The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #26: What does Communion mean?
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” -Luke 22:19-20
Like me, you have probably participated in numerous Communion meals. I go to a church that practices weekly communion. I am also aware of churches that only hold Communion once a year after the fashion of Easter. And a whole host of practices between these two as well. Since the Bible does not exactly tell us how to do this, denominations and individual churches have come to determine how they think it should be practiced.
In addition, the further our churches historically have moved away from being part of a covenant making culture, what this meal means theologically has shifted over and over again to fit its earthly culture. And these theological differences have been deadly serious, with people hating others over the differences and churches refusing to fellowship because of them. Most famous was Martin Luther’s refusal to join hands with Huldrych Zwingli in joining forces to reform the church just because they did not agree about what Communion meant.
So what is this meal all about? Is it about transubstantiation—that the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Jesus? Or is it consubstantiation—that the real presence of Jesus is in these two when we eat? Or is it a memorial meal, taken to remind us to confess sin and remember what Jesus did for us on the cross? Each of these three theological positions is held by a substantial part of the churches in the world.
I suggest that all three miss the mark. I realize that I am bucking a lot of church history as well as major theological giants in saying this, but each of these three positions on Communion is missing the central ingredient of the covenant. Without being technical, Jesus was not endowing the meal with theological significance. He was using it to invite his disciples—and all who followed thereafter—into covenant.
Cultural groups who make covenant always include a meal to be shared by the participants. This can be seen in the covenants made in the Bible. (Genesis 31:51–54; Exodus 24:1–11; Joshua 9:14-15) They eat together to make a statement of relationship. We have covenanted. We belong to each other. Our relationship has changed from enemies or strangers to one that is deeper than being born of the same mother. Middle Easterners have an expression for this, “Blood is thicker than milk.” They understand that the blood sacrifice of a covenant relationship formed a deeper bond and a far deeper obligation between people than that of siblings who nursed at the same mother’s breast. The Hebrew term for this bond is hesed, which translates ‘loyal love expressed in loving kindness.’ In the New Testament, the word is agape.
Why I want you to know this is so that you will see the transformational commitment the Father made with you when you eat this meal. You belong. Nothing you can do will break this covenantal relationship because it depends on God alone to maintain it, not you or me. He is faithful even when we are not. And His faithfulness is about His commitment to conform us into the likeness of Jesus.
This is also why churches should not refuse to let people who are messing up spiritually take Communion as a means of punishing them until they straighten up—“become worthy” again of taking it. In that case, no one will take it! It was not given to us as a measurement of our holiness, but as a statement that we are in God’s family. No one can deny themselves or anyone else that reality.