Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why communion is such a great thing

Lately I have been thinking about communion, and I've been wanting for a long time to post something on it. In a nutshell, I feel most churches are missing out on the powerful reminder of Jesus' death and the powerful time of fellowship that communion is meant to bring.

My goal here is to unlock what God's word says about communion. And immediately, you may be thinking rules, and a blog on "What are the rules of communion?" is probably not that interesting. I agree, actually. I am not trying to detail the rules; I'm trying to help us think through and restore the meaning of communion. And, I believe that if we'd practice communion in a way that was more biblical, we would reap various benefits in regards to the "realness" many churches attempt to artificially create. It might help us to go home more in awe of God and more excited about being part of the community of believers.

Firstly, communion saves us from living in a world of abstraction. This is one area where I feel many churches go wrong today. We get bound up in all these wonderful biblical concepts and become intellectually inclined at the cost of having our hearts also touched. Sharing a meal that commemorates the death of Christ and anticipates His return ties history together from all directions. The literal-ness of communion ought to move us; the literal-ness of a man Jesus who is the Son of God, and our Savior, who literally worked miracles and was literally crucified by the Romans, under Pontius Pilate, at the demand of the Jewish leaders. Communion should be an ever-present safeguard to move us, when needed, out of a cold, dry, conceptual-only Christian experience to truer worship and simple humility and un-pretentious love.

Some congregations have this imbalance of abstract doctrinal focus at the expense of the human aspect of the Christian experience. Others go touchy-feely and make Bible doctrine out to be mere legalistic, useless background information. Communion, when observed as the Bible would have us, both reinforces the core doctrine of the Christian faith and creates a real, human, here-and-now fellowship. Which brings me to my second point:

Communion is supposed to be an act of fellowship. In most churches, we listen together to a communion meditation, and hand each other the trays- and then we all bow our heads, turning away from each other and toward ourselves. Perhaps this is motivated by Paul's very grave warning that we "examine" ourselves before participating in the Lord's Supper (again, how can we call one square centimeter of flat bread "Supper" in any way? But I digress...). This is a very serious caution Paul gives us, even saying that if we should take the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner, we may in fact die (1 Cor. 11:27-30). But let's not be lazy Bible interpreters- What does Paul mean by an "unworthy manner"? What does he have in mind exactly when he tells us to "examine yourselves"? Taken in context, the risk Paul describes is not that we have some unconfessed sin from the last week. The risk is that we would take communion in such a way that is anti-fellowship. See verses 20-22 of chapter 11:

20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

*And by the way, once again, doesn't "going hungry" [v.21] suggest they were eating more than our tiny religious cracker-flakes of today? Hm...

And so we see that the communion problem Paul is addressing is that a person is misjuding Christ's body, the Church, by greedily eating and drinking before the others would arrive (or get a chance to eat). Paul calls this a sin "profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27). It is only after saying this much, that he goes on to say:

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

The Corinthians were called to examine themselves, seemingly meaning they were to consider Christ's sacrifice rightly, but also consider Christ's church rightly, and express this by taking the Lord's Supper in unity. The mistake our churches make is that our call to examine ourselves relates to personal sin (and obviously we ought to examine ourselves in this regard!), when in fact it relates to protecting the beautiful fellowship we ought to have while reverently reflecting on our Savior's death through a commemorative meal.

Think of how different this is! Our culture is so individualistic; in communion we find our identity as part of the body of Christ. Our culture is so consumed with modern gadgets; in communion we disregard those and partake of a very simple meal instituted by Jesus Himself 2,000 years ago. Our culture is so impersonal; in communion we share a meal with other believers and call ourselves one body. Yes, communion should appear more and more counter-cultural in a culture that is more and more egocentric, isolated, secular, and cold. In fact, my third point:

Communion is supposed to be a central act of our weekly Christian fellowship. Yes, central, and yes, weekly. Here is the result of Peter's preaching at Pentecost, Acts 2:41-42:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

We don't question whether to embrace the apostles' teaching every week, or to have fellowship every week, or to pray every week. So why do some churches take communion once in a quarter, or twice a year? It is clear here and in the 1st Corinthians passage that the Lord's Supper was taken regularly, as a central part of the gathering.

Is this an impractical ideal? Yes, it's become very impractical. Perhaps through all of our protestant reformations and restorations we've still held onto the formal approach of a Catholic mass. Now, we try to be informal, using up-to-date lingo and music styles (not that I am opposed to either), when if we would simply embrace the Lord's Supper, we would have that realness. This great act that Jesus instituted would be an inconvenience to our "polished" approaches today. But I would rather go through the work of rethinking communion, rethinking the worship service, and rethinking the logistics, than miss out on what God intended. And I think what God intended has the potential to be earth-shaking!

As many of you know my goal is to eventually plant a church in New York City. I'm not trying to create another "option" for dissatisfied NYC churchgoers; I'm trying to reach lost people. And when a person freshly comes to Christ, they aren't weighed down by all sorts of expectations and preferences. I would love to see these people from this city of nameless faces experience the belonging only Christ's church can offer. So I hope that at our church they will experience the joy, the fear, the reverence, and the fellowship of the Lord's Supper.

Thanks for reading!


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