An Explanation Of Eucharist (Communion)

The following is excerpted from our Essentials RED Course ebook, Bearers Of Memory: Essentials In Worship History. We also have a Free Communion Liturgy (for a limited time) for contemporary churches available over in the WorshipTraining Cafe.

Communion And Imagination

Mother Theresa once said, “When you learn to meet God in the bread and the cup, you can learn to see God in the poor.” In other words, she was suggesting that it is our capacity to imagine in worship that can lead to our capacity to imagine in social action. Embodied in her simple life in our generation, Mother Theresa drew the link between the symbolic acts of worship that occur within the Church proper, and the acts of social transformation that stem from their flourishing in the human soul.

The Language Of Eucharist

Celebrating the Eucharist (or communion) is the daily, weekly and seasonal reenacting of the themes of the Passover meal – namely that the God at the center of the universe became flesh and blood, and offered Himself to defeat death, disarm sin, resurrect the lifeless and restore the cosmos to its original purpose.

For the Church worshipping throughout history, it is no overstatement to say that the celebration of the Eucharist has been the primary and central act of Christian worship for almost 2000 years. All other worship actions have pointed to it, and the act of communion has sacramentally welded the Church together throughout intense seasons of forgetfulness of our purpose and mission in the world.

In addition to these ideas, Eucharist is perhaps the most participatory act of worship we see throughout Church history. The engagement of human beings around a table, eating bread, drinking juice, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting and reflecting the Story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is a powerful theme throughout worship history.

The Christian Language Of Eucharist

We have perhaps some of the most vibrant language related to worship in the New Testament surrounding what we call the Lord’s Supper.

For Christians throughout time, the New Testament themes of the Lord’s Supper still resonate among us. The Eucharist:

Commemorates that God has acted as Savior to penetrate of all of human history, from creation, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, through our present, and to the final consummation (Acts 2:46-47)

Reminds us that we are part of the communion of saints in the family of God (1 Cor. 10:16)

Persuades us that a sacrifice has occurred to right the world (John 1:29)

Speaks of the presence of Christ among us (John 6:51-58)

Welcomes us to experience the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13)

Looks forward to the eschaton (1 Cor. 11:26)

Early Church Usage Of The Eucharist

For the Jews, the concept of table fellowship was an important cultural idea. One did not eat with those whose lifestyle one did not endorse. One did not sit to eat with enemies, nor with those who had disgraced one’s family name. Jesus, however, literally turned the table on table fellowship. Eating and drinking with tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards and run-of-the-mill sinners was a theological statement embodied in his physical actions.

“The God who eats with these people is the God who embraces all of humanity in its beauty and brokenness,” his meal time habits would say; “He recognizes that all have sinned, and He draws near to bring new humanity to those who seem to be the worst off in society.”

This new paradigm of table fellowship led to some of the early Church’s most powerful statements of community. Now, not only had a former prostitute been baptized by a wealthy woman of tremendously differing social strata, but now they were declaring their essential “family” relationship by eating and drinking together at meals! What had brought them to this table of thanksgiving, this table of reconciliation and shared hope?

Jesus had brought them together, and their meal was a declaration that, just as God had caused the angel of death to pass over His people Israel in Egypt, so too death would now pass them by destroyed by the power of His resurrection life at work within.

Early Christians would share meals together, enlisting singing, the sharing of the apostles’ letters, prayer and mutual support as essentials at their table of worship. The Eucharist was originally known as the “agape feast,” or a meal that signified unconditional love between God and humankind, and humankind and one another. This meal was a central, defining act of worship for the earliest Christians, a commemoration of the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before stepping toward his final hours this side of the tomb.

This commemoration looked deep into the past of the Jews, remembering that God would provide the sacrificial Lamb that would “take away the sins of the world.” For the earliest believers, every gathering around this table was a celebration of resurrection life – that the true light had come into the world, and darkness had not overcome it. The agape feast looked toward the age to come, where no more tears would be shed as they were in this dark world, and all would enjoy unblemished fellowship with God and with one another.

In other words, for the early Church, the Eucharist was built around a celebration of resurrection, not primarily a revisiting of the death of Jesus. This is a later development in the approach to communion. Early believers reclaimed, every first day of the week, the Easter story – and the meal together, remembering Jesus’ words, was their primary act of resurrection remembrance.

The word “eucharist” is simply from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” For the early Christians, they were thanking God for, and commemorating, Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection in the eucharist, reminding themselves of God’s mighty acts through human history, being persuaded that a final sacrifice had been made for the world, speaking of the presence of Christ as they ate, welcoming the Holy Spirit in their midst and looking forward to the Kingdom coming in all of its fullness on earth.

The Eucharist In Worship Throughout Church History

Given communion’s centrality to the worship of the church across the ages, one can only imagine the myriad permutations that the actual symbolic act has taken as the Church has kept the breaking of bread and the taking of the cup a central expression of its worship life.

From the early Church meals, the Eucharist took on more symbolic (and possibly smaller and shorter) forms in the centuries of the persecuted Church. Then, with Constantinian Christianity, the Eucharist gained massive buildings and public displays to accent its mystery and beauty. This brought with it, throughout the medieval era, an errant magical significance being placed on the elements by clergy. The wine could not be spilled as it had actually become (in essence) the blood of Jesus, and the crumbs from the bread could not fall to the ground as it had literally become the flesh of Christ through the priest’s blessing.

The Reformation challenged many of these extremes with its emphasis on the priesthood of the believer, the centrality of scripture, and justification by faith – and not by doing all the right religious worship gymnastics.

When the Reformation came to fruition, there remained deep disagreement between many of the Reformers as to the exact nature of what happens in the Eucharist (a disagreement that pitted Luther and Zwingli against one another). For Luther, the elements were invested with the spiritual substance of the body and blood of Christ; i.e. the body and blood of Christ were in, through and under the substance of the elements though not changing them physically (consubstantiation).

For Zwingli, that was a silly idea. The term “transubstantiation” – the view that the elements actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ, was the Roman Catholic view, and was established as a sacramental idea in the 12th century. From here, various reformers rejected transubstantiation, embraced consubstantion, or, like the Quakers, rejected all symbolic action altogether.

By the time of Luther, Christians had been used to centuries of the Eucharist primarily resting in the domain of the clergy’s altar, and therefore the common person would only take communion a few times per year (maybe four, at the major festivals). While Zwingli kept this the pattern, Luther pushed for a weekly communion given his sense of its vital importance to worship. Under Luther, some Eucharist services could last up to three or four hours.[1]

Following from the Reformation, the Church has taken the last 500 years to further process what actually happens during communion, with what frequency it should be taken, and what types of elements are acceptable. In many contemporary Christian worshipping communities in the West, communion is often largely forgotten as a central language of worship for the Church. In Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other more liturgical traditions, it retains its historical centrality as the primary act of corporate worship.

Eucharist Throughout Church History

It is not uncommon for humans, let alone Christians, to overstate the importance of something in order to keep its’ meaning alive. One might suggest that some of the more “magical” language surrounding what happens in the Eucharist throughout Church history was intended to retain the mystery of our intimacy with Christ that can occur when one participates with a heart to encounter God in the elements.

Sometimes symbols, given their rightful meaning, can indeed welcome us into a sense of beauty and mystery in a way that words cannot. On the other hand, some have suggested that the taking of the Eucharist literally delivers salvation to the individual. Christians have taken many sides on this idea historically, but suffice it to say that the memory of what occurred in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has usually remained of infinitely higher importance to the Church than the form the Eucharist takes.[2]

Eucharist: What We Can Glean Today

On some levels, the multi-sensory and participatory nature of the symbolic form of taking the Eucharist may be among the most important themes we can draw on for today, in addition to the content it adds to our worship life. In an age that elevates personal experience above any form of objective truth, the Eucharist is an inherently visceral and physical action that may provide the most holistic worship bridge to the postmodern sensibility.

Given that the Eucharist originated in a meal together, we can reach into our past to revisit how we do communion in light of its origins. Larger meals may be a fresh approach to the Eucharist in contemporary churches, in church buildings or in homes. Additionally, the emphasis on the Eucharist being primarily a celebration of resurrection life, light and hope entering the world is another vital reclaiming that can and should occur in the contemporary Church.

If we can find our way through our church backgrounds to see communion in a fresh light, we may find one of the most powerful worship tools of the two millennial old Church in our hands once again – this time inviting the world to a feasting encounter at the Table of the Resurrected Lord.

[1] Ibid., 122.

[2] It is important to note here the difference between magic and true worship. Magic, one might say, is the quest to manipulate divine forces in order to accomplish one’s own will. Whether by symbolic action, incantation or mantra, symbolic actions can take on the spirit of magic moreso than the spirit of worship. True worship, on the other hand, might be stated as being a yielding to the divine will, in order to see Another’s will accomplished. In the first case, magic is defined by the will of the person doing the spiritual action. In the second, worship is defined by the will of the One worshipped – in this case, the Lord Jesus.


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