communion - where did it come from?
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record that on the night on which Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples. The Passover meal was the sacred meal which gave shape and form to Judaism. Passover, and the meal that accompanied it, celebrated God's powerful acts in delivering the Hebrew people from slavery. The meal had elements which reminded those at table of their former slavery and the bitter tears that they shed; of God's command that the Hebrews sprinkle blood on the lintels of their doorposts as protection from the angel of death; and of God's miraculous deliverance which came so quickly that the people did not have time to allow their bread to rise. Finally the meal looks forward to the time when the prophet Elijah would return and the Kingdom would be established.
What the Gospels record however is not this exact meal. Jesus takes the Passover story and updates it. He brings it into the context of his mission and ministry. While it still tells the story of captivity and liberation, the characters have changed. The people held captive are not simply the Hebrews but all of humanity. The people are held captive not to Pharaoh but sin. The one doing the liberating is not God through Moses, but God through Jesus. The lamb which will be sacrificed is Jesus himself. This new "Passover" meal was adopted early on by the church complete with its ritual language. We know this because Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in C.E. 53 writes this:
"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." (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
This means that fewer than twenty years after Jesus' death the early church had a liturgy around which the meal was to be conducted…a liturgy which we still use.
It would be nice to assume then that the Lord's Supper was simply passed on and repeated from the upper room until it was received by Paul. Unfortunately the process was not quite that simple. We are made aware of this from the New Testament books of Acts, Corinthians and Jude as well as the writings of some of the other early church fathers. What we discover in those writings is that the church also had a sacred meal called the "Agape" meal or love feast. Paul's writings imply that the church would gather on the first day of the week (Sunday) for a shared meal. This was very much like a pot-luck dinner in which everyone was to share…though the wealthy believers in Corinth did not. Then once the meal was about over the church would use the words from the upper room as a conclusion. This idea of the shared meal continues to be a tradition in many churches in Africa and the Far East.
Even so, over time the Agape feast and the Lord's Supper become two very different acts. The Agape feast became looked down upon and officially discouraged because Christians would eat and drink to the point of gluttony and drunkenness. In other words they were using it as excuse to party like it was 99 (some of you will get the joke here). Church leaders including Augustine wanted the practice stopped. On the other hand the Lord's Supper became a more and more elaborate practice. Early church documents like the Didache (ca. 90CE), and early church Fathers including Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 100CE) and Justin Martyr (ca.130CE) both explain the meal and give instructions as to how it ought to be conducted. Thus the church moved the Lord's Supper out of the meal fellowship and into worship where it remains today.
communion - what happens?
What happens in communion. The obvious answer is; words are spoken, bread is broken, wine or juice poured and people partake. My guess is that anyone reading this article has participated in communion and thus could give a fairly accurate retelling of the process. The question being asked however is looking for a different kind of answer. I am asking if there anything out of the ordinary that happens. In other words, do the elements become the body and blood of Christ? Is Christ really present? Is Christ spiritually present? Or in the end is the Lord's Supper no more than meal with a memory attached. I ask these questions because the church (as in the universal church in all of its forms and fashions) has debated and fought about what happens at communion for hundreds of years. What follows are some rather simple descriptions of how the church has answered the question of what happens at the table.
Transubstantiation: this term describes the belief of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches (though the Orthodox churches do not use the actual term, instead they speak of mysteries) that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. Though the term was late in coming (sometime around 1100 CE) the belief behind it has been part of church teaching for centuries. Explaining how this happened was not of great concern. It was simply as accepted as fact. An explanation finally arrived through the incorporation of an Aristotelian view by the church (1250s CE). In today's Roman church transubstantiation is still the official teaching though Aristotle has been left behind.
Consubstantiation: this term refers to a view often expressed by Lutherans about communion. The idea is that while the bread and wine do not actually become the body and blood of Christ, the substance of the body and blood is alongside the elements. Luther himself spoke of Christ being objectively present "in, with and under the forms" of the bread and cup. This view has also been referred to as "sacramental union." Lutherans attempt to speak of the real presence of Christ while at the same time avoiding any superstition associated with the meal.
Spiritual Presence: Presbyterians have traditionally spoken of the spiritual feeding which happens at the table. We have not believed in the elements becoming something other than bread and wine (or in our case juice). At the same time we also want to speak of the real presence of Christ at the meal. We see this in the work of John Calvin (1509-1564) where he speaks of us feeding on the presence of Christ in the meal, while being clear that the bread and cup are not actually Jesus' body. Calvin did not want to separate the action (being spiritually fed by Christ) from the elements at the table. Thus we as Presbyterians believe that at the Lord's Table, we encounter Christ in a way we would not normally do so in day to day life.
Symbolic: this view of the Lord's Supper is that it is merely a time to remember what Christ did for us. This concept was originally promoted by Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) who denied the real presence and instead focused on the supper's power to support faith through witnessing to what Christ had done. In other words there is real power present, but not through any mystical presence of Christ. This way of viewing the event is shared by a wide variety of churches and denominations.
Ordinance: the final manner in which the Lord's Supper is viewed is that of an ordinance. This way of looking at communion simply views it as something that we are supposed to do because Jesus told us to do it. There is nothing powerful or mysterious about it. Thus when churches which take this view engage in communion they take great pains to eliminate any sense of ritual in order that no one ascribe any kind of mystery, power or presence to it.
In the end each of us is given the freedom to see and experience the meal as we so choose, knowing that Christ asked us to come to the table while at the same time promising to be with us always.
communion - presbyterian particularities
In this article we will spend some time looking at the particularities of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as regards the Lord's Supper.
How often may we come to the table? The Reformed Tradition (of which we are a part) has always struggled with this question. Our constitution (the PCUSA Book of Order) allows a church to celebrate communion as often as the elders approve…though it must be observed at least quarterly. Here at FPCB we celebrate it every week at 8:30 and once a month at 10:00.
Who may come to the table? According to our constitution the table is open to any who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is welcome. Thus it does not matter in which church or by what manner a person was baptized, only that baptism has taken place. Currently there is a task force within the PCUSA which is examining whether or not the table ought to be open to all persons regardless of baptism. This also means that children can partake of baptism when their parents believe they are ready.
When can the Lord's Supper be celebrated? Communion can be celebrated whenever it is authorized by a council of the church. This means that a pastor, elder or deacon cannot suddenly decide to offer communion whenever they so choose. The intent of this authorization is to insure that the meal is conducted in an appropriate manner. Each year the session (the elder board) of FPCB authorizes communion for Sunday mornings as well as for special occasions (such as Maundy Thursday). Communion can be taken to shut-ins (with session approval) in a timely manner after communion has been offered to the whole congregation.
Who can preside at the table? Our constitution requires that either a Teaching Elder (a minister) or a Ruling Elder (an elder elected by the congregation who has been trained and approved by presbytery) preside at the table. The purpose of restricting who may preside is not because there is anything inherently holy about these individuals. Instead, once again, it is to insure that what takes place at the table is done decently and in order.
Who may serve communion? Anyone authorized by the session may serve communion. While it is customary for Ruling Elders and Deacons to serve, the session may authorize any other members of the church to serve.
Are there special words that must be said at the table? The answer is no, there are no special words that must be spoken at the table. There are however elements which must be present. These include an invitation to the table; a prayer which includes thanks to God, a recitation of God's saving act in Jesus and a calling upon the Holy Spirit to be present; the words of institution over the breaking of the Bread and the presentation of the Cup; the Lord's Prayer; and the offering of bread and cup to all baptized persons present.
Are there other special requirements about the Lord's Supper? Yes, one of the most important is that communion ought never to be offered without being associated with the Word (preferably by reading and expounding on scripture). We do this because we believe communion in and of itself has no "power." It is intended to help build upon the Word of God read and preached.
Is there any special way in which the elements must be served? No, the elements may be served with people coming forward, to persons in the pews, around tables or in any manner which the session approves.