People were asking questions. Their pastor was new and – so far – had celebrated communion every Sunday, something they’d never done before, so they decided to ask him about it. “Don’t you think it will become routine if we do this together every week?” The pastor was quiet for a minute, then posed a question of his own. “Do you think God is in heaven looking down at us and saying, ‘Stop it, people! Don’t do that so much!’ ” His listeners laughed; they took his point. The next Sunday, they gladly went forward during communion time.
Sacraments are dramatic rites/ceremonies – or to use Augustine’s term, “visible words” – modeled by Jesus and instituted by him that he intended the people of God to practice as well. In the last chapter, we spoke about one such sacrament, baptism. Baptism is the initiation that marks off individuals as belonging to the people of God, the church. Another sacrament regularly observed by the church is the Eucharist, sometimes called “Holy Communion,” “communion,” or “the Lord’s Supper.”
The term “Eucharist” comes from the Greek verb, eucharisto, meaning to “give thanks.” The night before his crucifixion, Jesus took bread and wine and gave thanks for them before giving them to his disciples (Matt. 26:27, Luke 22:19; see also 1 Cor 11:24). Luke 22:14-23 picks up the story:
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to 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.”
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
Meaning of the Eucharist
The context of this ritual is important. Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover. This annual Jewish feast commemorated the miraculous and hurried exit of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Particularly, it memorialized the last of the ten plagues that God had visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the killing of the first born Egyptian children by the death angel sent by God (see Exodus 11-12). Each Hebrew household was to sacrifice a lamb without blemish. Next, they were to sprinkle some of its blood on the sides and tops of the door frames. Finally, they were to roast the meat of the lamb, accompanied with bitter herbs and bread without yeast. When the death angel saw the blood on the doorposts, he would “pass over” that house, leaving all its inhabitants untouched (Exodus 12:13).
It is only in retrospect and through the eyes of faith that we can see how Jesus became the spotless Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world (John 1:29, Rev 5:12). He was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant – or agreement between God and God’s people – and now on the eve of his death, Jesus introduced a New Covenant. Now he anticipated his crucifixion at Golgotha the next day. He broke the bread and called it a symbol of his broken body. Likewise, the wine in the cup symbolized for Jesus the blood that he would shed on the cross.
In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul adds two other important aspects:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Here we see that there is no prescribed frequency for celebrating Eucharist. Paul simply says “whenever.” (However, for the early church, this quickly became a weekly observance.) Secondly, he talks about the historical time frame for celebrating this sacrament. It began when Jesus instituted it “the night he was betrayed” and it is to be practiced “until he comes.”
What Eucharist is not
It may help us to first look at a few misconceptions about Eucharist. To do so, let us ask the question:
What is Eucharist not?
1) It is not an ordeal. In Corinth, some were getting drunk on the wine during the agape, a common meal shared by the believers preliminary to the Eucharist. They gorged themselves while others went hungry (1 Cor. 11:21). Paul was angry and warned them that if this abuse continued, even more might become weak, sick, or “fall asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). This is the context for Paul’s warning not to eat the bread or drink the cup in an “unworthy manner.” Well-meaning Christians have torn this out of context, scaring faithful believers away from the Lord’s table, warning them to make sure they are “worthy” before partaking. One Liberian pastor told of hearing a preacher say that each time a communicant received the bread unworthily, it would stay in his stomach and eventually clog up the digestive system, causing death. Such a misconception makes of what should be a joyous celebration an ordeal, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a primitive means used to determine guilt or innocence by submitting the accused to dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control.” Let’s face it: If worthiness understood as meriting Christ’s sacrifice for us was a condition for Eucharist, no one would take it. We come to the table not because we are worthy, but because Christ is worthy, and he extends a winsome invitation. Shall we ignore the feast he has spread for us?
2) It is not a reward for exemplary churchmanship. The Eucharist must not be tied to other practices such as the giving of tithes and and offerings or regular attendance. Some have reported churches in Africa that issue to her members attendance and tithing cards that ushers fill out each week. In this scenario, only those who pass a certain minimal standard are admitted to Eucharist. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he said that his burden was light and his yoke easy (Matt 11:29)? Did he not instead say: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28)? Nothing says “Come to me” like the Lord’s Supper. Shall we turn away from his table those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
3) It is not a magical ceremony with magical substances. Whenever spiritual truths are made concrete by visible objects, there is the danger that the visible objects become the focus of our attention rather than the invisible One to whom the objects should direct us. King Hezekiah, as a sign of his loyalty to Yahweh, was forced to break into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made in the wilderness at God’s direction as a remedy for the snakebites from the serpents God had sent into the camp (Numbers 21:9, 2 Kings 18:14). In the same way, we should ascribe no inherent power to bread or wine even if sometimes we sing hymns such as “There is power in the blood.” We believe there is power not in the blood as such but in the Jesus who shed his blood. (For the same reason, we reject the use of “Holy Water” as if the water in itself contains power.) We must always focus our attention on the One who lies behind the sign and not put our faith in the efficacy of the symbol. Otherwise, like the ancient Israelites, we are taking a magical approach to the things of God. The belief in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ after certain words are pronounced by the priest – may lend itself to a magical approach to the sacraments. It is a too literal application of the words of Jesus, “This is my body…” or “This is my blood.” Symbols should not be confused with the Reality behind the symbols.
What Eucharist is
We’ve looked at a few things that Eucharist is not. We are ready to ask the question: So what exactly is Eucharist?
1) Eucharist is remembering the sacrifice of Christ for us. Jesus invited his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine as a way of remembering his sacrifice. He said: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Too often, the celebration of Holy Communion resembles a funeral. Yet should not remembering the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf fill us with joy, not sorrow? Smiling and dancing – expressions of thanksgiving – may be more appropriate responses at the Lord’s table than long faces and hunched shoulders.
2) Eucharist is a celebration of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ. Acts 2:46-47 paints a picture of a united church:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
“Breaking bread” may refer to the agape or Eucharist, perhaps to both. In any case, it’s clear that table fellowship created oneness.
3) Eucharist is a means of grace. John Wesley (1703-91) in his sermon The Means of Grace, defined “means of grace” as the ” ordinary channels whereby he (God) might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” He identified the means of grace as prayer, Bible reading, and “receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him.”
Preventing (or prevenient) grace is the drawing activity of the Holy Spirit, attracting people to Christ (John 6:44, 12:32). Justifying grace is a synonym for pardon or forgiveness of sins. What does this tell us as related to the Lord’s Supper? In the Wesleyan understanding of Eucharist, we believe that the Holy Spirit is present at the sacrament, drawing people – believers and non-believers – to God. Therefore, for the non-believer, being drawn to the table and taking Holy Communion could be their first act of faith. Similarly, for the prodigal son or daughter, it may be the moment when they make their way home to God. Because of this, we must be careful not to set up a stumbling block in one’s path by impeding access to the table for the sake of our ecclesiology, of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Jesus says to one and all : “Come!” One can always follow up with people later, inquiring about their faith and what God is doing in their lives. Those who are unbaptized can be encouraged to enroll in baptism classes, to formally identify with the people of God. One thing is clear: Eucharist is never the time to push away seekers who are drawing closer to Christ.
A father had long prayed for his son who for years had wanted nothing to do with the church. One Sunday, the son and his girlfriend finally came to worship. The father saw the beginning of God’s answer to his prayers. He was thrilled to see his son at church but was afraid of how he might react during the celebration of Eucharist at the end of the service. Would he be turned away? What would the pastor say? Much to his relief, the Holy Spirit seemed to be guiding the pastor’s choice of words. Besides faithful believers, the pastor invited all who wanted to follow Christ for the first time to come to the table. He added that those who had been far away were also welcome to make this celebration of Eucharist their joyous homecoming. Eagerly, the wayward son and his girlfriend both joined the line. They happily received the bread and drank the wine presented to them with the words: “The body of our Lord, broken for you…the blood of our Lord, shed for you.” Surely this exemplifies Jesus’s intent as recorded in Revelation 22:17:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
At Eucharist, an unbeliever may respond to this universal call, resulting in saving faith. Likewise, the wanderer may return to the fold. Finally, the committed follower will be strengthened in his or her faith, empowered for continued service. All three of these categories of individuals – full of faith, though in various locations on their spiritual journey – are God’s “faithful people” as described in a Eucharistic hymn by Charles Wesley:
O the depth of love Divine,
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh impart
How the wine transmits His blood
Fills his faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
Conclusion: Let’s celebrate
John Wesley spoke of the “duty of constant communion.” With due respect to Methodism’s co-founder, he got this title wrong. Communion, Mr Wesley, is no duty, no burden. Rather, it is a joy, a celebration of the good things of God given to us in Christ. Yet Eucharist – though vital – is only one element of worship; there are others deserving of our study. It is to these that we turn in the next chapter.
Image credit: Jericho