Communion: Holy Sacrament or Mere Sign?

In honor of Maundy Thursday, I have updated a piece I wrote a little more than a year ago. So much of what I said then is what I’m reflecting on this Holy Week, so I thought I’d repost it. 

I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. For that reason, it is difficult for me to admit that for more than three decades, I never stopped to investigate the concept of sacrament. In fact, if you had asked me to define the term 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give an entirely correct response. I have no excuse for this gap in my theological knowledge; I’m sure it was mentioned at some point in my Essential Christian Doctrine courses in grad school, though I have no solid memory of any in-depth discussion of it. Once I began exploring the liturgical/sacramental traditions of Christendom through research and church attendance, some pivotal questions surfaced.

Why do sacramental/liturgical traditions view and conduct things like communion and baptism so differently? It certainly isn’t all about aesthetic preference; theology is at the core of these practices. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to carry these out? What is meant by “sacrament”?

Please understand that it is not at all my intention to criticize anyone’s perspective; rather, I wish to articulate why my personal view dramatically changed.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and sacramental/liturgical Protestants don’t all have the same view on the number and exact nature of the sacraments. For example, the Roman Catholic church recognizes seven: baptism, Eucharist (Holy Communion), confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Sacramental/liturgical Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, only recognize baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, since these were instituted, commanded, and modeled by Christ. 

Even though all of the above-mentioned Christian traditions hold these two sacraments in common, there is a difference (in general) between the non-Protestant and sacramental/liturgical Protestant beliefs about them. For instance, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches hold to transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine are quite literally mystically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ’s body. This does not mean they believe the elements turn into Jesus’s biological material; rather, the elements are transformed into the essence of His flesh and blood but not the physical accidents (that’s a philosophical term). Most sacramental/liturgical Protestants would deny this but yet affirm that, in a very real yet mysterious way, Christ is present in Holy Communion and His once-and-for-all sacrifice is thereby symbolized.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and many of my family and friends are still members of that denomination. I have enormous admiration and respect for their commitment to the right handling of Scripture, diligent personal Bible study, and emphasis on close community. Typically, the practice of communion in non-liturgical/sacramental Protestant churches (at least in my 30+ years of experience) is a quarterly worship service add-on. The officiant invites believers to participate and then reads the Scripture that records Christ’s last supper with His disciples prior to His crucifixion. Sometimes there is a moment of silence during which believers are meant to privately examine their hearts and repent from sin. Plates are passed with tiny cups of grape juice and small fragments of bread or unleavened wafer (the elements). Prayers of blessing are said over each prior to consumption. Communion is done as a symbolic practice of remembrance of Christ’s work for us.

I have a personal confession to make: In all my years as a Christian participating in communion, I had never been able to get over a sense of awkwardness and incompleteness in the ceremony, though I didn’t have an explanation for why. I did look forward to “communion Sundays,” as I craved an atmosphere of solemnity and visible, tangible acknowledgement of the meaning and holiness of the meal.  But I often felt as though something was missing. I remember how on many Sundays, I would place my empty juice cup in the tiny cupholder bolted to the back of the pew in front of me with a very real sense of deficiency.

In 1 Corinthians 11:24-28, the Apostle Paul recounts Christ’s words about Holy Communion:

“The Last Supper” by Harry Anderson

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

There are three things that really stand out to me about this passage. First of all, the practice of communion was commanded by our Lord. “Do this,” He said. Second, He calls the practice a remembrance, and Paul explains that it is a proclamation of Christ’s crucifixion. Third, Paul gives a sober warning about the necessity of coming to the table in a worthy manner–having confessed our sin with a penitent heart.

The book of Acts, our earliest text of church history, tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and that “on the first day of the week” they “gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day, was recognized through gathering together and observing Holy Communion. The indication is that this was a weekly act of Christian devotion that was accompanied by specific prayers. The writings of the Apostolic and other Ante-Nicene Fathers are further testament to the importance of Holy Communion in the early church. 

In the Anglican tradition, Holy Communion is a sacrament. What does that mean? The simplest way to explain it is that it is “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Holy Communion is a means by which our faith is fortified, by the grace of God, in a deeply incarnational way. We are creatures of body and soul, and therefore such outward, physical expressions of worship feed our whole person. There is beautiful mystery in how this happens…yet it does! I believe this is exactly why Christ commanded the practice. I love how Rev. Gavin Pate of All Saints Dallas put it: “It is a meal of sustaining grace, embodying the prayer of Jesus, that Our Father would ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

At my church, HopePointe Anglican, Holy Communion  is a serious and beautiful affair that I have found deeply nourishing. All those who have been baptized and are walking in repentance are invited to participate. We kneel together at the rail in front of the Lord’s table as a visible communion of believers hungry for Christ. When the broken bread is pressed into my upturned palm, I am told, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” or “The body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” When the wine chalice is presented to me, I am told, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Afterwards, it is difficult to stand, as I want to remain there indefinitely, prostrate before my holy God. My heart cries out, “Lord Jesus, I remember!”

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