“The two main sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, are the spiritual pillars of the Church. They are not simply instruments by which the Church exercises its ministry. They are not just means by which we become and remain members of the Church but belong to the essence of the Church. Without these sacraments there is no Church. The Church is the body of Christ fashioned by baptism and the Eucharist. When people are baptised in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and when they gather around the table of Christ and receive his Body and Blood, they become the people of God, called the Church.” – Henri Nouwen
The church my family attends holds to sacramental tradition, though we’ve never taken Communion every Sunday. I wish we did. Last spring, I wrote and taught a small group course on Baptism and Communion, the Sacraments of the United Methodist Church. The course seemed to be very well-received. My great hope is that some folks in our small church will begin to see that there are some spiritual benefits to Holy Communion; that they might begin to desire the Body and Blood of Christ more; and that they might see it as more than a vain symbol by which we gain nor offer anything.
I want folks to see it for what it is…A sacred meal. A holy exchange with a living God. Spiritual refreshment. A place to come where we as a congregation are all bound together, united, knit tightly by the Body and Blood of Christ that we partake of.
In our last lesson on Communion, I did a review of John Wesley’s treatise, The Duty of Constant Communion, in which he examined the arguments against taking Communion often, and the Biblical arguments for partaking as often as we can. As I wander through the arguments against and for frequent use of the Communion table, note that many of the arguments are pure Wesleyan; some I’ve gathered from other sources; and finally, the most profound ideas are straight from my own small noggin. In the midst of all my ramblings, you’ll find some links to writings on the subject that are much more eloquent than my own. Please, click on them, and read offerings from folks who are smarter, and from whom I often steal ideas.
Now, if you’re looking for a scholarly dissertation on the Eucharist, you ain’t gonna find it here. Remember, this is dirt-road theology you’re dealing with. This is a post you’re either going to love or hate, depending on where you stand on the issue of weekly Communion. Just take my cornbread musings into consideration, and leave me some comments on where you stand on the matter after you read.
We’ll look at the topic from two perspectives…Myths about Communion vs. Myth Busters.
Myth # 1: Christ didn’t really command that we take Communion.
It’s funny to me that we as a Christian sub-culture are so enamored with the Ten Commandments, fighting for them to posted in our public places; putting them on signs in our front yards; and considering them to be foundational documents for our nation here in the U.S.A. We love to spout Old Testament commands when we see behaviors in people that are offensive to us. Evangelicals fixate on commands dealing with the consumption of alcohol, modest clothing, sexual behavior, coarse language, leadership roles in the Church and the home, whether a pastor can be divorced, whether he can be divorced and remarried, and on and on. Some even use Scripture to justify whether or not a woman should cut her hair.
Subsequently, we define who is “saved” and who isn’t by how well they follow the commands. We preach grace, but what we practice is often another thing altogether.
Why is it we focus on some commands, though, yet ignore a very basic one Christ Himself gave us?
Mythbuster: Sorry, y’all. Jesus said to do it.
Scripture says this…
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:14-19)
Take this…divide it among you…do this in remembrance of me.
I don’t know, but when my mama told me to take something, or do something, I knew she meant that I better take it and freakin’ do it.
One thing I’ve noted over the years of observing my own parents, and now that I’m a parent myself, is that good parents teach through repetition. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my girls to stay away from the stove when we’re cooking, because it’s hot. Eventually, they reach a point where they point and say, “Hot”, and they don’t go near it. I also can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have told our two year old that she shouldn’t attempt to change her own diaper. That one still hasn’t shrunk in. We are in a phase of doing excessive amounts of laundry in my home as a result.
One time telling your kids doesn’t always get the point across. So God, like a good Father, repeats the point He wants to make time and again in Scripture.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23)
And then Paul gives us a more than gentle reminder…
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
“Don’t touch that stove. It’s hot. It will hurt you.”
We give that command (“Don’t touch that stove…’) over and over, with qualifying reasons (“It’s hot…It will hurt you’) as to why we should follow the command. We give instruction, and then give justification for why the instruction is important.
Take this bread and wine.
Divide it among you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
Take the bread and eat it.
Drink from the cup.
It’s for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.
Do this in remembrance of me.
The Word became Flesh is speaking, saying, “This is important. I don’t want you to forget my broken body. I don’t want you to forget the blood I’ve spilled. Eat the bread. Drink the wine. Receive forgiveness of sins. And remember. Every time you do this, remember.”
We are a sacramental tradition, so we believe that grace and the forgiveness of sins is available through the bread and wine of the Communion table. We believe that it’s spiritual refreshment, empowering us to carry on until we can meet at the table again.
But suppose you don’t believe or understand any of that sacramental mumbo-jumbo. That you believe it’s just a ritual, with no spiritual benefit whatsoever.
It’s still a command of Christ.
Do this in remembrance of me.
Myth #2: Taking Communion every week will make it less special.
I have a cousin who believes, wholeheartedly and with great sincerity, that Communion should only be taken once each year, because it’s just a vain ritual otherwise.
Bless his heart.
Mythbuster: Holy Communion is a unique, intimate experience; something most people are starving for.
In an age where we are ultimately connected…through social media, cell phones, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram…We are also plagued with an infinite lack of intimacy. I have Facebook friends I have never met face-to-face. I occasionally will be in my local Ingle’s, and recognize someone whom I actually do not know from a “real” friend’s social networking page, and will have seen photos of their family, know where they ate lunch yesterday, or wondered, “Who’s that woman he’s with? I know it ain’t his wife!”
The whole thing kind of creeps me out, because I know that there are folks out there in the world who have likely seen me and my family via social media, and might know that I dropped my cell phone in the toilet last week, or that I post the same Brennan Manning quotes over and over.
Our world is full of connection, but lacks true intimacy. I love Andy Stanley’s definition of the term. Intimacy is “knowing someone fully, and being fully known by that individual, with no fear of rejection.”
Eating, in and of itself, is an intimate act. I believe it to in the top three intimate acts one can participate in, right after sex, right before using the bathroom in the stall next to someone else.
Think about it…We see a great number of people every day. There’s very few of them, though, that actually ever come to our homes and visit. Of those that do drop in, even fewer actually come inside and stay a while. An even smaller number sits down at our tables and shares a meal with us. The table is a place that is reserved for those whom we trust and know, people we love and whom we desire to be loved by.
Eating also involves very private parts of our bodies, our hands and our mouths. I might shake a stranger’s hand as a gesture of goodwill, but I keep hand sanitizer close by, because I know they just picked their nose in their car right before we were introduced. Seriously. Don’t be offended if I sanitize right in front of you, because you know you’ve got a history of digging for gold and then touching somebody immediately afterwards. Knowing that, I certainly am not going to let them near my mouth, not even in countries where it’s normal to use lips as a greeting tool. I’ll stick with the side hug, thank you.
Those whom we are connected to the closest, though, have access to these profoundly personal areas…Our tables, our hands, our lips, our mouths. We let them inside, and hope that they allow us in, as well. In the Communion Table, we have an amazing point of connection with Christ. Wesley wasn’t sure as to how Christ was present in the bread and wine of Communion, but he was certain of this…He’s there. Whatever we bring to the table, He welcomes us. He welcomes us not just to sit down and eat with him, but to take Him in. He receives us fully, and we respond by receiving Him…Fully, with no fear of rejection.
Michael Spencer, the Internetmonk, wrote in Thoughts on Weekly Communion, “One of my motivations has been simple: the Lord’s Supper is a vivid and vital connection with Jesus. To come to the Lord’s table is to return to that night when Jesus gave the supper to his disciples. It is to be re-invited to believe, to be re-invited into the community of Jesus’ followers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are literal moments from the ministry of Jesus, re-lived and re-joined with all the power of that moment. Most Christians in my tradition are starved for these connection points.”
Churches strive to create connection points with small groups, home groups, age-defined groups, college groups, gender-specific groups, singles groups, young couples groups…You get the point. Ed Stetzer and George Barna warn us that if people don’t feel connected, they will leave our churches. Too often we overlook the ultimate point of connection with Christ, the Communion Table, in favor of following denominational recommendations and church trends. Here, at the Table, is where we meet the living God, where we can touch, taste, and feel His presence. If you get bored with that, man, I just feel sorry for you. True intimacy is a pearl of great price. It’s hard to find in this world! We have it available in the Lord’s Supper. That, friends, is something special.
Myth #3: Too much Table = Not enough Word.
AKA, too much bread and wine means not enough meat. Pastors love to hear themselves speak. I know I do. It’s a painful flaw of mine. Don’t let any pastor tell you it’s not one of theirs. I’ve got a theory that most of us preachers were the youngest in our families, and take on roles that we know will make us the center of attention. It’s probably not true, but it sounds good.
Mythbuster: If the Communion liturgy is used properly each week, then the Gospel is presented clearly each week.
A lot of pastors fear that if they add weekly Communion, it will cut into sermon time, and their congregations won’t grow spiritually. However, if you look at the Liturgy in the UMC Hymnal for “Word and Table I”, you’ll see that the order of worship is thick with the Gospel. There are at least three Bible readings during the service, a sermon, and the Communion Liturgy itself takes one from creation all the way through Christ’s death and resurrection, and eventually speaks of his return. The entire Gospel narrative is covered in just a few minutes time every week! Which brings us to our next myth…
Myth #4: It just takes too darn long.
Ah, the clock watchers. Pastors always worry about them. Fact is, even if it’s not Communion Sunday, they’re still watching the time. I know a couple who has a standard policy that if the pastor isn’t preaching his sermon by 11:45AM, they get up and leave. No lie. It’s not like they have any pressing task to get to. I’m pretty sure they actually just want to beat the Baptists to their favorite spot for Sunday lunch. I can’t think of any other good motivation they might have for skipping out early.
Pastors tend to cave to this kind of pressure. We’ll do twenty minutes of announcements, but if it’s getting close to 12:00 noon, we’ll skip the Communion Liturgy and just make up some random dialogue about the Table, and throw in something resembling the words of Consecration (“On the night He was crucified, Christ took bread…”), and try to zip through the whole thing in order to keep the congregants happy, thinking we’re speeding things up. In doing this, we minimize the importance of Communion. No wonder most folks don’t think it’s very special.
Mythbuster: Settle down, Jack. Reality is, it takes way less time to do the Communion Liturgy than it does to get seated at Cracker Barrel.
Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote here that it takes an average of about four minutes to complete the Great Thanksgiving (Communion Liturgy portion) in “Word and Table I”.
So, let’s eliminate one poem from the sermon, or one song by the choir, or maybe even just put the announcements in the bulletin, and trust that people will read them, rather than taking up half the worship service with them. Give me my four minutes of depth and spiritual meaning!
Myth #5: There’s no real spiritual benefit.
In some churches, it’s an ordinance, which translated from the Greek, means, “We do it, but we’re not gonna go nuts over it, because if we do, people will think we’re a bunch of Roman Catholics.”
Even if you don’t believe that the Communion elements have a sacramental nature, containing in them the forgiveness of sins, grace, and spiritual nourishment, as Methodists believe they do, there are still some major spiritual upsides to Holy Communion.
Mythbuster: It’s a lot more spiritual than most of the jokes your pastor tells.
The Communion Liturgy calls us to examine ourselves and recognize our own sinfulness. It keeps us centered on what’s really important…The Body and Blood of Christ, shed for us all, for the forgiveness of sins. It gives us a bedrock that we can build worship around. The Eucharist has been around since the birth of the Church. Worship fads come and go, but the bread and the wine ain’t going nowhere!
Perhaps most importantly, it binds us together as a sinful, but redeemed people. We live in an age of churches that are divided into generational, political, and good Lord, musical factions. The Communion Table is a place where all of us can meet as one, and be united in Christ. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 10:16-17, Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
Myth #6: It’s just a stale old ritual.
Don’t those wacky Lutherans and Anglicans with their fire tongue hats and incense wagging everywhere know that Holy Communion needs to take a back seat to skinny jeans, deep v-neck tees, and some guy with blond tips singing about Jesus like the creator of the universe is his girlfriend?
Mythbuster: Communion keeps us honest.
Fact is, Communion keeps us honest in our patterns of worship. I really don’t care what style of music anyone does. I do care of about quality and depth, though. Now, when I say quality, I don’t mean that the hologram of the pastor looks completely real, the sound system is state of the art, and all the guitars are really jangly, making for an epic worship “experience”. And when I say depth, I don’t just mean that the pastor knows Greek and doesn’t say “dude” a lot in his sermon.
For the first 1500 years of our faith, there was no context for Sunday worship that did not include Holy Communion. Not partaking on a weekly basis is a relatively new phenomenon, just about 500 years old. Having weekly Communion keeps the church grounded in something meaningful. Peter Leithart wrote this in a blog post here…The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross.
We can’t just ignore 2000 years of Church tradition in favor of hoping that the teenagers in our worship bands will begin to draw crowds because they miraculously begin to sound like U2. The Communion Table keeps us connected to our past, grounded and alive in our present, and purposeful about the future. Bishop Todd Hunter posted this gem on Facebook just yesterday…When we receive the Eucharist, we are united with Jesus’ past – his death and resurrection. We are also simultaneously joined to God’s future – the consummation of all things in the new heaven and new earth.
So there’s my humble thoughts. Wesley believed that Communion should not only be taken weekly, but as often as possible. Julian of Norwich actually survived for an extended period of her life on just the bread and wine of The Eucharist. Holy Communion is more than important…It’s vital.
St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Let everyone share this feast of faith; let everyone enjoy the riches of goodness. Let none lament their poverty; for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let none mourn their sins; for forgiveness has dawned from the grave. Let none fear death; for the Savior’s death has set us free.”
I’ll close with a quote that I go to time and again from Miss Flannery O’Connor…