While most people draw a line between "communion" and a religious sacrament, the word communion was never used in the Bible. In fact, "communion" literally means: to share thoughts or feelings with another. We exercise communion during family game night, watching the football game with friends, taking your wife out to dinner. Humans find it natural to "commune" with other humans. But there is more behind Christian communion than simply fellowship with other humans.
Earliest writings show that the original name for communion was "The Eucharist," stemming from the Greek noun which means "Thanksgiving." This word was taken from 1 Corinthians 11:24, where the Apostle Paul says, "and when he had eucharisteo (given thanks) he broke the bread..." We also see the Bible refer to this sacrament as "The Lord's Supper" (also in 1 Cor 11). Over the centuries it has taken on other names such as the sacrament of the altar, the blessed sacrament, the divine liturgy, and the holy communion. In most protestant circles today, the title "Communion" seems to be the name that stuck. Yet in the Church, when we use the term "communion" we are not negating the relational aspect of it, but rather adding a spiritual tension into the mix.
The presentation of the Lord's Supper is presented in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22). Paul also gives a dissertation on how to properly take communion in 1 Corinthians 11. In each scriptural account of communion it is made clear that by the breaking of bread we symbolize Christ's body which was broken on the cross for us. Similarly, by the drinking of the wine (or in our case grape juice) we symbolize the blood of Christ that was spilled to cover our sins. These we do in remembrance of Christ.
Communion is therefore a sacrament, which simply means a religious act of significance or representation. It represents Christ's death. Yet it also does something more, it is not merely an empty act done on the side of humans, but it involves both Christ and humans. This is where the term communion comes in.
But how does Christ commune with us through the Lord's Supper? Church history is crowded with councils, papers, debates and books debating the theology of communion. Catholics claim transubstantiation, meaning that when you consume the bread and juice, it literally turns into the body and blood of Christ. Luther boasted a "Ubiquity of Christ," holding that the bodily presence of Christ filled the elements (bread and wine), but did not physically change their substance. Calvin clung to the idea of a spiritual presence during communion, arguing that the body of Christ does not alter or indwell the bread, but that the spirit of Christ comes and ministers to his people. Charles Hodge added another facet claiming that the spirit of Christ is present only through the redeeming values of the cross, that is forgiveness from sin and imputed righteousness.
While theologians are quick to offer their take on the nature of that communion, they are all willing to admit that it is still a divine mystery. Calvin says of the communion: "Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it."
While we may not know how the communion takes place, we do know that the presence of Christ dwells with his people when they take communion. Gerald Sittser confirms this truth, "The Bible does not tell us how the sacraments actually communicate grace, only that they do. It is still a mystery." During communion, as we celebrate the death of Christ, Christ celebrates with us. He labors and cares for his body, addressing the hearts and souls of his sheep. This is a profound mystery but also a profound grace. Do not take this communion lightly.
I have narrowed the approach to communion to three practical components to bear in mind. At Sovereign Hope we celebrate communion on the first Sunday of every month. You will find communion more worshipful and beneficial by keeping these ideas present in your mind.
We take communion corporately. That is, as a church, we celebrate our risen savior together. This is a wonderful component of communion. When you look at the components that make a church a church, the giving of the sacraments is one of the most common indicators. Now to take it corporately we do not always have to consume the bread and wine at the exact same moment (though we will on occasion), but it does mean that we as a church worship our risen savior through communion together. As a body of believers we are desparate for the grace that comes from a broken body and spilled blood.
We take communion in a contemplative manner. Paul pushes for a more introspective communion in 1 Corinthians 11:28 saying, "Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup." When we celebrate communion we celebrate the forgiveness of our sins, and the giving of Christ's righteousness. Reflect on the current state of your spiritual health. Does it reflect the purity of Christ? If not pray that Christ's blood assists you to put that sin to death. Thank him for his forgiveness and ask him to continue in his grace. As you partake of the elements find a specific verse, and say it as a prayer to God. A couple good verses to consider are Romans 8:1, "There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," or 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Take this as a teaching moment if you have kids. Encourage them to memorize some of these verses the week leading up to communion. Some more references to consider are Col 2:13-14, John 1:29, Gal 2:20, and Eph 2:13. Sittser exemplifies the attitude of communion as he writes, "We have nothing to say but a word of thanks, nothing to claim but mercy, nothing to pay for the grace that is lavished on us."
We take communion communally. In addition to taking it with the body of believers, we take it with Christ present. In some way, shape or form, the perfect comes to dwell with the imperfect. The lamb of God with the sinners who slayed him. Christ ministers to us in communion, therefore reflect this in your attitude of worship. Do not merely sing the songs and pray the prayers for yourself, but sing them and pray them to the Christ who dwells among his people.
Communion is a way for the church to remember the sacrifice of our Savior, and also a way in which the Savior ministers to his people. It should not be taken lightly. It should be taken only by believers, and it should be done in sincere intimacy. Mark communion dates on your calendar (the first of every month) and spend the week praying and reading scripture, preparing yourself and your family for the grace that is to follow.