The Communion Service: The “What” and the “Why”

Two questions that should guide anything we do in expressing our Christian faith are: what must be done?  Why must it be done?  If we don’t understand the “why”, then the activity in question can very easily become routine and devoid of significance.  Continuing our “re-thinking” of the Communion service in our churches, we can now apply these same two questions (what? why?) in this case:

(1) What are the essential actions that should constitute any Communion service?

(2) What is the central purpose of the Communion service?

What are the essential actions in Communion?  The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 presents instruction from Jesus that he has already passed on to the church at Corinth.  On the night of his betrayal, Jesus, at supper with his disciples, took bread, gave thanks to God for it, and broke it.  He links the bread with his body and calls upon believers to emulate his example:

(i) take bread

(ii) give thanks to God for it

(iii) explain its significance in being linked with the physical body of Jesus to be sacrificed on the cross

(iv) break it for distribution among those present).

After supper, Jesus took the cup and connects it with the new covenant to be ratified through his death on the cross.  From other accounts, Jesus explicitly gave thanks for the cup as well.  Like the bread, the cup is to be partaken of for Christ’s remembrance.

To summarize, the definitive aspects of the Supper include for both bread and cup (in sequence):

(1) presentation of the element

(2) giving of thanks for the element

(3) explanation of the ceremonial significance of the element

(4) partaking of the element by the participants.

What is the central purpose in Communion?  The command from Jesus is to partake of the bread and cup as a remembrance of him.  The Lord’s Supper was instituted in the midst of a Passover meal, which was itself a remembrance of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 13:3 And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand Jehovah brought you out from this place).  As we remember Christ crucified, the “Passover” sacrifice according to Paul (1 Cor 5.7), we engage in similar activity as those who observe the Passover.  During the Feast of Unleavened Bread in connection with Passover, Israel would consume a material item (unleavened bread) as a way to vividly recall the great event of national redemption.  So, in Communion, we use the material (bread and wine) to help us vividly recall the great event of eternal redemption.

It should be noted that the remembrance which the passage calls us to is not merely a cognitive, mental thought process whereby we, at a distance from the past event, objectively consider the meaning of the event.  Rather, the remembering is done through a process that has been termed “historical recital”.  Brethren theologian, Vernard Eller, writes: “’Historical Recital’ …is that form of worship in which the community’s recital of the mighty acts of God from their common history enables the worshippers in effect to make themselves contemporary with God’s action of those saving moments. It always assumes the faith community’s on-going role within the total history of God’s work from Creation to New Creation. Here the community uses the bread and cup to remind itself of the Grand Drama in which it is playing a part.”  It could be said that, often, in discussion of the meaning of the Supper, its memorial nature may not be appreciated sufficiently.  If the Supper’s observance were merely an aloof, disconnected intellectual exercise, perhaps one could understand its deprecation.  However, through biblical remembrance, we build a bridge from the past event, through the medium of food and drink, to our position as recipients of grace two millennia later.  It is no small thing that the Lord’s Supper calls us to remember Jesus Christ.

So, what about you?  

When your church observes Communion (a.k.a. Eucharist, a.k.a. Lord’s Supper), do they follow a given pattern?  

Do they emphasize that the church is remembering the historical event of Christ’s mighty act of redemption?

Of course, there is much more ground to cover on this topic.  Stay tuned…

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