Communion has been celebrated by virtually every branch of Christianity over the last 2000 years. Some call it the Eucharist, others the Lords Supper and others Communion. It is a ceremony that both unites and divides Christians. It expresses our common faith in Jesus Christ; yet, at the same time, various aspects of the ceremony have caused enormous controversy; for example: when should it be celebrated, who should administer it, who should take part, what type of bread and wine or juice should be used and what happens to the bread and wine when it is blessed and then eaten? In the midst of the controversy it is easy to get side tracked from the central message of the celebration—Jesus sacrificial death.
Communion is fundamentally all about Jesus. Focusing on Jesus helps us avoid being distracted by side issues. Jesus instituted communion as a way for his disciples to remember his death and sacrifice. At its core communion is a celebration, remembrance and proclamation of Christ’s death. It reminds us and declares to those partaking that Christ was with us, Christ died for us and Christ is now alive working in us. We read about the way Jesus described communion and the meaning he gave it in three of the gospels: Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; and Luke 22:19-20; and in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11). For this study we will focus on the description of the Lords supper in Luke.
Luke 22:14-20 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”.
From this passage we see the following:
1. Communion was initiated during the Jewish Passover celebration. ”And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15) The Passover meal was celebrated every year by the people of Israel to remember their deliverance from the slavery of Egypt (Exodus 12). In his last supper with his disciples, Jesus symbolically reinterprets many of the elements of this meal to convey a deeper understanding of the purpose of his death to his disciples. Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, so Jesus sacrificial death brings us deliverance from the slavery of sin. An excellent resource that highlights other connections between Passover and the Lords supper can be found at http://www.celebratemessiah.com.au/holidays-and-festivals/190-the-meaning-of-passover.html
2. Communion was a time of blessing and giving thanks. After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you.”(Luke 22:17). During the traditional Passover a number of cups of wine are symbolically drunk together. The first is called the cup of blessing. At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus took this cup and gave thanks. The word Eucharist means thanks-giving. This is why communion is called Eucharist in some Christian traditions. Communion reminds us of the blessing we have received in Christ and that is something for which we can give thanks!
3. Unleavened bread was broken representing Jesus body. And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19). In Exodus the children of Israel are told to only eat unleavened bread during the time of Passover. All leaven had to be cleansed out of their house. Leaven represents sin (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus broke unleavened bread at Passover signifying the sacrifice of his sinless life on our behalf. Bread is a source of life and sustenance. Jesus described himself as the bread of life (John 6:48). Spiritually speaking when we believe in Jesus, we partake of his sinless life; and with Christ in us we live forever.
4. A cup of wine was shared together representing Jesus blood. In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). Traditionally in the Passover meal, another cup of wine was drunk called the cup of redemption. It is a reminder of the blood of the unblemished lamb that was sacrificed by each family on the night the Israelites escaped from Egypt (Exodus 12). If the blood of this lamb was painted on the doorposts of an Israelite home the angel of death passed them by. The communion cup represents the blood of the Lamb of God—Jesus (John 1:29). His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world and preserves us from death and righteous judgment for our sin which we all deserve. It is a cup of redemption because the blood of Jesus paid the price for our salvation.
5. Communion is a symbol of the New Covenant “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”. (Luke 22:20). Communion is best understood within biblical concept of covenant. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties. It was usually solemnised with various seals and signs. Covenants were common in the ancient world and God used this cultural practice when he made binding promises and required serious commitments from his people. Some of the symbols of ancient covenants included:
i. Animals being sacrificed
ii. Recitations of blessings and curses
iii. Covenant meals.
Using the symbols and pictures of Old Testament covenants, Jesus instituted a new covenant in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (Jeremiah 31:31-34). However, in contrast to the Old Testament covenant of works, this new covenant is unconditional and undeserved. It is a covenant of grace made possible through Jesus sacrifice on the cross.
Jesus actions at the last supper thus drew on important elements of biblical symbolism to convey divine truth. Image and symbolism is important in communicating truth. As human beings we have multiple senses. Our brains are wired to receive information through, sight, taste, touch and action along with hearing. Because of our multi-sensory perception we remember best when information is provided to us in multiple forms. Listening to a sermon is one way of remembering God’s word through our sense of hearing. In communion, however we are invited to participate in a symbolic drama that communicates truth through sight, sound, taste, touch and our own active participation. All our senses are involved in this divine drama that communicates eternal truth. This active participatory drama can have a powerful impact in people’s lives as they remember Christ’s sacrifice together.
A number of years ago, while passing through Hong Kong, I attended a communion service at a traditional Presbyterian church where nobody knew me. We were invited to come forward and individually receive the bread and the cup. I went forward and the person serving me recited Jesus words, “This is my body broken for you.” I have celebrated communion many times, but there was something special about that particular celebration. I had not been feeling very positive about life for a few days. It was one of those, “Woe is me!” seasons. But through that simple act of personally receiving the communion elements from someone else, I felt as if God was saying to me, “This is my body broken for you personally, this is my blood shed for you personally.” That sense of God’s personal concern for me lifted me right out of my despondency. It deeply encouraged my heart and lifted my spirits as I remembered the depths of God’s love for me. Communion is not an empty ritual. As we participate by faith in the Lords supper, God can move through the symbols of his presence to strengthen and encourage us by his grace.
DISCUSSION AND SMALL GROUP ACTIVIITIES
1. Ask the group to share times communion has been particularly meaningful to them.
2. Review the meaning of some of the symbols of communion.
3. Discuss questions people may have about the meaning and practice of communion. To help with this discussion, answers to some frequently asked questions are below.
4. Celebrate communion together as a LifeGroup.
5. Prior to meeting select a song which you think captures some of the meaning of communion and sing this song together during and after communion.SOME COMMON QUESTIONS:
How frequently should we celebrate communion?
The bible gives little specific guidance on this question. We simply know Jesus said it should be done in remembrance of him and thus it was regularly practiced in the early church. At CityLife Church we celebrate communion in our weekend services and also encourage our LifeGroups and age related ministries to share in communion from time to time. We seek to value the place of communion and protect it against simply becoming a ritual where it loses its intimacy or impact in an individual’s life.
What is the connection between the bread and wine and Jesus body and blood?
There are four major viewpoints on the nature of the bread and wine used in communion:
1. The bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the catholic view and it is called transubstantiation.
2. The bread and wine contain Christ. This is the view associated with Martin Luther and Lutheran churches and it is called consubstantiation. Luther compared it to an iron bar containing heat.
3. The bread and wind spiritually contain the body and blood of Christ. This is the view of reformed churches following John Calvin. Calvin compared it to the sun providing light and heat to the earth.
4. The bread and the wine are unchanged elements that have no power and simply represent Christ’s body and blood.
At CityLife, in common with many evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal churches we would see the bread and the wine as unchanged elements which symbolically represent Christ’s body and act as reminders of His enduring suffering. However, we also emphasise that, as the believer eats the bread and drinks the cup by faith, Christ's presence is active. Jesus often used metaphors to describe himself for example, “I am the way” and “I am the vine”. Similarly, he used metaphorical language when he took the bread and the cup and described them as his body and blood. It is a logical contradiction to say that Jesus was standing there in the flesh and that the bread and wine he held were his body and blood. However, this symbolic view can be taken to an extreme where it is almost as if the only place where the Holy Spirit is not present is during communion. This is obviously not the case. Just as the Holy Spirit can move through inspiring preaching and worship, he can also work in our lives in a powerful way through the partaking of communion. The elements are unchanged, and only symbolically represent Christ’s body. However, as we eat & drink by faith, the Spirit can act with the symbols.Can a non-believer take communion?
Communion is for the believer to remember Jesus and his finished work on the cross. However because we regularly have visitors in our celebration meetings, we practise the law of Love as in 1 Corinthians 13 and do not make it an issue of segregation where a non-believer would feel excluded. God alone knows the heart and journey of every person taking communion.
Can children take communion?
Parents are the best ones to decide when their children are mature enough to understand the meaning of communion. Parents can use the communion time to teach their children about Jesus. They can show their children the value of sharing in the emblems when they are ready. An Old Testament picture of communion helps show the importance of parents using such moments to instruct their children in Biblical truth. Passover was a family meal where the Jewish people celebrated their deliverance from Egypt by eating a sacrificial lamb together. (Exodus 12). The meal is a picture of the deliverance we find in Jesus who sacrificed his life for us. At Passover traditions, stories and rituals were passed from generation to generation and children learned the value of these sacred feasts through their parents and religious community. Communion can serve a similar purpose in a Christian family today. Parents should feel free to talk to one of the Children’s pastors if they have questions in this area.
Can we take communion with sin in our lives, therefore eating in an unworthy manner?
Sometimes people feel they cannot take communion because they are unworthy. This response comes from an incorrect understanding of a passage in 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 11:26-29, For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the Body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Earlier in the letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is speaking with regards to contentions, divisions, drunkenness and the uneven distribution of food to the poor at their regular love feasts where communion was conducted. Paul then introduces the subject of the Lord’s supper and encourages the Corinthian church to examine themselves in verse 28. In this context it seems most likely that Paul is telling people to examine their behaviour at their celebrations and love feasts. He is encouraging the Corinthians not to conduct themselves at communion in an unworthy manner by despising the poor or having divisions in the church. He is not saying do not take communion if you have sin in your life. In reality none of us are worthy, we are all sinners who desperately need Jesus. Our participation in communion proclaims and demonstrates our dependence upon his work and grace to overcome sin. The bread and the cup remind us that we are sinners in need of a saviour, that we are forgiven and that we can draw strength from God to overcome sin.