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Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Are Christians to Make of Communion?

What are Christians to make of communion? We call it by numerous names: Lord's Supper, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion. Some of us believe that Jesus is somehow present in the bread and the wine; others of us think the celebration simply recalls the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Drawing on the work of my professors at Vanderbilt (David Buttrick -- see citation below), I'd like to suggest that communion functions (and indeed functioned for the first disciples) as a witness to what Jesus called the reign (or Kingdom) of God. It does not do this apart from the Church but as an integral part of it. In particular,
  1. Congregations are called to be a living witness to God's reign as exemplified in Jesus' life and teachings
  2. Preaching is one avenue for conveying what this reign looks like (or at least should like)
  3. However, because it's hard for congregations to be a living witness, communion, with its attendant images of a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, serves as a secondary witness.
In other words, communion isn't simply a remembrance of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, but rather it recalls all of the images associated with an open table, whether they are from ancient Israel, Jesus' table fellowship with his disciples, or the numerous parables he told about God's heavenly banquet:
How did the Lord's Supper function in the hermeneutic consciousness of the first disciples? What were the mental associations they grasped the significance of the meal? Obviously, a meal will be understood by recalling previous prototype meals. The list is astonishing. As good Jews, the disciples would have recalled Passover, remembered Covenant ritual, dreamed the Messianic Banquet bash promised on Mt. Zion. More, as disciples surely they would remember past eating and drinking with Jesus, thought of his feasts with sinners, perhaps the glut of wine at Cana, the feeding of the hungry five thousand with borrowed loaves and fishes, the solemn bread breaking on the eve of his death, resurrection parties, the sayings so full of Kingdom banquet talk (Buttrick, "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship," p. 35).
In other words, by symbolically capturing the nature of God's Kingdom, communion can step-in when and where the Church falls short.

All of this raises the question as to how often should we celebrate communion? My immediate response is, "As often as possible." Symbolically recalling what it means to witness to God's reign is not something Christians should do occasionally. This does not necessarily mean that we should celebrate it weekly (although that isn't necessarily a bad idea), but it does suggest that we should celebrate it frequently enough so that God's reign is regularly held up for all to see.

David G. Buttrick, 1982. "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship." Reformed Liturgy and Music, pp. 33-37.

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