The Lord’s Supper: one invitation you don’t want to miss [Studies in 1 Corinthians]

In the Catholic church, the celebration of mass is the high point of the week’s services, and the worship service is often simply called the mass. Some Protestant worship services, too, focus on the sacrament, notably in Episcopalian or Anglican churches.

In reacting against Rome have we evangelicals drifted away from the Bible and pushed communion into a dim corner? In traditional European or North American churches, communion has a role, but it is overshadowed by other vital activities such as worship and preaching. Some celebrate communion monthly, some quarterly, some annually, some not at all. In my experience in Latin American churches, where the worship service may be two or three or four hours long, the time for communion does not expand proportionally: it is a relatively tiny blip.

After all the investment of time and energy in preparing the worship and the message, do the leaders of the church heave a sigh of relief that at least communion is uncomplicated and can run on autopilot?

The Bible tells us, first that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial, a most excellent way to make each worship service be about cross of Christ (1 Cor 2:2) and not on the preacher’s eloquence or on the beauty of the worship. A second purpose is that it forces each believer to a spiritual crisis week by week: I must now confess my sins if I’m going to participate. According to 1 Corinthians 10-11, communion also reminds us of the union of each member in the body of Christ (10:17; 11:33). In the bread and wine we remember that it is impossible to love God and not love his people. Sharing in one bread ought to shake us out of the cult of individualism in which modern believers fall.[1]

For truths such as these, surely we can carve out a healthy slice of time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as the early church did, that is, every week. Communion can be made a part of the worship, or before or after the message. It can include a special time of confession, or a time of fellowship, or a time of silent prayer. What if it were announced, based on 1 Corinthians 11: “Look around, each one of you, at the people in this room. If you have anything against anyone, or even any doubts about your relationship, then would you walk over to that person during this time and take whatever time you need to be reconciled.” Or you could have people pray in groups or two and three and then take communion together. What if you had everyone spend time in praying the old prayer, “they kingdom come” based on the eschatological aspect of communion “until he comes.”

The Lord’s Supper summons us to:

Look back – to the death of Christ

Look to the present – to the reality of God’s forgiveness right now

Look within – to examine our hearts

Look upward – to God, in confession and thanksgiving

Look around – at God’s people

Look outward – to invite the world to the cross

Look forward – to Christ’s return

NOTE:

1 Calvin, Institutes 4.17.38, 40, is superb on these points. For example, in section 38 – “The Lord intended [communion] to be a kind of exhortation, than which no other could urge or animate us more strongly, both to purity and holiness of life, and also to charity, peace, and concord. For the Lord there communicates his body so that he may become altogether one with us, and we with him. Moreover, since he has only one body of which he makes us all to be partakers, we must necessarily, by this participation, all become one body. This unity is represented by the bread which is exhibited in the sacrament. As it is composed of many grains, so mingled together, that one cannot be distinguished from another; so ought our minds to be so cordially united, as not to allow of any dissension or division. This I prefer giving in the words of Paul: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread,” (1 Cor. 10:15, 16.) We shall have profited admirably in the sacrament, if the thought shall have been impressed and engraven on our minds, that none of our brethren is hurt, despised, rejected, injured, or in any way offended, without our, at the same time, hurting, despising, and injuring Christ; that we cannot have dissension with our brethren, without at the same time dissenting from Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving our brethren; that the same care we take of our own body we ought to take of that of our brethren, who are members of our body; that as no part of our body suffers pain without extending to the other parts, so every evil which our brother suffers ought to excite our compassion. Wherefore Augustine not inappropriately often terms this sacrament the bond of charity. What stronger stimulus could be employed to excite mutual charity, than when Christ, presenting himself to us, not only invites us by his example to give and devote ourselves mutually to each other, but inasmuch as he makes himself common to all, also makes us all to be one in him.

Related posts and a free full-length commentary:

Studies in 1 Corinthians by Gary Shogren

“The Lord’s Supper: one invitation you don’t want to miss,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in NT Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica. You may obtain a free copy of his new commentary on 1 Corinthians on this blog HERE.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. More and more churches here in lN are having communion around 4 times a year. Some are even saying we don’t need the cross at all anymore! Sigh! Thank you for saying this!

  2. Gary, Thanks for the blog. It gives me something to think about. Dennis Cahill

  3. “In my experience in Latin American churches, where the worship service may be two or three or four hours long, the time for communion does not expand proportionally: it is a relatively tiny blip.” In general this is also what I have seen in Brazil. I appreciate your suggestions for how we can make the Lord’s supper more collective and less individualistic. Gary, can we assume that the first century Christian “love feast” (1 Cor. 11:17-34) was their dynamic equivalent of the Lord’s supper? What happened historically so that the Lord’s supper got reduced down to a mere shadow of the meaningful meal celebration that it used to be?

    • Hi Curtis. There is no evidence in the NT that Christians celebrated Communion as part of a Passover-type meal or a fuller meal, but that’s an argument from silence and not reliable.

      As I understand it, the relationship between the agape meal and Communion is a complex issue. There are some data that suggest that the agape meal was separate, and others that suggest that the Lord’s Supper IS the agape meal. In the 2nd and 3rd century the agape seems to be a separate event, intended not as a sacrament but to provide a meal for the poor. For example, here is an agape meal that does not seem to be sacramental.

      Our feast shows its motive by its name. It is called by the Greek word for love. Whatever is reckoned the cost, money spent in the name of piety is gain, since with that refreshment we benefit from the needy … We do not recline at the table before prayer to God is first tasted. We eat the amount that satisfies the hungry; we drink as much as is beneficial to the modest. We satisfy ourselves as those who remember that even during the night we must worship God; we converse as those who know that the Lord listens. After the washing of hands and lighting of lamps, each one who is able is called into the center to chant praise to God either from the holy scriptures or from his own talents. This is proof of how much is drunk. Prayer in like manner concludes the meal (Tertullian, Apol. 39.16–18).

      • Thanks, Gary. Even though this is a “complex issue,” your answer is helpful!

  4. The Plymouth Brethren meet regularly on the Lord\’s Day to celebrate the Lord\’s Table, worship and teaching are the add-ons.

    Calvin apart, who didn’t seem to get too far from Rome on this,
    I am not comfortable with your point that the confession of sins is an integral component of the Lord’s Table, Jesus did not present it as such. Paul is dealing with the problems, or potential hypocrisies of the celebration in Corinth but I don\’t see it presented as a part of the exercise itself. It is first and foremost a remembrance of His broken body, of His shed blood. Our religion should never move beyond that but I don\’t think it is given to us as a means of spiritual \”improvement\” (not my best word for it maybe \”processing\”), especially not as dispensed by some spiritual hierarchy which is the general practice, similar to a sacrament, a means of grace that follows certain disciplines. Perhaps it would be better to see it as a kind of Christian handshake, a way to affirm what holds us together, obligates us to put aside our differences, etc.

    It is something that is quite \”discussable\” and I would never be contentious with someone who practices a discipline based, for instance, on your teaching outline. It just seems like we are always adding nuances to the basic simplicity of the Gospel and its presence among us.

    • Greetings, and thanks for your thoughts. The Brethren,with whom I have often worked, are an exception, no doubt.

      The Corinthians indeed did have a brand of sin that was particularly offensive to the spirit of the Lord’s table: the actions of the wealthier members, who were probably invited to a pre-meeting dinner by the host of the church, were discriminating against the poorer members. This was per se a failure to recognize the body of the Lord (body as the people of Christ, not some “real presence” of his body in the bread). For them it was necessary to work through the implications of what they were doing to people “for whom Christ died”.

      If Christians come to the table with this or other sins unconfessed, the cross of Christ is both a rebuke and a salve for them. I cannot imagine that “our religion should never move beyond” remembrance. The Supper is remembrance, but not simply that: no celebration would be complete if the participant did not confess to God – not some priest – what offenses he or she had committed against Christ. If it is mistaken to ask people to confess their sins before they partake. then Paul himself erred by adding to the simple rite.

      I’m not sure, by the way, what to make of your commentary on Calvin. Perhaps it helps to know that I cite a soundbite from a longish section of the Institutes, and that his theology is much more nuanced than the short text might indicate.


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