Communion goes by many names. It is the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:21). It is the eucharist, the Greek term for the blessing offered by Christ on the cup (Luke 22:17). It is the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:20). The element highlighted most often is that it is participation, communion and fellowship.
This should not surprise us. Jesus shared so much fellowship it was embarrassing. We often see the religious elite cringe at Jesus’ associations, especially at table (Luke 7:36-39; 15:1-2; etc.).Yet it is at table that Jesus becomes know to us in Luke’s Gospel at the end of the mysterious Emmaus road (Luke 24:30-32). All of this points toward the importance of table fellowship to Jesus and his disciples.
Move ahead now to the much maligned church at Corinth. The disciples at Corinth are fighting over everything all the while engaging in idolatry. Personality divisions (ch. 1 & 3), public morality issues (ch. 5), internal lawsuits (ch. 6), marriage concerns (ch. 7), food laws pertaining to idols (ch. 8), inequity of brotherhood in worship (ch. 11) and in gifts (ch. 12 & 14), all capped off by doubt regarding the resurrection (ch. 15).
Paul’s solution? Talk about communion, about table fellowship in the kingdom.
First, we see Paul addressing the reality of the participants of the meal.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
The cup is an act of participation in the blood of Christ. The bread is an act of participation in the body of Christ. Wars have quite literally been fought over the means and meaning of that truth, but it need not be so. What is affirmed and must be affirmed is that Christ himself participates in this meal (Luke 22:15-18).
And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:15-18)
That we share it reminds us that we are one in Christ. Accordingly, Paul is revolted by the notion that division could take place at a meal designed by Christ to solidify unity: “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. … When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:18-20). The table makes us a people eating together in the presence of Christ, and his humble presence and lordly majesty alike disabuse us of all selfish ambition.
Second, communion is worship and therefore crafts identify and purpose.
Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? (1 Corinthians 10:18)
Israel was a kingdom of worship. They were shaped by the narrative that lived within their worship. As the quote often attributed to Andrew Fletcher says, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Our identity is contained more in our hymns that in our constitutions. Israel sang their songs and went through their rituals and in them reenacted their story. The priest was not performing worship at the altar in lieu of the nation. He was the storyteller in a worshipful rite in which all participated. The animal sacrifice was made by all and covenant embraced by all.
The church likewise is a kingdom of worship. The communion tells our story, and partaking in it is sharing in that story. We are the people whose God is known in the bread and wine of the communion.
Third, the table is a choice.
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:19-22)
In worship, we choose a god. As stated above, our worship shapes our identity. Corinthians knew this and understood the substance of Paul’s point. Worship is a choice, and communion chooses Jesus over the idol. Paul is not afraid that eating the bread of idols gives them power, for Paul knows they are false. The concern is what is made of you when you choose the wrong god.
In communion, we choose a people. This is precisely the implication that so distressed the religious elite of Jesus’ day. He was making a choice in favor of the sinner. He was making them his people. In ordinary life, we eat with family, not strangers. By making this choice of coming to the table of the Lord, we choose a family. It is why we insist on taking communion together. In short, there is no such thing as individual communion.
The Lord’s table is both worship and communion, and therefore contains both choices. When you take the communion, you choose the Lord. When you pass the communion, you choose a family.
Hear, Open, Eat
These points should never be diminished, as to often happens when we make communion a mere ordinance to be obeyed. Communion is the very invitation of the Lord.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:19-20)
Christ is intolerant of sin but also eager for fellowship. In the same breath that condemns sin, Jesus extends the fellowship of the table. Open the door to Christ, and he will break bread with you in his kingdom.