Re-thinking Communion

communion

communion

I think I’m going to stop taking communion for a while.

I’ve always been a little bit suspicious of the way we do communion in many churches. Even as a kid, it seemed rather inorganic and random to, on the first Sunday of the month, eat one lonely goldfish cracker and drink one miniature cup of grape juice.  More than anything else, it seemed like a cruel teaser before the real feast: the monthly post-service potlucks.

As an adult, I've often felt a dissonance between the highly individualistic, painless, convenient communion practiced in many Western churches and the unifying, collective, costly, reconciling work that Jesus did on the cross. But I never bothered to reflect deeply on this dissonance or examine my own practice of communion and how it should affect my relationships in the church.  I confess that I tend to take communion alone, have my little moment with God and then, once the service has concluded, make a beeline for my more-similar-to-me-than-not friends at church.

But I recently re-visited the topic of communion in Scripture and was both pleasantly surprised (by its social justice and collectivistic overtones) and super convicted (about my negligence in this area).  You see, whenever I’ve heard communion talked about in church, I’ve only heard the most famous verses – you know, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” – which seem fairly innocuous to a long-time church-goer like myself.

But upon examining these verses in their context (I Corinthians 11), I was surprised to see Paul giving directives in all his snarky glory. Paul was upset about the way the Corinthians were practicing communion as a community, and he comes out swinging!

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

It seems as though we (the non-Corinthian readers) have been dropped into the middle of an ongoing community incident. We don’t really know the specifics (Paul doesn’t reveal them and NT scholars can only speculate), but it seems that this incident involved injustice and the shaming of poor people while the community celebrated a "love feast" which included the Lord's Supper. Several scholars have used the phrase "feeding frenzy" to describe the gluttony/greed that wealthier church members exhibited while the poor went hungry.

This dishonoring disunity could have existed because the community failed to address the inequality in its midst or because it actively perpetuated the inequality. Either way, Paul wasn't happy about it; it stood in stark contrast to the intimate unity (the verb sunercomai meaning "coming together" is used 5 times in this passage - 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34) to which Paul calls the Corinthians. It was in this context that Paul wrote the following famous words about the Lord’s Supper.

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

When I read this passage in its entirety I was struck by the fact that, according to Paul, communion and injustice must be negatively correlated; where there is one, the other should not and cannot exist. Paul seems to think that any practice of communion that ignores or perpetuates inequality is a defiled communion. He writes in verse 27 “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” He’s calling out the Corinthian community because they’ve allowed inequality to exist in their community, and in doing so they have defiled the memory of Jesus. Yikes. That’s worth thinking about.

I can see why Paul was perturbed about the Corinthians' practice of communion; it was vastly discrepant from the cross that it was supposed to commemorate. But if I examine my own (and the broader American church's) practice of communion, I also see some troubling discrepancies.

If communion is supposed to represent the cross-cultural solidarity of the cross, then why do we practice it within the not-so-cross-cultural safety of our homogenous church groups?

If the cross was costly and self-sacrificial, then why do we commemorate it in such a painless and convenient way?

If the first communion occurred at the space-making and inclusive table of Jesus, then why do we take it in our unequal church communities, in which some matter and others are marginalized?

If the cross is about reconciling us to God and reconciling us to each other (on an individual and group level), why does our practice of communion often ignore the latter?

If communion is supposed to represent the battle for justice that occurred on the cross, then why do we compartmentalize communion, divorcing it from justice work both inside and outside the church community?

If the cross is a critique of power, then why doesn’t our practice of communion critique it as well? Why do we rarely talk about societal injustice when we're taking communion?

If the cross is supposed to point us to the collective nature of the family of God, then why do many Christians (especially evangelicals) take communion individually?

It seems that the way we do communion in many churches is too easy, too convenient, too painless, too safe, too inorganic, too separate from actual reconciliation work, and too individualistic.  I’m starting to think that the way we do communion is not scandalous enough to represent the cross.

Perhaps we should take our cues from the Franciscans...

Perhaps we should take our cues from the Franciscans...

COMMUNION AS COMMEMORATION AND ONGOING CRITIQUE

Communion, like the cross, should be a critique of unequal power structures in our homes, churches, communities and societies.

What if communion were me sitting on my Rastafarian neighbor’s back porch, listening to reggae, and hearing about his week? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were showing up at a protest and taking on issues that are not at all like my own? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were turning the other cheek again and again and again? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were speaking up and risking the ire of the powers that be for the sake of equality? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were regularly serving as a church (perhaps as part of the Sunday gathering) in our community. Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were making a sacrificial gift -- the kind that seriously hurts the checking account and seriously heals the soul? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were leaving my turf (like Jesus did) and attending a church full of people that look, talk, think or act differently than me? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were holding onto hope, no matter what? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were earnestly and painfully examining my privilege right now, this day, this moment, and not just talking about it, but actually taking steps to steward/abdicate/share it? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were drinking Arizona iced tea and eating Skittles, and talking about how Jesus wants justice for young black men and we should too. Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were deciding, as a church community, that no one in our community would live below the poverty level…and then putting our money where our mouths are? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were shutting up, so that other voices can be heard? Do this in remembrance of me.

What if communion were not settling for the individualistic and painless way that I’ve been practicing it for most of my life? Do this in remembrance of me.

I’m ready to practice communion differently. Anyone have any good suggestions? Either things you’ve done, heard of, or dreamed of?