Communion and mission can go together.
Early Christian tradition, not New Testament teaching, tied baptism and Communion together. In the first few centuries after the apostles a dramatic baptismal rite of entry into a bounded Christian community prepared the path to the weekly Eucharistic table of nourishment and joy in the presence of the Risen Christ. Enforced universal baptism eventually distorted both baptism and Communion …
Early Christian tradition, not New Testament teaching, tied baptism and Communion together. In the first few centuries after the apostles a dramatic baptismal rite of entry into a bounded Christian community prepared the path to the weekly Eucharistic table of nourishment and joy in the presence of the Risen Christ. Enforced universal baptism eventually distorted both baptism and Communion. As western Christians we have inherited a complicated history of the church’s treasured forms of worship. Today, Mennonites rightly look to the Communion service as a proper center and source for our calling to build community, to follow Christ in discipleship and to foster justice and reconciliation.
Does our Communion express God’s character and concerns? What does it mean that Christ is present when we gather at his table? How does the Spirit energize us for self-giving love and service as we go out? A Trinitarian approach addresses some of our questions. In this service we “praise God the Abba bearing love, praise God the servant from above, praise God the Paraclete we share” (Gail Ramshaw-Schmidt, “Naming the Trinity: Orthodoxy and Inclusivity,” Worship, November 1986).
We respond to God the Abba bearing love
Like the sun with the sunflower, Abba God turns to us in our worship, and we turn our faces to Abba. In Communion the story of God’s whole saving action comes first. Listening to this story is like feeling the warm sun on our faces. Turning toward the warmth, we respond. First we hear the sweep of the great story, then our praise and thanksgiving flow.
Is worship only what we do? We plan Communion, lead it, experience it, either like or dislike it. It is more. It is gift. But in this gift of worship do we actually receive mercy, forgiveness and grace? Abba God calls out to us, “Come to me. You are my beloved people. Listen to my great passion. Join me as I work to restore the whole creation into wholeness and peace.” With joy and commitment we respond, “Yes.” Both our worship and the call into God’s mission are gift. God initiates mission and worship, and each flows through the other. Nourished at the table, we become co-workers in God’s great mission of reconciliation, justice, healing and hope.
We respond to God the servant from above
Communion is not an abstraction, not a performance, not a beautiful event to induce peaceful feelings, not a tradition to maintain. Communion is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the servant from above. He is the one who loves us, saves us, serves us and calls us into fullness of life.
In the Communion service he says, “See my hands. See my side.” He says, “Come to me, you who are troubled and weary. Your sins are forgiven.” He says, “Love one another as I have loved you. Pray for your enemies.”
Here at the Lord’s Table is mercy, forgiveness and grace offered for all in the very person of Jesus Christ. We eat the bread of Jesus’ life and drink the cup of his sacrifice. In the dialogue of adoration we respond with fervor and joy, then turn to receive each other with open hearts. We “welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). The harmony of this welcome is not to please ourselves but to build each other up so that glory will come to God. Worship and welcome are God’s gifts to the church. In Communion we pledge love to Christ and one another, sealing it in shared bread and wine. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
We respond to God the Paraclete we share
How are we to join in God’s universal welcome and mission? Only through the Spirit of God, who comes alongside us (paraclete) to comfort, prepare and strengthen us. As we pray at the table, God the Paraclete, works through our ritual actions, enabling us to participate in a fruitful way. It is more than ordinary eating and drinking. Taking into ourselves the bread and wine—gifts of Christ’s very life—we present ourselves to be transformed. Communion is a type of commissioning, a call to extend outward the welcome and love we have received. The loving energy of the Spirit transforms us as individuals and as a community. How do we respond to the Spirit in Communion? By committing ourselves to self-giving love in the service of brother, sister, neighbor and enemy.
Communion, with its intense focus on the presence of Christ, calls us in the power of the Spirit into the mission of God. The Spirit shapes individual believers and the congregation into Christlike people who will join in God’s mission of reconciliation. We will breathe mercy, offer forgiveness, pray for the enemy, love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. In Communion we act out the Lord’s Prayer as we receive bread and forgiveness from Abba’s hand, then offer bread and forgiveness to others, hallow God’s name, and pray for the coming of the kingdom.
In light of this cosmic context, we realize the questions we ask about Communion may be too small. Each question we ask becomes a bigger question.
- Who can we invite to the Communion Table? becomes bigger: Does the quality of Christ’s welcome we experience in Communion permeate our everyday relationships?
- What kind of bread shall we use and what size of cup? becomes bigger: Does the generosity of God’s provision spill over into passionate local and global sharing?
- How do we do the peace greeting? becomes bigger: Does the love and peace within the church extend outward to self-giving love of neighbor and enemy?
- How do I keep from offending my sister who frets that we sing the wrong songs at Communion? becomes bigger: How can we invite outsiders into a common song of joy and glory to God?
- How could we even think of offering Communion to an unbaptized person? becomes bigger: Might we be more flexible, offering different kinds of Communion in the round of church life, becoming a community of many tables?
Five modest proposals
1. A church could hold two kinds of Communion services—public and closed. Public services, generally on Sunday mornings, begin with an open invitation and draw on themes of meals from Jesus’ ministry. Communion in this case may be a route to baptism. Closed services, for baptized Christians only, emphasize the disciplines and mutual love of covenanted believers. These services, held on a weekday evening, would not be advertised, and may include footwashing and more extensive intercessory prayers.
2. If a church holds to the classic invitation for a Sunday Communion open to baptized Christians only, it could always extend a winsome invitation to baptismal faith. Perhaps a forthrightly open invitation to baptism is more hospitable than offering an open invitation to the Communion table. Are we more willing to welcome than to invite?
3. A church may consider all its meals Eucharistic meals. Potlucks, soup kitchen meals, small group snacks—all may begin with simple ritual words, for example: “Christ is our host. His life is our bread and our drink. Let us take this food with thanksgiving and joy.” This is not exactly Communion, but it resonates with Communion prayers and is a legitimate extension of them.
4. A church may separate the bread and the cup. The invitation to share bread would be for everyone: “This is the bread for the world, the bread of life. Jesus invites us all. Everyone can share.” The invitation to the cup would be for those who have committed their lives to Christ and his way (Matthew 20:22): “This is the cup of discipleship. Those who are willing to walk with Christ, drink his cup and receive baptism will participate.” Here is a way to combine an open invitation in the same service with an invitation even more intense than usual to Jesus’ costly cup of baptism and life-giving service.
5. In Communion we rightly celebrate the joy of the resurrection. But Communion holds all the themes of redemption together: Christ’s life, suffering, death, vindication, presence in his Spirit and his coming again. In Communion, as in the rest of our lives as Christians, we will “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). It is uniquely in Communion that this whole story holds together. And this story, told and enacted in Communion, is still the greatest “draw” to faith. Communion is a table of mission.
Eleanor Kreider teaches at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.