Holy Communion: what is it and how often should we take it? - 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Back in 1992 a best seller hit the high street book shelves. It was called: ‘The Five Love Languages’ with the subtitle, ‘How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate’, by Gary Chapman. It is in fact a very helpful and insightful book. The basic point he makes is that there is more than one way to express genuine love for someone, but different people like that love to be expressed in different ways- hence the five love languages. For some, words are the most important-especially words of affirmation; for others it is quality time together, for others still it is receiving gifts. Then again some prefer acts of service which communicate to them that they are really loved. But for others, it is touch. The key to successful loving communication, argues Chapman, is making sure that you are using the right language for the right person. Just because you are the ‘touchy feely’ type doesn’t mean that your wife or husband is, for them it may be something different. Of course it is often a case of a combination of all the above.
So let me ask: what is God’s love language to his children? Most certainly we have his words in Scripture, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ (Jeremiah 31:3). There is a word of affirmation if ever there was one! We have his greatest gift of all, the gift of his Son, ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.’ (1 John4:9). But is there any other way his love is expressed to us? Of course through providence he continues to serve us, as it were, ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28). But what of touch? Now this may come as a bit of a surprise to many this morning, but in a vital way this is where Holy Communion comes in. In fact, as we shall see, it works at a number of levels by which God engages us and communicates his everlasting love to us, but always drawing our hearts to the one place in history where such love is irrefutably and irresistibly experienced- the cross of Christ. What we are going to see is that through this special service God uses all five love languages to convey his love to our hearts.
So what is Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper and, if I may put it this way, how does it ‘work’ as a way of God reaching down to us? That is what we are going to be thinking about this morning, and to help us we shall be focusing upon one passage in particular, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Although this passage is part of a wider argument of the apostle Paul as he writes to a specific church situation with lots of problems and hang ups, I won’t be referring to any of those, for in many ways these verses can stand alone to help us in our understanding of what the Lord’s Supper really is.
This is what we read v23: ‘For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.’ Now when Paul says ‘I received from the Lord’, he is probably referring to the words spoken by Jesus himself as we have them recorded in the Gospels- all the apostles ‘received’ this teaching from the Lord Jesus.
So the first thing we are to realise is that the Lord’s Supper is linked to the Last Supper. In fact the Last Supper, the meal Jesus had with his disciples the night he was betrayed, stands mid-way between the Passover meal celebrated by the Jews and Holy Communion celebrated by Christians. And as those disciples were seated on the floor around the table on that fateful night and Jesus acted as the host and they were his guests, so much bewilderment must have gone through their minds as Jesus spoke, taking bread and wine in order to engage in an act of the most profound symbolism. This is the way one writer puts it: ‘We can imagine them questioning in their minds, ‘Your body? Your blood? Eat it? Drink it? What was Jesus doing?’ Not simply giving them theological information but rather giving them a theological experience. In the Last Supper they experienced for themselves what the cross was all about- about the body and blood of Jesus being given up, broken, poured out for them, and about the need to take that death to themselves (eat, drink).’ (David Wenham). What Jesus was doing here was in his own person and death filling out and transcending the Jewish Passover meal. That was the great festival meal of God’s people in the Old Testament; the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus is here instituting, is the great celebratory meal of God’s people in the New Testament. The Jews remembered the great rescue from slavery in Egypt involving the sacrifice of a Passover lamb signifying the new beginning of the covenant people; Christians remember the great rescue from slavery to sin involving the sacrifice of Jesus, the true Passover lamb on the cross, and the beginning of the new covenant people. By participating in the Passover meal, the Jews identified themselves with that salvation and covenant, by joining in the Lord’s Supper Christians identify themselves with Christ’s salvation and his new covenant. The Jews looked back to the Exodus as the great turning point in their lives; Christians look back to the cross as the great turning point in their lives. Do you see how they parallel each other? So the Last Supper, which was a kind of Passover meal, prepares the way for the Lord’s Supper, the Christian meal.
The second thing we are to realise is that at the Lord’s Supper we encounter the Lord himself. The Lord’s Supper has been referred to as a ‘parable in action.’ You remember how Jesus told stories about farmers sowing seed, women looking for lost coins, shepherds searching out lost sheep in order to make some deep spiritual point? Well, it has been argued that through the words and actions of the Lord’s Supper, we have a visual parable. Now while I have some sympathy with that view, I think the Lord’s Supper is much more than that as did some of the Reformers like Thomas Cranmer who gave the Church of England its Communion Service, and John Calvin in Geneva. What that ‘something more’ involves we can work out as we look at these words and actions spoken and done by Jesus. But before we turn to them in more detail, let me say a little more about the role of words, actions and symbols in the way we relate to each other as persons, because this is the key to everything.
We use words for all sorts of purposes other than getting across information. We use words to express how we feel: ‘I love you. I hate you’. We use words to get things done: ‘Shut that door’. We use words to bring people together to create a sense of solidarity: ‘My fellow Americans’. But we also use words to bring about changes of states of affairs. The most obvious example is the words used in the wedding ceremony. When the groom is asked by the Vicar, ‘Will you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?’ and he replies ‘I will’. What is he doing? Well, he is not describing his feelings. Less still is he describing the wedding ceremony. No. By those words, together with the responding words of the bride, they are actually bringing a marriage into being. Not only that, but a symbol is used at the same time- a wedding ring. And once those words have been spoken and the ring placed on the finger there has taken place one of the most profound changes they will ever experience- they have become a married couple-husband and wife. A few minutes earlier they were two separate individuals, but now they are one family. How did it happen? By words and symbols, vows and rings.
Just think back for a moment of the story of the Prodigal son. When the son returned home having messed up his life, the Father didn’t simply say, ‘Son, I love you. I forgive you for the terrible shame you have brought upon me and the family.’ In fact he didn’t say anything to the son at all. But what he did, spoke more powerfully and eloquently than any words could ever do, because he did things which were symbol laden with meaning and which in turn would have caused the boy to well up inside. For a start the father ran to the boy which no self –respecting Middle Eastern elder would ever do- he humiliated himself by that action. That spoke of love. He threw his arms around him and kissed the boy- that spoke of forgiveness, as well as affection. He put a ring on his finger- that was a sign of reconciliation. And he killed the fattened calf- a once in a lifetime event- but so overjoyed was the father to have his son back that he could not hold back his love and he had to show it by having a celebratory meal. And do you not think that even without his father saying ‘I love you’ that the son didn’t feel it deep in his heart simply because of what the father did? Don’t we sometimes say ‘actions speak louder than words’?
Well, hold that parable in your minds as we now turn to the Lord’s Supper which is more than a parable.
First, note it is the Lord’s Supper- ‘The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread.’ What is the significance of that? It is this: here is something that the Lord Jesus offers to us and not us to him. He offers to us bread and wine which symbolises his dying love for us as a ring symbolises the love of the groom for his bride. The movement is from God to us, it is a movement of grace. Just as the father ran to the son and embraced him, so God in Jesus as it were, runs to us with his hands full of bread and wine and we simply receive them with thanksgiving. The bread and wine are signs of grace, total, undeserved mercy and love, just like the kiss of the Father and the provision of the fattened calf. So unlike the Roman Catholic Church and the mass, which is a perversion of what Jesus taught, we do not have a priest with his back to the people offering a sacrifice for their sins in the bread and the wine. We have a table which is a meal celebrating the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus for sins. Now the Reformers who gave us our prayer book understood this and didn’t want people confused. Some of you will be aware that for many years an Anglican minister administered the Lord’s Supper from the North end of the table which seems an odd place to do it from. There was a point to that. First, it emphasised that the real celebrant was not the minister, but Jesus himself, he was with his people by his Spirit, it was his table, not the priest’s altar. The second reason was that the intention was not to have a table at the East end of the church building against the wall, like an altar, but to have it down in the middle of the building so that everyone stood around the table in a circle, including the minister as merely one of the people. You can see, what was intended by the Reformers in the picture on the screen. The point is- this is God’s action, him doing something for us, not us doing something to him.
Secondly, the symbols-bread and wine- point away from themselves- 25, ‘In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.’ In one sense there is nothing special regarding the bread and the wine- just as in once sense there is nothing special about a gold ring in and of itself on the fourth finger of a woman’s left hand. But there is something special in another sense in that they point to something important- the bread and wine point us to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the place where he bled for me, his body smashed for me, dying in my place so that I can stand in his place-heaven, just as the wedding ring points to the marriage covenant. Would it not be strange if a husband became fixated with his wife’s wedding ring? Can you imagine him carrying a photograph of it to work- taking it out from time to time to get a peek of it? And when he comes home he calls his wife in and says ‘Let me look at the ring I bought you?’ Yet some churches in effect do that with the bread and the wine. No, the husband is meant to look up from the ring to his dear wife who is wearing it, and likewise as we take the bread and wine we are meant in our hearts to look up to the Lord Jesus who at the table says, ‘Come to me, I love you, you are mine, I died for you!’ That is what we are meant to be contemplating as we come to the table and hear the words accompanying the gifts- ‘This is my body which is given for you’- yes ‘you Melvin- I am speaking to you and touching you through this- I the risen Lord Jesus.’
But notice why we are to do this- ‘in remembrance’. Now the word used here for remembrance isn’t simply a jogging of our memory- like ‘I remember where I was when JFK was assassinated’. It is recalling something and pondering something which has happened in the past but in such a way that its effect in the present is appreciated and felt. Let me use an illustration again from marriage. A husband, or more likely a wife, could, over doing the washing up think back to their wedding day and smile, then he or she is onto the next thing. But supposing it is their wedding anniversary- what do they do? Well, first they may sit together on the settee and take out the wedding album and look at the pictures together, recalling the great day and it seems as if it were only yesterday. They smile, maybe shed a tear or two; their hearts are certainly warmed and drawn to each other. Then they have a meal together- a special meal- and the love just flows between them as they look into each others eyes and hold each others hands across the table. Suddenly what happened back then- 20, 30, 40 years ago profoundly impacts their present lives and love for each other. Friends, that is ‘remembering’ 1 Corinthians 11: 24 style. And the thing is – Jesus is right here as we do this, by his Spirit, living in our hearts by faith.
The late Alan Stibbs uses another illustration to get over this fact that we are talking about ‘communion’ that is having fellowship together as a family with God himself. He uses the illustration of a telephone conversation to a faraway friend and through that conversation the friend's 'presence' is, as it were, experienced for a few minutes. He says: ‘In ways like this, but far more wonderfully and with no make believe, when I attend an administration of the Lord's Supper, and see and hear the sacramental movement begun, and realize that it is personally and imperatively addressed to me, and to all there present with me, and that it demands corresponding action and response; then it is right to believe that in this movement Christ himself is present and active and offering afresh to give to me, through His death for me, His indwelling presence by His Spirit, and the outworked experience of all the benefits of his passion ... to speak of answering a telephone call is indeed an illustration utterly inadequate and unworthy. For this movement is like the approach of the bridegroom to the bride. Its proper consummation like the giving and receiving of the ring in marriage. Indeed, it is like the crowning intercourse of love itself.’ Have you ever thought that is what is happening whenever we meet at this table? It is true.
Do you see how God uses all 5 love languages in the Holy Communion service to reach out and touch us? We hear his words of affirmation, ‘This is my body which is given for you’. There is quality time together as we draw away from a hectic world and meet the risen Lord Jesus at his table- like an anniversary meal. There is the Lord serving us, providing bread and wine pointing to the greater service of his sacrifice on the cross. The bread and wine are gifts- as was the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Then there is touch, as we take the bread into our hands and taste the wine on our lips- which reminds me that Jesus death was a real, historical death, and that my salvation is a total salvation which will involve my body being resurrected one day as well as my spirit. Do you see how in this simple act, God in the Lord’s Supper is eager to embrace us as the Father was eager to embrace the son in the Lord’s parable ? This is what Holy Communion is all about- the church family meal, gathering together around a table until the great day in glory when we shall share in the great heavenly meal. In the Lord’s Supper God is not simply saying ‘I love you, rather, like an embrace or a kiss, he is showing he loves us and by His Spirit making fellowship with us.
So how many times should we have the Lord’s Supper? The Bible doesn’t tell us. It is ‘whenever you do this’. And so it is a matter of liberty. For some churches it is every week, for some every month, for others it is once a year. There are good reasons for and against all of these practices. Here in our main services we have settled on once a month in the morning and once a month in the evening. Do we stand, sit or kneel? Again we are not told, it is a matter of liberty. The important thing is that we treat it as special and not become blasé about it.
Who is to take it? Well, professing Christians. This is sometimes called a ‘sacrament of the Gospel’. So those who have believed the Gospel message in the hearts and belong to God’s family, are meant to come to the Lord’s Table to receive the symbols of that Gospel- the bread and the wine. There is nothing magic about the bread and the wine, as there is nothing ‘magic’ about a wedding ring, but there is something special because of what they represent and convey to us- God’s saving love in Christ.
It is true you know that sometimes actions do speak more loudly than words- or at least in addition to words. Let me end by sharing with you the experience of a Vicar who has now gone to be with the Lord, a man called Michael Perry- we often use some of the confessions and creeds he wrote, as well as some of his hymns. This is what he once said: ‘I recall returning home one Sunday from a distance none too pleased with myself and wanting to hear the words of assurance of God’s forgiveness with which many Anglican services begin. I was too late- I had missed the ‘absolution’. I crept into the back of the congregation feeling that I should not go forward to receive the bread and the wine- for that was the form of service that evening. However, I did go and held out my open hands It was as the bread touched me that I knew I was forgiven. What words had not been able to do the physical consciousness of the bread, the token and reality of God’s love for me in Christ, was able to achieve. I think it is like that for many more people than we realise- to whom sacrament or symbol conveys most effectively the assurance of Christ’s saving work on the cross.’
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