Throughout Church history, congregations have conducted the practice of Communion in varying ways. The essential practice of communion in the Church in some way, shape or form is non-negotiable. Communion has its foundation in the Gospel ministry of Jesus Christ and must remain a foundation in the Church that bears his name. An argument can be made for the necessity of communion in the church by discussing four key issues relating to Jesus Christ. The four issues are that communion is:
1) The Command of Jesus Christ
2) The Provision of Jesus Christ
3) The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
4) The Legacy of His Church
These four issues form the foundation for the doctrine of Communion and its place in the Church.
1) The Command of Jesus Christ
Communion has its roots with Jesus Christ on the night before his execution. Jesus Christ and his Apostles sat together, shared fellowship and “broke bread.” As the final hours of his earthly ministry were coming to a close, Jesus took the opportunity to clarify what was going to happen to him and what his Apostles in turn were going to be called to do. Aside from instructing them in continuing to spread the Gospel and loving one another, Jesus illustrated his upcoming sacrifice on the cross by using bread and wine found on the table.
Jesus proceeded to show that the bread that was broken was a symbol of his body that would soon be broken for them and for the world in his crucifixion. He then took the cup of wine prophesied that soon his blood would be spilled as he was sacrificed as a sin offering for the transgression of sin brought into the world since “the fall.”
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover. When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
After using the bread and the wine in the same way that the Jews commemorated their rescue from the slavery from Egypt, Jesus commanded the Apostles to remember his upcoming sacrifice with the bread and wine to commemorate how he rescued them from the enslavement of sin.
2) The Provision of Jesus Christ
The practice of communion was not simply a command to be followed “just because.” As was the case in everything that Jesus chose to do concerning his earthly ministry, there was a deeper purpose intended for the eyes to truly see and the ears to truly hear. While the primary focus of the communion meal was to direct the Apostles’ hearts toward the upcoming sacrifice on the cross, Jesus, through the communion meal, also intended for the Apostles to reflect back upon the provision of the past three years with him. At the feeding of the 5,000, before Jesus performed the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish, Jesus took the bread, looked up to heaven, asked God to bless the bread and then broke it so as to feed the hungry crowd.
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
At that point in Jesus’ ministry, only Jesus could have known how poignant the breaking of bread to feed the hungry was in the light of his upcoming breaking of the bread at the Last Supper the night before he was ultimately broken on the cross as a result of his sacrifice. At that point in his ministry, the focus was on the miraculous provision of Jesus, not on his sacrifice. Thus, the practice of communion, while a somber reflection of the sacrifice of Jesus at the hands of a sinful and broken world, it functions also as a reminder that God has always given us what we needed precisely when we needed it.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The practice of communion is a call to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ, on the new life and victory given to us as a result of his death, and on the reality of daily and eternal provision in the person of Jesus.
3) The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
At the heart of communion is ultimately the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While the Christian life must be marked by joy in the new life found in Jesus Christ, at the foundation of the Christian spirit is constantly awareness of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is not to say that a Christian life should be overwhelmed by grief concerning the sacrifice. Absolutely not. To know of his sacrifice is to know his resurrection, which supplies us with the ultimate joy. However, in order to experience the life-giving power of the empty tomb, one must also confront the weight of the sacrifice that preceded it.
As Jesus sat at the table about to break the bread and pour the wine, once again, he found himself completely alone in the understanding of what he was about to do. For three years, Jesus repeatedly alluded to, and in some instances told outright, the Apostles about the price he was going to pay on the cross. However, often he found himself in the sole position of understanding the weight of his mission. On the night he broke the bread during the last supper, Jesus was staring directly at the cross, but again, he found himself isolated in the knowledge of what was soon to occur. Jesus could foresee the fists. The Apostles could not. Jesus could foresee the spit. The Apostles could not. Jesus could foresee the verbal abuse. The Apostles could not. Jesus could foresee the crown of thorns. The Apostles could not. Jesus could foresee the nails. The Apostles could not.
Jesus could foresee the dehydration, the asphyxiation, the loneliness. The Apostles could not.
The practice of communion is not simply the reflection on the death of a good friend. The practice of communion recognizes suffering that we will never understand. To practice communion is to reflect on the sacrifice of a God for children that have defiantly refused to sacrifice anything in return.
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
In Communion we reflect on the fact that Jesus had no reason to sacrifice what he did aside from his desire to see us reunited in fellowship with the Father in the same way he has always been. Through communion we acknowledge that we have done nothing to deserve what we have, but because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have been given more than we ever could have possibly imagined, and are fulfilled and satisfied in ways that only God has always foreseen. Communion is a celebration of new life, however, it is only a celebration because at one point it was the greatest loss the world had ever known.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
4) The Legacy of His Church
For the Church of the present, aside from the foundational words and commands of Jesus Christ, we must inevitably look back to the forefathers of our faith in the early Church for our example of how we should carry ourselves as Christians. In a brief overview of the practices of the early Church it is clear that there are certain fundamental traditions and practices that the early Church prioritized in their worship. Along with caring for the poor, the widow, the needy, healing the sick, preaching the gospel, sharing what they had and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the early disciples met together in their homes regularly and “broke bread.”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This breaking of bread can only mean one thing: that they stayed true to the command of Jesus Christ by continuing to practice the communion modeled for them by Jesus during the Last Supper.
More than a symbol for us concerning the obedience of the early Church to follow the commands of Jesus, this is a holy reminder for us today that the members of the early Church desired to never lose the true message of their faith. They knew that they were alive because of Jesus Christ; to forget that or to overlook Christ’s central role in their lives was not an option. For them, looking at the broken bread and seeing the wine reminded them that they were alive because Jesus Christ chose to be broken and bleed for them. However, upon consuming the bread and the wine, the Christians were reminded of how much God had given them and how united and one they were with the Son and the Father.
The Church in its current form often fails to effectively embody the spiritual fruit of the early Church. Why? While there are many factors that can contribute to this difference, one could argue that the casual approach of the Christian Church concerning the practice of communion, or in some instances, the absence of it altogether, has at least contributed to the distancing of the Christian Church from Jesus himself and has given way for a more Church centered model as opposed to the Christ centered Church that Jesus was broken and bled for.