I attended church twice a week growing up. I had no choice. It’s not that I disliked church. But like many children, I struggled to understand much of what went on. Easily growing bored, I found ways to entertain myself. I doodled on the bulletin and occasionally timed the pastor’s sermon. I counted the overhead lights, wall panels, and segments in the stained glass windows. While I occupied myself with trivial activities, two details caught my attention: the baptismal pool situated above the choir loft behind the pulpit, and the white table at the center-front of the sanctuary, etched with the words, do this in remembrance of me. Something about the white table got me thinking: Why do we eat bread and wine at the table every few months? And who can eat it?
My church celebrated the Lord’s Supper (also known as Communion or the Eucharist) four times a year. I remember asking why we celebrated it so infrequently. The answer I got never satisfied, and it still doesn’t: “If we do this very often, it will lose its meaning.” Precociously I thought, It doesn’t seem to mean much to us anyway, so why worry about it losing any more meaning? As I grew older, I discovered some churches took the meal weekly. I was then even more dissatisfied with the answer I had received.
Whether you’ve been a Christian since childhood or accepted Christ just recently, you likely have a story about the Lord’s Supper. Your story might include questions or frustrations, maybe even doubts. Our stories explain a great deal, not only about us as Christians but also about how important we think Communion is to our faith and practice.
Christians throughout history have traced their practice of the Lord’s Supper back to a story, one that took place on the eve of Jesus’ execution. That evening, Jesus gathered his disciples to share the Passover meal. Passover commemorated Israel’s liberation from Egypt, and the primary aim of the meal was to transmit the Exodus story to future generations.
No doubt the disciples around the table had the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in mind. But they didn’t grasp that Jesus was about to undergo a new exodus—one that would liberate all humanity from sin and death and inaugurate his reign as Lord and Savior. Jesus told them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15–16).
The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recorded in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus gave the disciples bread, saying, “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26). Then he gave them a cup, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28). Luke tells us Jesus instructed his disciples to follow the pattern he gave them: “Do this in remembrance of me” (22:19). Just as Passover was intended to commemorate God’s deliverance over and over again, so was the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the earliest Christians ate the meal regularly, to remember and celebrate their redemption in Christ (1 Cor. 11:24–26). Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed us and prepared us for eternity with him. But we so easily lose sight of this in our day-to-day lives. The meal reminds us that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
With a few exceptions—Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, for example—Christians of all denominations and backgrounds have affirmed the importance of regularly sharing the meal. And virtually all agree on this: Christ instituted the meal as a memorial of his sacrificial death and resurrection; the New Testament commands us to celebrate it until Jesus returns; and we should do this together, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. Further, most Christians believe the meal should be given only to those who have been baptized.
While the meal is rooted in a singular event, it goes by several names. The simplest designation is “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). It is also called the “the Lord’s table” (1 Cor. 10:21) and “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). By the second century, Christians began calling it Eucharist, a word expressing the most characteristic element of the meal: giving thanks (from the Greek eucharisteo; Matt. 26:27; 1 Cor. 11:24). It’s a meal of thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.
One of the most commonly used terms is Communion (1 Cor. 10:16, KJV), from the Greek word koinonia, which means “a participation together.” Thus, many Christians believe that when we receive this meal, we actually participate in the presence of Christ through the witness and power of the Holy Spirit. And virtually all Christians affirm that the meal is to be taken in communion with others—that it’s a core sign of our unity in Christ.
So important was this meal in the early church that Luke listed it as one of the four marks of a Spirit-filled community (Acts 2:42). And a prayer in the Didache, a second-century teaching manual, asserts that unity is a chief goal of the meal: “As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may your church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” From the earliest days of the church, Christians have affirmed that the meal represents our union both with Christ and with each other. Not only that, many Christians have testified to having experienced profound unity with Christ and his people when they eat it.
A Meal That Divides
You don’t have to be in the church for long to realize that instead of uniting around the Lord’s Supper, many Christians have divided over it. One somewhat trivial example: Bible scholars agree that the New Testament alludes to it in places besides the references I mention above. But they disagree on where those allusions are and how to rightly understand them. (John 6:22–59 is one debated text.) More consequential debates focus on what the meal means, how often it should be taken, and who should partake in it.
It’s important to note that the words etched on Communion tables like the one in my childhood church say, do this, not debate this. When we move beyond Christ’s command and debate various theological nuances about the Supper, we move toward disunity.
For the first 1,500 years of church history, believers held a fairly common understanding of the Lord’s Supper. In the West, the Catholic Church believed the Lord’s Supper was a sacrament that conveyed grace to all who received it worthily. The Supper made Christ’s sacrifice on the cross truly present (though without being bloody). Through it, the forgiveness of sins could be obtained. Upon consecration, the bread and the wine change into the actual body and blood of Christ. This change is known as transubstantiation, a view officially adopted by the Western church in 1059, though the term wasn’t used until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
The Eastern Church didn’t go as far as the Western to explain what happens in the Eucharist. Orthodox believers use the term mystery for the Lord’s Supper—the bread and wine mysteriously become the body and blood of Christ. They don’t try to explain how this change occurs. Neither do they teach the doctrine of transubstantiation, though they affirm the sacrificial nature of the Supper and Christ’s real presence in it.
The Reformation dramatically changed things in the West. The Reformers looked upon transubstantiation, and the doctrines that had grown up around it, with suspicion, thus rejecting it. At least three views of the Lord’s Supper arose from various Protestant traditions.
Real Physical Presence. This view, following the teachings of Martin Luther, affirms that the bread and wine are spiritually the flesh and blood of Jesus yet remain bread and wine. Luther took Jesus’ words “this is my body . . . this is my blood” at face value. So his view describes Christ’s body and blood as being “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, though his body does not become the bread and wine. Luther said, “These prepositions were intended to affirm that the earthly elements were really Christ’s body and blood and not to explain how earthly and divine elements were spatially related.” Luther did not want to separate Christ’s humanity and divinity, so he didn’t want to imply that Christ was only spiritually present in the meal. For Luther, the elements are truly, substantially, and mysteriously Christ’s body and blood—that is, Christ is physically present in the meal.
Memorialism. This view, following the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli, denies any form of Christ’s physical or spiritual presence in the bread and wine. Zwingli believed Christ was physically present only in heaven, and that the bread and wine are signs that direct us to that heavenly presence. Zwingli believed these signs enable us to rise above this world of sense perception to spiritual reality. He connected Jesus’ words in John 6:63 (NRSV) to his understanding of the Supper: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Zwingli believed the idea of Christ’s physical presence was contrary to sense experience. So he took the word is in “this is my body” to be figurative. He believed the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial of Christ’s suffering, a visible reminder of his death and resurrection. Christ is spiritually present in the gathering of believers, not in the elements themselves.
Real Spiritual Presence. This view, following the teachings of John Calvin, is a middle way between Luther and Zwingli. It affirms Christ’s spiritual presence in the meal. Calvin rejected Zwingli’s memorialism and Luther’s “monstrous notion of ubiquity”—that Christ could be physically present everywhere, all the time. Calvin believed we actually receive Christ’s body and blood in the meal, but in a spiritual manner. While Christ’s physical body is in heaven, the Holy Spirit communicates the power of his body to us so that we really receive Christ in the Supper—so long as we consume the meal in faith.
The difference between Calvin and Luther centers on where Christ’s physical body is. Luther argued Christ’s physical body has to have the same omnipresence (in some sense) as his divine nature. Calvin believed that Christ’s physical body was located only in heaven, though his divine presence is everywhere. For Calvin, the Spirit makes Christ truly and really present spiritually.
United at the Table
While we debate the finer doctrinal points of the Lord’s Supper, we often forget and even violate one of the most important aspects of the meal: church unity.
In his 2013 book Subversive Meals, biblical scholar R. Alan Streett argues that in the first century, the Lord’s Supper promoted “an off-stage political act of nonviolent resistance,” one that “challenged Rome’s ‘great tradition’ and offered a Christian social vision in its place.” Celebrating the meal was a way for believers to resist overbearing human lords and to express their loyalty to Christ alone. For Streett, the meal gives us a new identity that’s wrapped up with God’s divine rescue project of the cosmos. At the Lord’s table, we come together as equals, as persons who are given the gift of God’s Spirit—unconditionally and impartially.
The social implications of the meal are illustrated radically in a story about the Duke of Wellington. After his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the British general attended a small church where he came forward and knelt down to receive Communion. An old man in tattered clothes knelt beside him. A deacon approached the old man, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, and whispered for him to keep his distance from the duke. Overhearing this, the duke immediately clasped the old man’s hand and told him, “Don’t move—we’re all equal here.”
The Lord’s Supper is an invitation: to identify with Christ’s death and resurrection in the power of the Spirit. And we come to the table together, to have communion with Christ and with one another. The late Baptist theologian Stanley J. Grenz reinforced this in his book Theology for the Community of God. Grenz underscored three orientations of the Lord’s Supper that most Christians can agree on. Together, they can help us to more greatly honor the meal and to unite despite our different ways of observing and understanding it.
First, the Lord’s Supper directs our attention to Jesus’ crucifixion and the future fulfillment of his kingdom. Second, it expresses the unity of one body and constitutes the church as an eschatological community in which Christ is present. This is a communal meal, not a private act. Third, it reflects our personal identity in Christ, through participation in the church.
It seems younger Christians are discovering these truths in a profound way. I’ve had the joy of speaking in churches, colleges, and seminaries for more than 20 years, and I’ve witnessed among younger Christians a growing interest in the Lord’s Supper. My interdenominational experiences have led me to believe they are looking for intimate expressions of both Christian community and divine mystery. It helps them connect with each other and with the church historic. For those reasons, many of them desire to receive the meal more often. And some of them—as I did when I was younger—have started attending congregations that take Communion every week.
No doubt Christians will continue to hash out finer doctrinal points regarding the Lord’s Supper. But let us unite around what we all can agree on. The Lord’s Supper tangibly reminds us of what Christ has done for us: He has reconciled us to God and to one another. And that’s worth feasting over.
John H. Armstrong is president of ACT3 Network in the Chicago suburbs and editor
of Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Zondervan).
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