The following is an excerpt from a discipleship book I am writing.
Often paired with baptism, the practice of Communion (also referred to as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) is a communal discipline initiated by Jesus and passed on through His early disciples to the Church today. It is practiced in different ways by different church traditions. For example, some churches partake of Communion once a week, while others partake once a month or even twice a year. Some churches drink out of a common cup, yet others give each person his or her own cup. Regardless of the differences in how they take communion, there is a key element that most agree with. Communion serves as a regular, physical reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.Luke 22:14-23 Emphasis added
On the night before Jesus was arrested, He spent the evening with His disciples celebrating the Passover. The Passover was an annual meal that in many ways reenacted the story of the Exodus, how God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. (We touched on this in Session 10.) The different foods and elements of the meal symbolized elements of the Exodus. It is within this Passover meal that Jesus institutes a new tradition, reframing elements of the Passover meal to serve as a reminder of His death and of the new covenant He is bringing about.
The two elements of Communion are the bread and the cup. The bread Jesus used would have been a single loaf of unleavened bread (bread without yeast) in keeping with the Passover tradition. It is not hard to see the symbolism of bread being broken just as Jesus’ body was broken through the beatings, torture, and ultimately the execution He endured.
The cup would have been one of the cups of wine associated with the Passover meal. As we discussed in Session 20, often covenants were enacted with covenant ceremonies, sometimes involving the sprinkling of blood. The new covenant Jesus is referring to is enacted through His shed blood, and the wine (or grape juice in many churches) reminds us of this fact.
Communion serves as an important reminder in our often far too easily distracted lives. But what, exactly, are we to remember? It is not enough to remember bare historical facts. Yes, Jesus died for us. But what does that mean? And how does that affect how we live?
A Reminder of Brokenness
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus asks them to remember His body broken and His blood shed? In our memory verse for this session, Paul writes:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:26 Emphasis added
This is not a reminder of victory, triumph, and conquest, even though Jesus’ death does accomplish that. Rather, Communion serves as a reminder that King Jesus becomes King by being broken. The cross comes before the crown. So often in the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples are found arguing over who will be great and who will rule. They viewed the Kingdom of God through an earthly lens, as though it were just one of so many other human nations. Time and time again, Jesus had to remind them that in His Kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”Mark 9:33-37
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Mark 10:42-45
King Jesus disciples are not called to grasp for worldly power. Rather, we follow the example of our King and lay ourselves down in service and love for others. The cross always comes before the crown, brokenness before exaltation.
A Reminder of Dependence
I will be honest with you. Of all the Gospels, John’s description of Communion is the most difficult to understand and the most jarring to read. However, when we understand the context of Jesus’ words here, we can begin to grasp why He uses such graphic imagery.
Let’s set the scene, shall we? Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish. Obviously, the people love this! I mean, who doesn’t love free food, right? So the people are determined to make Jesus a king. Again, they were looking for an earthly king. Jesus would be king, and he would miraculously give them food, and they would be happy.
However, Jesus’ mission is bigger than feeding a few stomachs. His Kingdom is bigger than they can possibly imagine, and to get there requires Him to die in order to deal with our sin and shame and restore us to God. Thus, Jesus needed to help the people see that His mission was different from theirs and that they needed to reframe their expectations. So instead of giving them more physical bread, He tells them in John 6:35:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”John 6:35
He goes on to explain a few verses later:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.John 6:51
As you can imagine, this led to some confusion among the people.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”John 6:52-58 Emphasis added
While the language Jesus uses is provocative, the message is simple. “You need Me,” Jesus says to the crowd. Just as we cannot live without physical food; neither can we live without spiritual food, namely a relationship with Jesus. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of our dependence on Him.
A Reminder of Community
Within the early community of disciples, the Lord’s Supper (the bread and the cup) were celebrated in the context of a community meal. However, many churches have gotten away from this practice. Nevertheless, there is a clear communal element to Communion.
In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul addresses issues of disunity regarding the taking of the Lord’s Supper. Apparently, those who were well off had ample food for themselves and their families, while those who were less well off went away hungry. What was meant to be a reminder that united everyone’s focus on King Jesus became divisive.
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! 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.1 Corinthians 11:17-22
Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the Lord’s Supper is about Jesus. The remembrance of His sacrifice ought to be an occasion for unity, and there is not place for a self-centered attitude.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.1 Corinthians 11:27-29
Whatever the mode or frequency with which your church community celebrates Communion, it remains an important practice instituted by Jesus to keep us grounded in the meaning of His death, and ultimately, His resurrection.