Communion Thoughts #5- Seven Great Images for Communion

I have been writing a series of blogs about Communion. I talked about WHAT IS COMMUNION and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I also blogged about HOW IT IS SERVED. In my last blog I talked about WHY I AM NOT DOING COMMUNION BY INTINCTION ANYMORE.

Here is my big point with this blog series: I love communion. I don’t want to get rid of it. I don’t think we should just change to fit the culture. But I do think that we need to take a hard look at the symbols and words that we are using. Sometimes they don’t mean now what they used to. Sometimes they actually mean something else that represents the opposite of what they were intended. Sometimes our practices do not accurately represent our theology or our intention for an act.Jesus communion

With this in mind, I want to shift this blog series from a theological and theoretical focus to a very practical focus. So here are seven images and symbols that I like to use or emphasize during communion. I might use these as I am serving the elements or as part of my introduction. Sometimes I use them in sermons leading up to communion.

  1. The Gathered Loaf– One of the oldest communion liturgies that we have comes from the Didache. It uses this line: “As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.” This is such a beautiful image. The bread was once many different grains on many different fields but they were mixed together to make the one loaf. This is what the church is. It is a collection of people God brings together.
  2. Ordinary Grape Juice or Wine– I love the idea that we do not use special or super-holy juice or wine or the sacrament. Somebody went to the grocery store and bought grape juice. The person who bought the grape juice in front of ours just wanted to drink grape juice, but our ordinary grape juice was pulled out for a sacred use. It was used to represent the covenant of Jesus. That is our story. We are ordinary and called out to represent God’s covenant in this world.
  3. Broken and Pressed– Sometimes people pre-cut the loaf of bread so that it is easier for the pastor to break. I sometimes like for that to not be done. I emphasize that it was not easy for Jesus to pay the price for our sin. He did so with His own broken body. It is not easy for us to follow Jesus either. So I emphasize the difficulty as I work to break the bread. A similar image is found in thinking about where the juice comes from. The grapes have to be pressed. This also opens up the imagery from 2 Corinthians 4 that we are “pressed but not crushed.” Communion reminds us that Jesus was pressed and broken for all the places where we are pressed and broken.
  4. The Table– My teacher Leonard Sweet has written a great book about the idea of table called TABLET TO TABLE. We fail to understand the importance of tabling with others because we don’t eat at dinner tables very often anymore. Jesus was crucified in great part because of who He at with. To eat with someone in Jesus’ day was to accept them. The table is the place where we are accepted by God.
  5. Lifted Up– One of the common images in the communion liturgy is to lift up your hearts to the Lord. This is such a great image. We are, at the table, lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit into the presence of God. Think about that—God is not brought down but we are lifted up. What are the things in your life that you need to be lifted up from? Sometimes communion is served on mirrors to represent this idea that when we look at the table or look at the elements we are peering up into heaven.
  6. Communion Tokens– I bought a couple of communion tokens on Ebay and get them out every once in a while. The idea was that before communion you would meet with the elders of the church who would question you to see if you were living faithfully to Christ. If you were, they would deem you able to take communion and give you a communion token. You would then give that token on your way to the table. The practice did not hang around because it was cumbersome and judgement. We have enough problems nominating elders in many churches. It was a little antithetical to the grace of the table. But it also showed the importance of judging your heart and your faith before you go to the table.
  7. Show forth the Lord’s Death– These words are Paul’s commentary of his retelling of the first communion in 1 Corinthians 11. They orient the focus on the Lord’s death and the meaning of that sacrifice. These words also mean that we show forth. We carry on the image. We bring it forward. But the time is coming when we will no longer do communion. We do it until the Lord comes again. It is a place holder. When Jesus comes it will no longer be necessary to have a symbol because we will have the Lamb.

WHY I AM NOT DOING INTINCTION ANYMORE

Intinction is the style of communion where a person takes a piece of bread (often ripping it off of the loaf) and dips it into a communal cup of wine (or often grape juice). This practice is seen as early as the writing so Julius I in around 340 A.D. It way predates our use of individual cups in the pews, which don’t date until the 1890’s.

Recently I have become aware that the practice of intinction bothers some people. People are touching the loaf and sharing germs. People often end up putting their fingers (and fingernails) into the cup, especially if they only rip off a small piece of bread. If we used wine it would kill more germs, but not all. The other problem is that some people rip off a very large piece of bread and have to awkwardly dip it and take a long time to consume it. Some people don’t care for the texture of soggy bread, and I always end up having to wipe juice off of the floor after we have intinction. I am just glad that we do not have carpeting.

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When I first heard about these complaints from people in my church, I brushed it off. These people just need to get over it, right? But the more I thought about it, the more that I found that needing to “get over it” to come to the communion table is contrary to the message of the table. Communion should be a symbol of welcome, of love, and of gratitude. You don’t have to “get over” the junk in your life—sin, bad habits, guilt, shame. The whole story is that Jesus paid for those on the cross. He “got over” those things for you.

For many people, intinction becomes a time of stress, worry, and disgust. The symbol is backfiring. For many people in the pews today, communion by intinction represents the opposite of what it is meant to represent.

We could change the practice. The bread could be pre-cut. The server could dip the bread. But, in the end, I think I am not doing it anymore. I am doing communion, but that particular expression or style of communion is leaving my practice. I know that some people will love this decision, others won’t understand it, and still others will dislike it. I am personally sad to see intinction go. But the symbol is such a problem for so many people that I am willing to let it go for their sakes.

This is important not just for the practice of communion. This is exactly the kind of discussion that the church needs to be in right now. The church is full of symbols. We have hymns, liturgy, architecture, personal disciplines… We have stories and metaphors. But the problem with all language and especially with symbolic language or practice is that it changes.

Different words, actions, and symbols mean different things in different place and at different times. For example, if I wear a shirt with a rainbow on it, it means something today that it did not mean just a few years ago. The word artificial used to mean “artfully and skillfully constructed,” but now it basically means the opposite.

We have lost touch with our symbols. Do people in our churches know why we light candles at the beginning of worship, why we pass the peace, or why we do communion after the sermon? Do people know that our worship spaces are modelled after the Jewish temple, that our ceilings are meant to look like the inside of a ship, or that stained glass was at one time the only Bible people had?Last supper icon

The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?

This is scary for people, because it might mean we have to change. Here is the reality: many of the things we hold as sacred are not actually sacred. They may represent something sacred—like communion representing the saving life and work of Jesus. But their particular expressions are not. We know that Jesus served communion with a meal in between the elements, so it was clearly NOT inctinction. They were developed to signify the sacred for a particular time and place. Maybe they don’t work as well or mean something else for our time and place.

If others want to do intinction then that is fine. I might revisit it again later, perhaps with some adaptation to help people accept it. But for now, I am going to set it aside.

What are your thoughts on intinction?

Communion Thoughts #3- Traditional Practices of Communion

I previously blogged about WHAT COMMUNION IS and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I now turn to how we actually do communion. Communion has as many practices as it does names and theological perspectives. There are lots of different ways to do communion.

In the early church, communion was a less structured and more organic part of the church gathering. There were no church buildings so people would meet in homes for a meal, some teaching, and the sacrament. If you were not a baptized member of the community, you would be excused from the meal before the bread and wine. In fact, the early Christ-followers were accused of being cannibals because it was said they meet secretly to eat flesh and drink blood.

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We don’t know much about how they took the sacrament, but we can be sure that they did not have little individual cups that could be passed around or little wafers with crosses on them. They used whatever bread or wine they had at the meal. The little cups that many protestants are mainly aware of do not show up until the late 1800’s. Until then, you either did the bread and wine separately or you might have dipped the bread in the wine (called intinction). Some traditions even mix the two together before you partake of it.

Sometimes the elements are served by the pastor or priest up front. This can be done standing or on kneelers. The bread or wafer can be placed into your hand or directly into your mouth. They can also be individual cups or everyone can drink from the same cup.

Many protestants have the elements delivered to them in their pews. Plates of bread come around, followed by a tray with individual cups of juice. Less frequently, everybody comes forward to rip off a piece of bread and dip it into the juice.

I have found that a self-service style of communion works very well. I set a table with the elements on it, and people come up and help themselves to them. For a more intimate communion experience, have everyone come up and stand together around the table so that it feels more like a shared family meal.stained glass 3

The elements themselves can vary also. I personally like the imagery better if the bread is tasty, but some traditions use a wafer or unleavened bread. I just find it to be a better experience if the bread is enjoyed and not survived. Most of Christian history and much of the world today uses wine for communion. In America, there is a tradition stemming from Prohibition where juice is used. In fact, Welch’s grape juice was invented by a Methodist name Thomas Welch as an alternative to wine for the sacrament.

Why is all this important? I have been arguing that communion is a rich and diverse metaphor and tradition. The depth is somewhat lost if you have only ever had communion one way or with one style of elements. There is no reason for it to become routine when there are so many traditional ways of doing it. I will be proposing in the coming blogs some new and creative ways to do communion, but a great place to start is to try it in a way that is different from what you have experienced but is still traditional.

How do you typically do communion? What do you like and not like about doing it that way?