My mouth watered as I watched scraps of bread and tiny juice cups pass by me in church. Such kid-friendly fare—I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to eat the mid-service snack. “Communion should be taken very seriously,” my mom said. I was six. I took my snacks very seriously. I also prayed before my meals. What more was there to know?
“You shouldn’t take it unless you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and believe he died on the cross for your sins.”
“Then you need to examine yourself for unconfessed sins and ask for forgiveness.” She continued by telling me about a passage in the Bible where people became sick and died because they disrespected the sacredness of communion.
Gulp. This was serious.
The next time the bread and juice came around, I passed. What if there were sins in my life I didn’t even know existed? How could I confess those? Would I ever be worthy to take communion? Around age seven, I felt brave and mature enough to take my first communal nibble. I did my best to examine myself and confess my sins, and I followed along as my pastor recited Jesus’s instructions: “And when [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”
I chewed my bread slowly, doing a mental check for signs of illness. I felt OK. The pastor continued, “In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor. 11:24-26). I sipped my grape juice and let it swish around on my tongue for a second. I did another health check . . . still OK. But I was so paranoid I missed the most important instruction: do this in remembrance. Clearly there was still more to understand about communion.
The more I reflect on faith and why Christians practice spiritual rites, the more clearly it boils down to one simple answer repeatedly documented in the Bible: Because Jesus told us to. And the more I dig into scripture, the more it is revealed that God doesn’t tell us to do something unless there is a good reason, and unless that reason is for our good. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). So what are the reasons to take communion.
I have a freakishly good, nearly photographic memory. I can recall obscure details from my childhood, dates and orders of innocuous events, and decades-old conversations, but when it comes to faith and belief there is so much that drifts from memory. I forget the previously quoted promise that God works all things for my good. I forget that God thinks about me, cares about me, and loves me enough to sacrifice his son for me. Everyday stresses have a way of fogging over these crucial truths.
God knows how forgetful I am. He knows you’re forgetful too. Thumb through the stories of the Old Testament and you’ll discover we’ve been forgetful since the beginning. Many Jewish holidays, born out of events told in the Old Testament, aim to reverse this human predicament. Passover commemorates God’s mercy on the Israelites, when a death sentence of each firstborn in Egypt passed over their families (Exod. 12). Passover is “. . . a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time” (Exod. 12:14 NLT). Purim celebrates an event recorded in the book of Esther, when God saved the Israelite nation from the malicious genocide of Persian King Xerxes and his right-hand mastermind, Haman. Scripture records it as a time to observe through “days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Est. 9:22).
And so there is communion: an act of remembrance born on a day of remembrance.
The first communion took place during a Passover celebration. This was also the very night Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest companions. The betrayal resulted in Jesus’s arrest and death sentence, which set the stage for his final and most important act: his resurrection and the eternal cleansing of our sins. During this meal, Jesus tore bread and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor. 11:24-25, emphasis mine).
When we come to the table, we come as we are —dirtied by our sins, our shames, and all the ways we become disconnected from God and from people.
There are differing views on the literality of the bread and wine (or grape juice in many cases) elements of communion. Some traditions believe the elements become the actual body and blood of Christ, while other traditions believe the elements remain unchanged, but Christ’s presence is made real in and through them. And still other traditions view the bread and wine as purely symbolic elements that represent Christ’s body and blood and the endurance of his sacrifice. In an article titled “Why Communion Isn’t for Everyone” Pastor Bubba Jennings of Mars Hill Federal Way writes, “Jesus . . . demonstrated the powerful teaching of Communion by using physical objects to signify deep, spiritual truths. The broken bread foreshadowed Jesus’ body broken on the cross for sin, and the wine symbolized a new covenant established between God and his people through the shedding of Jesus’ blood for the forgiveness of sins. In this, Jesus was not teaching his disciples that the bread and wine were literally his physical body and blood, but rather a representation of his body and blood.”
When we take communion, we are invited to remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus’s life and to celebrate the miracle of his rebirth and God’s gracious forgiveness.
Communion is also a cleansing process. “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28, NIV). There are three main areas to check: yourself, your relationship with God, and your relationship with others. In examining yourself and your relationship with God, Jennings writes, “Before participating in Communion, a person must examine all of his or her life for sin. This includes words, deeds, thoughts, and even the motives and intentions of their heart. If any unconfessed sin is found it must be dealt with . . .” All are welcome at the communion table—all who believe Jesus died to set us free from our shortcomings, and who come sincerely sorry for their sins, ready to let them go into the capable hands of God.
The Bible also tells us to consider our personal relationships within the church. Is there discord? Unresolved conflict? Matthew 5:23-24 urges us to seek reconciliation and forgiveness. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Communion is also an act of reaffirming our belief in the aforementioned miracle. “As a Christian takes Communion, they are making a proclamation that they believe in Jesus as their Savior and have trusted in his sacrificial death for the forgiveness of their sins (1 Cor. 11:26),” writes Pastor Jennings. Participating in communion reaffirms our personal faith and tangibly and publicly symbolizes our salvation. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
Finally, communion, much like it’s name suggests, is a community activity. The original Latin and Greek terms translate to “sharing in common” and “fellowship.” The beauty of the bread and wine, and of joining around the Lord’s Table to share them, is connection. When we come to the table, we come as we are—dirtied by our sins, our shames, and all the ways we become disconnected from God and from people. We come to taste the food that nourishes life and to sip the drink that enlivens it. In his article “There Were No Needy Persons Among Them,” author and activist Shane Claiborne points out that bread and wine were common foods of the ancient Israelites and communion is “a vision of the divine banquet where rich and poor come to the same table as a new creation.” While bread is a staple of the poor, wine is a luxury of the rich. Claiborne continues, “Both bread and wine have some things in common. They are made up of parts that have to be crushed and broken in order to become something new. Grapes are crushed to become wine, and grain is ground down to become bread . . . it is a reminder that we do not come to the table as rich and poor, but as family.”
The tangible, yet temporary nature of the elements invites us to come to the table again-and-again to feed our deep spiritual hunger. And each time we gather, Christ’s promises and truths—and Christ himself—are ingested a little deeper into each of us.