Today, I take a departure from the usual technical subjects that occupy my writings, opting instead to delve into one of the most fervently discussed and debated theological issues within the Christian Church. A subject that has not only challenged scholars and theologians but has also engaged the hearts and minds of believers for several centuries.
Probably not smart for this software engineer to tap dance with the possibility of engaging in heresy at every turn. But here we are.
The Holy Eucharist, The Lord’s Supper, or Communion, all phrases that essentially mean the same thing in practice, is a sacrament of liturgical significance in most Christian denominations. It proceeds like this – church members will eat some bread and drink some wine (or grape juice, but that’s another conversation) together in accordance with the commands of Jesus to His disciples in the Gospel of Luke:
“And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: for I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”Luke 22:14-20 (AKJV)
The general consensus of the universal church is that this passage is to be interpreted as a command that we follow, all inclusive church-wide, as believers of Jesus. It’s understood that we are to re-create this moment amongst ourselves in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us. It’s also generally understood and agreed upon that the feast isn’t limited just to the disciples that were present in this scripture passage, but instead applies to all of us who claim Christ living on this side of the New Testament. I will be operating under this assumption in this article.
Once you move past those points of agreement however, unity quickly falls apart and endless arguments and debates begin. Here’s but a small sampling of the things people will generally argue over when it comes to this sacrament/practice:
- Who is allowed to take the Lord’s Supper.
- Who is allowed to administer the Lord’s Supper.
- What kind of bread you are to use for the Lord’s Supper.
- What kind of “wine” you are to use for the Lord’s Supper. (alcoholic, low-alcohol, or no-alcohol.)
- How often to take the Lord’s Supper.
- How you should approach the table in terms of sin you may or may not have remembered to repent of.
- If you could drink from individual cups or a common cup, or not drink at all and instead dip (also known as intinction.)
- If a “profession of faith” is needed before you come to the table.
- If a “baptism” as a baby is needed before you come to the table.
- If the bread and wine are symbolic, or actually the body and blood of Christ.
- AND ON AND ON AND ON.
As noted above, this is a small sampling of the issues that theologians and church people alike have engaged with for hundreds of years. Today, a search on Sermon Audio for the word “communion” returns 12,760 sermons at the time of this article. A lot of folks have a lot to say apparently about what Jesus was doing in this passage and what it means for us today.
Side note – but curiously, a search for “Widow” returns only 1,924 sermons. A search for “Poor” returns 3,936 sermons. Both of these together do not pass 50% of the sermon numbers available when searching “communion”.
The concept of communion and how to look at it has been on my mind as of late for reasons I won’t explore for now. However, in researching this area of theology, I’ve arrived at a few ideas for consideration that might help us move past the endless tug-of-war around this sacrament and instead put our focus on the weightier matters of the Gospel.
Context of the Supper
The Jewish Passover, a meal, is the context of communion in Luke 22. Not a church service. Not a liturgical ceremony. It does not appear to me to be a soul-searching alter call to try and remember every sin you’ve committed and repent of it. It also does not appear to be a high-church ceremony with candles and incense. Instead, the picture I see is an intimate meeting of the disciples around a table to taste and see the gospel in practical form directly from Jesus Himself.
This contextual understanding of this event is re-enforced by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. It would seem that he shouldn’t need to get on to the church for letting some go hungry and for those participating drinking to drunkenness if they were simply eating a cracker or sipping wine from a chalice. Drunkenness and gluttony are things happening in the context of a feast, not a ceremony.
As an Episcopalian, I find great meaning and spiritual nourishment receiving the Holy Eucharist each week. For me, it has been a life-giving experience, and I eagerly look forward to it every week. If you want to argue that the elements, in their mystery, are the body and blood of Christ, I can see why you’d want to show reverence and order in how you go about observing this sacrament out of reverence to God.
All of that said however, when I examine the Gospel of Luke, the text does not explicitly demand a specific liturgical ceremony for communion – the emphasis Jesus has is on the act itself and meaning thereof, not the environment. If a meal table was good enough for Jesus, it’s probably good enough for us too. My take is that as long as the true essence of the sacrament is upheld, the environment surrounding it can be tailored to suit the needs and beliefs of each congregation – nobody should rush to a church court or confrontation over this.
On Fencing The Table
At no point in the above passage does Jesus kick anybody out, ask them if they’ve fully repented of all their sins, or anything of the sort. In fact, just one verse later in Luke 22:21, He states that His betrayer is present at the table with them. Everybody was at the table. Even Judas.
If Judas could eat the supper, anybody should be able to eat the supper.
The issue of “who do we allow to come to the table” is a hot button because once you decide it’s the job of a priest, preacher, or elder to administrate communion, it doesn’t take a significant leap in logic to put the responsibility on them to avoid allowing their parishioners to “drinketh damnation to himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29-31). While I follow the logic, it doesn’t seem that Jesus was too concerned about this when He was setting this sacrament up. So why are we?
A bit like the Episcopalians look at the elements of communion as a holy mystery, I personally take this same approach when dealing with a complex passage like the one in 1 Corinthians. Jesus always taught simple truths grounded in love. Rather than over-complicating who eats and who doesn’t, I think we’re safer to simply imitate Jesus and leave the issue of damnation (whatever that means!) to the individual conscience of those that wish to eat and drink.
On Administration Of the Supper
Another hot button around this topic is the issue of WHO has the authority or blessing to give communion to the church. This being another point of contention that arises when you interpret and practice the sacrament as a liturgical ceremony.
I find it curious that almost IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the initiation of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus has to deal with an argument that starts up about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out that a mark of the Gentiles was lording of authority over others – and that his disciples were not to be like that. Instead Jesus says something shocking – the least is the greatest.
With that in mind, it seems to me that the church grounds keeper, or janitor, or nursery volunteer would be the most qualified to serve this sacrament if you take Jesus at face-value. But instead, we argue about if it should be a man or woman, a priest or deacon, an elder or bishop, etc etc. Arguments for millennia – but don’t let me understate the point!
Jesus didn’t seem to be too concerned about who would administer this sacrament. In the AKJV, we get the wording “divide it among yourselves” – not “pass this to the most spiritual and let them figure it out”. Again, if Jesus can keep it simple, so can we.
The main force of this passage in Luke for me is verse 18:
“for I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.”
Rather than pondering the specifics of how we celebrate this, who does what, how often, what kind of drink, etc – I believe it would be more helpful to ponder the meaning of this feast in view of the symbology it caries for the future.
When I eat the broken bread and drink from the cup, my mind is on the inaugurated kingdom of God. I consume in anticipation of a healed world where we don’t quarrel amongst ourselves over the insignificant, but rather live in love for each other, perhaps best represented as a feast with Jesus himself.
If we lived in a perfect world where every widow is accounted for and their needs are met, we’ve got time and space to debate more about communion specifics. The same can be said about orphans, strangers, refugees, etc. At the point we have their needs met, let’s take this on and get communion as perfect as we can make it. But in the meantime, I’d like to see a shift in emphasis to uniting Heaven and Earth through our actions – by being the hands and feet of Jesus to those who need His love and mercy. Take the feast as a reminder of God’s grace to ourselves, and with this renewed understanding, live to serve those whom He commands us to serve.
Now that’s a communion I can get behind.