Communion – wafers and wine, or cakes and coffee?

I had an experience once, a few years ago, and since then I’ve not been able to shake this thought I have about communion.

The experience was that I was at a conference with a bunch of other fired-up young people/young adults. I actually only knew one of them but when you’re with a load of other like-minded people it’s not difficult to fit in, especially when you’re all crazy for Jesus! Anyway, we were staying at a facility owned by the host church, with a few others on the conference. We quickly got to know one guy in particular. As we sat down to eat a thrown-together meal one afternoon – I believe it was beans on toast, and some kinda juice or water – the guy we were getting to know offered to give thanks. He then went ahead and said, “Lord, You said to do this whenever we ate it, so I want to thank You for Your body and Your blood which You gave for us” – and what was in question was obviously this student-style meal before us.

I really was tremendously grateful and said a hearty “Amen” – but not just for the food, but because he had set a germinating thought in my head.

My only experience of talking about the ‘body and blood’ of the Lord until then had really been in church services where a loaf of bread was torn up as it was passed along the rows, followed by a cup of red grape juice. You got a smidgen of a bit each. It wasn’t bad; it still isn’t, as a church we’ve done it plenty of times since. There’s often a really good thought shared with it, something to reflect on, issues of the heart brought up to deal with. It’s often a holy moment. But I still can’t help keep on wondering.

On the occasion I related, it was just a meal. Quite a cheap one. But it was wonderful. We had real communion – fellowship – hanging out together – good times – over that meal. And so more and more lately, I’ve come to ask myself, why has it become this sacred thing with wafers and wine? Okay Jesus had the wine, but He didn’t have wafers. Are we trying to emulate Him or not? More provocatively, does communion look like it does nowadays because the religious folk among us WANT Jesus – this anti-establishment, anti-Pharisaical, upside-down Rabbi who did everything that Rabbis didn’t – they WANT Jesus to have established ONE official establishment-friendly ritual, practice. In fact, there’s usually two counted: communion, and baptism.

Communion has acquired a religious name too, for the uninitiated among readers – the ‘eucharist’. This is a Greek word for ‘giving thanks’ and derives from Jesus’ giving thanks at the last supper as He broke the bread and so on. But instead of being translated, it is left in an unrecognisable form to the common Englishman, and that’s where I’d take issue with the common use of the word. At least the word ‘communion’ comes from the translation, and we don’t refer to the ‘koinonia’, hence I have no problem with using the word. (Incidentally we call it communion because of 1 Corinthians 10:16 which talks about the cup of blessing being the ‘communion’ of the blood of Christ. I also think it has useful other usages and therefore is a good word.)

I wonder if people have ever asked themselves what Jesus thought of when He spoke of His church. I find it a struggle to conceive that He thought of – well, first of all buildings; the word for ‘church’ comes from a word meaning ‘gathering’; the church should always have been and always is in God’s mind, people, not buildings – but mainly I find it difficult to conceive that He thought of dressed-up priests and great cavernous cathedrals with lots of implements and trinkets after what seems to be a largely Old Testament model. No more so than with communion. When He ate a meal with His disciples, tearing up a loaf of bread and passing His cup of wine around for them all to sip out of, did He picture wafers and wine administered by an over-dressed man to lowly laymen and women as they knelt before him at an altar modeled on something from an inferior covenant? Or did He picture exactly what He saw before Him? His friends, the scraps of a meal on the table… He was actually dressed down, or had been – He had washed their feet with a towel around His waist as part of the same meal! I’d like to see the priests do that!

I know I’m being provocative; so was the one I follow. It’s not wrong to throw up questions. Jesus was all the time coming against apparently harmless traditions that actually invalidated the word of God.

At this point some might worry that I’m advocating abstinence from taking communion at all in church, however it is shared. I’m not at all. That’s not the way to see change. It has happened in history – the Salvation Army today still do not take communion or baptise, because in the days of their founder William Booth, these were seen as religious undertakings only with no power at all, so Booth eschewed them entirely, and so it has remained to this day. This may be too far. I would argue there’s power in both, if we don’t make them rituals of religion where they lose their power. It has been witnessed in church history profoundly with baptism, where the matter was seen to determine whether you were in the church or not. The established church for a long time believed that it was right to baptise babies, and they were automatically ‘Christians’ – in what sense of the word I don’t know. The generally non-established church would challenge this, emphasising believer’s baptism, and thus I believe took a right approach to the imbalance of doctrine – seeking the radical middle ground, rather than going to the other extreme (as Booth did).

So I would argue with communion: it is something wonderful that the Lord gave to the church. It IS in a sense a tradition in the sense that it was handed down, passed on. Jesus said “do this until I come”. But in order to be a tradition, does it need all the pomp and circumstance that we see attends it?

I’m just excited by the idea that Christians can sit down at a meal and find they have the opportunity to remember the Lord over that completely normal context. And generally speaking, we’re definitely always going to be eating “until He comes”! It’s the perfect place. It was the context of a meal, for Jesus. In giving it, I imagine that’s what He imagined would continue. Because if so, it makes almost any time – or certainly up to 3 times a day – an opportunity to remember Him and what He has done. It ties in with a theme that’s all over the Psalms – remembering and teaching to others what God has done!

Making it into a Sunday ceremony actually removes this possibility. Oh, sure, we might remember and have occasion to talk about Him if we think of it, and hopefully we do. But a meal helpfully PROVIDES the occasion! A ritual at church can become just another misunderstood Sunday activity, and no one would dare approach an ordinary meal with other Christians, thanking God for the ‘body and blood’ of the Lord, as that would be something you’re supposed to do with wafers and wine before going back to your pew.

I’m not saying there’s no help in current models. Of course there is. But I just keep wondering how Jesus pictured it. “Do this as often as you drink it” – as often as you drink what? wine? “in remembrance of Me…” Well, wine was common in those days. It may not have been quite what we understand wine to be nowadays. But given the widespread use of grape juice, squash, non-alcoholic wine and other interesting variants I have come across in the church, I don’t think we’re too hung up about it being actual wine. It was, after all, all symbolic.

And that’s the point. Jesus wanted to provide a context through symbols where all His followers would be able to quickly and easily remember what He had done for them, NOT establish a religious institution with a name in an extinct language reserved to be ministered only by priests and only for Sundays where the full meaning can be lost in the religious dress-up. It was meant to be something shared over mealtimes between brothers and sisters, where a normal moment could suddenly become a holy moment through a few simple words, and those who a moment before might have forgotten again remember that they are citizens of heaven and are bought with a price, the blood of Jesus, and that they are all together part of the one body of Christ, sharing in that one body.

I know there’s more to look into with 1 Corinthians in particular. Paul spoke of coming together as a church to share the Lord’s Supper. I think I might address it in a follow-up post!

I’m just looking for the time I’m asked to give thanks for a meal among Christians and I have the boldness to be different and use what I have in front of me as symbols for what Jesus did. And watch their reaction! 😉

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3 responses to “Communion – wafers and wine, or cakes and coffee?”

  1. Julie Mahany says :

    I’m with you on this one, Ben. Next time you’re over chez Mahanys, be bold! I’ve felt this for a while.

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