So, the last couple weeks I’ve gotten into ecclesiology: the study and theology of the church. I’ve talked about what the church isn’t, what the church could be, and what makes the church the church. Today I want to talk a little about one of the most important rituals of the church, which is communion, or the eucharist.
Communion has become a point of debate in the last few decades as we continue to react to our past. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that in the ritual of the Eucharist, the bread and wine’s substance objectively changes in the hands of the priest into the actual body and real blood of Christ, so that even though it still feels, looks, and tastes just like bread and wine, the grace of God has changed it into flesh and blood. This, along with the belief that you could not be saved without regularly taking part in this ritual, gave the priests and the church an incredible amount of power in the eyes of the people.
As a reaction against what seemed like the overly mystical nature of transubstantiation and the abuse of the power which these doctrines gave the priests, parts of the church swung completely to the other extreme (as humans are notoriously good at doing). There is absolutely nothing mystical about communion, they say, that there is neither salvific nor any other kind of power in it. Communion is merely a symbol and, therefore, it really doesn’t matter if or how we observe the ritual at all.
I would like to challenge that based on my posts from the previous few weeks. I will not attempt to prove that there is anything mystical about the ritual, but I do want to challenge us to think more carefully about when and how we participate in communion.
The first reason why we must observe the ritual of communion is simply because Christ told us to. He and his followers enjoined the early church to take part in the Lord’s Supper often, and to observe it in certain ways. As followers of Christ, we must follow His instructions.
Further than that, though, the ritual does have power to constitute the church, even without any mystical add-ons. Paul spoke of communion in I Corinthians 10:17 saying that we [the members of the church] are one because we share in the one loaf of the body of Christ. We humans are social creatures, and there is a special place in our social makeup for rituals. Every group has rituals that seal its members to each other. Tailgating before a football game would be one example, ritualized greetings (Hey, how’s it going?), traditions like Cinco de Mayo and the 4th of July are all secular examples of rituals that help instill group identity. When members of a group all do the same thing at the same time it sets them apart from the rest of humanity and says “We stand together.”
Communion works just the same way in the church. It isn’t and wasn’t ever supposed to be a ritual of personal devotion, but one of corporate identity and constitution. We are one because we all share in this one loaf and this one cup.
Not only does it help form our corporate Christian identity, it is also a public and concrete rehearsal or testimony of the way Christ knits us together. In my last post I argued that the church’s internal structure is perichoretic and Christocentric. If I live in Christ and Christ lives in you, then I necessarily live in you; and if you live in Christ and Christ live in me, then you must also live in me. Our mutual participation in Christ necessarily links us into one another. Communion is a graphic representation of this. As I eat of the bread, and you eat of the same bread, and as we both drink from the same cup, we are joined to Christ and thus to each other, forming the Church.
Of course, if God has endued communion with more mystical powers to affect its participants, which is certainly within His power to do, then the ritual becomes all the more important; but even without that, communion is one of the most important rituals of the church and deserves much careful thought and discernment in how we observe it.
There are too many implications of this theology to go into here, but there are two specific things that I’d like to point out. First, communion reminds us that our sin is not simply personal. As I come to the table, I’m bringing all that I have with me into the church, including my unresolved sin. As I join myself to Christ, He accepts all of me, just as I am; and any sin I have clinging to my spirit goes into the church as well. My personal issues are not simply my personal issues when I go to commune at the table. In communion, they become an issue for the church I join myself to.
Second, the way we celebrate communion affects how we relate to each other in the church. In South Africa, the way that the church celebrated communion was a precursor to apartheid. Some of the white Christians were hesitant to put their lips to the same cup which the poorer black Christians drank from; they were worried about germs and diseases. So the church responded by setting up separate tables for whites and blacks; separate loaves, separate cups. It wasn’t long before there were two separate churches, and subsequently full blown apartheid. The way we celebrate communion affects the way we relate to one another, and vice-versa.
So as you participate and/or officiate over communion, think about the importance of what you’re doing and be careful. An individualized communion betrays the very heart of what communion is supposed to be. Communion is a form of communication, and we must be careful what messages we sow into the nature of the church through this ritual. What we do at the table, and how we come to the table matters; communion forms the church.