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Rejoicing at the Lord's Supper

Eucharist, communion, table fellowship. Whatever you call this celebration, ask yourself this: Are you receiving all Christ offers through this meal? A feature story exploring the Lord's Supper.

Loaf, wafer, unleavened bread, cubed white bread, rice cakes, millet bread, breadfruit.

Wine, wine mixed with water, grape juice, tea, nut beer, coconut milk. One cup. Tiny glasses tinkling in silver trays. Dip, sip.

Standing, kneeling, sitting. Receiving from priest, lay celebrant, pastor, elder, deacon, church member, loved one.

Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, only when you feel worthy. Remorse, hope, memory, healing, joy, gifts, reconciliation, justice.

Christians around the world have different ways of following Christ's inviting example. We all share food and drink common to our cultures-to remember Christ's atoning sacrifice, live as members of one body, and anticipate a new heaven and new earth.

But as precious as our own communion tradition may be, we can experience the sacrament more deeply by considering how other Christians understand and celebrate it.

Take, eat, remember, and believe

When Leonard Vander Zee was a boy, growing up in a large Christian Reformed church, he and his brother would watch from the balcony on communion Sundays. Moving slowly from pew to pew, elders in suits passed silver trays filled with tiny cups of wine and platters of cubed white bread. People were silent except for nervous coughs.

The sights, sounds, and aromas told the Vander Zee brothers that "something very special was going on. That sense of holiness, that expectation of heaven touching earth, has never left me," Vander Zee writes in Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship.

Eucharist customs vary by locale and denomination, but they share a common core of practices established 2,000 years ago. See for yourself by reading how Justin the Martyr, a second-century philosophy teacher, described Christian communion rites (see Chapter LXV and on) in his justification to Emperor Antoninus Pius.

When Christians remind each other that Jesus' body was broken for us, that his blood was poured out for a complete remission of all our sins, something special happens.

Remembering Christ's sacrifice with other Christians-whether strangers or friends, in a Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, or other liturgical community-gives Robert Benson a special sense of being at home. It's not so much a sense of knowing and being known as "being gathered together with all of those who call themselves Christians and would worship the One Who made us..

" 'Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us,' we sing together as we prepare to keep the feast.. We give thanks for the Holy Mysteries and for the fact that when our remembrance of the sacrifice has been made once again, God has 'graciously accepted us as living members of the Body of Christ,' " Robert Benson writes in his slim book That We May Perfectly Love Thee: Preparing Our Hearts for the Eucharist.

Lift up your hearts

While some churches put the Lord's Supper accent on remembering Christ's sacrifice, others emphasize communion as a sacrament of sending.

As the gospels show again and again, Jesus did not preach a disconnect between worship and everyday life. He immersed himself in the world around him. He filled his parables with daily things and activities-seeds, weeds, sheep, lamps. The gospel stories show how much Jesus loved to eat, drink, and celebrate and how much he wanted everyone at the feast.

Leonard Vander Zee was an adult in an experimental worshiping community when he first stood in a circle with other worshipers, "drank from a common cup and broke off a piece of bread from a loaf and did so at the invitation of another ordinary Christian."

He writes that what struck him most in that action was "the simplicity and power of the shared cup and loaf.. the power of koinonia (fellowship) in the body and blood of Christ."

Vander Zee experienced koinonia even more deeply after his church realized that they'd double-scheduled a Sunday evening. So South Bend Christian Reformed Church decided to combine their evening communion service with their turn of hosting a simple supper and service at a local rescue mission.

After prayers, songs, and a short sermon, Vander Zee explained what communion was and placed bread and grape juice on a battered card table. He hadn't brought along a written communion liturgy, but when he said, "Lift up your hearts," many people responded, "We lift them up to the Lord."

Vander Zee recalls that "a strange and holy quiet descended." Well-dressed and ragged, smelling of fine cologne and stale smoke, church and street people filed forward. "We were all one body, for we all ate from the same loaf," he writes.

Changing the communion setting also helped members of John Knox Presbyterian (USA) Church see the sacrament in the larger context of their work in Greenville, South Carolina. As their pastor, John Brearley, explains in his dissertation,  the church had recently finished building a Habitat for Humanity house with another congregation.

Both congregations decided to dedicate the house after their morning services. Community volunteers, including the new homeowners, were invited to attend an outdoor communion service at the building site. The gospel reading was from John 21.

"Three times Jesus asks Peter, and those of us who gathered, 'Do you love me?' The answer came, each time, that to love Christ is to feed his sheep, to serve the world in which we live. The setting was so symbolic that no one missed its meaning," Brearley writes.

People shared bread and wine in the street. Neighbors came off their porches to watch. When the service ended, they all crossed the street to a vacant lot to enjoy a full meal together. Members told Brearley that they felt God's presence and experienced the link between communion and community as never before.

Let us break bread together

Since ancient Christendom, believers have reminded each other-through scripture and Eucharistic prayers, liturgies, and songs-that we live in a time of already-but-not-yet.

When we break bread together, we are already part of a community in which "there is no East or South or North." Yet, we won't experience that promise completely till Christ returns to invite us all to "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9).

Communion's multi-layered time frame dawned on Martha Moore-Keish during her first year of seminary. After a lecture series, a few hundred people gathered in a lecture hall to celebrate communion. They finished singing the hymns printed in the bulletin long before all had received the bread and cup.

A voice broke the awkward silence. A couple joined in. Soon everyone present was singing "Let us break bread together on our knees." Moore-Keish realized that they were singing about breaking bread together right then.and "yearning for the time when we will all break bread together with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at God's great banquet table."

She wondered whether the phrase "when I fall on my knees" referred to the present or the future.and saw both meanings were true. She sang "with my face to the rising sun" and knew it promised the new hope of every sunrise.and the resurrection of the rising Son. More than she ever had seen, she and those around her were worshiping the God who is and was and is to come.

Moore-Keish, who teaches theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, recounts the story in her chapter on eschatology and Eucharist in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony. She also has excellent ideas for helping worshipers see more deeply into communion.

Learn More

See communion vessels designed by members of Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Several excellent books can help small groups or church education classes discuss the Eucharist together.

Want more food for thought on how to set communion in a context larger than your church sanctuary? Christine Pohl, an author and ethics professor, suggests reconnecting the idea of hospitality with the Host. Just as we experience Christ's welcome through the Eucharist, we can welcome others into fellowship with God.

Learn more about communion practices in various traditions from this Christian History article and follow up.

Start a Discussion

  • What are your first memories of watching communion, taking communion, or having an a-ha moment during communion? What do you want your congregation's children to know, feel, and do when you celebrate the Eucharist?
  • Leanne Van DykIn her A More Profound Alleluia chapter on how we recognize God in worship, Leanne Van Dyk describes the Lord's Supper "as food for the journey of Christian discipleship." She explains John Calvin's view that the sacraments are "a form of the word of God given uniquely to the worshiping community." Compare this view to your own tradition's explanation of communion's importance and purpose.
  • When you celebrate the Lord's Supper in your church, how many fellow worshipers' faces can you see? How does seeing them tinge your experience?
  • 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 warns against taking communion in "an unworthy manner." Discuss what that means. Unworthy because you are not good enough to accept Christ's freely offered grace and forgiveness? Unworthy because you are eating and drinking while doing nothing for others in Christ's body who are hungry? Unworthy because.?
  • Past, present, future: which gets most emphasis in your communion practices? Which elements of other communion traditions would you like to add to yours?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to enrich your congregation's understanding and experience of the Lord's Supper?

  • Did you find an effective way to involve children or more congregational members in serving communion, providing music, or another aspect of the sacrament?
  • What simple change of Eucharistic method, setting, frequency, communion elements, or something else revealed Christ more clearly to your congregation?
  • If you started accenting table fellowship as a joyous confirmation of scripture.or channel of God's healing and comfort.or inspiration to seek justice for others in Christ's body-what happened? Which results or best practices would you recommend that other churches try?