentially the same.
The word ‘sacrament’ has been absorbed into English as a technical word for a ‘sign of God’s grace’. It carries the idea of an act that is regarded as ‘an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace’.
The medieval church identified seven acts as sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper, penance, anointing the dying with oil, ordination and marriage. Eastern Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholics still believe that these acts are sacraments, but Protestant churches maintain that Christ ordained or instituted only two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ‘sacraments’ or ‘mysteries’ because they are ‘outward, visible signs’ of the blessing of the gospel. They are ‘ordinances’ which Christ gave to the Church as powerful demonstrations of his grace and life in the body. We participate in them by faith, and they are central to the life of most churches. In fact, there can be no real expression of a biblical church without them.