21st Century Discipleship Resources

Teaching Extra 12 - Bread and wine

The principles and practice of communion

An opening reading: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

A. Food for the journey

1. Jesus taught his disciples to observe two practices: baptism and communion. Communion is the symbolic meal which Christians regularly celebrate as a way of recalling what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection. It grew out of the Jewish practice of the Passover and passes under different names: Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, the Breaking of Bread. There are many styles of communion service from the very formal to the very informal, but at the heart of them all is the sharing of bread and wine.

2. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus gathered with his disciples to share a meal. We call this the Last Supper. He took bread and wine and shared them with his followers, giving these everyday items a new significance as symbols of his body and blood. He particularly stressed the forgiveness of sins that would come about through his death. The first Christians continued to observe the Lord's Supper, and the practice has been maintained throughout the church (with a few exceptions) up until the present day.

3. In the earliest communion services, the first Christians used an Aramaic word, 'Maranatha', meaning 'Come, O Lord!' (1 Corinthians 16:22). We can use this word as a way of understanding the meaning of communion. Communion is about the coming of God to us in Christ and the Holy Spirit - in the past, the future and the present.

B. Christ has come!

1. The first thing we are saying in communion is that Christ has come. Through the bread and wine we are looking back to the time when 'the Word became flesh' (John 1:14) and Jesus lived among us as a flesh-and-blood human being. Communion, then, is about recalling the events of Christ's life, death and resurrection, and about marveling at the fact that he came to live, die and rise again for us. These basic truths are at the heart of the Christian faith. God in love has done something wonderful for us in space and time.

2. Bread and wine are very 'earthy' symbols. They are reminders of the basic elements we need in order to live. God in Christ became very 'earthy' and in so doing blessed the earth with his presence. If God was not ashamed to become a human being (while of course still remaining God), then the earth and life must be fundamentally good. It is good to be human, even though humans often spoil their lives by sin.

C. Christ will come!

1. Communion is not just about looking back but about looking forward. As Christ came among us, so he will return and we shall see him, and eat with him, once more. Jesus himself said as much at the Last Supper: 'I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God' (Mark 14:25). Clearly, Jesus was expecting that he would eat again with his disciples at a time in the future when God's kingdom would have fully come and God's purposes for the world would have been fulfilled. The Jews imagined there would be a great and joyful 'Messianic banquet'. Again, Jesus spoke of this when he said, 'I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 8:11). What a great prospect!

2. Sometimes when we are looking back to Christ's first coming and remembering his death on the cross, it is appropriate to be reflective and thoughtful or even solemn. However, when we look forward to the great feast at the end of time it is hard to be solemn - celebration is more the order of the day. Communion can therefore be celebrated with different moods depending on which aspect of its rich symbolism we wish to emphasise. We can imagine the first Christians proclaiming Maranatha, Come O Lord! with great hope and joy as they looked forward to Christ's future coming.

D. Christ does come!

1. In communion we are not only remembering something that has happened in the past and anticipating something that has still to happen in the future. We are experiencing something that happens now. Christ comes to us in the living present - hence the very apt term 'communion'. We are privileged to enjoy fellowship, or 'commune', with the living God through Jesus Christ his Son by the Spirit. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we take them into our innermost being physically and they become part of us. In a similar way, we receive Christ spiritually: 'Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [communion] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation [communion] in the body of Christ?' (1 Corinthians 10:16)

2. Communion, then, is above all about feeding spiritually upon Christ. The bread and the wine help us to think of him and what he has done for us. Through the physical symbols we share spiritually in Christ. This is what we call a 'means of grace'. God's grace reaches us through this particular means as it does also through the other 'means of grace' - baptism, Bible reading, prayer, fellowship and worship. As we 'feed upon' Christ in communion, we receive spiritual energy to sustain us and help us in our walk with God. For this reason, Christians are wise when they receive communion regularly and regard it as an important ingredient in a healthy Christian life.