The Church Does Communion All Wrong

It's not communion if there's no fellowship with the Spirit.

Christianity doesn't seem like a real religion. You don't have to pray five times a day, light incense, or avoid eating certain animals like cows or pigs. It's mostly treating other people as you want to be treated and leading a quiet life in witness of God's love.

In fact, most of modern, Christian piety isn't based on Scripture at all but on archaic, cultural interpretations of the Bible like abstinence, sobriety, and other asceticisms. When it comes right down to it, true Christianity is little more than loving others.

Except for the sacraments. Derived from the Greek word, mysterion, the sacraments are commanded rituals that express spiritual "mysteries" through physical practices. Christians disagree on the total number but all denominations agree on at least two: baptism and communion (or as I prefer, the Eucharist).

The nature of these mysteries generated significant discussion over the centuries, particularly the Eucharist. Earlier in Jesus' ministry, he told his disciples that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood to receive eternal life. Then, on the night of his betrayal, he associated the Passover bread and wine with his body and blood.

The apostle Paul explained that the bread and wine represented the new covenant and that these elements are to be taken in remembrance of Christ's sacrifice--similar to how the Passover meal was eaten in remembrance of God's deliverance during the Egyptian captivity. All denominations agree on these points.

A Preoccupation with Mystery

Where Christians disagree is the extent of the bread and wine's representation of Christ's body and blood. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches take Jesus' words literally about eating and drinking of him and teach that the elements transform from ordinary substances into his actual body and blood. It's a view often referred to as transubstantiation.

Other Christians, notably certain Lutherans, hold to a view called consubstantiation which maintains that Christ's body and blood are present alongside the bread and wine. The latter do not transform into the former but rather both substances exist simultaneously and unchanged.

Some views distance themselves entirely from a physical representation of the body and blood. Held by many Anglicans and Presbyterians, receptionism insists that Christ's body and blood are spiritually present in the bread and wine but plead ignorance on the manner of this presence. Philosophers will have some fun with how an intelligible substance differs from a spiritual presence, but I digress.

The final common view on the Eucharist is the one held by evangelicals and most other Protestants. Memorialism denies any physical or spiritual presence in the bread and wine opting for a purely symbolic understanding. As Jesus said, the elements are taken in remembrance of him and imply no greater reality beyond the act itself.

If you enjoy theological fisticuffs like I do as a civil way of sharpening your beliefs, then debating the different views of the Eucharist will be a delightful challenge. But the sad reality is that Christians have spent so much time arguing over the nature of the Eucharist that they've abused the practice of it.

We may never fully understand the mystery of the bread and wine, but we can know for a fact that most of us take it wrong.

Distracted by Confession

Every denomination holds the same awkward, mid-service ceremony complete with a thimble of wine or juice and a flavorless wafer or cracker. At least most evangelicals have the decency to leave introverts alone, but the higher church traditions force everyone to stand in the most agonizing greeting line ever waiting for their turn to eat on a stage like a monkey at a zoo.

At least higher churches make the Eucharist a regular part of their gatherings, but many Protestants hold "Communion services" only once a month or quarter--as if remembering Christ's sacrifice is too much of a hassle to include weekly.

But the worst part of Communion services isn't their infrequency; it's their focus. Approaching the Lord's Table, especially in evangelical settings, meant hurriedly confessing your latest sins before the plate reached you so that you didn't partake in an "unworthy manner" as Paul warned.

Full stop.

How is it that a passage read so frequently can have its context so repeatedly ignored? Almost every church will recite a portion of 1 Corinthians 11 during the Eucharist, yet so many of them will threaten the guilt of sinning against Christ's body and blood if any sin is left unconfessed before chugging that grape-flavored droplet.

When I went to a Southern Baptist church, this faulty interpretation was used to defend a theological position called closed communion which meant that only church members could participate. It's a common practice among many churches who fear the repercussions of unwittingly enabling sinners to profane the body and blood of Christ.

Please, if you have any doubt, read that passage again. I promise you there is not one mention of confession (homologeo in the original Greek). What you will find is an irate Paul telling the Corinthians to examine themselves before eating. But he didn't mean some sort of hidden sin because he was quite clear a few verses earlier about what their sin was:
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?
The Corinthian church had cliques. Earlier, Paul wrote concerning their many divisions, so it should come as no surprise that those cliques had infected even the administration of the elements. Thus, Paul wasn't addressing their individual holiness as much as their corporate failure--something we would be more worried about if we actually partook of it correctly in the first place.

Remembering to Feast

Unless you've had a gastric bypass, it's impossible to get drunk as Paul said on the meager cup of wine dispensed in modern churches. Likewise, everyone would be hungry after those stupid wafers and crackers if they were the all you had for a meal. Which is precisely the point: the Eucharist was intended to be a meal, and in most cases today, it's not.

Just because Jesus highlighted the two elements from the Passover meal that most readily symbolized his body and blood, that doesn't mean he and his disciples didn't eat the rest of the meal. And, since Paul described hunger and drunkenness at the Lord's Supper, it's clear that early Christians understood this as well.

The Eucharist was never supposed to be a somber, individual affair. Like the ancient biblical feasts, it's a feast celebrated by God's people in the warmth of each other's company. The sterile, stainless steel and stale, processed flour doesn't exactly convey intimacy or fellowship. It's the clinical result of a mundane spirituality.

We were meant to commune with the Spirit. Holy Communion, as some call it, should not only be the epicenter of Christian worship but the literal dining table as well. The Bible speaks of early Christians devoted to breaking bread and eating together with gladness. That's what the Eucharist was meant to be. Our fellowship draws on the Spirit indwelling all of us, and through it, we are one. Just as Jesus promised.

Put away the tiny cups and set the table. Eat, drink, and be merry together because this is what the church was made for: unity. It's easier to be anonymous in the pew than the dinner table, and it's harder to be the church. This is your family. Treat them accordingly starting with the breaking of bread.

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Photo credit: fcor1614 via / CC BY-NC


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