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What is communion, or the Lord’s Supper?

A sermon by Rod Benson

As Michael Collins orbited the moon, and as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out of the lunar module of Apollo 11 onto the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969, Aldrin unstowed a small plastic container of wine and some bread.

He had brought them to the moon from Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston, Texas, where he served as an elder. Only after his return to earth was he allowed to describe or explain what he did in the moments that followed, but in a 1970 issue of Guidepost magazine he said:

I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.[1]

What is communion? What is the significance of the Lord’s Supper for Baptist churches and Christians who identify as Baptists? If baptism is the rite of commitment to following Jesus, then communion is the rite of renewal of that commitment, and of the fellowship that flows from our union with Christ in regeneration and baptism.

I need only one water baptism, but I need to regularly keep the Lord’s Supper. Along with regular preaching and teaching of the word of God, communion should be at the centre of our worship as we gather together in the name of Jesus. If baptism is analogous to the wedding ceremony of a couple who want to spend the rest of their lives together in joyful bliss, through thick and thin, in which a follower of Jesus publicly declares his or her commitment to Jesus, then communion is similar to an anniversary celebration in which the couple restates and renews their wedding vows.[2]

Both baptism and communion relate to the new covenant relationship we have with God in Christ, mediated by the Holy Spirit. We usually celebrate communion at Lithgow Baptist Church twice each month, but whether we do so weekly or only once a year, we should never overlook the profound significance of what we are doing.

Different churches call it by different names: the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, communion, the sacrament, an ordinance. We all follow the example of Jesus in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (Lk 22:7-23), in taking simple bread and wine, and sharing it with faithful believers to remember the death of Jesus, nourishing their spiritual lives, and renewing their commitment to Christ, until he returns. It is the only act of worship for which we are given specific instructions in the New Testament, suggesting its centrality for the people of God today, and the danger of participating in an ignorant or irreverent manner.

Communion is a point of encounter between Christians and their Lord, a time for remembering, and reflecting, and recommitting ourselves to Christ; a time to celebrate and to feel the reality of our union with Christ; and a time to express our deep gratitude and wonder for the offer of salvation, the efficacy of the sacrifice of Jesus for us, and the terrible cost of our redemption. Communion is the “proclamation of a past act, [the] pronouncement of a present experience, [and a] prophecy of a future event.”[3]

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul outlines his theology of communion, clarifying its relevance to Christian experience and its centrality to Christian worship. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the most extensive discussion of communion in the New Testament. Here Paul reveals both the objective and subjective significance of the rite. Objectively, the regular practice as Jesus commanded it points to the two most far-reaching events in world history: the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, by which we receive eternal life; and the return of Jesus to deliver universal judgment and bring about the renewal of the entire cosmos – at which time there will be no more need for either baptism or communion (1 Cor 11:26).[4]

Subjectively, when we receive the bread and wine/juice, we participate in the body and blood of Jesus (see 1 Cor 10:16-17). Objective history merges with subjective experience as we thoughtfully share this rite of renewal, receiving spiritual nourishment as Jesus feeds us, strengthening and deepening our union with him.

But it is not to be taken lightly. It’s serious business. Note the solemn warning Paul gives to the Corinthian Christians, and to all who partake of the Lord’s Supper in every place and time (1 Cor 11:27, 29). Failing to take seriously what we are doing as we celebrate communion attracts divine judgment. If there are sins that remain unconfessed, then confess them. If there are relationships that need to be reconciled, then work at making peace. If there are misunderstandings that require correction, then correct them! Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24 apply here:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

As Thomas Schreiner observes, “the consequences of eating in an unworthy manner and failing to examine oneself are significant. God will not tolerate treating holy things as common.”[5]

Communion is to be celebrated when the church is gathered together (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33). There should be no social stratification, no favouritism, no inequality when it comes to sharing communion (vv. 19-22). Every time we celebrate communion, we deliberately remember the death of Jesus, which secured the forgiveness of our sins, and we do so anticipating his imminent return (v. 26).

In the celebration, the bread and juice/wine remain what they are: simple, easily accessible staples. No magic is involved. According to Scripture, the rite of communion is about remembrance and renewal, telling the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our union with him: communion is, in a word, as the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli put it, memorialism.

John Calvin went conceptually a little further, and with good warrant in my opinion, arguing that the Lord’s Supper is a mystery whose purpose is “to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.” As we participate, we do so by faith, receiving Christ by means of signs which should neither be disdained nor “immoderately” extolled. For Calvin, Christ’s flesh is not dragged down out of heaven into the bread; rather, we are lifted to him, through the secret working of the Holy Spirit who indwells every Christian. Yet he wisely added:

If anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.[6]

Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman puts it like this:

Regarding his physical presence, Christ is in heaven. Regarding his spiritual presence, he is on earth with the fellowship [people] of the Holy Spirit who gather in his name and partake of the bread and the wine in faith and love.[7]

But, as one might expect, although we share a common understanding of the basic symbolism and meaning of communion, there is significant diversity among Baptists when it comes to its practice. There is general consensus among Baptists as to what the Lord’s Supper is not (for example, it is not a means of grace by which we hold on to salvation), but there is little consensus as to what it is.[8] Thoughtful Baptists generally have not denied that God’s grace is present when we share communion, but most do deny that the grace of God is somehow attached to the physical objects (the bread and juice/wine).

Along with other Protestants, Baptists also reject the doctrine of transubstantiation (the notion that the objects offered during the Catholic Mass change in their substance to become, in reality, the “real presence” of the body and blood of Jesus).

So we do not believe in the “real presence” of Christ in communion. But neither do we believe in a “real absence.” As theologian Roger Olson observes, for Baptists “the emblems are objects in an event in which Christ is present and active in strengthening participants’ faith.”[9]

As we share communion together with fellow Christians, our union with Christ is enhanced. It is “a memorial meal in which Christ is present to faith through the Holy Spirit,” strengthening our union with Christ “in the same way that renewing wedding vows symbolizes and strengthens a marriage.”[10]

For Augustus H. Strong, an early twentieth-century Baptist theologian whose thinking aligns well with mine on most Christian doctrines,

the Lord’s Supper sets forth, in general, the death of Christ as the sustaining power of the believer’s life … It symbolizes the death of Christ for our sins … It symbolizes the continuous dependence of the believer for all spiritual life upon the one crucified, now living, Savior, to whom he is thus united.[11]

Before I close, three questions. First, how often should we celebrate communion? Acts 2:46 suggests a daily practice for the first Christians; Acts 20:7 suggests it was a weekly observance at Troas. Clearly it was regular. Baptists prescribe no set frequency, but often celebrate communion twice each month; or, in large churches with multiple services, twice monthly for each congregation. I believe this is wise, as it does not make the celebration of the Lord’s Supper so frequent as to diminish its profound meaning, nor too seldom as to sap our spiritual passion.

Should an ordained pastor preside? No. It is not the church’s table but the Lord’s Table; any faithful and respected Christian may preside. It is not about status. There is no special priesthood. Don’t make communion into something it is not meant to be.

Finally, who can participate? The New Testament gives no guidance beyond the expectation that communion is to be shared by faithful Christians. Neither baptism nor formal church membership is a prerequisite. Regeneration alone, and a life of obedience to Christ, is all that qualifies a person to participate.

Parents of minors should discuss whether and when their children partake, mindful of the spiritual significance of the rite, and sensitive to the consciences and expectations of others, including other Christian children. We should resist imposing strict age limits, or excluding people who belong to other denominations. Let grace prevail at the Lord’s Table.

In closing let me remind you that communion is a memorial meal, but it is more:

As we take the bread and cup, in our hearts we experience communion with Christ and with each other. It is a fellowship meal in the fullest sense. Through this Communion we are truly the body of Christ, for as Christ makes himself present to us all, he makes us all one in himself.[12]

 


Sermon 679 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 June 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Matthew Cresswell, “How Buzz Aldrin’s communion on the moon was hushed up,” The Guardian, 13 September 2012.

[2] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: MI: Kregel Publications, 2005), p. 277.

[3] Monroe E. Dodd, Christ’s Memorial (Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1934), p. 11.

[4] J.I. Packer, Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), p. 153 (adapted).

[5] Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Lord’s Supper in the Bible,” in Mark Dever & Jonathan Leeman (eds), Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), p. 142.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.3, 5, 31, 32.

[7] Curtis W. Freeman, in Anthony R. Cross & Philip E. Thompson (eds), Baptist Sacramentalism (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 203), p. 206.

[8] Roger E. Olson, “The Baptist view,” in Gordon T. Smith (ed.), The Lord’s Supper: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), p. 93.

[9] Ibid., p. 95.

[10] Ibid., p. 98.

[11] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974 [1906], pp. 962-963.

[12] G. Thomas Holbrooks, “Communion,” in R. Wayne Stacy (ed.), A Baptist’s Theology (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1999), p. 188.

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