I grew up both a church rat and gym rat. While I loved the gym far more than church, I was grateful when my childhood church built a gym. I could be in the gym and at church at the same time. Brilliant!
Nothing energized me like hours of Sunday afternoon pickup games. My heart leaped to see new basketballs on the rack and fresh nets on the rims (the old school long ones, of course). Those were the days, my friend; I thought they’d never end (so I was a Biz Markie fan, too. Sue me).
But then Sunday night came. Every three months I would walk into our sanctuary to see the morning’s memorial flowers replaced by the dreaded silver communion trays. Seeing new Wilson Jets foretold hours of fun, but seeing the communionware forebode fifteen more minutes of abject boredom.
The Lord’s Supper was memorialized into irrelevance. It was a mere ordinance serving as a string around the finger. It’s a reminder, but a powerless one. Whether one gathered at the Table was not a concern. I’m afraid not much has changed in Baptist life. There is a chronic ho-hum mentality towards the Supper and our churches are none the healthier for it.
While I won’t make it to Rome, I do hope to make it to Geneva. Calvin wrote, “I say . . . that in the mystery of the Supper, Christ is truly shown to us through the symbols of bread and wine, his very body and blood, in which he has fulfilled all obedience to obtain righteousness for us. Why? First, that we may grow into one body with him; secondly, having been made partakers of his substance, that we may also feel his power in partaking of all his benefits” (Institutes, III.XVII.11). Calvin’s spiritual presence of Christ paved the middle road between Luther (real presence) and Zwingli (mere memorial “presence”).
Essentially, it matters whether or not the Christian takes communion. Blessing and judgment are at stake. Therefore, I offer a few principles that help this work in progress.
1. The Lord’s Supper is more than our definition of mere remembrance. Jesus certainly said the Supper (based on Passover principles) was to be observed “in remembrance of Me” (Lk 22.19; cf. 1 Cor 11.24-25). But did Jesus mean a mere recalling to mind the facts of the cross? Did he assume that his followers would grow forgetful that he died “for you” and would need a sticky note to remind them of it? Of course not. When God acted “in remembrance of his mercy” (Lk 1.54) he hadn’t forgotten that he was merciful and suddenly remembered that he was. He acted again in accordance with his mercy. He extended again his mercy to his people. “Remembrance” has more to do with participation than recollection.
Take 1 Corinthians 10.16, for example. Paul asked, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (emphasis mine). If Paul considered remembrance (1 Cor 11.24-25) mere recollection then why not ask if the cup of blessing is a remembering of blood of Christ? Why not ask if the bread is a remembering of the body of Christ?
For Paul (and Jesus), remembrance meant sharing (koinonia). To remember is not simply to recollect facts, but to participate again in the truth of Christ’s body and blood. To take part in the Lord’s Supper is an act of the heart and will as much as it is the mind.
Further, several verses later Paul emphasized that one cannot partake of the Lord’s Table (i.e. ingest the elements) while he’s bellying up to the table of demons (v21). Doing so means becoming “sharers [koinonos] in demons” – i.e. not mere rememberers of the facts of the demonic realm, but participants in it.
So, the Church observes communion not to remind ourselves “Oh yeah, Jesus died for us,” but to practically participate in the radical demand to eat and drink Christ for eternal life.
2. The Lord’s Supper comes with power. We must affirm that although the Supper may not act ex opere operato, it nevertheless acts with power. In 1 Corinthians 11.27, Paul stressed that to ingest the elements unworthily brought guilt on the one doing so.
In vv29-30, Paul said many Corinthian church members were either sick or dead because they ate the bread and drank the cup unworthily. In other words, judgment came to those when they ingested the elements with unrepentant, prideful hearts.
We presume, therefore, that if judgment comes to the unworthy communicant then blessing comes to the one who has judged the body rightly (v29). After all, Paul called the cup “the cup of blessing” (1 Cor 10.16). Judgment and blessing are attached to the Lord’s Supper.
Does this sound like the Lord’s Supper is a mere ritual to be approached willy-nilly? Absolutely not. Paul is not trying to keep some Corinthians from taking the Supper, but emphasized the gravity of taking it without proper examination. How one approaches the Lord’s Table is how one approaches the Lord himself (the import of v27).
Many Christians assume that if they have unrepentant sin then the can just sit this one out. This sinfully assumes that the gospel is an insufficient remedy for sin. Rather than repent and believe they attempt to make a deal with God. Rather than humbly submit to Christ they pridefully make their own rules.
In other words, by refusing the Table I assume that there is something other than Christ’s body and blood that can curb my rebellion. Refusing the Table is refusing the Christ who alone is sufficient to forgive my sin. By refusing the Table I refuse the blessings that come to Christ’s humble servants uniquely through the Supper.
Not taking the Supper is not an option for the believer. If we’re not gathering at the Lord’s Table then at whose table are we gathering (1 Cor 10.21)? Every believer (church member) is to make sure he/she can take with a humble, examined heart. Every church member should be at every Lord’s Supper unless providentially prevented. Every believer should long for the blessings that come through Christ’s body and blood.
3. The Lord’s Supper is a unifying sacrament/ordinance. We’ve individualized most of our Christian faith. All that matters is my personal relationship with Jesus, my worship experience, my growth and my tastes. If my needs aren’t met then I’ll find somewhere else to meet them. Whatever meaning we attach to the Lord’s Supper, it’s about my little cracker and my shot glass of juice.
A proper view of the Lord’s Supper prevents this mentality. Paul told the Corinthians that “we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (10.17). He exhorted them to wait for one another when they came together to eat (11.33). The Lord’s Supper was the means by which the individual members of the church declared their brotherhood/sisterhood in the gospel. By it they testified that Christ’s work not only saved individual persons, but a people for God’s own glory.
We may work in different places, but we share in the same loaf. We may live in different communities, but we drink from the same cup. We may look different and have different gifts, but the same Christ courses through our veins. We may have different tastes, but we have the same appetite for the same meal. (Might serving one loaf and from one cup help us better celebrate Christ?)
Communion is a profound witness to the world that Jesus Christ is able to do what no one else can. He can unite people from every nation, tribe and tongue with one act of righteousness (Rom 5.18). When I take the bread and drink the cup I do so with my brothers and sisters. I declare that I stand with them and for them in the gospel.
When Paul used the word “body” (soma) in these passages (1 Cor 10.16-17; 11.27, 29), he might very well mean the church. To take the Supper unworthily not only jeopardizes me, but the church (the body of Christ). Conversely, celebrating the Supper with hopeful and contrite heart brings great blessing to God’s people.
There are volumes more to say, but I’ve bored you long enough. Suffice it to say, when we see the glint of communion ware our hearts should leap in joy and anticipation. God has given the church a simple, practical and sensual means of grace. Thank him for whetting our palates for the marriage supper of the Lamb.