The Service of the Lord's Supper (Bible Study)

This Bible study explores the sacrament of Communion.

Lesson 11                                               See all lessons
Scripture: Matthew 26:17-30 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Introduction

These two passages are the two locations in the Bible where the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is given to the church. In Matthew 26 (or the parallel passages in Mark 14:22-26 and Luke 22:14-23) the narrative shows Jesus marking the Passover with the disciples to commemorate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. He surprised them when, instead of completing the customary ritual, he referred to "my body" and "my blood" and gave instructions to eat and drink.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul addresses certain matters of worship in the life of the Corinthian church. Among other concerns he speaks about their observance of the Lord's Supper. Paul explains that he is giving them instruction about the Lord's Supper on the basis of the instruction he had received from the Lord.

A Sacrament with Multiple Names

The sacrament that these passages refer to is often called by multiple names. These names emphasize different aspects of the sacrament. Sometimes the sacrament is referred to as "The Lord's Supper," which emphasizes that it is a meal at a table at which Christ is the host. This is a reference to the Passover meal which celebrated the deliverance of Christ's chosen people from bondage. At other times it is called "Communion," which implies sharing deeply with another person and refers to the deep relationships that are present at the sacrament, both with Christ and with one another. Still other times, it is called the "Eucharist," which comes from a word that means "thanksgiving" and suggests that celebrating the Lord's Supper is an act of giving thanks to God. Recognizing all three helps us more fully understand this sacrament.

Whatever title we use, there are many themes that should be kept in focus. In The Worship Sourcebook pp. 306-307, these themes are expressed this way:

  • The Lord's Supper is a celebration of God's grace, not human achievement. The power of the sacrament is not found in our ability to meditate deeply, but rather on the way in which God's Spirit uses this celebration to nourish our hearts.
  • The Lord's Supper is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself to celebrate God's grace and covenant faithfulness.
  • The Lord's Supper is a sign of a relationship that is covenantal, not contractual. It is based on God's gracious promises to us.
  • The Lord's Supper is deeply personal, but never private. It is a communal action of the gathered congregation which represents the church in all time and places.

You will find additional information and resources, including the "Complete Model Liturgy for the Lord's Supper" in The Worship Sourcebook, pp. 308 ff.

Ideas for the Lord's Supper Service

If you are a worship planner who is responsible for Communion Services on a regular basis, then you have likely encountered many issues and questions in your attempts to make this time of sacramental worship rich and meaningful. We present here a list of suggestions and ideas that have come from a variety of congregations and experiences.

Preparation. Past practice often placed much emphasis on preparation for the Lord's Supper, especially when it was celebrated quarterly. The week preceding was “preparatory” with worshipers encouraged to search their heart and examine their faith before coming to the Table. Much of this practice has been lost, but it seems that the sacrament is treated as less important when worshipers come unaware of and unprepared for the sacrament. We encourage you to include, at least with some regularity, an emphasis in the preceding week that will help prepare worshipers.

Children. Many churches and leaders are rethinking the presence and inclusion of children at the table of the Lord. Your denomination will likely have its own policy on that. In any event, children should not be ignored. If your denomination does not invite children to the table, you may want to include an explanation of some part of the sacrament to the children. If communicants come forward, encourage parents to bring their children and let the pastor give a word of blessing for them as the elements are passed.

Passing the Peace. This valuable historic practice is particularly meaningful at a service of the Lord's Supper. Some congregations will include it early in the service, some just prior to partaking, and some at the close of the sacrament. We encourage including it. Most worshipers need to be instructed that the passing the peace is different from wishing a good morning. It may be helpful to explain the differences either just before passing the peace or in a bulletin note.

Frequency. In the past the Lord's Supper was usually observed quarterly. Many churches today are including it much more frequently in their worship schedule. Some have gone to weekly observance, but many more schedule the sacrament on a monthly basis.

Visuals. The sanctuary should visually speak to worshipers the moment they enter. Banners, other forms of art, and the arrangement of the worship space are all able to convey the message of the sacrament to worshipers. The table is usually highly visible. For congregations that do not celebrate weekly communion, we recommend still keeping the table highly visible for services in which communion is not celebrated as a reminder of the sacrament.

Methods. In some traditions the most common practice is that all communicants come forward to receive the elements. In some congregations they take the elements to their seats/pews and all partake together. In others they partake of the elements as soon as they receive them. Some practice tincture (dipping the bread in the juice before partaking) while others take the elements separately. It is often helpful to vary the practice from what a particular congregation is accustomed to, particularly when an explanation is given. For example, a congregation might be encouraged to come forward and sit around the communion table to focus on the meal aspect of the Lord's Supper, or the participants might come forward, form a circle and pass the elements to each other to emphasize the communal nature of the Lord's Supper.

Elements. Some congregations use wine out of tradition, but others use grape juice out of consideration for those in the congregation who struggle with alcohol addiction problems. Some have options of either. Some congregations use small cubes of bread, wafers, or a loaf from which bread can be broken. Another possible concern is to provide gluten free bread for those in the congregation with gluten allergies. Others will set a large pile of various types of breads to provide a symbolic representation of the diversity yet unity of the body of Christ.

Serving Time. Whichever method is practiced, being served in pews or coming forward, worship planners often wonder how to provide a meaningful setting for reflection and meditation. We suggest several possibilities: The congregation can sing familiar songs that express their faith and hope; the choir or praise team can sing similar songs; the accompanist can provide music that enables private reflection by worshipers; or the pastor or others can read appropriate passages of Scripture that reflect on the ministry, suffering and victory of Christ or the assurance and confidence of the Christian.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. In historic Christian practice, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving has been an integral part of the service. This prayer usually includes thanks for God's actions in history, a petition for the work of God's Spirit, and an acknowledgement that the power of the sacrament does not come from the bread and cup but from the Holy Spirit who unites us with Christ. Number 250 in Sing! A New Creation is a helpful formulation of this Great Prayer, with sung responses.

The Sanctus. Historically, the celebration of the Lord's Supper included the singing of some form of the "Sanctus" during the sacrament. This exclamation of honor and praise for God's holiness becomes the proclamation of the congregation. The "Sanctus" can be found embedded in a hymn, as in the 4th stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” (PsH 249) or as a separate piece of music as in “Holy, Holy, Holy/Santo, Santo Santo ” (PsH 626 or SNC 259). It can also be a spoken response.

Music Resources for Lord's Supper Services

Because celebrating at the Lord's Table is a participation in Christ's body and blood, it is important for the congregation to be actively involved during communion. This can partially be accomplished through congregational singing during the distribution/receiving of the elements or by involving musical groups of the church in songs, anthems or instrumental music for meditation. For specific music repertoire ideas, consult the essay on the web, “Worship Ideas on the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.”

Tips for Discussion Leaders

The discussion of this lesson will be most lively if it is scheduled shortly after a Sunday in which the congregation has observed the Lord's Supper. Take along some copies of the order of service so each member will have one before them. As the leader of the discussion, we encourage you to gently direct the discussion away from personal preferences to an evaluation of how the sacrament can best reflect its true meaning.

Discussion Starters

1. What words would you use to describe the spirit in which your congregation normally observes the Lord's Supper? Is it consistent with the purpose of the sacrament? How and by whom is that spirit determined?

2. Is the Lord's Supper normally a separate part of your worship service, or does it flow seamlessly in the entire service? In other words, does your liturgy lead naturally into the sacrament, or does it seem "tacked on"?

3. How often is the sacrament celebrated in your congregation? Are the times of observance associated with the events of the Christian or Church Year? If so, how is the celebration different at various times of the year? What themes are emphasized?

4. What term is your congregation most comfortable calling this sacrament (Lord's Supper, communion, Eucharist)? Why? What term makes your congregation most uncomfortable? Why? What could be done to emphasize the themes of all three of these terms?

5. How does your celebration of the Lord's Supper point to God's grace and covenant faithfulness? What could be done to strengthen this connection?

6. What does your celebration of communion communicate about the relationship of the people gathered? Is communion private? Is it a communal act? How does it represent the church in all times and in all places? Is it personal? What could make your celebrations more personal and more communal at the same time?

7. What is the reaction of children and youth to your communion services? Do they feel welcome? What is done to help them understand and desire to participate?

Hymnal Key: PsH = Psalter Hymnal; SNC = Sing! A New Creation

Further Reading: "The Lord's Supper: Introduction and Biblical Background," in Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, Leonard J. Vander Zee, InterVarsity Press, 2004, pp. 136-160.

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