Among the many terms for the Lord’s Supper (also known as ‘the breaking of bread’, ‘the mass’, ‘the offering’, ‘the synaxis’, ‘the divine liturgy’, ‘the holy sacrifice’, and increasingly as ‘the eucharist’) one of the most favoured by English Christians is probably ‘the celebration of Holy Communion’.
Recently I had cause to think again about this term, ‘communion’. It is a word found in the writings of the Apostle Paul.: for although Paul talked of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11.20), he also spoke of ‘communion’. This comes out very clearly in the Authorised Version of 1 Corinthians 10.16:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ.”
The underlying Greek word translated as ‘communion’ is ‘koinonia’ variously translated in today’s modern versions as ‘fellowship’ (Revised New Jerusalem Bible),’participation’ (New International Version), and ’sharing’ (Good News Bible; New Revised Standard Version; Revised English Bible). Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase, The Message:
“When we drink the cup of blessing, aren’t we taking into ourselves the blood, the very life, of Christ? And isn’t it the same with the loaf of bread we break and eat? Don’t we take into ourselves the body, the very life, of Christ?”
The emphasis here is first and foremost on a ‘communion’ with God himself as we share afresh in the death of Jesus. In the words of Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner in their monumental commentary, over against the ‘fellowship meals’ where pagan gods/idols were honoured, Paul stresses that at the Lord’s Table fellowship (‘communion’) is “with the deity as well. Through our fellowship with Christ we participate in the benefits of his sacrifice, which serves to establish or renew our covenantal relationship with God himself.” Let’s be clear. The Lord’s Supper is no mere memorial meal in which we coldly confess our faith. Here, as we remember Jesus, we receive again the benefits won from his death, and in so doing we encounter God afresh. We ‘commune’ with him.
At the same time, we ‘commune’ with one another as we ‘share’ in the body of Christ. Although here the body of Christ is Jesus himself, the very word ‘sharing’ (koinonia) reminds us of the body of Christ, the church. Indeed, the term koinonia is a synonym for the church, and can be translated as ‘fellowship. It is this aspect which Paul goes on to highlight: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10.17). Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an intensely personal experience – but it is also a corporate experience. Despite our many differences in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, marital status, and social class, we are one because of Jesus. This is what Holy Communion involves.
But we cannot limit our communion to the fellowship we experience with one another in our local churches. It is a fellowship which goes beyond the local church and crosses every culture. As we drink wine and break bread we are united with our brothers and sisters the world over – and not just those whose way of being church is like ours, but also with those whose way of being church is very different. Latin American Catholics, Egyptian Copts, African Pentecostals, Indian Anglicans, and Greek and Russian Orthodox and even British Baptists – all Christians, all one in Christ.
Amazingly communion also crosses the boundaries of time. For around the Table we join in worship not just with ‘the church militant’, but with ‘the church triumphant’. In the words of Hebrews 12.22-24: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus…”. Who are “the spirits of the righteous who are made perfect”? The language here picks up the language used earlier of those who have put their trust in Christ (Hebrews 10.4) and who are described as “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12.1). In other words, as we come to the Table we experience ‘the communion of saints’. We are united with all those who have died in Christ, including loved ones who have gone before. To quote James Stewart, a Scottish preacher of a past generation: “it is as if they were holding Christ’s right hand, and you his left”.
Communion at the Table is truly multi-dimensional.