The Meaning of Communion
By Lance Olimb
Think of the following as an answer to the question, "Why do we have communion each week?" I’ve been asked this frequently and this is a good time to answer since we just heard a great sermon on the topic.
Biblical. Jesus intended for us to do it often. The wording "as often as you do this" has a connotation of frequency in Greek. Scripture records the early church partaking every week. When Paul writes to Corinth and rebukes their communion gatherings, he is not commenting on a yearly festival but a weekly gathering.
I’ve been a part of churches who took communion rather infrequently. If I missed a Sunday when it was administered, I could go 3-4 months without communion. This stretches the concept of "often" in my mind.
Theological. The Lord’s Supper is a grace to us. It communicates Christ’s presence to us. We really do "participate" in Christ when we respond to the table (1 Cor 10:16). If God has commanded us to take the supper and we believe that therein we receive grace, why would we do this sparingly?
There are pitfalls in this theological category. It is not saving grace. It is not Jesus’ real body. But the fact that it is possible to get it wrong should not make us forsake what we believe to be a God ordained avenue of His presence.
Historical. Nearly every evidence from church history shows the early church gathering around the table each and every week. In periods of time when the church took it sparingly, it was rarely because of problems with a fear of ritual. It was often due to beliefs regarding priests or clergy, or a desire to contrast with false teaching elsewhere.
For instance, Scottish Presbyterians could only have the table administered by ordained clergy. There was a shortage of clergy, so these men would preach and administer communion to congregations on a circuit around the country, about once a month. So in this case, the church took it sparingly not by design but by necessity. In other cases, sparing use of the Lord’s Supper was simply a reaction against historical, theological, and ecclesiological abuses in the Roman church.
Practical. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. This gospel is the hope of all, Christians and non-Christians alike. We want to center all we do on this good news. Quite frankly, the table is one of the most practical ways I know to ensure that the clear, simple message of Christ’s substitutionary death is front and center each week. It is a visible, tactile reenactment of the gospel which cannot be avoided.
If the songs aren’t perfectly clear or if the sermon ends up being a bit wonky (insider church language or doctrinal), the table will preach. When we do this we proclaim. That is what Paul says. In addition, we come forward to the table which allows for an invitation of sorts. It is a kind of altar call. We openly ask you to consider your trust in Christ and make a movement toward Him.
I’m going to stop now. You don’t how hard it was for me to keep that so short! Suffice it to say, we’ve thought about this issue a lot. It is a matter of wisdom and freedom, so we are not speaking from moral categories or for all Christians everywhere. We will intentionally seek to keep the meaning and practice of communion fresh. But, as a practice, we are committed to frequently partaking of the table together, in Christ, seeking His presence.