My Life with Communion
Keeping Communion special
Since my family moved around a lot while growing up, I attended a number of different churches. And though they were all Wesleyan in character, there were a lot of differences. One of the most obvious differences between them all was how often they took holy Communion.
I’ve attended churches where Communion was taken once a year, once a month, once a quarter, and once a week. So I’ve experienced it all when it comes to Communion frequency.
As a young Christian, I fell into the camp that believed Communion should only be taken occasionally lest it become a mere ritual. I can still remember how odd it felt to me, the first time I went to a congregation that took weekly Communion.
“Wouldn’t taking Communion so often make it less special?” I wondered aloud to more than one person there. But they didn’t seem to think so.
I wasn’t totally convinced.
But time passed and my thoughts began to shift. The more I read about Communion, the more I felt like I was missing something.
Shifting thoughts on Communion
Reducing everything Scripture says about Communion to an act of mere remembrance doesn’t do either Scripture or Communion justice. As one person once told me, “Jesus said to do it in remembrance of him. How often do I really need to do it? It’s not like I’ve forgotten what he did for me.”
But what about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians? What should I make of his question, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). He calls the bread and cup a “sharing” in the blood and body. Doesn’t that sound like more than just “do this to remember what Jesus did when you start to forget”?
Likewise, if Communion is nothing more than a means of remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, then why does Paul warn against eating unworthily? And why are people getting sick – and even dying – because they aren’t taking it seriously enough (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-31)?
As I read these passages (along with the Gospel accounts in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22), I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been ignoring a lot of scriptural evidence. It felt like maybe I had misunderstood Jesus’ command to “do this in remembrance of me.” Was his idea of “remembrance” different from mine? Did he institute this meal for the same reason that we leave a sticky note where we know we’ll find it? Or was there more to it?
How often do I really need to ‘remember’?
The final straw for me was probably the realization that the Greek word for ‘remembrance’ can mean more than simply ‘recollection.’ Jesus didn’t give us the Lord’s Supper so that we wouldn’t forget about the crucifixion. He gave it to us so that we could enter into his story. One theological dictionary defines this word as the “reliving of vanished impressions by a definite act of will.”¹
There’s so much I could say about the meaning of communion. And I think it needs to be said. In fact, I believe the lack of preaching on and discussion about Communion is what leads us to taking it rarely.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest arguments I’ve heard against regular Communion (and one I’ve used myself) is that taking it too often will make it less ‘special’. And there is some potential truth in this. I’ve attended churches where Communion is taken every week and, to me at least, it did seem almost rote. Ushers passed it around like they were taking the offering and it was quickly eaten and drunk without time for thought or meditation. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
If we do it too often, won’t it be less ‘special’?
If we understand communion rightly, we’ll value it.
And don’t we make use of things we value?
Let’s test the argument that taking Communion too regularly will result in it being less special. Can we say this about anything else in life? Think about it with me.
“We ought not pray too often, if we do then it will be less meaningful.”
“We shouldn’t read the Bible every day lest it become a rote exercise.”
“You should only tell your spouse that you appreciate him occasionally, so that your words don’t lose their ‘specialness’.”
“I love watching football but I only watch the Superbowl so my interest doesn’t wane through the regular season.”
We can all recognize the absurdity in such comments. And yet we accept this logic when it comes to Communion.
The problem isn’t doing the act too often. The problem is allowing it to become a mechanical process.
Learning to Value Communion
If we see a married couple losing interest in one another, do we tell them, “Maybe you should spend less time together. Go on separate vacations. You know what they say, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder'”? No! The problem isn’t that they’ve spent too much time together. The problem is deeper than that. It’s a lack of commitment. Or a lack of understanding what marriage is really all about.
And if that’s the case, then, when we see people going through the motions as they take communion, is the answer, “Maybe you shouldn’t do it so often. Just do it occasionally. That way it won’t lose its specialness”? No! Just like with our last example, the problem isn’t that we’re spending too much time with it. The problem is deeper than that. It’s a misunderstanding of Communion and its place in the Christian life.
So, why do I believe Communion should be taken every week?
Let’s look at that question from a couple of different perspectives.
How Often Should We Do Communion?
First, and most importantly, I believe that Scripture points in the direction of weekly (and perhaps more often) Communion. Notice my word choice here: “points”. I should be clear from the outset that I don’t believe Scripture commands weekly Communion. Likewise, I don’t believe that weekly Communion is the key to effective ministry or automatic spiritual growth. Neither do I believe that it makes a person or congregation innately more spiritual. Finally, I don’t believe that we sin by not taking it more frequently.
However, I do believe that the scriptural evidence weighs more heavily on the side of ‘often Communion’. Let’s examine it together.
The Institution of the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels
All of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the institution of the Last Supper. In all three, he tells his disciples, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood of the covenant.” And in all three, he encourages his disciples to “take”, “eat”, and “drink”. Luke’s Gospel also records his words to “do this in remembrance of me.”
There can be no doubt that this was an important moment in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It’s a moment that’s bound up in his passion and death. But taken alone, the Last Supper accounts in the Gospels do not tell us how often Communion should be taken. They only tell us that it should be.
At this point, I ought to note that there’s one other place in the Gospels that hint at the meaning of the Last Supper.
The Road to Emmaus Incident
There’s a famous story recorded in Luke’s Gospel about two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him at first and assume he’s an out-of-towner. They tell him about the crucifixion and the empty tomb but let him know that they’re still perplexed about everything that’s happened. He begins explaining things to them – with his identity still hidden – and as they approach their destination, they encourage him to stay the night with them. So he joins them for a meal. And then it happens:
“When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). After this miraculous encounter, the two men return to Jerusalem, find the disciples, and “began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).
“The breaking of the bread” is an important phrase for Luke. It was likely a short-hand way of describing the Lord’s Supper. With this in mind, there may be more to this than meets the eye. These two disciples don’t recognize Jesus until he breaks the bread. And in fact, they tell the other disciples that this is the reason he was recognized. “He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.” There seems to be, in this, an acknowledgement that we meet Christ in Communion.
Again though, this still doesn’t give us a frequency. But it does tell us that the breaking of bread is valuable. Even more so if we recognize, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, that we meet Christ there.
The ‘Breaking of Bread’ in Acts
Luke continues his story of Jesus’ ministry through the disciples in the book of Acts. Early in that book, he provides a brief summary of church life immediately after Jesus’ ascension. Here’s what he says, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). There’s that phrase again: “the breaking of bread.”
Some have argued that “the breaking of bread” is merely a meal. I’d have to disagree. Only four verses later, Luke explicitly mentions the fact that they were “taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” But he does this after mentioning their “breaking bread”. In other words, he separates the “breaking of bread” from “taking their meals.” These are two different, though perhaps related, things.
In his commentary on Acts, I. Howard Marshall agrees with me. Regarding the “breaking of bread”, he writes, “This is Luke’s term for what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper”.²
If this is the case (and I believe it is), then the early church was taking Communion “day by day” (Acts 2:46). This is a strong indication that the Lord’s Supper was a regular occurrence – not something only done occasionally.
This fact is only bolstered by the testimony of Acts 20, where we read, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them…” (Acts 20:7). Notice what Luke says here. They gathered on the first day of the week to “break bread.” We ought to see this in light of the rest of Luke’s testimony regarding the breaking of bread.
The early church gathered together at least weekly to take Communion.
The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregation includes a lengthy discussion of Communion. Though we could look at several different chapters, I’d like to focus on chapter 11.
Background to 1 Corinthians 11
In order to understand this passage, it would be helpful to have a little context. The congregation at Corinth was divided. This fact is evident from chapter 3 where Paul tells the Christians there not to divide over favorite ministers. The division is made even clearer when Paul writes, “when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:18).
As you read 1 Corinthians 11, it becomes apparent that part of the division was also related to socio-economic status. Paul hints at this when he rebukes certain believers with these words, “in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).
It’s generally believed that some of the more wealthy members of the congregation were eating – and taking Communion – before the common laborers could get there (since they were still at work). Paul is rebuking these people because Communion was supposed to represent the unity of the Church. And they were turning it into an act of division.
“When you meet together…”
Now, with this in mind, we can examine one particularly pertinent verse.
Paul writes, “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper…” (1 Corinthians 11:20). If we read this in context, the implication is clear. Paul is saying that because of their divisions, their meeting-together has been transformed from what it was supposed to be – the Lord’s Supper – into something else entirely – their own supper (as is evident from 1 Corinthians 11:21). This strongly implies that the centerpiece of their meeting should have been the Lord’s Supper.
If we take this fact and add it to what we’ve already seen in Acts and the Gospels, it would be hard to deny that the Lord’s Supper was central to New Testament worship.
In fact, I believe that a case could be made for seeing the Lord’s Supper as one of the primary purposes of gathering together.
Summarizing the Scriptural Evidence
Growing up, I viewed the Lord’s Supper through a simple prism: “Do this in remembrance of me”. And if that’s all it is, then unless I’m in danger of forgetting, I don’t have to do it too often.
But this view does not do the whole of Scripture justice. Taken together, the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians paint a much more robust picture of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was a frequent act for the early Church – at least weekly. It was central to the Church’s gathering. And there’s evidence that it was believed to be a place where Christ himself could be met.
None of this implies the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation or the Lutheran view of consubstantiation. However, it does imply that Communion is of far greater value than many evangelicals suppose. This becomes even clearer as we gain a better understanding of its purpose.
And it is to that task that we now turn.
Why Should We Do Communion?
Do This in Remembrance
As I’ve already mentioned, the Greek word used by Jesus for ‘remembrance’ is more than simple ‘recollection’. Jesus isn’t just telling them to take the Lord’s Supper lest they forget his life, death, and resurrection. He’s telling them to enter into his story through the meal.
This idea has clear Old Testament precedence.
Remembering the Passover
In Exodus 12, right before the people of Israel escape Egypt, God gives them the Passover celebration as a “memorial” (Exodus 12:14). Like the Last Supper, it was a meal that brought the people of God back to that moment of deliverance. And with each Passover, it was as if they were reliving that deliverance. In fact, God says that once Israel is in Canaan and new generations ask for the reason behind the celebration, they are to be told, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes” (Exodus 12:27).
Each generation relives the Exodus through the Passover.
This idea is made even clearer when Moses reminds the Israelites of the Passover celebration, “You shall not eat leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), so that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 16:3). Keep in mind that at this point all of the people who had actually come out of Egypt had died besides Joshua and Caleb. And yet, Moses speaks to the next generation – a generation that was largely born after the fact – as if they were all there.
In the Passover, Israel was reliving that deliverance from Egyptian bondage.
I believe Jesus intended his followers to see the Lord’s Supper in a similar vein.
Each Communion is a reliving of that last supper. In the meal, Jesus reveals himself just as he did to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. This doesn’t happen because the bread and wine are transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus. It happens the same way that prayer becomes more than talking to oneself when fused with faith.
Christ meets us in prayer. He meets us in the reading of Scripture. And though absent in the body, he spiritually meets us in Communion.
This is what it means to take Communion in ‘remembrance’ of him.
Share It Among Yourselves
When Jesus broke bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves” (Luke 22:17). The Communion is an act of sharing. It’s a recognition that we, as the Church, are one body. Paul makes this clear when he writes, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
By its very nature, Communion acknowledges the unity of God’s people. It is a visual picture of what it means to be part of the one body of Christ.
In my experience, people too often view Communion as a purely personal affair. It’s all about them remembering Jesus’ death for their sins. And though this certainly plays a part in the taking of Communion. Until we see it as a communal act, we won’t see it in its fullness.
Communion is about sharing in Christ. And if that’s the case, then every time we take it, we should be reminded of our unity in him.
If there’s anything that the Church needs today, it’s a constant reminder of the fact that our unity is not based on denominational ties or outward standards. True unity can only come about through union with Christ.
And Communion pictures that union. Thus, a regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper will lead us to value our spiritual unity with greater fervor.
Proclaim the Lord’s Death
As we’ve already seen, Paul talks about Communion at some length in his first letter to the Corinthians. During that discussion, he makes a statement about the Lord’s Supper’s purpose that’s worth considering.
He writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The word he uses here for ‘proclaim’ is a word that appears throughout Acts and Paul’s letters to refer to the preaching of the Gospel. Paul’s words here strongly imply that the taking of Communion is a visual proclamation of the Gospel.
And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Could we possibly explain Communion without also explicitly explaining the Gospel?
What is the bread? It’s Jesus’ body given for us so that we might live. He is the bread from heaven – the true manna – that imparts life through his death.
What is the wine? It’s Jesus’ blood, poured out for us so that we might have forgiveness of sins. It’s the cup of the new covenant.
Communion makes the Gospel manifest.
This is one of the primary reasons I believe Communion should be taken every week. If done rightly, it gives the Church an opportunity to return to our foundation: the Gospel. It brings us back – week after week – to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and enthronement. And it looks forward to the day that he will return.
Communion vs. the Altar Call
Think pastorally with me for a moment.
In most congregations that trace their lineage to nineteenth-century revivalism, the altar call is a key piece of any Christian worship service. And I believe that it has its place. But I also think that stressing the altar call above and beyond Communion has certain negative repercussions.
At the end of any given service, altar calls may or may not be appropriate. Most people view the altar as a place to go when we hit a crisis moment. We go when we realize that we need Christ’s forgiveness. We go when we need healing from a sickness. Perhaps we go when we realize that we’ve drifted away from Christ and need to rededicate our lives to him. But we generally don’t go when we feel like things are going alright. When I’m following Christ, regularly praying, reading scripture, and growing in faith, I don’t see a reason to go to the altar (unless I have a heavy burden for someone else).
In other words, the altar call is for those who are struggling.
But Communion is for everyone. Communion is always appropriate because it’s always good and necessary to “proclaim the Lord’s death”. It’s always valuable to remember him. And viewing the unity we have in Christ is always needed.
Whether I’m in the middle of a crisis or not, I can respond to the Word of God preached through communion.
But what about…?
With all of that said, you may still have some lingering questions. I’d like to take a few moments to address potential objections to what I’ve written above. If you have a different question or concern (or complaint), I’d love to hear it. Leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can get around to addressing it.
But how can we keep it from becoming a rote, mechanical exercise?
As I’ve already said, I agree that there’s a danger in Communion becoming rote. However, I don’t believe that frequency is the reason for this. I’ve already shown the absurdity of this position by recognizing that we don’t use this kind of argument for anything else. We don’t warn people about reading the Bible too much or praying too much lest those acts become less special. So why should we do the same for Communion?
No, the greatest way to stave off this concern is by understanding Communion better. Preachers need to take the time to explain Communion. They should preach on it. Sunday School classes should discuss it (along with other means of grace like baptism, prayer, etc.).
Likewise, we ought to think long and hard about the way we go about taking the Lord’s Supper.
We should use it as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to all who are in the service. In fact, I believe that every sermon preached could ultimately lead to a response in Communion for believers and to the altar for unbelievers. But everyone in the congregation ought to be able to respond to every sermon – in one way or another.
I also believe we should take the elements together rather than separately, as a way to stress the unifying nature of Communion.
Basically, we ought to approach the Lord’s Supper like we approach prayer. Neither prayer nor Communion become rote because of frequency. They become rote when we lose sight of their true purpose.
Should we have Feet Washing every week as well?
For those traditions that still practice Feet Washing, this is a legitimate (and important) question.
I grew up attending churches where feet washing on Maundy Thursday was common. And as I’ve read John 13, I’ve come to the conclusion that Feet Washing is valuable and a means of grace. Unfortunately, some congregations that once held Feet Washing services have quit because of their lack of popularity. I believe that’s a mistake.
However, I don’t believe that Feet Washing and Communion necessarily must go together. In Scripture, they are linked only by the fact that they took place on the same night. But the Synoptic Gospels don’t mention the Feet Washing and John’s Gospel doesn’t mention the Lord’s Supper. Likewise, in all of his discussion on Communion, Paul never mentions Feet Washing. And Feet Washing isn’t mentioned in conjunction with Communion in Acts.
These are two different acts with two different meanings. There is no reason to assume they should always be done together – scripturally, theologically, or logically.
With that said, I do believe both should be done. I just don’t think there’s any reason to assume that every time one is done, so should the other be.
As I already said, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. And if I get any questions in the comments, I’ll do my best to add them here.
My ultimate hope is that we can all grow together in love, unity, and holiness.
I believe Communion has an important part to play in that goal.
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¹ Behm, J. (1964–). ἀνάμνησις, ὑπόμνησις. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 348). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
² Marshall, I. H. (2008). Acts: an introduction and commentary. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press / IVP Academic.