WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LORD’S SUPPER OR HOLY COMMUNION?
I grew up in a church tradition that celebrated Holy Communion every Sunday. I can remember rising early to attend the 8.00 a.m. service. When I was confirmed at age 13 and after my commitment to Christ I was made a Server at Holy Communion. My responsibilities included setting up the bread and the wine before the service, assisting the Vicar during the service, and cleaning up afterwards. The congregation was never large at that hour. It was a quiet service for we had no music, and the homily was very short, usually read by the minister from a book of meditations. My recollection as a teenager of those services were that they were reverent, personal and very worshipful. They established the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as an integral part of my life as a Christian.
What is the importance and significance of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion to you? Why are bread and wine used? What does it mean to say that they are the body and blood of Christ? Why did Jesus command us to “eat this bread and drink this cup?” What do we gain by taking, eating and drinking? Why did Jesus command us to “Do this in remembrance of me”?
The Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation
Bread and wine are distributed in the Lord’s Supper. The bread we used in my home church was unleavened wafers prepared by the Community of the Sacred Name, an order of Anglican sisters in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was unleavened and therefore unlike store-bought bread because that was what was used for the Passover feast which Jesus celebrated with his disciples at the Last Supper. The wine we used was Port wine which was fortified or dessert wine. We used a silver chalice which meant that all received from the common cup to symbolize our unity in the Body of Christ.
By eating the bread and drinking the wine we receive outwardly and physically the food and drink by which we need to live. But this bread and wine are signs or symbols of something spiritual – Christ himself given as a sacrifice for our salvation. They are therefore the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who believes in me shall never hunger or thirst. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world….unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51-56)
Eating and Drinking as Symbols of Faith
Obviously Jesus is not speaking literally but figuratively. The act of eating and drinking are outward signs of inward and spiritual faith whereby we receive what Christ offers and gives to us through his death on the Cross for our redemption. He is the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. What we do physically, by eating and drinking, we do spiritually by faith, in taking Jesus, his eternal life, his salvation, his resurrection power, his atoning sacrifice, his Spirit, into our lives. Just as we take food and drink into our body, and then its nutrition is distributed throughout our bodies, so we take Christ and the benefits of his Cross into our souls. By faith, which is the soul’s mouth, we take Christ in, with all his grace and power, and he pours out his life and strength in us, and in that strength we live and work for him. We can pray:
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in to cleanse and to forgive me. Come in to comfort and heal me. Come in to empower me and change me. Come in to guide and direct me. Come in to fill me with your Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Thank you for dying on the Cross for my salvation.
The Centrality of the Cross
When I pastored Episcopal churches in the USA Holy Communion was celebrated at every service. While the early service was the same as the one I grew up with in my home church, the later services were larger and filled with music. The early service at my congregations in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and in Orange Park, Florida, were conducted in smaller sanctuaries. At Grace Church, Orange Park, this was the chapel where the children had their service. They then would join their parents for Holy Communion following the sermon in the big sanctuary. Their entry was always filled with joy and excitement as they joined their parents. This gave the service a festive character far different from the solemn services of my childhood. It was a joyful celebration of our life in Christ around the banquet Table.
Why do the denominational churches take the command of Jesus “Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me,” as meaning frequently? The London Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon took it as meaning every Lord’s Day. He wrote, “I thank God that, coming to this table every Sabbath-day, as some of us do, and have done for many years, we have yet for the most part enjoyed the nearest communion with Christ here that we have ever known, and have a thousand times blessed his name for this ordinance.”
By celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently Jesus intended us to keep the Cross central to our worship. In the earliest of his letters St. Paul wrote: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor.2:2) The Lord’s Supper keeps before us the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It teaches us by outward signs those truths which the preaching of the Gospel brings before us in words. It prevents us from generalizing the grace of God as cheap forgiveness by focusing our attention on the sufferings and death of our Lord as a sacrifice for sin so that we might be forgiven and justified in God’s sight.
Faith as Spiritual Feeding
In the Lord’s Supper a special act of faith in the atonement of Christ is required. Faith is to the mind, what partaking of food is to the physical body. We know that before food can nourish us, it must be received, eaten and digested. When we receive the bread and the wine, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and through faith, we receive Christ himself as our only and complete Savior. It is not enough to believe intellectually in the truths of the Gospel, we must also act on our belief and receive them into our hearts. We must combine our hearing with faith (Heb.4:2).
What are the benefits of participating in the Lord’s Supper?
It is the means of grace by which Christ, the bread and drink of life is conveyed to us and received by us through faith. God reminds us of our salvation and strengthens us to receive and feed upon Christ by the exercise of faith.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread which we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor.10:16,17)
Through the mercy of God, by receiving the Lord’s Supper, we enjoy these benefits which were obtained by the sacrifice of Christ. The Lord’s Supper gives us the assured hope that the blessings of redemption belong to us, and enables us to grow in grace. This assurance gives us confidence. As we take the bread and wine, and feed on them in remembrance of Christ’s death, so we believe that the spiritual blessings obtained by that sacrifice belong to us and the Lord’s Supper is designed to give us this happy assurance of faith. In partaking of this feast, our souls are strengthened and refreshed by new views of our relationship in Christ, and a fresh and lively communion with him.
Fellowship Around the Table
We also have the benefit of communion with our fellow-Christians around the Lord’s Table. We become interested in each other’s prayers; we sympathize in each other’s sorrows; we partake of each other’s joys; we are traveling the same road; we have the same difficulties and comforts; the same sorrows and joys. We are a family gathered around the Table whose Lord is our Host. In my church in San Antonio, Texas, the children would have their Sunday worship in their beautifully appointed Children’s Chapel, which featured stained glass windows and a hand-carved wooden Table. They learned the meaning of the Holy Communion service in their Montessori-style Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium which taught them through hands-on participation to fully understand and participate in receiving communion. They graduated from the program with a First Communion celebration. Families would come to the Communion Rail together. As people would come forward to the Altar/Communion Table and return to their seats they would greet one another in the aisles, hug one another, and bond as a family in Christ. It was truly a family meal that was full of love.
Preparing for the Coming of Christ
Our participation in the Lord’s Supper is one of the most effective means of preparation for the coming of Christ. The universal remembrance of Christ, and the subjection of all nations to him, cannot be hoped for until his return, and we, by the Lord’s Supper, show forth his death till he come. Then it is that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and our prayer will be answered, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As the last book in the New Testament closes: “Surely I come quickly; Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Communion with the Lord
The Holy Communion is a means of enjoying communion with Christ on earth. The world, as our Lord reminds us, is ignorant of this communion; it does not understand it; it ridicules the idea. But we are privileged to enjoy an enlivening fellowship with the Lord. This communion is specially enjoyed at his Table. As the eyes of the disciples at Emmaus were opened, our Lord makes himself known to us in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30.31).
The Wedding Feast
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper anticipates the marriage supper of the Lamb in glory. “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready… Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” (Rev.19:7,9) The Lord’s Supper emphasizes that our destiny is to join the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven around the throne of God. There we will sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
This reality is made more vivid at funerals when Holy Communion is celebrated. If the body is present in a casket the congregation flows around it to take communion. We are reminded that the dead in Christ will rise first and join with us and all the communion of saints at the Lord’s Table.
The Wedding Invitation
Who is invited to the wedding feast? (Matt.22:1-14) Who is to receive at Holy Communion? All are invited who repent of their sins, believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, who died on the Cross that they may be forgiven and reconciled to God, are baptized members of the Body of Christ, are not at variance with their brothers and sisters in Christ and desire to live a life in Christ.
What does Paul mean about eating and drinking the bread and wine unworthily (see 1 Cor.11:27-29)? He is talking about “not recognizing the body of the Lord.” This may mean that the communicant does not realize what the bread and the cup means. It may mean ignorance of their significance, or lack of reverence, or application of them. It may also mean not realizing that the body of the Lord is the Christian community. Everyone who is at variance with his brothers and sisters in Christ, eats and drinks around the Lord’s Table with them unworthily. Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24).