Communion: The Faith We Embody

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

1 Corinthians 10:16 ESV

Throughout his ministry in Geneva, John Calvin dealt with a group of Libertines who used the grace of Christ as a license for sin. They “boasted in sinful licentiousness… arguing that the “communion of the saints” meant that their bodies should be joined to the wives of others.”[1] Steven Lawson describes one of Calvin’s most tense encounters with this group:

In an epic encounter, Philibert Berthelier, a prominent Libertine, was excommunicated because of his known sexual promiscuity. Consequently, he was forbidden from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Through the underhanded influence of the Libertines, the City Council overrode the church’s decision, and Berthelier and his associates came to church take the Lord’s Supper with swords drawn, ready to fight. With bold audacity, Calvin descended from the pulpit, stood in front of the Communion table, and said, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned and dishonor the table of my God.” Berthelier and the Libertines withdrew, no match for such unflinching convictions.[2]

I open our final study of the Lord’s Supper with this story for much the same reason that I began with the sacrament’s prominence in the Marburg Colloquy: the Reformer’s weighty respect of the Lord’s Supper contrasts with the decreased attention that it often seems to have today. Indeed, how many today would consider the sacredness of the Lord’s Supper to be so great that they would boldly offer their own lives in its defense? Perhaps more tragically, few today seem to understand the deep spiritual realities that the physical act of eating and drinking proclaims, which is, of course, why were have embarked upon this study in the first place.

You see, we come now to the present-day significance of the Lord’s Supper, which, I believe can best be captured with one of its more popular names: Communion. This bread and cup, eaten and drank in remembrance of Christ and His atoning death and in anticipation for His glorious return for His bride, is also a beautiful reminder of our communion, of our fellowship, with God Himself through the blood of Christ and with each other as the earthly body of Christ. Let us turn our focus to 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

COMMUNION THROUGH THE BLOOD

The word that appears twice in 10:16 as participation is worthy of our attention. The Greek word is koinonia, and it has immense theological significance to the Scriptures. In other texts, it is sometimes translated as community, fellowship, or partnership. In Acts 2:42, the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to prayer, to the breaking of bread, and fellowship. If we were to do a more complete word study, we would discover a clear reality that we can find in miniature within just two verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

First, in 1:5, Paul wrote of his thankfulness to Philippians “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Second, in 2:1, he wrote, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy…” In the first verse koinonia is translated partnership, and in the second, it is participation. Yet most interestingly, the first verse describes the Philippians’ koinonia with Paul for the sake of the gospel, while the second speaks of all believers’ koinonia in the Holy Spirit. Thus, koinonia clearly has both horizontal and vertical elements. It is communion, fellowship, participation, and partnership with both God and each other. Indeed, perhaps the best English word for getting at the heart of koinonia is simply together or togetherness. And this is what the Lord’s Supper declares each Sunday.

First, Paul notes that drinking the cup is a participation in the blood of Christ. What does this communion in the blood of Christ mean? We must begin by understanding the importance of Christ’s blood. Under the law of Moses, animals were sacrificed to make atonement for sins. Their blood was shed in place of the sinner, who deserved death. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). However, as we previously noted, the blood of animals was not sufficient to atone for sin, for animals, although innocent, are lower in worth than humans who are bearers of God’s image and given dominion over animals. We were, therefore, in need of a better offering. Consider then the words of Hebrews 9:13-14:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

And to continue in 10:11-14:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting for the time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Thus, the blood of Christ was given as the once for all sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. What then is the communion that we have in the blood of Christ? Ephesians 2:12-13 tells us:

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

By the blood of Christ, we who were once enemies of God have now been brought near to Him and His multitude of promises. Indeed, we are so near to Him that He has adopted us as His own children, becoming co-heirs with Christ.

As we drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, we are given a visible symbol of our active communion with our triune God. This is especially important because presently our communion with God is by faith rather than by sight, yet in His goodness, He has not left entirely without sight. In fact, we can think back to Jesus’ healing of the blind man as a fitting illustration. While the Lord’s Supper visually displays our renewed communion with God, it is very much like trees walking. One day, however, the sign will give way to the substance, as the Lord’s Supper gives way to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Until that day, we drink and see anew the wonder that we who were once under the wrath of God now have bold access to His throne as His sons and daughters.

COMMUNION WITH THE BODY

Next, in eating the bread we have participation in the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the church collective is referred to as the body of Christ. It is a powerful image because it displays to us that Jesus is still present and active on earth, even though He has physically ascended to the right hand of the Father. His earthly activity is conducted in us through the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit.

One of my favorite passages to show this thought is found at the beginning of Acts where Luke speaks of his first volume (his Gospel) as being the beginning of all that Jesus did and taught (Acts 1:1). The clear implication is that his writing of the church’s formation is a continuation of all that Jesus did and taught. Jesus is now the head of His church, and we, His church, are Christ’s body, continuing on His earthly ministry.

To gain further significance on our communion in the body of Christ, we can return again to Ephesians 2, reading verses 14-16 this time:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

In context, Paul was specifically commenting on the divide between Jews and Gentiles that has been broken down in Christ. Despite what many want us to believe today, few divides have ever run so deep as the one between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, it is so great that some today still believe the heretical idea that there are two paths of salvation, one that comes ethnically (by birthright) through the Jews and another than comes through Christ for Gentiles. Although he laid claim to the title of Hebrew of Hebrews, Paul spat in the face of such an idea of two paths of salvation. In fact, nearly all his trouble in the book of Acts came from fellow Jews who despised Paul for both proclaiming Jesus as the Christ and for so closely associating himself with Gentiles. It would have been far easier for the apostles to claim that Christ has two churches, one Jewish and the other Gentile. But they refused to swerve away, however difficult, from the reality that Christ died to accomplish.

As we eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, we should be ever reminded that we have been united to the same body as our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a visible testimony of the communion of saints. For this life, the communion of saints is necessarily seen most clearly in each local congregation that gathers together to pray, sing, hear the Word, and come to the Lord’s Table. It is fitting, therefore, that each local congregation would be the place where the Lord’s Supper is observed.

Just as the bread and cup give us a tangible sign of Christ’s love for us, so too is our being grafted into Christ’s church embodied on a local level. Indeed, just as we might ask how someone could claim to love Christ and yet refuse the sacrament that He instituted Himself, so we might ask how someone could claim to love Jesus’ church without actually belonging to one.

Christ’s incarnation is a glaring reminder that our God does not deal in abstract ideas; He embodies them. He does not merely call us to believe in Christ’s sacrificial death; He calls us to touch and taste these reminders of that very physical, violent, and vicarious death. He does not merely call us to love the idea of other believers in Christ; He calls us to very clear group of persons in a local congregation. A philosophical Christianity that is detached from everyday life is not biblical Christianity, for Christ Himself is not an idea to discover but a Person to be known.

As a kind of aside, I appreciate Lewis’ notion of Clear and Thick religions, the former being more philosophical and the latter more ritualistic. And he argues that one sign that Christianity is the true universal religion is that it is both Clear and Thick. He notes:

But Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage convert has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.[3]

Thus, as we eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, we should be reminded again and again that the command to love our neighbor is not abstract. We only need to look at the faces around us as we take Communion in order to know with whom we are in communion.

A WORD ON PARTICIPATION

When asked what the greatest commandment is, our Lord answered with Deuteronomy 6:5, that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He then said that the second is like it, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Is it not beautiful that our Lord has given us two visible signs of these commandments: a cup that signifies our love and communion with God and bread that signifies our love and communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our fellow saints?

With these two wondrous pictures before us, I want to conclude with a very practical topic that often comes to our minds and hearts as we prepare to take the Lord’s Supper: are we always to participate in the Lord’s Supper as believers, or are there times for refraining from eating and drinking?

The easiest place to begin is that, since the Lord’s Supper is a tangible display of our communion with God and with each other, all who have not yet confessed Christ as Lord are excluded. For these, the Lord’s Supper is a call to enter into that communion, to go before God’s throne in prayer to plea for the grace of Christ. Then, after becoming a follower of Christ, baptism should first be pursued, since it is the sign of being grafted into Christ’s church, and afterward the table is open.

The Lord’s Supper should also be withheld from anyone who has been excommunicated from the church. While many today have a very gut-level revulsion against the very idea of church discipline, it is thoroughly biblical if, of course, practiced in a biblical manner. At its core, church discipline is the simple act of calling a member of a local church to repent of a known and continuous sin. If after following the pattern that Jesus Himself gave to us in Matthew 18:15-20 the brother or sister continues to be unrepentant, the final act is excommunication, which literally means to put them out of communion. This does not mean that they are excluded from gathering for worship entirely, unless perhaps they are a physical threat to other members. Instead, the sign of their exclusion is in their inability to take the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, as the name should suggest, church discipline is not church punishment. The point of excommunication is not to humiliate or punish anyone; instead, it is intended to call the unrepentant brother or sister to repentance. You see, through being excluded from the act of Communion, we are essentially telling the person that until they repent, we see no evidence that they truly are in communion with God and the church. Each withholding of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is a call for the wayward to repent of their sin, return to Christ, and enter back into the communion of saints.

Now what about other believers? Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 11 with some very frightening words of warning against eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner,” namely, that the person who does so “will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). Indeed, Paul goes us to write that many in Corinth were “weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30) because of their sinful taking of the Lord’s Supper. With such strong words, many Christians wonder how they can be sure that they are taking Communion in a worthy manner.

As I noted at the beginning of this short series, there are two common errors when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. The first is an extreme sense of guilt that may often lead the person to withholding themselves from eating and drinking out of fear of judgment. The second is to treat it as an empty religious ritual, wherein we go through the motions without much thought as to the significance. I would suggest that these two opposite poles are a good means of examining ourselves before we eat and drink (v. 28).

If we find ourselves in the first category, it seems that we should not withhold ourselves from the Table as if we were placing ourselves in a kind of week-long purgatory. Indeed, to refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper simply because we feel unworthy is to treat the sacrament as a religious work rather than a visible display of God’s grace. It is perhaps when we feel most unworthy that we need to most freely eat and drink from the Lord’s Table as a reminder that our communion before the Father and with His church is not dependent upon our good works.

If, however, we find ourselves in the second category, we should indeed pause before eating and drinking. We should pause to examine ourselves, particularly to ask ourselves why such a wondrous sign of God’s grace means so little to us. But then after such self-examination and repentance, we should gladly eat and drink, reminding ourselves that even when “we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13).

Indeed, the only reason that I see for not participating in the Lord’s Supper as a baptized believer is if you are unwilling to let go of particular sins. One writer puts it well when he says,

I tell our people that the Scriptures are not barring any who have ever danced with the Devil. We all have. You simply cannot come to the Table still holding the Devil’s hand. As long as you are repentant, come. Be reminded that your Savior has paid the debt. Be reminded of the grace of God that is greater than your sin. Be humbled anew by grace which is staggeringly beyond what you could expect, ask, or think. Allow the truth of free grace to melt your heart and cause you to long all the more for holiness.[4]

I add to that: Be reminded that our communion with God and with each other is not dependent upon our own worthiness but upon the worthiness of Christ in our place.


[1] Steven Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 102-103.

[4] Ray Van Neste, “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church” from The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes by Thomas Schreiner and Matthew Crawford, 387-388.

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