|In Acts 2:42, Luke
says that the early church was devoted to the Apostles’
teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to
prayer. It's a passage familiar to pastors and planters, a sort
of measuring stick to evaluate how we're doing.
Judging from an unscientific study
based on visiting services and scanning websites, I'd say we're
pretty strong on the first two elements, and making progress on the
fourth. For teaching (or, more commonly these days, story-telling),
we have text, video and cassette tapes available. For fellowship,
there is the on-site or nearby coffee house. Prayer? It happens. The
"breaking of bread"? Hmmm. Curious: the ‘breaking of bread’
component so important to those early believers gets little notice
today. This deserves a closer look, especially since communion
speaks to matters important among post-moderns.
Back in high school, I saw a guy
standing in the parking lot one afternoon after the bell rang. His
shirt was off, and a jagged, semi-circular scar from his neck to
below his shoulder blade caught my attention. “A shark grabbed him
once,” another kid said. “Oh,” I replied, my mind instantly filling
Things you can see or handle evoke
stories, stir memories and go deep into heart and mind. Physical
objects regularly spark spiritual ruminations. Put a chalice and a
round loaf of bread on a stand near the front of your worship space.
Light a candle. Tell the story, over several weeks if you have to:
there’s more than enough detail. Have people touch what's there,
break it off, drink it down. The point of our gathering is wrapped
by grape and wheat, in a shredded body and spilled blood. Simple
things throw us back to the core of why we do what we do.
With communion we remember Jesus
who came for us at our time of deepest need. He rescued us when we
were on the brink of death. He did for us what we could not
accomplish for ourselves.
We love a rescue; check the movies.
A lot of pixels have been given over to the intricate spiritual
implications of The Matrix, but seen more basically, it’s a
rescue story-enabled by Trinity’s love. Or, Run Lola Run.
Sure, the music’s cool, and the pace frenetic, but boiled down, it’s
Lola rescuing her chowderhead boyfriend, three times. Mani’s a mess:
his trouble is self-induced. And Lola, at great risk, goes out on a
limb for him. She even dies for him.
Communion proves that we were
chowderheads, too, that we had plunged ourselves into a hole so deep
we couldn’t climb out: we desperately needed help. And help came, at
inestimable personal cost.
Theologs have for centuries
wrestled with communion: what does it mean? How does it work? Much
as we’d like to, we just can’t quite get ourselves deep enough into
the mysterious words, “This is my body…. This is my blood.” Did
Jesus mean that literally? How could He, since He was still there,
in the flesh, so to speak? Did Jesus mean this metaphorically? How
could He, since earlier He had insisted that “My flesh is real food
and My blood is real drink” (John 6:55)?
Demanding a simple solution
flattens the mystery. What if instead we point to the cup and bread
as another example of the intersection between physical and
spiritual? You can describe bits of this puzzle, just as you can
describe how light acts as waves or particles. But explain it?
The tradition I grew up with held
communion in great, and grave esteem. We ‘remembered the Lord’ each
week, and always in hushed tones. As I got to pondering this after
some years, I began to have trouble with the sobriety on two fronts.
First, there was the wine. Granted, some groups avoid trouble here
by serving unfermented grape juice (or, as was the case with a
church my family visited in Africa, orange juice). But putting aside
the question of current or former alcoholics in the congregation
(which is, for me, about the only reason I can think of not to have
real wine), ponder the genuine article. “Wine gladdens the heart,”
says the Psalmist (104:15), which is a good thing. Indeed, when Jews
sat to their annual Seder, they poured four cups of wine, to
symbolize their wealth (wine is the drink of the rich) and their
joy. Jesus, at the first Last Supper, would have agreed with that
Second, there’s the hymn. The
Gospel writers tell us that the disciples “sang a hymn” after
finishing the meal (Matthew 26:30). We know the lyrics for this
song, if not the music: it came from the Hallel, Psalms
113-118. Read those Psalms and you’ll be struck by their
irrepressible praise. When the Passover meal concluded, it ended on
By integrating communion into our
gathered worship, we have a magnet and a mirror for joy. The
celebration of it draws our praise, and fires it, too. Memory of His
death quiets us, to be sure. But as the impact of that death sinks
in, joy cannot help but emerge.
How often should we take communion?
When I ask this question, I get a startling response: Not very,
because it might become routine. Routine? Like eating gets routine,
or watching a sunset, or breathing? I wonder whether people who fear
the routine have been gripped by the variegated nature of the
I wonder if communion is a little
like Aldus’ (now Adobe's) Pagemaker (OK, I’m dating myself):
an incredibly powerful piece of software whose marvelous features
were rarely accessed by people like me. I could squeeze a
decent-looking bulletin from the disk, but beyond that I did not
venture. I settled for the functional, the practical; I was easily
I wonder if communion is a threat
to the ‘rest of the service’. Let’s face it: there’s only so much
time to get done all that needs doing. Can we afford the time
communion would take?
I wonder if communion might be
feared as ‘too religious’, or come across as a sort of artistic
jargon, accessible only to those in the know. I wonder what might
happen in the hearts of those God calls into our services when they
regularly face the story of the Cross that emphasizes by turns
power, sin, grace, failure, love and need.
Could we who are influential in the
shape of church life fashion worship around this table? I wonder.
Schmidt pastors an international church in Costa Rica. He
loves coffee, bakes bread and rides mountain bikes; he has a
lizard living in the window of his study. In December, Baker
will publish his book Unexpected
Wisdom: Major Insights from the Minor Prophets.
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