Along with many others, my friends and I are beginning to meet again in person as lockdown eases. We have been meeting on line, and whilst that has enabled us to continue with many things such as looking at scriptures and sharing testimonies, we have been unable to do some things such as breaking bread together.
I have been wrestling with the whole concept of breaking bread/communion/eucharist for a number of years, as none of the many ways that I have shared in this with others have appeared to me to be what Jesus wanted his disciples to do, or what the early church seemed to have carried out.
The problem is accentuated, because this apparently simple procedure can be done, and indeed is done, in a variety of ways with a variety of meanings. According to various church traditions, there are differences in many areas. I certainly do not have any pat answers, but I do have some questions.
1. Frequency? Some churches, especially those with a more liturgical position, may have communion on a daily basis. Those who do not make it a daily practice usually do so once a week or once a month. Some churches, especially those in the Presbyterian wing of the church, may only celebrate 1, 3, 4 or 6 times a year. Is there any clear biblical basis which undergirds any of these patterns?
2. Who may share in the communion? The Eastern Orthodox Church give communion to newly baptized infants but not to any person who does not belong to the church. Roman Catholics and Anglicans will allow any person to partake who has been baptized and confirmed in the denomination. Most Free Churches restrict communion to adults, but do not necessarily require them to have been baptized. Some make a point that ‘those who love the Lord’ may come and others make no distinction at all. Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for members only on some occasions and ‘open’ communion for anyone on others.
3. What food and drink should be used? Anglicans and Roman Catholics generally use separate wafers made individually (ie. Not from a loaf) and alcoholic red wine. In some high churches, water is added to the wine, usually cold water, but hot in some Orthodox churches. Methodists will not use wine but red grape juice. Some churches insist on matzos or unleavened bread (ie. With no yeast in it), whilst others use pre-cut cubes of a cut white loaf. Some churches endeavour to keep the symbolism of a loaf and so break a loaf in pieces, however, some of the churches which insist on a loaf will have it with Ribena or some form of blackcurrant juice.
4. How should the food and drink be distributed? Whilst having individual separated wafers, most liturgical churches will use one cup out of which everyone comes forward to drink. Baptists tend to do it the other way around. They often use a loaf which is pre-cut, then distributed and eaten when received, whilst then using individual cups, which are passed around and everyone waits so they can all drink together. The possible combinations of how it should be done are many and varied. I have seen bread and wine presented on fine silver, and also pint plastic cups of Ribena passed round with chunks from a fresh loaf on a plastic plate.
5. Does anything happen to the bread and wine that is used? Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. However whilst the Catholics describe the change as transubstantiation, many (most?) Orthodox stop short of using the term and simply say that it is a mystery. Some of the reformers taught that Christ’s body and blood is mediated with the bread and wine so that anyone who receives by faith, does partake of Christ. Other reformers, and most Free Churches today, do not believe that any change takes place and that the bread and wine are aids to faith not vehicles of faith.
6. Does anything happen to the people who take bread and wine? Again the main difference is between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Free Churches. If Christ is actually given and received, that must make a difference and communion is therefore compulsory for a Christian. If all that a person receives is bread and wine, then any difference that may occur is as a result of faith not the elements themselves. However, if nothing happens, what does Paul mean about people becoming sick because they do not participate properly?
7. How is communion an act of remembrance? The Jewish Passover meal was an occasion when God’s deliverance of his people was specifically remembered. It happened in the context of a meal and during the meal questions were raised and explanations given. Although it only happened once a year, the remembrance element was central and so people were actually reminded of what God had done. Though most Churches celebrate communion much more frequently than once a year, it is more often done as a ritual rather than something which provokes and answers questions. Consequently, those partaking will often have less understanding from their frequent participation, than the Jews did from their infrequent participation.
8. What does it mean to remember until he come? Passover certainly incorporated an act of remembrance, but it also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was and is the Messiah who came, but having returned to the Father, he has promised to come again. As far as I am aware, very few churches of any type have any real focus on the second coming as part of communion. Should we rediscover such a focus?
9. What is the correct name and context for communion? Communion indicates a sharing together, Eucharist emphasises a giving of thanks and breaking bread was a common term for sharing a meal together. Usually, Eastern meals were, and in many cases still are, based around bread as the most common and basic food. Bread was life and to share bread was to share life. Jesus’ command to ‘do this’ was in the context of a meal. A question we need to ask is ‘Should his command be carried out as part of a meal, as an entirely separate ritual, or as something slipped into or tagged onto a church service?’
10. How does communion reflect the unity of the one body of Christ when it is done with so many variations, and often with the specific exclusion of others?
I am wrestling through many of these issues myself at the moment, but have found a strange reluctance amongst other Christians to talk about it or to reconsider their own particular way of doing things. I would be interested and open to comments from others on this.