Chris Thompson: Communion rite can be meaningful or confusing

February 7, 2014 

In visiting many local churches, I've had the pleasure of extending my worship through the celebration of the Lord's Supper, Communion or Eucharist. For simplicity's sake, I'll use the single term "Communion" here. This practice, established by Jesus at the Last Supper, is recorded in Matthew 26, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 13 and other New Testament passages.

Catholics and some others practice transubstantiation, which is the belief that Communion bread and wine are mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ.

In consubstantiation, practiced by reformation churches, including Lutherans, Christ is believed to be present alongside the bread and wine as well as in the gathering.

Most other churches believe the bread and the wine are entirely symbolic.

Communion, in early New Testament times, provoked misunderstanding and criticism by outsiders because of the wording of Christ's explanation, "As often as you eat my body, and drink my blood, you honor my death until I return."

To outsiders it suggested cannibalism.

Communion grew to become a key ordinance of the Christian church.

Some churches practice weekly or biweekly Communion. A few celebrate it once a month. Others observe it once a quarter. No frequency is mentioned in Scripture.

Open Communion -- in which anyone can partake regardless of faith or belief -- is practiced by many churches. Other churches request that you profess a belief in Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for partaking. Some churches practice closed Communion, meaning you must be an accredited member of that church before partaking. More than half of local churches say nothing about who may take Communion, which I find a guest-unfriendly gesture.

Astonishingly, some churches distribute Communion without a single word. A few local churches leave the emblems of Communion out, inviting members to partake whenever desired. This is not supported by Scripture. Personally I find both of these practices insulting. They leave Communion takers without an explanation, confusing and perplexing guests. It's a missed opportunity.

Few churches read the pertinent Scripture and comment on the significance of observing this ordinance. Many churches spend significant time and attention on the details of Communion service, following a prescribed liturgical order. Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestants do this. Evangelicals seem to take the least time.

Methods of Communion distribution vary widely from church to church. The dominant method is going forward to receive Communion at the altar, or in close proximity. There, one receives the bread from one person and the cup from another, both employing Communion language: "The body of Christ broken for you," and "The blood of Christ shed for you."

Some church servers distribute wafers or bread throughout the congregation, and then pass trays of small cups of juice or wine. Amazingly, some pass wafers and then Communion juice trays, expecting one to eat and drink as it arrives. The cup is replaced on the tray and passed down the row. This is awkward.

With congregational distribution, some churches practice holding the bread and wine until a signal is given so all partake at once. Many of these practices depend on familiarity and, confusingly, few churches say anything about their specific practice.

Major liturgical churches tend to use the wafer and drink from a common cup. Variations of this are breaking a loaf of bread, using a common cup and dipping the bread into the wine or juice. This practice is referred to as "intinction" but without Scriptural support.

Wine is controversial. Clearly it was the practice in Christ's time. Some denominations have strong anti-alcohol rules, so grape juice is substituted. Many liturgical denominations use wine, offering grape juice as an alternative. Often churches offer gluten-free wafers for those with gluten sensitivities.

A few denominations observe foot-washing ordinances, sometimes called Ordinances of Humility. Seventh-day Adventists are one such denomination. They adopted this practice after Jesus' example, as recorded in Scripture.

While Communion practices vary widely, this service could be more meaningful and less confusing if clergy talked about their specific practices but I have found explanations of practices are rare.

Enlightened clergy follow a tried-and-true formula: Tell them what you're going to do, do it, then tell them what you did (which is to say, summarize or contextualize).

In a recent Lutheran service, the pastor invited worshipers to partake of Communion by serving one another using "body and blood" language. Not self-serve, it was a meaningful service portraying Christ's example. It stands as a high point of my Christian Communion experiences.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

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