For those who are unfamiliar with the significance of the Lord’s Supper or Communion, I’d like to offer my thoughts. Since Communion is a sacrament observed by the Church, it is a little risky to assume what someone does or doesn’t know about Church, Church Mission and Membership. So, before moving into the discussion of the Lord’s Supper, I’ll spend a little time unpacking the luggage with which it travels. This is necessary because communion doesn’t exist as a separate ritual, but as an integral part of the life of the Body of Christ. It is also necessary because many ask for a quick explanation of the meaning of communion which, for the life of the church, is like asking for a short answer to the meaning of life. Without communion, church may largely lack meaning. Much of this is sourced directly, or interpreted, from the PC(USA) Book of Order.
God gave all power in heaven and earth to Jesus Christ. God raised Christ from the dead and set Christ above all rule and authority, not only in this age but also in the age that is to come. (Eph 1:20,21 & Ps 68:18) God put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. (Ps 2:6 & Eph 1:22,23)
Christ called the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as Christ wills, exercising this authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of God’s Kingdom. Christ gave to the Church its faith and life, its mission and, through scripture, many of the various forms of governance – bishops, system of elders, etc.
Since the earliest times, Christians have affirmed that Christ is Savior, and the Church confesses that Christ is its hope. As Christ’s body, the church is bound to Christ’s authority and thus free to live in the reality of God’s grace. The “great ends” or purpose of the church, as prescribed by Christ, are:
- the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
- the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of all the children of God;
- the maintenance of divine worship;
- the promotion of social righteousness and justice;
- and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Christian tradition; they equip the church for its work in the world.
Churches have confessional statements that are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. While any confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards that are designed to maintain the church’s order and dedication to its mission. Yet, in obedience to Jesus Christ, the church is, or is supposed to be, open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The Reformed Church, of which the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a part, affirms “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” that is, “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.
In its confessions, the Church gives witness to the faith of the Church catholic (universal). The confessions express the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in the recognition of Scriptures and the formulation and adoption of the ecumenical creeds. Also in its confessions, the Church expresses and affirms the faith central to its tradition:
- the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of righteousness and love.
- the covenant life of the Church and Christians marked by a disciplined concern (one based on discipleship) for order in the church according to the Word of God;
- faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation and provision;
- the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.
Thus, the creeds and confessions of the Church reflect particular stances within the history of God’s people. They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers.
THE CHURCH’S MISSION
According to scripture, God created the heavens and the earth and made human beings in God’s image, charging them to care for all that God created. God made men and women to live in community, responding in community to their Creator with grateful obedience. Even when the human race broke community with its Creator and with one another, God did not forsake it. This can be seen in the Old Testament experiences of Israel. God liberated the people of Israel from oppression; God covenanted with Israel to be their God and they to be God’s people, that they might do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord; God confronted Israel with the responsibilities of this covenant, judging the people for their unfaithfulness while sustaining them by divine grace.
God became human in the person of Jesus, the Christ, who announced good news to the poor, proclaimed release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, let the broken victims go free, and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. The New Testament action of God in Christ, therefore, mirrors God’s earlier actions. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost; in the life and death of Christ, God’s redeeming love for all people was made visible; and in the resurrection of Christ there is the assurance of God’s victory over sin and death and the promise of God’s continuing presence in the world.
God’s redeeming and reconciling activity in the world continues through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who confronts individuals and societies with Christ’s message of hope and calls them to repentance and to obedience to the will of God.
The Church of Jesus Christ is the earthly demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity. The Church is called to be a sign in the world, and for the world, of the new reality that God has made available to humanity in Jesus Christ. The new reality revealed in Jesus Christ is the new humanity, a new creation, a new beginning for human life in the world:
- Sin is forgiven.
- Reconciliation is accomplished.
- The dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is the body of Christ, both in its corporate life and in the lives of its individual members, and is called to give shape and substance to the truth of Christ’s life, message, death and resurrection. The Church is called to proclaim the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, proclaiming in Word and Sacrament that the new age has dawned. Since God – who creates life, frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new – is still at work in the world, the Church is supposed to continue the work of Christ to all people. The Church is called to present the claims of Jesus Christ – leading persons to repentance, acceptance of Christ as Savior, and new life as disciples of Christ – and to replicate the activity and agency of Christ to all in the world.
Therefore, the Church is called to be Christ’s faithful evangelist (in all the many meanings of this word):
- going into the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God, teaching them to observe all God has commanded;
- demonstrating by the love of its members for one another and by the quality of its common life the new reality in Christ;
- sharing in worship, fellowship, and nurture, practicing a deepened life of prayer and service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit;
- participating in God’s activity in the world through its life for others by healing, reconciling and binding up wounds,
- ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless,
- engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice,
- giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer,
- sharing with Christ in the establishing of God’s just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world.
Just like Christ, the Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ. The mission described in scripture is not a menu from which the church is to pick it’s favorite activities, but rather the compilation of the entirety of Christ’s teaching and commandments that apply equally to all claiming to be a part of Christ’s body. All churches are commanded to do all these things.
The Church universal consists of all persons in every nation who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and commit themselves to live in a community under Christ’s rule. The children of God to whom the Church universal extends its love and care, according to scripture, are the whole of humanity. Since this whole company cannot meet together in one place to worship and to serve, it is reasonable that it should be divided into particular congregations, just as described in Acts and the Epistles. The particular church is, therefore, understood as a local expression of the universal Church.
A particular church consists of those persons in a particular place who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who have been gathered for the service of God as set forth in Scripture, subject to a particular form of church government. The unity of the Church is a gift of its Lord and finds expression in its faithfulness to the mission to which Christ calls it. The Church is a community of believers that seeks the enlargement of the circle of faith to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.
There is one Church. As the Bible speaks of the one body which is the Church living under the one Spirit of God known through Christ, it reminds us that we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6) Visible oneness, by which a diversity of persons, gifts, and understandings is brought together, is an important sign of the unity of God’s people. It is also a means by which that unity is achieved. Further, while divisions into different denominations do not destroy this unity, they do obscure it for both the Church and the world. A healthy church, affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity and is willing to seek and to maintain communion and community with all other branches of the one, catholic Church.
THE CHURCH’S MEMBERSHIP
The incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives to the church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership. One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of Christ’s leadership in all of life. Baptism and public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord are the visible signs of entrance into the active membership of the church – local and universal.
A faithful member accepts Christ’s call to be involved responsibly in the ministry of the Body of Christ. Such involvement, for most denominations, includes:
- proclaiming the good news,
- taking part in the common life and worship of a particular church,
- praying and studying Scripture and the faith of the Christian Church,
- supporting the work of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,
- participating in the governing responsibilities of the church,
- demonstrating a new quality of life within, through and outside of the church,
- responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
- living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,
- working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment.
UNITY EXPRESSED IN THE COMMUNION (LORD”S SUPPER)
The basics of “covenant theology” are best described as “sign and seal”. A covenant is best understood as an ancient contract: the person of lower status or social significance makes a profession or acts in a way that gives a “sign” that he or she accepts the authority of someone in power. In response, the lord, king or other person in position of authority applies a wax “seal” to a document, thereby sealing the agreement and accepting the other person as a “vassal”, which includes extending protection and security.
A worldly comparison might be the U.S. government and the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, remember – I said a worldly comparison, not a theological one. The Pledge (the sign) affirms an individual’s allegiance to the government of the U.S. and all that makes up its foundation – the constitution or flag, for example. The Pledge, however, is not required to be protected by the constitution or the government. Whoever is in power takes an oath to extend that protection to all within the country – not just those who take the Pledge. Idealistically, then, the constitution makes a covenant with the people to extend protection and security (the seal), while not requiring the people to make the Pledge. Being a “sign and seal” in the world, however, there have been times when rights were taken away from people who wouldn’t make the Pledge, who believed differently than the government, or who looked different than the larger population. Sometimes the worldly seal is conditional.
Theologically, a “sign” is an act or expression of faith, prescribed by God, by someone who professes belief, such as circumcision in Old Testament or getting baptized in New Testament. A “seal” refers to God’s unconditional grace and salvation offered to all. The difference between the worldly understanding of king/vassal, or U.S. Government/citizen, and the theological understanding of God/child of God is that God’s seal, or God’s part of the covenant, is offered first and without price. It is simply available for the taking – accept it and it is yours.
In the most specific sense, the Lord’s Supper is the “sign and seal” of eating and drinking in communion with the crucified and risen Lord. During his earthly ministry Jesus shared meals with his followers as a sign of community and acceptance and as an occasion for his own ministry. He celebrated Israel’s feasts of covenant commemoration. In his last meal before his death Jesus took and shared with his disciples the bread and wine, speaking of them as his body and blood, signs of the new covenant. He commended breaking bread and sharing a cup to remember and proclaim his death. On the day of his resurrection, the risen Jesus made himself known to his followers in the breaking of bread. He continued to show himself to believers, by blessing and breaking bread, by preparing, serving, and sharing common meals.
The Church in the New Testament devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching, to community, to prayers, and to the common meal. Paul delivered to the Church the tradition he had received from the risen Lord, who commanded that his followers share the bread and cup as a remembrance and a declaration of faith until Christ comes again. The New Testament describes the meal as a participation in Christ and with one another in the expectation of the Kingdom and as a foretaste of the messianic banquet.
Communion, then, became a communal expression of unity in the Body of Christ – a communal reaffirmation of the human side of God’s covenant. It stresses the concepts of Church, church membership and Christian agency as community endeavors and a community promises. For example, when the Pledge of Allegiance is said in public, in unison (which is, of course, the most common occurrence), the people collectively promise to uphold the ideals of the U.S. form of government as expressed in the constitution and by the flag. The Lord’s Supper, in a theological sense, is supposed to be the much more profound, but similar, kind of recommitment – except, in this case, to the creator of the entire universe and, as such, one that extends far beyond the frail limits of national boundaries.
In the Lord’s Supper, the Church gathered for worship:
- blesses God for all that God has done through creation, redemption, and sanctification;
- gives thanks that God is working in the world and in the Church in spite of human sin;
- gratefully anticipates the fulfillment of the Kingdom Christ proclaimed, and offers itself in obedient service to God’s reign.
At the Lord’s Table, the Church is:
- renewed and empowered by the memory of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and promise to return;
- sustained by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuing presence with God’s people;
- sealed in God’s covenant of grace through partaking of Christ’s self-offering.
In remembering, believers:
- receive and trust the love of Christ present to them and to the world;
- manifest the reality of the covenant of grace in reconciling and being reconciled;
- and proclaim the power of Christ’s reign for the renewal of the world in justice and in peace.
As the people of God bless and thank God the Creator and remember Jesus Christ, they call upon the Holy Spirit:
- to lift them into Christ’s presence;
- to accept their offering of bread and wine;
- to make breaking bread and sharing the cup a participation in the body and blood of Christ;
- to bind them with Christ and with one another;
- to unite them in communion with all the faithful in heaven and on earth;
- to nourish them with Christ’s body and blood that they may mature into the fullness of Christ;
- to keep them faithful as Christ’s body, representing Christ and doing God’s work in the world.
Around the Table of the Lord, God’s people are in communion with Christ and with all who belong to Christ. Reconciliation with Christ compels reconciliation with one another. All the faithful are to be welcomed to the Table, and none shall be excluded because of race, sex, age, economic status, social class, handicapping condition, difference of culture or language, or any barrier created by human injustice. Coming to the Lord’s Table the faithful are actively to seek reconciliation in every instance of conflict or division between them and their neighbors. Each time they gather at the Table the believing community
- are united with the Church in every place, and the whole Church is present;
- join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God;
- renew the vows taken at Baptism;
- and they commit themselves again to love and serve God, one another, and their neighbors in the world.
Brought by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s presence, the Church eagerly expects and prays for the day when Christ shall come in glory and God be all in all. Nourished by this hope, the Church rises from the Table and is sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission to the world, to proclaim the gospel, to exercise compassion, to work for justice and peace until Christ’s Kingdom shall come at last.
All this in a little piece of bread and a splash of juice. Yes, they are just symbols, just like the flag is a symbol. Behind symbols, however, usually lay realities that have deep meaning and relevance to many. Taking the bread and “wine” symbolize accepting and doing all that is meant by being a member of The Body of Christ. All of it – not just those parts that we may like.