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11 March 2019

Holy communion: Regularly eating and drinking Jesus.

An introduction to Christianity’s most frequent ritual.

Holy communion, or “communion” for short, refers to the Christian ritual where we repeat what Jesus did during his last Passover with his students:

Mark 14.22-25 KWL
22 As they ate, Jesus took bread; blessed, broke, and gave it to the students,
and said, “Take it. This is my body.”
23 Taking a cup, giving a blessing, Jesus gave it to the students, and all drank from it.
24 Jesus told them, “This is the blood of my relationship, poured out for many.
25 Amen! I promise you I might never drink the product of the vineyard again
—till that day I drink it new in God’s kingdom.”

Roughly we do the same thing. There’s bread, wafers, matzo, saltines, oyster crackers, or those little Chiclet-size pills of flour you can buy by the case; there’s wine, non-alcoholic wine, grape juice, grape-flavored juice (made with 10 percent juice, which I like to call “10 percent Jesus”), or grape drink; Christians ritually eat it ’cause it represents Jesus’s self-sacrificial death. And we’re to do it till he officially comes back. 1Co 11.26

Holy communion is more of a Protestant term. Orthodox and Catholic Christians call it eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστέω/evharistéo, “to bless” or “to give thanks,” like Jesus did when he blessed the bread and wine. Christians also call it “the Lord’s supper,” “the Lord’s table,” “the divine service,” “the breaking of bread,” and for a lot of Catholics just “the sacrament”—the one they do all the time, as opposed to the other sacraments.

But communion emphasizes the fact we’re connected to Jesus. And to one another, through our relationship with him. For a lot of Christians, that’s why we do holy communion: It’s a reminder we’re Christ’s body, 1Co 12.27 which is why we just ate a little bit of him.

Well, not literally ate him.

Well… some Christians are entirely sure we do literally eat him. ’Cause they take the bible literally, so when Jesus said, “This is my body,” they figure he’s not kidding: It is his body. He turned it into his body. He still turns it into his body; as soon as the bread gets blessed for holy communion, hocus pocus (or in the original Latin, hoc est enim corpus meum, “this is my body,”) and now it’s Jesus. All the bread’s atoms got swapped with Jesus’s atoms.

The rest of us are pretty sure Jesus was using a metaphor, although Christians vary as to how far the metaphor goes. Martin Luther figured Jesus is spiritually (maybe sorta physically too?—but it’s debatable) with the bread and wine, but of course they don’t literally change into Jesus. But for most Protestants they’re just symbols which represent Jesus.

I gotta say, though: If your church is using stale bread and cheap juice to represent Jesus, you’re doing a pathetic job of representing him. Put some effort into it, Christians! Yeesh.

Much ado about the differences.

Of course humans are creatures of extremes, and historically Christians have decided to make holy communion a make-or-break issue. Some of us still do. If we don’t practice holy communion their way, they’re entirely sure we’re heretics, and going to hell.

Some of it was during the early centuries of the Protestant movement, and meant to strongly emphasize the differences between Protestant and Catholic thinking. The idea was if you didn’t believe what the Catholics taught about the bread and wine turning into Jesus, you didn’t trust the church, and if it’s Jesus’s church you must not trust Jesus, so you’re going to hell. Conversely if you didn’t believe what the Protestants taught about the bread and wine being purely symbolic, you must’ve fallen for all that Catholic superstition, and aren’t following Jesus’s real church (which Protestants figured was theirs), so you’re going to hell. No matter how you suss it out, somebody’s going to hell over their beliefs.

Christians figured this difference of opinion was much dividing the body of Christ over. In that, these folks are absolutely wrong. Sacraments are a mystery. We don’t know precisely how God interacts with our rituals; he doesn’t say! We don’t know how he does what he does through him. All we know is he wants us to do them. He feels it’s important for us to have physical rituals which represent spiritual truths.

So we don’t know whether the elements become Jesus, or contain Jesus, or only represent Jesus. I may lean towards John Calvin’s view (they’re purely symbolic), but like I said, we don’t know. Let’s not arrogantly presume we do. Humility is a fruit of the Spirit, and if you’re gonna worship God, do it humbly! Not divisively; certainly not with an eye on everybody as to whether they’re coming to Jesus precisely the way you like it.

The wisest thing to do is to treat the ritual as sacred, and treat the bread and wine like Jesus. (That’s who they represent anyway.) Just do as Jesus said: Do it in his memory. With fellow Christians, no matter how they believe.

Anyway. The churches who take Jesus literally tend to practice what we call closed communion: You’re not allowed to participate unless they know you’re Christian. You gotta be a recognized member of their church. ’Cause the apostles warned the Corinthians against eating communion improperly, lest they call down God’s judgment upon themselves. 1Co 11.27-30 So to keep people from suffering the wrath of God, these churches police people for their own good. It’s not out of elitism, as if they’re the only ones who get to eat it: They want you to eat it. But they want you to understand exactly what it is you’re doing. Communion’s not just snack time.

The rest of the churches practice open communion, where anyone who wants to eat it, can. Whether you’re eating it unworthily or not, that’s between you and God. That’s how my church rolls. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that people should be able to police themselves.

Do it regularly.

There were no instructions in the scriptures about how often we’re to practice holy communion. Just that it’s to be done regularly. So some churches serve it weekly, some monthly, and some less frequently. (For a very few, not at all.)

The ancient Corinthians did it as part of a meal. There was actually enough wine for people to get drunk. 1Co 11.20-22 Of course, we don’t know how often the Corinthians ate together. Maybe weekly; maybe more often, or less. Again, individual churches decide for themselves.

I don’t believe God is particular about what form our communion elements take. If we’re trying to make them as authentically what Jesus had at the Last Supper, it oughta be homemade wine and homemade flatbread. (Which looks nothing like store-bought matzo.) But this misses the point: We’re supposed to remember Jesus, not fixate on the form of the bread and wine. They shouldn’t be a distraction—either because they’re too weird, or because they’re stale or sour. If their form interferes with anyone’s worship, pick a better form.

Communion is a memorial. Other beliefs got attached to it over the millennia. Catholics believe it (and the other sacraments) are the only way we receive God’s grace, and some Christians believe we can’t be part of Christ’s body unless we eat his body. We can debate these views. But we should never let our debate get in the way of obeying Jesus’s instruction to do this in his memory. Lk 22.19