Communion: simpler than we make it

Photo: Geda Žyvatkauskaitė, Unsplash.

This Sacrament is not given to us merely in order that we do something, but that we may be someone: that we may be Christ. 

— Thomas Merton, Living Bread

Communion was a big deal when I was growing up. It was rare, only done a couple of times a year, and it happened during an evening service, set apart from normal worship. 

Children could attend but weren’t allowed to participate since we weren’t baptized and members of the church. Nonmembers of any age weren’t included either. 

The service was somber and, in my memory, quiet. The trays of bread were passed in silence. Members took a piece and sat in stillness until everyone had been served. Then the pastor said some words and for 30 seconds the sanctuary filled with the sound of chewing. This was all repeated with the juice. There was a hushed sense of sacred gravitas that made a deep impression on me.

Communion required preparation. Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Swiss Mennonites took that seriously. In my grandparents’ generation, members were required to sit through a yearly interview with the elders to determine if they passed the exam. If necessary, a person could be asked to publicly confess a transgression, and if they refused, they would be denied communion. 

In my elementary years, I knew communion was about Jesus, but it felt mostly like a membership ritual. Were you in or out?

This was not without biblical precedent. Paul used communion imagery and practice to address food conflicts that threatened to tear apart the -Corinthian church. 

In a plea for unity, he wrote, -“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). 

He admonished the church that when they didn’t share food or fought over what food was clean and unclean, they were eating the bread and drinking the cup in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27).

Maintaining a healthy church community is important, but by focusing on Paul’s words, the church transformed the Lord’s Supper into a way to judge others and demarcate sides. Over the centuries, the Eucharist has been used as a political weapon capable of upending kingdoms and splitting denominations.

I’ve come to believe communion is simpler than we make it. 

The manner in which we serve communion does not require great pomp and circumstance. Jesus picked up food that was already sitting in front of him: bread and wine. These sacred elements are universal. Pick the closest carbohydrate and potable liquid, and you have the elements of communion. 

The reason we take communion is also straightforward. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). 

Communion is not to affirm church membership. Not to define what salvation means. Not to prove that your conscience is clear. It’s about Jesus. 

Communion is specifically remembering Jesus’ singular act of his body broken and his lifeblood spilled out unto death. Jesus chose to sacrifice himself as a symbolic lamb, slaughtered on the altar of atonement. 

During communion, we remember that the way back to God is sacrifice and forgiveness.

Jesus gave us specific instructions. We don’t light a candle, look at images or assume body positions to remember him. Instead, we eat and drink. 

The symbols of his sacrificial death — the bread and wine — literally enter our body and become part of us. We carry the knowledge of Christ within us, giving us the power to be like him. 

Many denominations, like mine, don’t give children communion. Sometimes it is because they aren’t members or because they are too young and innocent to need salvation. 

If communion isn’t about membership or salvation, why should children not fill their growing bodies with the memory and knowledge of Jesus? 

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). 

If the kingdom belongs to children, who are we to deny them? 

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he served his disciples communion and washed their feet. Mennonite churches have mostly discarded the practice of footwashing, which is unfortunate, because it is the completion of Jesus’ parting instructions. We remember Jesus, and then we minister to one another. The Lord’s Supper is both a vertical connection with God and a horizontal connection with the community.

We remember Jesus both at the table and on our knees, serving each other.  

Sarah Kehrberg

Sarah Kehrberg lives in the Craggy Mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and three children.

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