This post is based on a communion guide for lay leaders that I wrote in 2015.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. -Acts 2:42
I grew up in Baptist churches, so the Lord’s Supper was something we did every now and then. The idea was that by celebrating communion infrequently we made the act more special. Maybe it worked that way for some folks, but for me, it made the Supper an awkward intrusion into our normal worship. But hey, Jesus said we have to do it.
It was only when I went to seminary that I began to learn there was more to communion than what I had seen. I began learning about the early church as well as reading patristic theologians and I was stunned how much time they devoted to talking about communion. Then I learned that the Lord’s Supper was not something the early church did only a few times a year, but in nearly every service! It was a cornerstone of their worship. Their experience of worship was so vastly different from my own.
The Symbol of the Gospel
Precious gems are cut to have many facets. Each facet sparkles and shines but it does not contain the whole beauty of the stone. Rather, the stone’s true beauty is revealed as we examine each facet and how the light plays between them. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. The many themes contained in the act of communion come together to reveal the greatness of the gospel – as a symbol of Christ’s death, we are essentially talking about the gospel when we talk about communion. The whole of what Christ has done for us can be seen in this one act. There are at least six theological themes that are bound up in the symbolism of the Supper: the memorial, thanksgiving, covenant, community, mission, and eschatology.
This is the old Baptist standard. It is also the most apparent on the face of things. We remember that Christ died for our sins. The bread is his body, broken for us. The cup represents his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the foundation of the Christian faith. In the same manner, the remembrance of the price that was paid for our redemption forms the basis for all of the other aspects of communion. Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:13-20, and 1 Cor 11:23-26.
From the Greek term eucharistia (from whence the term eucharist is derived). We remember that we have been set free because of Christ’s death and resurrection. This theme is an immediate response to the revelation of Jesus’ sacrifice. We are thankful for the price that was paid. We rejoice in our restored relationship with the Father, through the Son. Where the memorial is reflective and sorrowful, thanksgiving is joyous and celebratory – we are redeemed! 1 Cor 5:7-8, 1 Cor 10:16-17, Col 3:15.
Christ has created for us a new covenant, a new relationship with God. We remember to whom we belong. Jesus tells us that the cup is “the cup of the new covenant.” The Law and its purpose are fulfilled in Christ. We no longer need the sacrificial system and its accouterments because Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice once and for all. In him we are restored to relationship with the Father. We are also clothed by the Spirit in the righteousness of Christ. We are new creations, co-heirs with Jesus and children of the Most High. As we come to the table we have the opportunity to commune with God in a tangible and intimate way. Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25.
Christ has made us members of his body. We remember who we are. The Didache, an early Christian text from around AD 100, states in an example communion prayer, “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom.” While not Scripture, it is illustrative of the truth of Scripture and its expression in the symbols of the Supper. Bread isn’t made from a single grain of wheat but from many grains, made into flour and combined with leaven and water. The same is true of us. God has taken disparate people from every tribe and tongue and given us the Spirit to make us into one body, the Church. None of us are saved alone, but together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Acts 2:42, 1 Cor 10:16-17, 1 Cor 12:27, Eph 3:6.
We are the hands and feet of Christ. We remember that he had given us a job to do. Augustine of Hippo spoke to new believers about the Supper saying, “Be what you see, receive what you are.” He was talking about how the body of Christ is made up of individuals, but his words point to an additional reality. Christ sacrificed his body and blood that mankind might be saved. As members of his body, we also have a role to play – giving our lives as holy sacrifices. We are to be broken and poured out for a lost and dying world, just as Jesus was. Rom 12:1-8.
We celebrate his death until he comes again. We remember that he will return. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb. One day, we will feast with Jesus in a new heaven and earth, but until that time he has given us permission to come to his table and dine with him. Just because he is unseen, his presence is no less real for it is he who presides over the celebration. But one day we will see him face to face! Matt 26:29, Luke 22:16, 1 Cor 11:26.
As a closing thought, the word remember is closely tied to the Supper. Jesus commands that we “do this in remembrance of me.” In contemporary culture, remember often carries the meaning of something we don’t forget. I would suggest, however, that the remembrance we are called to do is not a passive thing. Rather, we are to actively enter into the work of Christ as we recall his passion.
So, why did the early church celebrate communion so often? I think it was because the Supper functions as a recapitulation of everything that God has done for us in Christ. In this one act we can experience, in symbolic form, the fullness of the Gospel, from the Old Testament precursors to the eschatological realization of the promises of Jesus. But these things are not necessarily readily apparent. They must be highlighted and explained as we gather around the table. When we look at the Lord’s Supper in this light, it is by more frequent celebration that the act’s deeper significance is brought out and communion is made more special. The power of the Lord’s Supper does not come from the symbols of bread and wine but from the presence of Christ made manifest by the Holy Spirit. As we come to his table, he meets us there to nourish our souls as we feed on the truth of the Gospel.
 The Didache, Chapter 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm.
 Augustine, On the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, sermon 272, http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm.