I blame the Lutheran Church for my recent reading rampage. I’m familiar with the closed communion that occurs in a few Baptist churches, but when I noticed that the Missouri Synod churches do the same thing…. The short version of the story is that I decided it was high time I actually understood all the different church doctrines on the issue. Now, four books later, I’ve developed some inclinations in regards to what Communion is, and some convictions about how it should be celebrated. (Hint: Communicating as seldom as possible, because frequent Communion can make Communion less meaningful, ain’t it.)
My freshman year of college was probably the biggest factor in getting me to see the Supper’s importance, and that mainly because I wasn’t able to partake of it. I realized I was missing something, though I wasn’t sure exactly what, or why that lack seemed to bother me more than it did my fellow students. I eventually got so hungry for it that I tried to celebrate it on my own. But sugary grape juice from the cafeteria, added to hamburger bun bits, a Bible, and an empty dorm room, do not Communion make. The desire, of course, was good. But something that no one had ever explained to me was the part that the Church plays in Communion. It isn’t simply an individual act of remembrance. It is a meal for the Church, meant to strengthen the Church as a body, just as the Church is nourished by the sacrifice of Christ’s body.
Communion is about Communion between Christ and the Church. It is also about communion within the Church, between its members. Over Christmas I attended a service at a Methodist church and was surprised by the fact that we all took bread from the same loaf. But there was a reason for the single loaf of bread. Just as there was one loaf, so the Church is one body.
Dorothy Sayers, in her book Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, included the following poem, “Against Ecclesiasts.” I’m still grasping the poem’s full meaning. But one thing is clear: Sayers was emphasizing the fact that to fully celebrate Communion–large C–we must first be willing to experience communion with others.
Between the Low Mass and the High,
Between the Altar and my cell,
I met Christ and passed Him by,
And now I go in fear of Hell.
My dying brother Ninian
Confessed himself to me and said:
“I find the Christ in every man,
But how comes He in wine and bread?”
I cursed my brother as he died,
“Absolvo” I would not repeat,
I bare away the Crucified,
I would not sign his breast and feet.
I lifted Christ above my head,
I kneeled to Him, I bare Him up,
And Christ cried to me from the bread,
Christ cried upon me from the cup:
“What is this bitter sin of thine,
So little to have understood, . . .
To find Me in the bread and wine
And find Me not in flesh and blood?
“Go, say thy Mass for Ninian,
That, when he comes to Heaven, maybe
His prayer shall save thee, righteous man . . .
If he can find the Christ in thee!”
It’s easy enough to look at the bread and cup and think of Christ. But what about the person sitting next to us? Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
The early church broke bread together every time they met, celebrating the Supper at least weekly. Where their Communions broke down, as in I Corinthians, the unity of their church was vitally damaged.
The Church has seldom had a problem with obsessively observing Communion. More common historically has been the neglect of Communion–medieval Catholics avoiding Communion until they had to be required to communicate once a year, Scottish Presbyterians limiting Communion to those who passed a spiritual examination by the elders, American Protestants arguing that frequent Communion makes Communion less meaningful. And on it goes. The Bible doesn’t tell us how frequently we should communicate. But it clearly does treat Communion as something vitally important to the health of the Church.