Reflections on Mark 14:22-25, Jeremiah 16:5-7, and I Corinthians 11:17-34 —
The practice of communion has been observed by Christians since Jesus Himself introduced it at the famous “Last Supper” with His disciples (Mark 14:22-25). As part of this ritual, Jesus wanted His followers to remember Him (I Corinthians 11:24-25), and to do so by collectively partaking of two essential elements–the bread and the wine.
I have always been a little uncertain about communion. I think I understand what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’ve never seen an instruction manual or a “how-to” video on YouTube about how it’s done. In most contemporary churches, we take communion as part of the regular Sunday service. I find this a little awkward–one minute, I’m sitting next to a guy who has never darkened the door of a church, and the next, I’m passing him a plate or standing in line behind him as we each receive a little cube of bread and a cup of juice. I can’t help but think, “does this guy know what’s going on?” And often, there is music playing while we do communion. I don’t quite understand that. Am I supposed to listen to the words, or sing the song? Should I close my eyes and contemplate Jesus’ body, bloodied and hanging on the cross, see the blood oozing from the many wounds inflicted on Him–on his forehead, hands, feet, and side? If I sing the song and lose focus on Jesus hanging on the cross, am I doing it all wrong?
Jesus gave us the instruction to remember Him when we partake of the elements, so I can see where people interpret this to mean, do things that remind you of Jesus when you take communion. But I think there is more to it than that. Communion is not just a time to remember Jesus as a noble man, a martyr, in much the same way as we remember a fallen soldier or rescue worker who died for a good cause. It’s important that we understand what Jesus had in mind for communion, and to make sure we’re carrying it out properly. There is evidence that the church has occasionally gotten it wrong. Furthermore, there is evidence that God can be provoked by the incorrect application of communion. So, I think it’s worth a second look.
From early Hebrew culture, eating bread and drinking wine were an integral part of funeral services (Jeremiah 16:5-7). People ate bread to mourn the lost loved one, and drank wine to console their grieving hearts. In our practice of communion, there should be an element of mourning, and an element of consolation. At some point in the process, we should feel broken, as if we’ve suffered a great loss or witnessed a tragic death. When we’re done, we should feel consoled, like a kind friend has just listened to our sorrows and has soothed us with healing words.
It seems to me that eating the bread should be an act of mourning. It is a time to grieve. We should grieve our selfish and corrupt heart, our naturally rebellious attitude against God. Grieve for that, and grieve because our sin caused someone else to die. As Jesus was broken for us, so we should be broken. But then, we drink the wine of consolation. As we do so, we should remember that Jesus’ blood has power–power to cleanse our conscience from the stains of sin (Hebrews 9:13-14). Be consoled because we have a merciful High Priest that understands our woeful state, who is not surprised when we confess our ugliest sins to Him, who is merciful beyond comprehension, and who asks us to come to Him confidently (Hebrews 4:15-16). These truths console us, bringing health and vitality to our needy soul.
Jesus said we should do these things often (“as often as you take it…”). Observing communion should be a regular, repeating practice. I think most churches do this. But I’m not sure our typical communion practices provide the best venue to allow members enough space to reflect–to properly mourn and receive consolation. I fear that even after communion is observed, there are still many needy souls exiting the building. Communion should incorporate elements of mourning and consolation to bring healing to the soul, the direct result of being set free from the burden of hidden sin. The healed soul is empowered to experience joy and to express love to others with confidence.
Each time we observe communion, we should see it as a golden opportunity for us to air things out, and to receive cleansing, healing, and encouragement. This was the objective of the communion tradition (aka, “The Lord’s Supper”) the early church was instructed to practice regularly. In chapter 11 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, we see that the Lord Himself defined what communion should look like, and Paul passed on the instruction (11:23-26). Sadly, the Corinthians were making a disaster of communion. It appears they had special gatherings to celebrate communion which they combined with a community meal of some sort (something like what we call “potluck” today). Some of the well-to-do members were bringing elaborate spreads and feasting among themselves while others, perhaps the poorer members, had nothing to eat (11:20-21). These unfortunate folks sat in the corner and watched from afar as their wealthy brothers and sisters gorged themselves and became tipsy as they emptied their jars of wine. It is clear the Corinthian church was divided and factious (11:18-19)–the result of unrecognized immaturity, pride, and ambition. None of these heart issues were addressed in their celebration of communion. It was so bad, Paul said their coming together was “not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17). It would have been better not to do their little communion ritual at all! Communion for the Corinthians lacked honest exploration into their private world, their motives, daily routines, and ambitions. There was no recognition of selfishness or thoughtlessness. There was no mourning, no grieving.
To rectify the situation, Paul told the Corinthians they need to include examination with their communion (11:28), some kind of self-evaluation of past actions, inner thoughts, and hidden motives. This evaluation was to be done “rightly” (11:31)–in other words, honestly, frankly, and thoroughly. It appears that the point of this self-assessment was to “get right” before the Lord–to identify, confess, and renounce any traces of hidden wickedness in the heart, perhaps some harsh words spoken, some malice felt toward someone, immoral thoughts or actions, or evil intentions. It’s clear from the passage that proper examination is extremely important to God. Some Corinthians who partook in the Lord’s Supper without proper examination did so in an “unworthy manner” (11:27), and as a result, were overcome with weakness (Gr., asthênêo, to be weary), sickness (Gr., arrhostôs, to be infirm, sickly), and even death (11:30). We should perk up when we read this. These are forms of judgment from the Lord (11:31), so it is clear that He’s not neutral about how we approach communion. Like a good Jewish funeral, God wants communion to evoke mourning and grieving and end with consolation.
Physical consequences of sin like sickness and death are not obvious or common today as perhaps they were in the early church. Or at least it seems that way. But I think weariness is a hidden burden many believers carry today. The Greek word, asthênêo, is the same word used in James 5:14-15 referring to believers who had grown weary, so much so they needed the elders to come and pray for them. In some of those cases, the weariness was a result of sin (James 5:15). Living with unconfessed sin stresses out your soul. It makes us weary. David understood this. When he covered up the nasty secret about his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, his soul was exhausted. He felt like a detassler withering on a humid July afternoon in Iowa:
“When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.” — Psalm 32:3-4
In the first two chapters of his letter to Romans, Paul has a lot to say about the judgment that follows us around when we have unconfessed sin. The indisputable and impartial consequence of selfish and unrighteous living is wrath, judgment, tribulation, indignation, and distress. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe–sin is sin, and the consequence of carrying around unconfessed sin is always condemnation (Romans 1:18-2:11).
Communion is a golden opportunity to ease our weariness, to avoid the condemnation Paul refers to. Paul says to the Corinthians, “if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” (11:31). When we take communion, let’s judge ourselves rightly by being brutally honest–identifying our sin, mourning it in confession. Let the Holy Spirit help you do that. Cry out as David did, “search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24). Use the Word of God as a helpful aid in examination. The Word is a mirror reflecting the true state of our hearts (James 1:22-25). It is like a sword that penetrates our very soul, revealing our inner thoughts and motives, helping us to see ourselves as God sees us (Hebrews 4:12-13). It is a fire, burning away the dross; it is a hammer, shattering the rock-hard heart (Jeremiah 23:29). It is sometimes awkward to acknowledge the ugliness of sin to God, but it is only a temporary discomfort. When the work of examination is complete and all hidden junk is exposed, we can confidently go to Jesus, falling at His feet with honesty and brokenness, and receiving consolation through His mercy and “grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). In so doing, we escape condemnation. We leave communion with a renewed hope and encouragement.
Communion is not just as a time to visualize Christ. It is a time to come to Him. He beckons us to “come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Let your next communion be a time of mourning, and consolation. Let it be an offloading of burdens, a casting off of the weariness of unconfessed sin. Find consolation in communion–a resting place for your soul.