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Communion: Where should we look?

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Posted by Marc Lloyd, 1 Jul 2020

As new guidance allows for the possibility of communion in some form, Marc Lloyd continues his series of blog posts on the subject.

Some people have been looking at Communion services online. As part of our series on The Lord’s Supper, following on from our post on the Supper as a visible and edible word, when we are able to gather again around the Lord’s Table, where should we look?

We look back
As the Prayer Book and Common Worship both stipulate, the service of the Lord’s Supper will rightly involve confession of sin. We will want to look back over the last week and repent of all that we know to be wrong. As our parents taught us, we ought to wash our hands before we come to the table.

But above all in the Supper we look back to the great events of salvation history. They are the essential grounds of this meal. They celebrate a historical reality: the mighty deeds of God on behalf of his people.

The Last Supper was a Passover meal (Luke 22:7-8, 11-15). It recalled God’s rescue of his people from slavery by the sacrifice of the Lamb. Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). He is the Lamb of God who takes away we sin of the world (John 1:29). As we celebrate this meal, we participate in this story: Jesus rescued us, and not just our ancestors in the faith. As the Passover marked the first month for Israel, Jesus’ exodus in the cross and resurrection are the founding event of the New Testament church on which we base our communal life.

Jesus told us to do this in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19). We remember his body broken for us and his blood outpoured. We cling to the cross as the event which defines who we are as God’s forgiven, rescued people.

As Max Thurian, Joachim Jeremias and others have argued, a better translation of Jesus’ famous command might be “do this as my memorial”. In the Bible, covenant sign of the rainbow, amongst other things, is called a memorial (Genesis 9:12-17). In fact, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is a reminder to God of his covenant promise to have mercy. Of course God does not forget, but a memorial asks God to act on the basis of a past promise. So in the Supper too we memorialise the death of Jesus. We plead the blood. We ask the Father to have mercy on us and to remember his covenant promise of mercy.

At the Supper we remember the cross not just as some distant event of history, but as the solid historical foundation constitutive as of our relationship with God today. We depend afresh on the once for all sacrifice of Jesus for us in our place for our status as God’s children today and for the future. We look back to his finished work. All that we do in the Supper and as believers, depends on the fact of what Jesus did in history for us.

We look within
The Apostle Paul tells us to examine our hearts before the presume to eat and drink of the bread and the wine (1 Corinthians 11:28). This is powerfully impressed upon us in the Third Exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer Communion service.

Although this is important, I think there is a danger that our Communion services become too morose and introspective. As we have said, we should confess our sins, but we should also believe the words of absolution as the minister reminds us of God’s promises of forgiveness to his repentant people.

It is worth remembering that the context in which the commandment to self-examination at the Eucharist comes in 1 Corinthians. Some people were getting drunk, gorging themselves or otherwise showing the most shocking manners whilst the poor went hungry. The sacrament of Christian unity revealed their scandalous divisions. Certainly we do not want these things at the Lord’s Table, but I will let you consider whether they are our dangers – or at least how a similar spirit might manifest itself differently at our celebrations.

Church discipline is at a very low ebb in the Church of England today, but in the history of the church the moral or doctrinal bar for participating in the Supper has sometimes been set too high such that in some periods too few people have Communicated too infrequently. Jesus welcomes repentant sinners to his Table and so should we. We should come with a glad confidence in the gospel which this meal embodies. Yes, Jesus is our righteous Lord and Judge but he is also a generous and kind host, a compassionate saviour. The commandment to examine our hearts is given that we might participate rightly in the meal Jesus gave us, not so that we should excommunicate ourselves. In my opinion, it would be a shame if it were used to exclude the young or the disabled who we might think cannot examine their hearts to our satisfaction.

For every look at our own hearts, we would do well to take several looks at Christ.

We look up
The Service of the Lord’s Supper urges us to lift up our hearts. It is an opportunity to fix our eyes, our hearts and minds, afresh on the crucified and risen Jesus who is enthroned in glory, seated at the right hand of the Father. We are in him by faith and the Holy Spirit bridges the gap between earth and heaven. Jesus’ physical body is not on the Communion Table but in glory and we commune with Christ in heaven. We should not fixate on the physical elements or on the minister but should look to Christ.

All of life is worship, but the Supper is part of our special communal public worship. It is worship of God rather than merely edification of one another. We rightly focus on Christ. We offer him our sacrifice of thanks and praise. But the Reformed have always insisted that the primary direction of the Lord’s Supper is from God to us. It is a grace before it is a work. God feeds us. We come to him as hungry beggars in need of bread. We eat and drink with thanksgiving, which was an important part of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-27). The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving and it should be a key note of our Communion services. Our offering of thanks and praise and of ourselves is a response to what God gives us (Romans 12:1-2). What do we have that we have not received? Only because we feed on Christ can we live for him. The power is his. Above all, in the Supper, let us look with grateful humility to our loving heavenly Father to give us his Son in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to be received by faith, knowing that in him we have all we need.

We look around
I don’t know if you’ve ever found a service of the Lord’s Supper slightly socially awkward. Maybe the choreography of who goes up to eat when was unfamiliar or not straightforward. And sometimes we are literally not sure where to look. The atmosphere can sometimes be very solemn and we don’t want to disturb one another’s intense and reverent private communion with Jesus.

Yet Jesus intended Communion to be a communal meal. The presence of others is essential rather than incidental or even inconvenient. In fact, The Prayer Book rubric requires that there should always be congregation to receive Communion with the priest: “a convenient number with the Priest, according to his discretion…. Four (or three at the least) … with the Priest.” Solo-communion is alien to the Anglican tradition. We receive the body of Christ as the body of Christ.

Yes, try not to give one another fits of the giggles, but personally I think it’s more than acceptable to catch one another’s eye and even to smile at Communion. We are discerning the body (1 Corinthians 11:29).

We look forward
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he would “not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29). At Communion we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of Lamb (Revelation 19:9). We would do well to make the Supper more like a wedding, or at least an engagement party, and a bit less funereal than it can sometimes be.

And in the meantime, the Supper is food for pilgrims on a journey. Jesus the true and living manna, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven must feed and sustain us if we are to walk with him to the Promised Land of the New Creation. 

Find previous posts in the series:
Coronavirus and Communion
Communion at Home
The Necessity of Word and Sacrament
Visible and Edible Word

Marc Lloyd is the Rector of Warbleton, Bodle Street Green & Dallington, and Rural Dean of Dallington.

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