1 Corinthians 11:20-28
If you go anywhere throughout the world where Christians are worshipping, sooner or later you will see them do one particular thing. However different their styles of worship – Liturgical, Free Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, or whatever – it is likely that you will find them on regular occasions sharing bread and wine in memory of Jesus. This is what he commanded his followers to do, and this is what they still do.
With the exception of the Society of Friends and the Salvation Army all Christian churches have some form of Communion service. It is true that they may well celebrate it in widely different ways: some with ordinary bread some with special wafers; some with ordinary wine others with special Communion Wine; still others with non-alcoholic wine or fruit juice.
The way It Is celebrated depends to a large extent on the culture of the people. In the highlands of New Guinea the Christian converts among the remote tribes have no bread or wine that they can use in a Communion service. Instead they share sweet potatoes and raspberry juice.
You will also find many differences in how frequently Holy Communion is celebrated. In many churches it is once a week. In our tradition it is once a month. In some churches only a couple of times a year. And in some Catholic churches and monasteries every day.
There is so much divergence in the way that Communion is celebrated and yet so much unity in the fact that it is celebrated.
What then are we doing when we come to the Lords Table? I would suggest four different “views” that we need to take – four ways of looking:
1) Looking back – Remembrance
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. (1 Corinthians 11: 24)
At the Last Supper Jesus anticipated his passion and death. He took the bread and said “this is my body”, he took the wine and said “this is my blood”. He was using these elements to symbolise his sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. And after he has gone he tells his disciples they also must take bread and wine, break it and eat it, pour it out and drink it, in remembrance of him.
So for us the act of sharing in bread and wine partly takes us back to the Upper Room – it reminds us of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. But it also turns our eyes to the Cross of Calvary. It was there that the body of Jesus was broken. It is true that no bone of his body was broken, but his flesh was lacerated and torn by the scourges, the nails and the crown of thorns, and his side was pierced with a Roman lance so that blood and water poured forth. It was a cruel and painful death, a shameful and dishonourable way to leave this world – or so it seemed to those who watched. But to us who believe in him it was his moment of glory, his triumph over Satan, his way of dealing with our sins, his sacrifice for the sins of the world.
So whenever we take this bread and wine of Holy Communion it reminds us of his incredible love for us – of the body of Jesus broken and the blood of Jesus poured out for us.
We look back.
2) Looking upwards – to God, in thankfulness
Another word for Holy Communion is “Eucharist”. It comes from a Greek word meaning “I thank”. This ceremonial meal is our act of thanksgiving. Regularly we gather together to take bread and wine and to remind ourselves of what God has done for us in Christ.
In the Communion Service the Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, starts by thanking God for creating this world and all that is in it and for making humans in his own image so that we can love him and serve him. And then it goes on to thank God for sending his Son to be our Redeemer. It thanks God for Jesus’ life, his earthly ministry, his sufferings and death on the cross, his Resurrection and his Ascension, his intercession in heaven on our behalf. That’s why the Comunion Service is not an ordinary meal. It is a special act of thankfulness.
3) Looking within – examining ourselves
Because the Lords supper is a special meal we should look within before we come to partake.
“Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11: 28)
The problem in the Corinthian church was that although they had many spiritual gifts there were also within their fellowship many worldly and not truly converted people. Many still had a pagan outlook. At the time Paul was writing the Lord’s Supper was still celebrated as an actual meal, known as the Agape or Love Feast. It was a sacred occasion to eat and drink together in fellowship and to share bread and wine in remembrance of the Lord.
But some in the Corinthian church were turning it into a drunken revel, not unlike a pagan feast. People were starting to eat and drink as soon as they arrived without waiting for the others. Those who arrived later sometimes went hungry – there was no food left for them. Meanwhile some of the others who had started early were getting drunk. This was no way to celebrate a solemn sacred meal.
And so Paul says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” – in other words: “You’re profaning the Lords Supper, you are emptying it of meaning.” and he adds that judgement will come on such people who profane the Lord’s Supper:
“For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the Body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself.”
Paul says they should eat at home before they come out so that they are not hungry and they can take the bread and wine in church with proper reverence.
Over the centuries churches have found ways of ensuring that we approach the Lord’s Table with appropriate reverence. Within our tradition we have replaced the actual meal with a symbolic morsel of bread and a sip of wine. (Whether this is the best way of celebrating the Lords Supper I’m not sure, but it does it least avoid the problems they had in the Corinthian church.)
However we celebrate it it’s still true for us that when we come to the Lords Table we need to look inward. We should examine ourselves. We should confess our faults to God. We should ask his forgiveness. We should also forgive those who sin against us. We should come together in a spirit of unity and love. We should remember what we are doing and be aware of the sacredness of our actions in taking this bread and wine.
4) Looking forward – to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ
“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
When Jesus returns there will be no more need to remember him in a sacred meal. We shall be in his presence and feasting with him forever in the Heavenly Kingdom.
Jesus is coming back to judge the world and we look forward to that day.
As it says in the Communion hymn:
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
Yet, passing points to the glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.