I attended church twice a week growing up. I had no choice. It’s not that I disliked church. But like many children, I struggled to understand much of what went on. Easily growing bored, I found ways to entertain myself. I doodled on the bulletin and occasionally timed the pastor’s sermon. I counted the overhead lights, wall panels, and segments in the stained glass windows. While I occupied myself with trivial activities, two details caught my attention: the baptismal pool situated above the choir loft behind the pulpit, and the white table at the center-front of the sanctuary, etched with the words, do this in remembrance of me. Something about the white table got me thinking: Why do we eat bread and wine at the table every few months? And who can eat it?
My church celebrated the Lord’s Supper (also known as Communion or the Eucharist) four times a year. I remember asking why we celebrated it so infrequently. The answer I got never satisfied, and it still doesn’t: “If we do this very often, it will lose its meaning.” Precociously I thought, It doesn’t seem to mean much to us anyway, so why worry about it losing any more meaning? As I grew older, I discovered some churches took the meal weekly. I was then even more dissatisfied with the answer I had received.
Whether you’ve been a Christian since childhood or accepted Christ just recently, you likely have a story about the Lord’s Supper. Your story might include questions or frustrations, maybe even doubts. Our stories explain a great deal, not only about us as Christians but also about how important we think Communion is to our faith and practice.
Christians throughout history have traced their practice of the Lord’s Supper back to a story, one that took place on the eve of Jesus’ execution. That evening, Jesus gathered his disciples to share the Passover meal. Passover commemorated Israel’s liberation from Egypt, and the primary aim of the meal was to transmit the Exodus story to future generations.
No doubt the disciples around the table had the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in mind. But they didn’t grasp that Jesus was about to undergo a new exodus—one that would liberate all humanity from sin and death and inaugurate his reign as Lord and Savior. Jesus told 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 fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15–16).
The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recorded in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus gave the disciples bread, saying, “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26). Then he gave them a cup, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28). Luke tells us Jesus instructed his disciples to follow the pattern he gave them: “Do this in remembrance of me” (22:19). Just as Passover was intended to commemorate God’s deliverance over and over again, so was the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the earliest Christians ate the meal regularly, to remember and celebrate their redemption in Christ (1 Cor. 11:24–26). Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed us and prepared us for eternity with him. But we so easily lose sight of this in our day-to-day lives. The meal reminds us that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
With a few exceptions—Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, for example—Christians of all denominations and backgrounds have affirmed the importance of regularly sharing the meal. And virtually all agree on this: Christ instituted the meal as a memorial of his sacrificial death and resurrection; the New Testament commands us to celebrate it until Jesus returns; and we should do this together, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. Further, most Christians believe the meal should be given only to those who have been baptized.
While the meal is rooted in a singular event, it goes by several names. The simplest designation is “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). It is also called the “the Lord’s table” (1 Cor. 10:21) and “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). By the second century, Christians began calling it Eucharist, a word expressing the most characteristic element of the meal: giving thanks (from the Greek eucharisteo; Matt. 26:27; 1 Cor. 11:24). It’s a meal of thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.
One of the most commonly used terms is Communion (1 Cor. 10:16, KJV), from the Greek word koinonia, which means “a participation together.” Thus, many Christians believe that when we receive this meal, we actually participate in the presence of Christ through the witness and power of the Holy Spirit. And virtually all Christians affirm that the meal is to be taken in communion with others—that it’s a core sign of our unity in Christ.
So important was this meal in the early church that Luke listed it as one of the four marks of a Spirit-filled community (Acts 2:42). And a prayer in the Didache, a second-century teaching manual, asserts that unity is a chief goal of the meal: “As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may your church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” From the earliest days of the church, Christians have affirmed that the meal represents our union both with Christ and with each other. Not only that, many Christians have testified to having experienced profound unity with Christ and his people when they eat it.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
John H. Armstrong