This is the second in a series of posts about communion, as part of a request from the team at Christ Church Manchester that we do some thinking on the subject.
This time I am going to give a brief summary of what seem to be some of the key passages that help form our understanding of communion.
Passover narrative – Communion was first instituted in the context of a Passover supper. This was an annual memorial celebration where Israel would remember and celebrate how God had rescued them for slavery in Egypt, and how a lamb had been slain as a substitute for them, by whose blood they were spared judgement. The people were commanded to memorialise this rescue, and it was a big part of their national identity formation. The celebration of a passover was a way for the people to identify themselves in the story of God and his people.
Bread of Life Discourse – Found in John 6, this is the first of the ‘I Am’ statements of John’s gospel. Jesus refers back to the manna that God had given from heaven, and contrasts himself with it. Those who ate that bread died, but those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man will have eternal life. This body and blood reference clearly points towards communion, and the language used is of feeding and nourishing. This is more than a simple memorial. In some way, communion involves feeding on Christ.
Last Supper – The last supper narrative is found in the three synoptic gospels. It is a passover supper and Jesus takes the elements of the meal and reinterprets the story to find its fulfilment in himself. He is the true passover lamb, and it is by his body and blood that God’s people are spared from judgment. After breaking the bread and taking the wine, Jesus instructs the disciples to do likewise in remembrance of him. He also pointed out that he would not do so again until he came in his kingdom.
Early Church Practice in Acts – One of the distinctive features of the Jerusalem church that is pointed out in Acts 2:42 is that they were devoted to the breaking of bread. Communion was clearly something that from the very earliest days of the first church had become a part of their corporate worship together, in obedience to the instruction that Jesus had given. We are also told in the same passage that they broke breads in their homes. Communion was devolved and organic, and happened in small scale gatherings as well as large.
Instructions in 1 Corinthians – In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul takes the Corinthian church to task about problems in the way they approached communion. Rather than a symbol of unity it became divisive as rich people were able to arrive early and ate and drank everything before the poorer members of the church arrived. Paul insists that communion done in this way is not true communion. He issues some of the clearest warnings about who should and shouldn’t take communion and urges a person to examine himself first and ensure he takes communion in a worthy manner. In context, this is about ensuring they are truly expressing the fellowship of the body of Christ, though the principle may apply into other situations as well. Positively, some of the ways Paul describes communion in chapters 10 and 11 of this letter include participation, remembrance and proclamation.
Other Relevant Passages? – Other passages that are less commonly included in discussions on communion but may have some bearing include true and false fasting in Isaiah 58, Jesus breaking bread with the disciples in Emmaus and their eyes being opened in Luke 24, and the encouragement to the Corinthians to get rid of the old leaven in 1 Cor 5:7.
What other passages do you think should be considered?