At our infant church, someone asks, relatively often, “Why do we have communion every week?” We decided early on that our rhythm of weekly worship would consistently include celebration of the Lord’s Supper (or the “Eucharist” or “communion,” depending on the terminology of your church tribe). Why do we do this? We do this because we’re so quick to forget the gospel. We do this because we would rather obey Jesus weekly, rather than monthly or quarterly. We do this because it's important. The church's story tells us it's important. The Bible's story tells us it's important. It pictures the gospel and draws us into that picture.
(Part of) the Church's Story
There’s a famous story about how two of the first leaders of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, met together to discuss theological convictions. They found themselves concurring on more than a dozen important theological issues, but separated over the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine used during communion. Neither held the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation, which taught that flour would transform physically into flesh and wine into blood. But Luther wanted to align much more closely with his Roman roots than Zwingli, arguing that Christ was literally “in, with, and under” the elements. Zwingli, instead, took the opposing pole, arguing that the ordinances solely memorialized and symbolized the death of Christ. In the soon following second generation of Reformers, Calvin stood himself somewhere between the two, arguing that communion is more than a mere symbol but less than physical presence. They all agreed that communion is important, but how important and in what way?
The Bible's Story
To answer, this historical narrative must collide with the decisive biblical one. Exodus 12 tells the story of the Israelites awaiting redemption from captivity in Egypt. They slaughtered an animal, painting the doorposts with its blood, eating their food in haste and their bread without leaven. The Lord thus promised salvation. “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both people and animals. I am the LORD; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt. The blood on the houses where you are staying will be a distinguishing mark for you; when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:12–13). Annually, for a millennium and a half, the children of Israel would tell this story to one another. They would celebrate, as they ate bread and drank wine, remembering together that God had redeemed them from Egypt. This story would remind them that whether they were at the mercy of Egypt or Assyria, of Babylon or Rome, they were most ultimately at the mercy of Yahweh, their loving-kind covenant Lord.
Decades stacked into centuries, until the night when Jesus was betrayed before his unjust arrest, conviction, and execution. On that night he too remembered, celebrated, and told the ancient, familiar story with his friends. Except this time there was a surprise ending. He took the bread and he explained, “Take and eat it; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). My body, he said, “which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). He also took the cup, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27–28). “Eat and drink together,” he told them. “Remember me, and what I’ve done for you.” In the years following, Paul planted the gospel and started new churches in the cities of imperial Rome. To one of these churches he explained that in this eucharistic meal Christians both participate in (1 Cor. 10:16) and proclaim (1 Cor. 11:26) the broken and bleeding body of Jesus.
Flying over these snippets of the historical and biblical storyline again surfaces all sorts of questions. What does “This is my body” mean? If it isn’t physical, is it still literal? What does it mean to “participate” in the body and the blood of Jesus? Surely the supper is no less than a memorial meal, but might it also be more?
A Narnian Story
For years, the church I pastored observed this ordinance every month, and, as I said, the church I’ve recently planted celebrates it every week. So I have told and re-told, remembered and re-remembered, celebrated and re-celebrated this story more times than an ancient Jew would have celebrated the Passover over the plotline of a lifetime. Some years ago, in the margins of this communion-rhythm, I discovered another story that helps to illustrate the way our observance of the Lord’s Supper relates to the reality of the gospel.
C.S. Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book of The Chronicles of Narnia series with an episode of three children, Lucy, Edmund, and their nasty cousin Eustace looking at a painting of a ship on the sea, “A very Narnian ship,” as Lucy calls it. As they look at this painting, the ship and the waves begin to move. Sea air blows into the room as the children smell the salty water and feel it splash onto their faces. They move toward the painting only to find that it is now bigger than they are as they step onto the edge of the picture-frame, facing a real sea before falling in.
This story can illustrate how ordinances serve the church. These ordinances are a picture, but they are not “merely” a picture. They somehow draw us into the reality they describe. We remember the Lord’s death, but not from the safe and disinterested distance of a religious ritual. At our church, after expounding the biblical text and the gospel, we also get to observe (a synonym for "see") it. I take the loaf of bread, and tear it in two halves as I say, “On the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread and he broke it and said, ‘This is my body.’” And I hold up the cup and say, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” Our church observes—sees—the elements, then observes—obeys—the command to remember. As we walk forward, toward someone (who may or may not have the same skin color as we do) holding the torn loaf and poured cup, we feel wind in our face and taste salt on our tongue. We’re standing on the edge of an ocean of divine lovingkindness, a sprawling sea of faithful, covenant love.
And we fall in, together, every week.