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As Easter weekend approaches, many churches are making arrangements to partake of communion. At least one church of which I’m aware is holding a “drive-thru” communion in which the various members of that church will have the elements of communion distributed to them in their vehicle as a convenience in an era where disease prevents the church from gathering. It seems that many evangelical churches are tapping fathers of various households to distribute communion to their families while everyone watches the livestream of their Pastor guiding the service through the ordinance.
It has always been our custom to partake of communion during Easter, and it will be no different this year. I thought it would be a good idea to remind ourselves about the significance of communion as we approach the Easter weekend. So let's jump in!
The Scriptural teaching regarding participation in communion can only be understood in the context of a local church that is gathered together. Even the very meaning of the word “church” is that of a gathering. Every church will need to think carefully about how to practice communion, and we recognize that different churches will come to different conclusions. We have charity for all those who may choose to practice communion differently than we do, but we've come to the conclusion that we should gather in order to celebrate communion.
But first, let's reflect on communion.
Let’s start with the question, “What is communion?” In order to understand why we have laid aside the ordinance of communion for the past year, one must first understand what Communion is. The Supper that Jesus instituted on the night he was betrayed was, and is, a new kind of Passover meal. Or we might say that the Passover, which celebrates the exodus of Israel from Egypt, was the Old Testament anticipation of the Lord’s Supper. Although the Passover was a practice from the Old Covenant while the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual ordinance of the New Covenant, these two meals reflect and mirror each other so that we can’t really understand one without the other.
Looking first at the Old Covenant Passover. The reason the Lord instituted the Passover in Exodus was so that the people of Israel would always remember and proclaim their redemption from Egypt:
This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. (Exodus 12:14)
And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” (Exodus 12:25-27)
Interestingly, the Lord’s Supper was instituted for the same reason:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Old Testament Israel looked back to the Exodus through the Passover meal. The New Testament Church looks back to the cross and resurrection of Jesus through the Lord’s Supper. Both meals are looking backwards. Both meals are declared to be acts of remembrance. Both meals are to be understood as living memorials.
As often as we eat the Lord’s Supper, we remember an even greater exodus than that which was experienced by Israel in Egypt: "…for he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin," (Colossians 1:13).
The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of what Christ has done for us on the cross. At this point you’re probably thinking that this renders communion trivial. If it is only a remembrance then why can’t anyone partake of this meal in any manner? Why can’t anyone remember it any way that they want? What’s wrong with families doing it within their own homes? Why can’t we all take time this Easter weekend to remember the Lord on our own within our own homes?
The Lord’s Supper, as a remembrance, is far more significant then you realize, precisely because it is a remembrance.
When it comes to Communion, many argue that the Supper is a means of grace, not just a memorial or some kind of visible prop for our own faith. Unfortunately, many of those who argue that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace tend to go too far by overemphasizing the elements or misunderstanding the way in which we are blessed through the meal. Very often, these theologians suggest that real grace is somehow mysteriously given to the one who takes communion. It is this idea that leads to the conclusion that some form of communion must be served over the Easter weekend.
This is where we disagree. It is true that the Supper is a means of grace, but there is nothing supernatural about the actual meal itself. It is a memorial consisting of plain bread and ordinary grape juice. Nothing is given through the physical elements of the Lord’s Supper.
So how is it also a means of grace? The Lord’s Supper sanctifies and blesses those who observe it through the act of remembering.
In all acts of remembering there is a spiritual dimension. We are called to remember precisely because we are prone to forget. Our thoughts have a tendency to wander. As a result of our wandering minds, our hearts and affections wander away with our thoughts. This truth is drawn out beautifully in the song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” when we sing the line,
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
The act of remembering is intended to stop us from the act of forgetting. Forgetting is an act to which we are inclined, and our sinful nature constantly presses towards forgetting the Lord. Therefore, in the process of remembering, we are striving to press back against our sin nature. We are striving to press ourselves into a particular spiritual shape. Rather than being conformed to the world, we are striving to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Since the Lord’s Supper is a memorial that is intended to shape and reinforce our memory, how we practice Communion is important to shaping and preserving a correct memory.
We know that the observance of the Lord’s Supper, as a remembrance, is intended to shape our memory because the Scriptures declare that we must have other behaviors and habits formed and shaped prior to partaking communion. The Lord’s Supper reinforces a particular memory of the Lord through requiring other moral postures before entering in the celebration of remembrance.
Comprehension versus Familiarity
Communion as a practice of spiritual remembrance requires both comprehension and familiarity. I’d like to illustrate this in two ways. The first is to say that it’s like riding a bike, but it is also like driving a nail with a hammer. The major point to be understood about communion is that once you learn how to do it, you never forget how to do it, just like riding a bike is something that you never forget. In this sense, you have comprehended communion. Communion requires comprehension for the sake of remembrance.
But the fullest practice of communion requires more than mere comprehension. There is an element to the observance of communion that requires familiarity. In this sense, it’s not something that you learn once and forget about. It’s something that needs constant practice. In this sense, it is more like using a hammer to drive a nail into some bit of wood. It’s really easy to understand how to hammer a nail with a hammer (comprehension), but the action requires constant practice. And it's not a matter of simply banging away at nails without regard for how it looks afterwards. One must desire to do it well, to drive the nail correctly, and must be willing to engage in perfect practice to develop a perfected remembrance of how to drive a nail. If you want to drive the nail without bending it, or missing the nail entirely and beating up the wood, you have to practice hammering the nail with precision. Communion is like this in that it requires a constant practice of precision to develop a memory with familiarity of the truth of Christ's holiness and death on our behalf.
Communion is an ordinance that (1) comprehends immediately that the Lord died for His church and is still present with His church, but it is also a practice that (2) must be repeated constantly in precision in order to further ingrain that truth within His people, to develop a familiarity to the spiritual reality of Christ. Remembrance requires understanding and a familiarity.
Therefore, how we approach communion matters. The way in which we approach it and observance it are formative to our lives, formative to our memory, and subsequently, formative to our hearts. This formation of character and memory matters greatly in our approach to communion. So, understanding that the way that we do something let’s consider a few moral aspects to our approach of communion:
For example, the Lord’s Supper is a holy communion. The koinonia language or “participation” language in 1 Corinthians 10:16 is crucial here. We are participating in the body and the blood of the Holy One of Israel. The table requires a certain kind of humility to know that one must bow before the holiness of the occasion. As the Lord is separate from the world, so we are also to be separated from the world when we join with Him. Taking communion is a serious matter of holiness.
Hebrews 12:14 (ESV), Strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
This is dramatically pressed home by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. Meeting with God can bring great blessings such as assurance, peace, joy, and renewed spiritual vigor. But that is not all that this meal can bring. We read Paul’s words that, “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died,” as well as his explanation that, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” (1 Cor. 11:29-30).
As elsewhere in the Bible, the presence of God does not only lead to blessing. For the unrepentant sinner, it leads to the experience of God’s curse, even in a New Testament church like Corinth. Again, understanding of the presence of Christ at the Supper makes it a serious business. That’s Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11.
Eating and drinking is a picture of dependence. Every time you put food in your mouth, you preach this sermon to yourself: “I am needy and dependent.” If I get caught up with work and forget to eat lunch, I get “hangry” (hungry + angry) by about one o’clock. Without food, you might possibly survive a little over a month, but you probably cannot go without food for even a day before your entire countenance changes. It is humbling to remember just how dependent we truly are.
At the table of the Lord’s Supper, we declare our neediness again. Jesus told the crowds who followed him that they needed him like they needed food: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Jesus knew this declaration would offend and confuse many who heard it, but he wanted to be graphic about their need for faith in him (John 6:60–65).
As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remind ourselves that we need Christ to sustain us and preserve our faith just as much as we need food. Because God knows our constant need, he chooses a meal to memorialize his provision for us and tells us to eat it “often” (1 Corinthians 11:25). We gather to eat and drink because we are hungry. We partake of communion because our faith needs refreshing.
Eating and drinking is also a picture of anticipation. During Jesus’s last supper, He spoke of his eager expectation to share the cup with his guests again, in his kingdom (Matthew 26:29). So every Lord’s Supper looks backward to the Last Supper, but it also looks forward to the great wedding feast of the Lamb where we will feast with him again in glory (Revelation 19:7).
Every meal satisfies us in Christ, and yet mysteriously awakens a greater hunger for the promised consummation. We gather to eat and drink because we are waiting. So, brothers and sisters, let us eat and drink and in so doing, “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Last, eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper is a picture of intimacy. Who we choose to eat and drink with reveals our connections, our bonds… in a deeper sense, our loyalties. This is why dinner is the quintessential date activity; it’s why we pity the student eating alone in the cafeteria.
Eating and drinking feels like a communal activity. From time to time we may find ourselves eating alone, but even in those moments we tend to pull out our phone in order to connect with others as we eat. Many Instagram feeds remind us that solitary meals feel incomplete — so we pull our smartphone and virtually break bread with five hundred of our “closest friends.”
Eating — or not eating — with someone makes a profound statement. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, the Egyptians thought it was shameful to eat with the Hebrews (Genesis 43:32). Saul suspected that something was wrong in his kingdom when David no longer ate at his table (1 Samuel 20:27). By contrast, in a touching picture of acceptance, David invited the son of his enemy to eat at his table like an ordinary family member (2 Samuel 9:7).
We who were once God’s enemies (Romans 5:10) have been reconciled into his family, invited to dine with King Jesus as a reminder of our newfound intimacy with him and through him, with each other. As there is one loaf broken for many, we who are many are one body in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). This is a gloriously shared meal. We gather to eat and drink together because we are far more than a community... we are a body!
Therefore, we should gather together again as a church.
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”” (Matthew 26:26–29, ESV)
We will remember the Lord correctly in communion, which is to observe it together. So we trust Him to end this pandemic in His good pleasure, and until then, we happily wait for the Lord.