Friday, September 21, 2018

Thoughts on Holy Communion for evangelicals

1.  There is a real danger that in our strong desire to put some distance between us and Rome we devalue the sacraments in general and the Eucharist in particular.  In particular, to avoid a mechanical approach to grace we can end up denying that the Supper is a means of grace at all.  This is not the position of our Protestant forebears, nor is it sustainable from Scripture.

2.  Whilst we're pretty hot on the Supper as a memorial ("Do this in remembrance of me"), I think we are less good on the Supper as a participation together in Christ.  Maybe it's because at this point we hit something we can't quite explain: how is this bread and wine a sharing in Christ's body and blood?  My guess is a) we probably don't need to explain it so much as experience it and b) there are some useful parallels in 1 Corinthians 10 that will help us to think it through, especially the parallel with "Israel according to the flesh" which participates in the altar by eating the sacrifices.  I've written about this before.  I take it that this means primarily that by eating from the sacrifice together the Israelites were enjoying the benefit of the sacrifice - namely, fellowship with God.  As we together feed on Christ by faith as he is represented in the bread and wine, we enjoy together the fruit of his sacrifice: relationship with God and with each other.

3.  The words "each other" are pretty important.  Paul's warning that a person ought to examine themselves before taking the Supper have often been, for me, the occasion for uncomfortable introspection.  Is my heart right?  Am I eating and drinking worthily?  But now it seems to me that the context is against this interpretation.  The problem in Corinth is that the rich are eating a leisurely and satisfying meal while the poor arrive late and go without.  For Paul, this is a blaspheming of the Supper; in fact, it is not the Lord's Supper at all.  It can't be, because it doesn't fit.  How can we selfishly celebrate a meal which commemorates the Lord's great self-sacrifice?  It empties the meal of its meaning by contradicting it.  But note that the point is not: examine yourself to see whether you are internally ready to partake.  The point is: check yourself to see whether you are recognising the body, the community for which Christ died, and celebrating appropriately.

4.  In terms of practice, I suspect the standard evangelical approach to Communion is a bit too 'head down, keep quiet, me and Jesus'.  How do we reflect the communal nature of this meal?  How does our practice reflect the fact that because we partake of one loaf we are one body?  Last week at CCC we took Communion together seated around a table, facing each other, with a time of open prayer for people in the church, our mission partners, and the church universal.  It was good.

5.  I have questions about the intersection of objective and subjective in Holy Communion.  I wonder whether we often lay a great deal too much stress on how Communion makes us feel.  It seems to me that Paul sees the sacrament as something much more objective - a proclamation of Christ's death.  There is, of course, subjectivity; each individual eats!  But I don't see too much emphasis on how the Supper makes us feel in the NT.

6.  On the subject of proclamation, Paul does seem to think that the Supper is a sermon in itself.  I don't think it needs to be surrounded by lots of words, just enough to make it clear what we're remembering and celebrating.

7.  I wonder if our emphasis on memorial sometimes misses out the formative aspect of Communion.  Back to ancient Israel: the remembering and the celebrating together was what continually re-formed the people as the people of Yahweh, the people of the Exodus and the Covenant.  I think as we gather around the Communion table we are re-formed as the people of the cross and the resurrection.

8.  If the Supper is (one of) the means by which God communicates his grace, the way in which we enjoy fellowship in the fruits of Christ's sacrifice, and the way in which we are re-formed as the people of God, I can't see why we wouldn't celebrate it as often as possible.


  1. ...and Amen. Another important but overlooked angle: communion as pledge of allegiance to Jesus' Kingdom rather than to the demonic kingdoms of the world. 'You cannot eat at both the table of the Lord and the table of demons.' A lot of political and cultural freight in that.

    1. Yes - table fellowship with the Lord is incompatible with table fellowship with demons. It would be interesting to explore what the parallels to the table of demons in our culture might be...