Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Putting the "Commune" in "Communion"

I had a conversation with another minister recently and felt that the topic of our discussion deserved some additional thought. He told me about how he had previously made the habit of providing individual Communion packets for anyone who wanted them. These small, hermetically sealed packets contain a small piece of bread and a bit of juice, making them convenient for travel. My pastor friend felt that handing these out made it easier for people to come to the Lord’s Supper wherever and whenever they were.

However, he recently gave up doing so. He is a Methodist, and someone had pointed out to him that without the proper consecration, the elements were incapable of imparting grace to those who took them. It was, in essence, nothing more than a very unsatisfying meal. To actually be proper Communion, the bread and the cup needed to be blessed and administered by properly-recognized elders or pastors. People could not just take them home and eat them on their own timing.

A couple of things struck me about this. First, I had never realized how different Methodist beliefs were from my own in regards to communion. The short version is that they see it as a sacrament, whereas I see it as an ordinance. For them, it is something that actually confers grace. Of course, that needs its own explanation. You can essentially think of it as access to God’s power. This is distinct from the Catholic view in which the sacraments confer sanctifying grace, i.e., working for salvation (an oversimplification, but the essential truth and all I am going to say about it for now).

For me and those in my tradition, it goes too far to say that Communion “accomplishes” anything. Certainly, it can be a time when we feel God’s grace. However, it does not give us grace. Grace is already and always given to those who trust in Jesus Christ. The purpose of Communion is to remember the giving. The quintessential passage on Communion, 1 Cor. 11:17–34, does not say anything about receiving anything from it. It does give warnings about taking it in an “unworthy manner,” which is to say, taking it wantonly rather than as an act of devotion. But what that passage really makes clear is that Communion is about calling to mind that Christ died for us and that He is coming back for us.

As you might see from these descriptions, there is actually a bit of a fine line between what we believe. There is grace in my experience of Communion, and there is memory in his. Certainly winds up being different in practice, though. Perhaps the biggest problem, from my perspective, is the distinctions it sets up between the clergy and the laity. I accept the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.” Taken from passages like 1 Pet. 2:9, Rev. 1:6, and Rev. 5:10, this is the concept that no one in the church is part of a special class. We all have equally valuable ways to minister in God’s kingdom, and there is no warrant for the notion that only the ordained can perform the functions of the church.

Since that is my position, I would never conceive of consecrating the elements of Communion. It would also never cross my mind that other Christians should require my say-so to give or receive the ordinance. It is an act of devotion that any of us can administer at any time.

That said, I still would not do what my friend previously did, and I do not actually think that has anything to do with the differences in our doctrines. I think, in fact, that orthodox Christians of almost any variety would disagree with what he did on different grounds. In fact, if he thought about it, he would probably say he had been wrong for the same reason.

You see, more than being a question of consecration, Communion is a matter of… well, communion. It is a corporate activity. Look again at 1 Cor. 11:17–18 and 33–34. Paul repeatedly says that this is something the church does when they “come together.” The Lord’s Supper expresses relationship. It does, obviously, represent the vertical relationship between God and man. But it is also important to think about how it represents the horizontal relationships among Christians. It reminds us of Christ’s sacrifice, while also reminding us of how we are united to one another in Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore, it is wrong, in general, to take Communion alone. This is something that is supposed to be done as a church.

Now, I say “in general” because I can certainly think of situations where I would not consider it to be wrong. If someone locked in solitary confinement in a POW camp were to use rice and water to remember the Lord’s death, I would still consider that to be Communion. Of course, someone in such dire straits would probably be more mindful of other believers than any of us. But the point is that unusual circumstances do not undermine the principle.

Communion, if taken alone, loses half its impact. Anyone who wants—not “has to” but wants–to take Communion alone is not being mindful of the Lord’s body, His church (1 Cor. 11:27–29; 1 Cor. 12:27). It is about personal convenience rather than private devotion, and is therefore unworthy. People in such an error, rather than being encouraged with easier at-home Communion, should be enjoined to appreciate the full life of the community and to share in it. That does not necessarily mean it has to be a lot of other people (Matt. 18:20). It just shouldn’t be done solo. Whatever else we believe about this practice, I think we can all agree on that.

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