Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Communion: A Commitment To Unity

*This is an essay I wrote last fall. I don't pretend to be any sort of scholar or authority at all on Biblical matters; this was not a result of any length of arduous study. It is merely a frank understanding of some passages that I have read dozens of times without really understanding, and a straightforward look at a concept I had for so long taken for granted.
Imagine a friend asked you to come along to a memorial service for a relative of hers. You would go, right? Of course; you desire to support her in her time of grief.
            So you go, and once there, you discover that this particular relative has actually been dead and buried for some time. The “memorial service” turns out to be a detailed, ritualistic reenactment of the last twenty-four hours of the relative’s life, complete with the last meal she ate, the death, and the burial. Your friend’s grandfather stands and recites the last words of the deceased.

            Would that not be bizarre? Let us imagine a second scene.

            This time, it’s your own grandmother who has died. This venerated matriarch was regarded in your family as the anchor, the one who taught all your relatives everything they knew about life. At the funeral service, you all gather around her coffin and confess every wrong you’ve ever done her. Once confessional is over, the service ends and everyone goes about their business.
            Still crazy, right?
            Yet so many Christians treat Communion—the “memorial service” for Jesus Christ—in just these ways.

            Some are like the family in that first scene. Communion is a spiritual ritual, a disciplinary tradition complete with the recitation of the original Biblical account. The congregation goes through the motions, passing the plate and taking their specially-designed “Communion cups” of watered-down grape juice and the small corner of kosher matzo, and waiting for the Pastor to give the “okay” before you drink or eat… but that’s all it is; a synchronized ritual.
            Others try to pack the “ritual” with significance, and so treat Communion time as “confession” time, listing out every sin they’ve ever done. They rehearse the crucifixion scene in their minds, desperately trying to convince themselves that they did the act of nailing Jesus to the Cross, that the broken bread and the blood-red juice are more like evidence at a trial than tokens of remembrance. The Last Supper is a somber affair, very much like a “last rites” as opposed to a party feast. They feel that this is the right way to take Communion, because Communion represents a very serious time in Jesus’ life.
            I am not saying that either of these are “bad” or “sinful”, per se—but perhaps they are both a bit unbalanced, slightly skewed off-kilter. I do not pretend to offer the “right” way of taking Communion based on years of research and study and a thorough exegesis. What I intend to offer, if you’ve never thought about it before, is some context and a bit of perspective, Amen?

            First, let’s place the First Communion in it’s context. What exactly was the Last Supper? It certainly was not like the “last supper” of today, served to criminals on death row, where they are going to die soon, but at least they can die marginally happy with a belly full of whatever food they want.
For those who don’t know, that night every Jew in Jerusalem (including Jesus Himself) was observing the Passover Seder. For those who remember somewhere in the Gospel of Matthew something about the Passover before the Crucifixion account, but are not sure where the whole “supper” thing comes in, there is in fact a meal that takes place in the midst of the symbolism and the ritual and the recitations and the guzzling goblets of grape juice. It’s not something Christians decided to stick in there to “redeem” the tradition from Judaism just because Jesus happened to be having a regular meal with His disciples while everyone else in the city followed a prescribed reenactment.
In the Seder (which Jesus and His disciples observed), there are traditionally four cups of wine (or juice) poured at specific times. Two cups come before the meal. Immediately following the meal is the traditional breaking and eating of the afikommen, a specially-named “loaf” of unleavened bread, followed directly by the Third Cup. Incidentally, the Cups all have names and special significance, too: The Cup of Sanctification, The Cup of Deliverance, The Cup of Redemption, and the Cup of Praise.

            With that in mind, let’s look back at the account of the Last Supper, according to Mark 14:22-24:

            “And as they were eating…”—This is the traditional Seder meal, remember?

“He took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take ye: this is my body.”—This is the afikommen, still within the Seder tradition.

“And he took the cup…”—What Cup? The Cup of Redemption.
“…and when he had given thanks, he gave to them: and they all drank of it.”
Still the traditional Jewish Seder happening.
“And he said unto them, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”


The light goes on. Jesus had already poured out the Cups of Sanctification and Deliverance, remember? Why did He wait until the Third Cup? A cup of drink is a cup of drink, is it not?
As it says in the Seder, “on other nights”, a cup of juice is certainly a cup of juice, a means of refreshment and hydration. But you see, during the Seder, the cup of juice or wine is more than “just a cup.” They have names with special significance attached. So you see. Jesus had very good reasons for waiting until after the meal—waiting till that Third Cup, the Cup of Redemption—to try once more to get His disciples to understand what was about to happen. Because in His Blood, we have Redemption; not just Sanctification, nor simply Deliverance—we have Redemption.

Now do you understand? Communion is not just a reenactment or a ritual. It’s a realization. When you drink the juice at Communion, you are partaking in that Cup of Redemption, acknowledging that Jesus brings Redemption by His Blood, which He shed for that very purpose on the Cross.

So if Communion is more than a ritual, does that mean that considering it a time of arduous confession is right? Not entirely; confession is valid and worthwhile, and should happen during Communion, if it never happens anywhere else, lest we “eat and drink unworthily,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians—but permit me to contend that it ought not be our whole focus during that time!
Let us consider again that First Communion: did Judas Iscariot feel any remorse or feel the need to confess all of the sin in his heart? No; but look at the consequence he suffered because he ate and drank, and then betrayed the One he had Communed with.
Did the disciples use that time to confess all their sins? The Bible doesn’t say so; yet they were Communing in their hearts with Jesus, and so were not “unworthy” of the Lord’s Table. They did not “eat and drink damnation”; they ate and drank Redemption. Was it a sober moment? Was any man there considering the cross and the devastation? No; in fact, they had no idea that Jesus was about to die. After all, it was only the Passover.
So what is Communion if not confession time? Confess, yes, but be mindful of why you are confessing! It’s not just to kill time, and it’s not to make you cry or because you feel awkward about sitting and waiting while everyone else is praying. The opportunity to confess is if the Holy Spirit brings to mind something that is disrupting the unity between yourself and God, or yourself and another believer. Communion is not about sin, it’s about Redemption. It’s not about killing Christ over again; it’s about the fact that He now lives, and the same Power that gave Him life has also redeemed us to live as well.

Here I will offer a third view of Communion that takes the two views I expressed in the beginning and combines their valid points with the perspective and the context I have just described.
Communion is an act that I participate in that involves confessing my sin to God or the one I have sinned against as a demonstration of my COMMitment to the UNION between myself and God, and the unity between myself and fellow Christians.
Very often a wedding ceremony will include the couple’s first Communion together. Why? Is it because of tradition, like walking down the aisle or exchanging vows? No. Is it necessary for the couple to confess their sins to one another right there in the middle of the ceremony? No.
In taking that communion, the couple is demonstrating their commitment to each other and to God in a much deeper way than repeating their vows.

Jesus demonstrated his commitment to the restoration of the unity that sin had disrupted when He established Communion with His disciples. When we take Communion at church, we are affirming that same pledge for unification, demonstrating that same commitment that nothing should come between us as believers, or between God and ourselves.

More than a pious custom; more than personal confession; Communion is a public, corporate COMMitment to UNION.