There’s no shortage of viewpoints when it comes to the Lord’s Supper in a church service. Just a sampling of the questions that people ask are:
How often should we observe it?
Who should participate in it?
What elements make up the Lord’s Supper?
When should I partake in the Lord’s Supper?
Is it the literal (or does it become the literal) flesh and blood of Christ?
In an increasingly post-Christian world, answering these questions is important. When I was a kid they used to sell candy cigarettes (do they still make these anymore?) and I would buy them on trips to the corner store with my grandmother. I remember after buying them I’d take the box – so carefully crafted to resemble an actual cigarette box – hold it in one hand while slapping the bottom of it against my open palm in the other hand. Why did I do this? For no reason other than that I’d observed her doing this with actual cigarettes when she would smoke them. To this day, I have no idea why she did this. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into this same trap with the Lord’s Supper. Participating in it, without understanding it.
The Lord’s Supper, or Communion, (the terms are interchangeable) is a practice important enough that we should not enter into this practice lightly or without understanding the meaning behind it. It’s not enough to go through this rhythm in imitation of others without understanding the purpose Jesus intended for it. This post is not expected to be an exhaustive list in defense of our practice and view on Communion. Our hope, however, is to answer some common questions on our regular observance of this practice.
How often should we observe it?
Different churches have come to different conclusions on this and for good reasons. Evangelical churches (in other words, Christian churches who are not Roman Catholic) who observe it on a less-than-weekly basis tend to do so for one of two reasons. The less-convincing reason is a reactionary one. Some churches do Communion only occasionally (monthly or quarterly, sometimes even less) as a statement to the world that, “we are not Roman Catholics.” Below the surface, their reaction is to push back against the idea that there is any sort of saving grace in the act of partaking of Communion. While it is good to be clear that taking Communion in no way indicates you’re in right standing with God, it’s not a good reason to limit our participation in the Lord’s Supper to an infrequent occurrence.
The more convincing reason to do it less than weekly is out of sensitivity to those that may be joining your service who have not yet committed to following Christ. Because we believe only those who trust Christ alone for salvation should participate in the Lord’s Supper, it is worth reflecting on how this observation is perceived by those in our midst who may be exploring the faith but have not yet committed to Christ. Some churches, in order to maintain a degree of sensitivity to those in this category, have opted to observe communion only occasionally. This is wise and thoughtful shepherding of people, and while we recognize and respect this reasoning, we’ve opted for a more regular practice of observing the Lord’s Supper.
Who Should Participate In It?
The answer to this too, depends on your view of communion. Roman Catholics would teach that partaking in the Lord’s Supper grants the participant a small amount of grace that helps them to merit salvation. This goes against the clear teaching of Scripture that God’s saving grace is received “through faith, and […] is not from [ourselves]; it is God’s gift” (Ephesians 2:8). Since gifts require no work or effort on the part of those receiving them, we join with others since the Reformation that salvation is freely offered and no “work” (including the work of communion) is effective in saving us from the due effects of our sin and rebellion against God.
Against that biblical backdrop, we come to another section of Scripture that is helpful to quote at length:
So, then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself; in this way let him eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. If we were properly judging ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined, so that we may not be condemned with the world.
–1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (emphasis added)
The above Scripture is from one of the most challenging texts in the New Testament. There are many challenges to interpreting the meaning of this section. However, to the question at hand, two things are worth noting:
- The last verse is telling in that it contrasts those within the Church as being exempt from the condemnation of God that comes upon the “world.” When Scripture uses the term “world” in most cases it is in reference to those who are not under the reign and rule of Christ. It seems the context here is indicating that only those who are trusting Christ for salvation should participate in communion.
- Secondly, there are many warnings highlighted above for those who would participate in communion in a way the Lord would deem as “unworthy.” These warnings should be sobering and instill a sense of reverence and holy fear of the Lord in us. We should enter into this practice soberly and somberly, reflecting and remembering what it cost for God to save us from his wrath and our sin.
Here too, we are sympathetic to those who rightfully fear implicating themselves in others’ “judgment” for participating in an “unworthy manner” and have decided a good way to shield people from that possibility is to observe communion on an infrequent basis. While understanding this, we still observe communion on a weekly basis and we’ll explain why shortly. But to succinctly answer the question above:
Only those who are in a right relationship with God (ie: trusting Christ for salvation) and in a right relationship with their church community (see Matthew 5:23-24) should participate in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner.
As such, we believe we should “fence the table,” or instruct those in our services on this each week when observing the Lord’s Supper so that those in participation can determine whether or not they are in a position to participate with a clear conscience. We don’t require that someone be a covenant member of our church, but would ask that those who aren’t yet committed to Christ refrain from participation. Since we don’t believe Communion “adds” to your favor with God (no “activity” or “work” we do can) someone who is still exploring Christianity is not missing out some grace of God by being excluded from this practice. In fact, we hope that observing others participating in it might serve as a sort of witness by which they may have a deeper longing to know God when observing others participating in the Lord’s Supper.
What Elements Make Up The Lord’s Supper?
Here’s where there is less debate. It’s clear in Scripture that the original two items making up the Lord’s Supper were bread and wine. Here is the installation of the practice in Scripture:
As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take and eat it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them and said, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. But I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Where the CSB translation (quoted above) says “fruit of the vine” many others translate it as “wine.” No credible scholars would put forth the argument that it was simply grape juice. There is some debate about the amount of alcohol that wine contained in New Testament times as compared with today, but that’s beside the point, no one consuming a singular sip of wine runs the risk of becoming inebriated. Additionally, there is some debate about whether the bread should be leavened (ie: contain yeast like our modern store-bought bread) or not (as the kosher diet maintains and utilizes flatbreads and matzahs). Nonetheless, the simple elements are bread and wine (made from grapes).
We have a particular way of doing things at Engage, but want to emphasize that we are sympathetic to the great history and traditions of the Church handed down for some 2000 years. We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. While we have our own mode of observing this practice, our goal here is not to condemn those who differ with us on the mode or elements. To be clear: whether you use flatbread or leavened bread, wine or grape juice does not put you in jeopardy of compromising the truths of Scripture or the gospel.
When Should I Participate In The Lord’s Supper?
As hinted at above, those who are trusting in Christ and have a clear conscience with living out a life of repentance and forgiveness with others in their life are welcome to join us. One other thing worth considering is whether or not you’ve been baptized. Scripture does not clearly command this, and as such we don’t insist upon it, but we do strongly encourage this order. There is a precedent and a principal to be consider when looking at the Old Testament equivalents of baptism and Communion.
Scripturally speaking, there are two major covenants (a promise from God passed down to humanity) in the history of God’s dealing with humanity. In the Old Covenant of the Old Testament, the entrance or initation into the covenant was circumcision and the ongoing reaffirmation of God’s promises were the many feast days and festivals they observed. Moving into the New Covenant of the New Testament, baptism serves as entrance or initiation into the covenant, and the Lord’s Supper serves as a recommitment or reminder of God’s promises to deal graciously with his people.
These are loaded and complicated themes to study in Scripture, and a full treatment is beyond the scope of this article. However, our recommendation is for those who haven’t been baptized to hold off on communion until they’ve expressed their faith publicly and followed Jesus in obedience by getting baptized (Matthew 28:19).
Where Is Jesus When I Partake In The Lord’s Supper?
In short, he is “in our midst.” But it’s not necessarily true simply because you’re taking communion. It’s good to remember that Jesus is always present with us because he is God. Part of being God is being omnipresent (in all times and all places simultaneously). He is particularly present when his “body,” the Church, is together visibly and in agreement (Matthew 28:19). Communion is one special, visible representation of our unity and interdependence. We, while many people, partake of eating one loaf to symbolize our unity.
Some have erroneously concluded that if a priest or pastor says a special prayer and performs a special ritual then the bread and wine miraculously become the literal flesh and blood of Christ. We reject this notion based on a natural reading of Scripture. When Jesus states this, it would be more natural to understand his words as a figure of speech, or a metaphor. We are saved not by ritualistic consumption of bread and wine, but by the literal flesh and blood, broken and spilled for us on the cross at Calvary at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. His primary purpose for coming to dwell among us, was to die for us. Communion is a reminder of this.
We should state a bit more, however. In Luke’s account of the very first observance of communion he includes these words of Jesus: “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The gospel, which means “good news,” is that Jesus came to die for and save sinners. Because it is news, it is primarily communicated with words. News always spreads via communication. However, the gospel is more than just information. It is deep enough and powerful enough that one can never fully grasp or exhaust it from every angle this side of eternity. It took the literal death of God’s Son to redeem a sinful humanity. As such, Jesus commands us to commemorate his death via the observation of this simple “meal” made up of bread and wine. This meal is meant for us to remember him.
At Engage we are unashamedly and passionately committed to the preaching of the full counsel of God as contained in the Scriptures. Faith comes from hearing. However, there are aspects of our faith that will never be fully grasped until we see Jesus face to face (Deuteronomy 29:29; 1 Corinthians 13:12). One of these aspects is the regular practice of community. While the gospel is good news, it is much more than simple information that we must absorb. Jesus wants us to “drink deeply” of him and invite his presence into us. As such, we regularly (ie: weekly) participate in the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of this. There is an aspect of this that is a mystery. Scripture leaves room for a variety of beliefs when it comes to participating in communion, but rest assured of this: Jesus wants you to remember him and he is the central figure of this sacred act. Don’t enter into it lightly. It is a mysterious and meaningful embrace of a God that desires to draw near to you: so near that he gave his flesh and blood on a cross to bring you back to himself.
To put a fine point on a bit of a long read: we make it a regular part of our weekly worship to offer communion. Jesus commanded us to “do this in remembrance of [him].” As such it is our joy to do this regularly (ie: weekly) and reverently in obedience to him. We welcome any baptized believers who trust Christ for salvation and have a clear conscience with their community to participate. Generally speaking we offer gluten free matzah as well as both wine and juice (out of sensitivity to those who have convictions or temptations surrounding alcohol).
This is an activity that touches all our senses with the gospel as we see, touch, taste, and smell the wine and juice and hear the words, “his body was broken for you, his blood was shed for you.” Jesus wants us to remember his sacrificial act to redeem us and reclaim us as his own. He has initiated this practice for just this purpose.
In an age of information, one does not need to “attend” church to obtain the information necessary to accept the gospel. But the act of the church gathered and somberly “eating” and “drinking” communion cannot be transferred simply via words written or spoken. It must be entered into with our physical bodies. Jesus took on flesh (John 1:14) and the life we live is done in the body. We are more than just brains on a stick and we need more than information to save our souls. We need a savior capable of defeating death, an enemy much stronger than us. Jesus is the savior we need and he gave his life to save us. We believe this act of regularly observing the Lord’s Supper offers a tangible encounter with the risen Lord. It taps into humanity’s innate desire for transcendence. So come, gather with us, feast with us, you won’t be physically full, but we pray that the risen Christ will fill your heart and you will tap into the mystery that is his presence as he indwells his gathered people.
His body was broken for you; his blood was shed for you.