The Meaning of Communion
by Mark M. Mattison
"This do in remembrance of me." With these words ringing in our ears, we regularly celebrate communion. As we drink the cup and eat the bread, we reflect on Christ's sacrifice and look forward to his return.
Yet communion is more than a memorial. Our continued participation in this powerfully symbolic ceremony molds our thinking and brings to life deeply spiritual truths in very concrete ways. It shapes our identity as a people of God and provides the truly blessed assurance that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. The "message" of communion is important and deserves our full attention.
An Unworthy Manner?
From what has been said, it follows that believers should share communion at every reasonable opportunity. Yet, often believers abstain from sharing in this rich experience. They allow the bread and the cup to pass them by as they sit in guilt and shame, wishing they were more worthy. There was a time when I myself would abstain if I were struggling with some sin.
What is it that drives believers from their Lord's table in these spiritually intimate moments? This practice stems from Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. There Paul tells us to examine ourselves before communing, for "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27, NIV). Participating "in an unworthy manner" brings judgment (vv. 29-31), and none of us wishes to transgress this command. Therefore, we examine ourselves before participating, seeing how well we "measure up." If we feel spiritual enough, we may proceed; if we don't, better "safe than sorry."
But is this really Paul's meaning? Was this Jesus' meaning? Consider Jesus' words in John 6:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (vv. 53-56, NIV).
Consider further the fact that Jesus' blood cleanses us from sin. When we are guilty, that is when we need Jesus the most. When we are struggling, that is when we need the help and support of the body. We need to be reminded that we are in a fellowship of brothers and sisters who represent Jesus to us, and we need the strength and assurance provided by the communion celebration. To shrink away from it is to retreat within ourselves and suffer silently.
What, then, did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians? Consider the context. The Corinthian believers were abusing the Lord's Supper:
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! (vv. 20-22, NIV).
The Corinthians' behavior contradicted the whole point of the communion experience. Rather than celebrating their unity, they were revealing their division. Hence Paul's question, "Do you despise the church of God?" They were eating and drinking "without recognizing the body of the Lord" (v. 30), that is, the body of Christ of which they were part. As such, they were eating and drinking "in an unworthy manner" and bringing judgment on themselves. The "unworthy manner" relates to the way they abused the Lord's Supper. This observation is confirmed by verses 33 and 34: "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment" (vv. 33,34, NIV).
When we struggle with sin and find ourselves in need of forgiveness, let us seek that forgiveness and eagerly reach for the cleansing blood of Christ. "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16a, NIV). Let us share the communion experience and the reassurance that we are part of God's people. "Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16b, NIV).
Participation in the Body
This message is one of hope and comfort, but it is also one of warning. Paul directs our attention to the body and asks us to examine ourselves. Are we communing as a body? Right relationships within the body are essential. Jesus taught that this aspect of church life is to take precedence over worship (cf. Matt. 5:23,24).
Communion is not an individualistic matter; it is a body matter. We commune as a body; we come to the Lord's table as a family. This truth is bound up in the biblical symbol of the one loaf and the one cup. "Because there is one loaf," Paul writes, "we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17, NIV).
The New Testament Christians celebrated communion by sharing a single cup and a single loaf of bread as visible signs of their unity (1 Cor. 10:17). In this they followed the pattern of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22,23). Without this symbol, it is easy to forget the communal nature of this important ceremony.
Another key ingredient in the early church's communion experience was the shared meal in which context the loaf and the cup were shared. The Lord's Supper was made up of both the potluck and the emblems, as the context of 1 Corinthians makes cle ar (vv. 20-22,33). In this, too, the Lord's Supper reflected the Last Supper (v. 25). What Paul describes here as the Lord's Supper is described by Peter and Jude as the "agape" or love feast (2 Pet. 2:13; Jude 12).
This meal was the focal point of the church's weekly experience, as Acts 20:7 indicates: "On the first day of the week" the church at Troas "came together to break bread" (NIV). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 11:18 Paul writes to the Corinthians about "when you come together as a church," adding that they come together to eat the meal (v. 20). The only other passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul uses this language is 14:26 where, as everyone recognizes, Paul is explicitly describing the church's regular assembly. From this it appears that the early church communed every single week, not monthly, quarterly, or annually, as many churches do today.
This body dimension of communion tells us something about the mood of the meal as well. Communion is often taken in a somber mood of dismal introspection as we focus on the death of Christ. But could the proper context be one of celebration? If a shared meal were part of our communion together, it would seem so. We read in Acts that the first Christians "broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:46). Communion was an occasion of sharing with the saints and celebrating the forgiveness found in Christ. In this, the communion meal was intended as a foreshadowing of the messianic banquet feast described in Isaiah 25:6. This forward-looking aspect is confirmed not only by 1 Corinthians 11:26 ("until he comes") but also the account of the Last Supper in Luke 22:16,18,29. See also Matthew 8:11; 22:1-14; 25:1-13; and Revelation 19:9 for the theme of the messianic banquet.
The next time your church celebrates communion, take a look around the room and consider the brothers and sisters with whom you are communing. Evaluate your relationships with them. Do you despise the church of God? Consider how to put an end to unresolved conflicts. Do you recognize the body of the Lord? If so, commune with thanksgiving. Are you struggling with sin? Drink deeply of the cup of forgiveness, and thank God that Christ is coming soon to usher us in to the banquet hall where we shall celebrate with all the saints in the body.