When I was a young man (twenty-something) and wrestling with my faith and belief, I found myself occasionally abstaining from communion. Unfit, I thought, passing the plate. This is a common practice for many congregants. And we, the church, are probably not helping. My dad told me once, “If you knew half as much as you think you know, you’d know twice as much as you do.” I think we, or I, might apply that principle to the subject of communion.
The Facts from Scripture
The Last Supper is recorded in all four of the gospels. The consistent element is that Jesus shares bread and wine with the disciples and predicts his betrayal. Three of the gospels record the statements, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” Mark and Matthew indicate that Jesus’s blood is “poured out for many.” The Gospel of John does not record the statements about Christ’s body and blood at all, but instead places much more emphasis on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and encouraging their servanthood. Only Luke includes the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
What I Thought I Knew
Communion is for believers only. I have been led to believe that communion is only for persons who have made a public profession of faith and that partaking of communion by those who have not is somehow mysteriously perilous. Communion is about you and Jesus. It is the desire to believe in transubstantiation (by some Christian groups) and to deeply examine your personal relationship with Christ whilst you wait, grasping your communion wafer. Unleavened bread and grape juice are the essential elements. At the tiny church my dad pastored during my childhood, the elements were broken up Club crackers and Welch’s grape juice. Let’s contrast what we think we know, with a few contextual items we should consider when thinking about the day Jesus broke bread with His disciples.
Half as Much as I Thought I Knew
The disciples were completely clueless. It is evident from the scriptures that they didn’t know what was about to happen. In fact, they were utterly confused. They didn’t get to evaluate their own worthiness in the same way we do before they partook of the meal. Jesus sat down to share a meal with twelve fallible men who didn’t begin to comprehend the significance of the moment. It is even possible that Judas may not even have understood the ultimate consequences of his actions.
Still, Jesus knew. Jesus knew Peter would deny Him and He knew Judas would betray Him. Yet He didn’t exclude them. He washed their feet. He shared bread and wine with them. He did make some ominous statements about Judas, but they were about the impending betrayal, not having shared the meal. Jesus gave the bread and wine without asking the disciples to first examine their hearts, the way we tend to do. The Last Supper was for Jesus and his disciples. All of them. It was an inclusive event.
Unleavened bread was on the menu because Jesus’s last supper coincided with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Had the timing of Jesus’s arrest been different, the items consumed probably would have been different as well. The particular food eaten might not be that significant. Perhaps that is why John places so little emphasis on the eating and drinking and so much on Jesus providing an example of servanthood and telling the disciples, to paraphrase, “Y’all have to do this for each other!” So, what really mattered? Sharing a meal, advocating servanthood? I think what mattered was community, and inclusiveness.
Twice as Much as I Used to Know
So, I now consider that Communion isn’t really an individual thing at all. It’s not about me and Jesus. It’s about Jesus and us. Communion is about the community to which we belong, whether we feel particularly fit or not. We are all unfit; yet we are fit to serve. I don’t even think about worthiness or sin when I take communion anymore. I think about the community of faith to which we belong and my desire to be a part of it, even if I’m not so perfect.
In John 13:34-35 Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It seems obvious that communion is about the Church’s relationship with Christ vis-à-vis our relationships with each other, fellowship and service being the most important parts. You can’t really have communion alone. It takes a servant. Somebody has to share. Somebody has to pass you the bread and the wine. Jesus was saying, “I’m not going to be here much longer, but y’all need to keep doing this like I taught you.”
I think the saddest parts of our modern tradition of communion are the formalities, the solemnity, and the misplaced emphasis on individual relationships with Christ. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I don’t think He meant eat crackers and drink grape juice and think about your own lack of worthiness and sin. I prefer to understand that He meant gather and fellowship in the way people do. Share a meal. Include those you might rather not. Serve each other. Be a family. Do these things in remembrance of Him.
While our observance of communion rituals is important, we need to add to our repertoire an acknowledgement of the last supper whenever we break bread with our neighbors. Not quarterly. Not monthly. Not even weekly. And probably even in the absence of the elements. Whenever we are at fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to recognize the event as fulfilling His command. We do this together in remembrance of Him.