What Holy Communion isn’t

lords-supperToday we have a huge obsession with food.   My two favourite TV programmes are Masterchef and Come dine with me.   Never before in human history have we been so obsessed with the style, presentation and taste of food. 

Food of course is a good gift from God that he has given for our enjoyment, but we can easily turn a good thing into a bad thing – if we become too fixated about it! Christianity has its own meals also.   The Apostle Paul referred to fellowship meals among the Corinthian Christians as “the Lord’s meal” – in actual fact those Christians were behaving so badly that Paul said it was not the Lord’s meal (“supper”, 1 Corinthians 11:20) they were celebrating.

Holy Communion

In our denomination, REACH SA, we call celebrating the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.  We call it “Communion” because of the King James Bible’s translation of 1 Corinthians 1:16 which reads,

“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”

The night before Jesus was executed he shared a Passover meal with his disciples.  Jesus said that Christians should continue eating meals together in remembrance of him to proclaim his death until he comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26).  1 Corinthians tells us what this Christian fellowship meal is and isn’t.

1. Communion is a meal Christians share together that demonstrates the power of Christ’s death

Communion is a meal that Christians enjoy together.  During our church services it is not practical to have a full meal, so we simply have a little bread and grape juice to represent a Christian fellowship meal.   Additional to that, at a communion service, people of different ages, sexes, social classes and backgrounds, share together because of Jesus’ death for us.   By eating and drinking together we demonstrate the power of Jesus’ death and the reality of the gospel – thus we proclaim the power of “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26) to ourselves and a watching world.  People who would normally have little to do with each other now are fellowshipping together because of the death of Christ.

2. We celebrate Communion, not the Passover

The Passover was an Old Testament shadow that pointed people to the reality of Jesus’s death.  The Jewish Passover remembers how God’s judgement passed over each home where the blood of the unblemished lamb was painted on the doorposts.   The Israelites learnt that redemption involved the shedding of blood. 

The New Testament writers went out of their way to show that Jesus died during the Passover festival.  Jesus is the true, sinless Lamb of God who shed his blood for God’s people of all generations so that God’s judgement may pass over us.   We have redemption through the blood of Christ.  Now that the reality has come, we no longer dwell in the shadows. 

When we celebrate Communion we remember Jesus’ death on the cross that redeemed us from slavery; not to the Egyptians, but to sin, death and Satan.  We remember (v24, 25) the cross of Christ together and our faith is strengthened.  There is a big move today in Christian circles to rediscover and re-enact the Passover.  It may be helpful to learn more about the Passover, but remember that all that the Passover pointed to has now come.

3. We celebrate Communion, not Mass

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the mass where, according to them, the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented for sins “to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries”.   In contrast to this view, REACH SA views the standards of faith and doctrine as contained in the 39 Articles of Religion as authoritative.  Article 31 about The one offering of Christ finished in the cross reads:

Christ’s offering of himself on the cross, once for all, is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is no other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Therefore the sacrifices of masses, in which it is commonly said that the Priest offers Christ for the living and the dead, to obtain the remission of their punishment or guilt, are blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.

During Communion we remember Christ’s once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice for all the sins of all God’s people for all generations – and we are thankful.

4. Communion is for repentant Christians, not nominal Christians

A repentant Christian is a true Christian.  We become Christians by repenting of sin and putting our faith in Christ alone to save us.  The Christian life is likewise characterized by daily repentance and faith.   A nominal Christian is a Christian in name only.  A nominal Christian claims to be a Christian, but their lifestyle is indistinguishable from non-Christians and characterized by unrepentant sin.

Article 29 about The participation of unbelievers reads:

Though wicked persons, and all in whom a vital faith is absent, physically and visibly press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ with their teeth (as Saint Augustine says), yet in no sense are they partakers of Christ; on the contrary, they eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a reality to their own condemnation.

In the old days there were communion rails (a low wall around the communion table) in some churches.  Some believe these rails originated to keep stray dogs away from the bread; nevertheless the rail came to convey the idea of the holiness and sanctity associated with communion.  

1 Corinthians 11 says that before anyone shares in Communion (a Christian fellowship meal to remember Christ’s death) they should “examine themselves” (v28) and also “discern the body” (the church) lest they be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v27) and be judged by the Lord.  This judgement or “discipline” can take the form of sickness and even death so that the Christian “may not be condemned along with the world.” (v32). 

Only once you examined your life and conduct and resolved to put things right with God and with other members of the church (“the body”), were you to come to the rail and kneel to receive the bread and wine.  We might not have rails, but the principle behind them is sound.

At our church the Church Council will ask members who are under church discipline for unrepentant sin not to take communion – for their own good and God’s glory.

5. Communion is by faith, not by magic

Some people mistakenly think they can live like they want in disobedience to God as long as they, from time to time, take Holy Communion to magically and mystically “cover” or “atone” for their sins.

This “magical” view is propagated even more by the Roman Catholic Church.  In Roman Catholic theology the bread and wine become in essence the body and blood of Christ.  It may still look like bread and wine, but it is not.  The bread is given in the form of wavers that dissolve in the mouth lest you profane the body of Christ by chewing on it.  The blood of Christ is so holy that it is reserved for the priest alone, not the common Christian.   Christians of any persuasion may start thinking that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper works by divine magic.

Article 28 about the The Lord’s Supper speaks to this:

Transubstantiation (the teaching that the substance the bread and wine is changed into the actual flesh and blood of Christ) in the supper of the Lord cannot be proved by Holy Scripture, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthrows the nature of a sacrament, and has given rise to many superstitions.

In the Lord’s Supper the body of Christ is given, taken and eaten only in a heavenly or spiritual manner, and faith is the means by which the body of Christ is received and eaten in the supper.

The key phrase in Article 28 is “faith is the means”.  If you have no faith in Christ (and therefore treat the sacrament as magic) it is a worthless, indeed dangerous, exercise.   We eat and drink “in remembrance of Christ by faith with thanksgiving” (REACH SA Prayer Book).

6. Communion is in remembrance of Christ’s death, not in memory of a dead Christ

Christian fellowship meals or Holy Communion is not like attending a memorial service of a friend who has passed away.   We don’t remember a dead hero or, like all the other religions of the world, a dead founder, but rather a dying, living, reigning and returning Saviour. 

Holy Communion, although a serious time, is also a time also for celebration and joy!  By sharing together we proclaim the Jesus’ death “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).