Communion: Partaking in Faith
Food and drink, more than any other aspect of life, has a way of bringing people together. Perhaps, this is the reason Jesus taught us to ask for "our daily bread" in the prayer that he gave us (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). The Hebrew word lechem (H3899) refers to more than just morsels of baked wheat, but also to physical and spiritual nourishment. An example of when a simple meal caused peace to break through a time of pure hatred was during World War I. In the "Christmas truce" of 1914, the enlisted soldiers from each belligerent side—Britain, France, and Germany—laid down their arms to celebrate Jesus' birth. They missed their families, and simply wanted a piece of home and the love of family. These soldiers did not have the approval of their higher-ranking officers to stop fighting. Yet, after five months, they had grown weary of nonstop combat, and wanted nothing more than to feel joy for a change. These soldiers, who typically came from the lower classes, were tired of the horrible conditions, the threat of violence and death, and watching other men die. Just as the Christmas truce featured both a message of joy and a challenge to the status quo, so does the rite of communion.
Love Feasts and Potlucks
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul of Tarsus warned against corruptions of the Lord's supper. In context, the wealthier members flaunted their privilege over the impoverished ones when they ate together (1 Cor. 11:20-22). In the first century, communion was not a ritual, but an actual meal called a "love feast" (Greek: agapē; G26). The church potlucks that we host now have more in common with the original intent of communion than the ritual form. Now, imagine if everyone ate their own food, with the wealthy suburbanites gorging themselves in front of their urban or rural poor counterparts. This is the reason that we share our food alike during the potluck, and this is now common for us. Paul was chiding the wealthy Corinthians for their lack of humanity and hospitality. Communion is Jesus' way of compelling us to move beyond our ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic differences to join together in love. No, this is not "class warfare" in the socialist way, but a template for all Christians sharing their resources according to need (Acts 2:44-46). However, this is a free and voluntary action. The "-union" suffix alludes to the cooperation of different people working toward the same goal. At communion, we celebrate our ability overcome differences, but never to impose a rigid uniformity. Paul had some very harsh words for those who corrupted the Lord's supper by their sinful conduct. He even claimed that some of those who partook of communion unworthily became ill or died from their sins. Keep in mind, Paul was not talking about undergoing some notional form of confession or penance before communion, but to make a genuine reconciliation of disparities (1 Cor. 11:27-32).
Body and Blood
Many of us grew up in a predominantly Christian culture, so we have a baseline idea that the "body and blood of Christ" is a churchy term. Yet, once we step outside this paradigm, it should offend us. In the second century, many Roman intellectuals believed that Christians were practicing atheism, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and incest. However, they misunderstood context, not realizing that Christians did believe in the true God, just not the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods. These observers greatly misunderstood the celebration of communion, love feasts, and the spiritual titles of "brother" and "sister" as something immoral. Then why do we say we partake the body and blood of Jesus? Why not just say that we eat bread and wine in memory of him? Although some churches teach that, the scriptures feature more esoteric language than a simple memorial. To be sure, Jesus' claim that anyone who wants to be saved must eat his body and drink this blood horrified the Judean religious leaders (John 6:48-58). Since many religions feature some kind of ritual meal, to include Judaism, why not just celebrate Passover? Most of our rites for communion are based on Paul's witness:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
We should acknowledge the symbolism behind Jesus' body and blood as hyperbole, or a calculated exaggeration. In their Jewish and scriptural contexts, the terms "body" and "blood" refer to concepts beyond the literal human body. Jesus often used hyperbole in his teaching, lest we really think he wants us to hate our families (Luke 14:26) in violation of God's commandment to honor our parents (Exod. 20:12). When we commune with Jesus and our fellow Christians, we do so in both faith and thanksgiving. We share a meal just as the Israelites celebrated the Passover on their departure from Egypt (Exod. 12). John the Evangelist narrated the last supper as a Passover seder (H5468) meal, but deliberately omitted the lamb (John 13). We do not know if Jesus and his apostles ate lamb for this last supper, but John probably left it out for this reason: Christ himself is the Lamb of God.
Many Christians do not realize the eschatological nature of communion. It is noteworthy that Jesus said, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:14-16). Even though he did eat bread and fish with the disciples after the resurrection, Jesus did not host another supper. He joined Cleopas and another one his disciples after meeting them on the way to Emmaus. There, he revealed himself in the breaking of bread. Although they did not recognize Jesus on the road because God kept them from knowing, he rewarded their hospitality in taking in a complete stranger (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus understands that we need both abstract and physical ways to know God. So, he gives us both Word and the liturgical rites of baptism and communion to show us wisdom and grace. In this context, "Word" is more than letters on a page, but the living scripture written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15; Heb. 10:16). Luke the Evangelist also recorded Jesus' parables of the wedding banquet and the great dinner. The theme or radical hospitality plays a key role in each lesson. Jesus tells us to invite all people to his wedding banquet, even if we initially fail to see their inherent value in the image of God (Latin: imago Dei). In the second about a great dinner, we see what comes of those who reject God's invitation to join him (Luke 14:7-24). Both parables are lessons about God's kingdom, and the matter of his offense is not a failure to RSVP to a meal invitation. Rather, communion is a picture of God's will to make the world right, again. Simply put, if we cannot share our thanksgiving in the here and now, we will never be able to do so when God resurrects both the living and the dead
Be present, be present, Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
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