What we do when we celebrate communion

With a few exceptions one thing that the candidates I work with towards ordination have in common is not simply an absence of Eucharistic theology, but never really having thought that it might be important.

When pushed on it they will admit that communion is probably very important, and that yes, it is the one part of our worship specifically instituted and commanded by Jesus himself. But why therefore it might be a good thing is often a cause for quite a lots of long pauses and vague answers.

The reason for that? I think it is because the sort of churches that most of them come from see the primary encounter with God as being either in preaching, or in sung worship. And certainly most of the most influential and by human standards successful churches seem to have a relatively low view of communion. I suspect that there is simple pragmatism at work here. If you want to draw a big congregation you tend not to do that with a big emphasis on Communion.

At the reformation however Communion was of course a very big deal. If I was to simplify it I would say there were three basic theological positions on what is going on at communion.

The most familiar position today is one proposed by Zwingli, that communion is no more than a memorial of Jesus death. We enact it in order to remember. Now that may seem very reasonable, but it was rejected by all the mainstream reformers and protestant churches. And the consequence of such theology in the church is that if reminding people of the Cross is the priority then in practice preaching is a better way of doing that and Communion becomes less and less important.

Luther (perhaps surprisingly) was at the other end of the spectrum, and in terms of Eucharist was still essentially Catholic. He believed in the ‘Real Presence’ – that is that the bread and wine are actually changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus, not in terms of transubstantiation, which is a later, counter-reformation idea, but certainly in terms of a spiritual substance. You are actually participating in the body and blood of Christ. Lutheran churches and some others would still hold that position.

A middle ground was held by Calvin, and this was followed by most protestant churches, including Anglicanism. That is that in Communion Christ is present by his spirit, and as such it is a means of grace. That means that though we don’t know how, it is a real encounter with God, and we are spiritually nourished by sharing in communion. Now many Anglicans would hold a more Catholic position than that, but either way it is important to recognise that the Memorialist or Zwinglian position is generally rejected by all but the most anabaptist theologians. And of course the significance of this is that Communion stops being an optional extra. If it is the primary encounter with God, instituted by Christ himself, if it nourishes and equips us for the life of faith, we should do it regularly – as Jesus said – every time you meet. Not because we are traditionalist but because if we want to build up the people of God for the works of service they are called for, if we want to sustain them for the hard road, then preaching and worship are not enough.

Now I love a great sermon and most of the time I love great worship, but the thing about both of them is that they nourish us via the intellect and the emotions. Now that is fine, but there is a danger, ad that is that we are feeding the ego as much as the soul. Puffing up rather than building up. By contrast there is an innate humility to Communion. Breaking ordinary bread, sharing a cup, perhaps kneeling at an Altar rail. It isn’t about me, it is about us, it is about Christ. It is an act of trust and faith in keeping with the proverb.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, and he will make straight your paths”

We will need to teach well on this, because a generation of Christians have grown up for whom  this isn’t a priority. But hold on to the essential fact that Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship and the primary encounter with the risen Christ.

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