Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.
The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.
That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.
Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.
This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar?
1 Corinthians 10:14-18
Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.
This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.
Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.