Today is communion Sunday at our church and it got me thinking about all the places and ways that I have had communion.
Communion, as most Christians know, is supposed to be when we eat bread and drink wine (I’ll elaborate on that in a minute) to represent and think about Christ’s body and blood that was sacrificed for us. Therefore the process is called a “sacrament” by those familiar with Latin.
In the church we now attend, actual bread loaves are broken in half and given to the servers, who break off segments and give it to the people who come to the front of the church. The provider is supposed to say “the bread of Christ, broken for you”, but he or she often simply smiles or mumbles something instead. Once the communicant receives the small morsel, he or she then dips it in the wine (I’ll get to that in a minute) and the supplier says something like “the blood of Christ which is shed for you”, but again few actually say anything. They are concentrating on keeping the cup still and not spilling any wine (I really will get to that in a moment).The dipping process is called intinction by the church fathers (and mothers).
Now about the “wine”—in God-fearing fundamental churches it is grape juice, usually Welch’s, but some other brand may, upon occasion, be substituted. Only the more liberal churches serve real wine. No, that is not quite true: I have had real wine in Brethren, Anglican and Lutheran churches. However, the really principal Protestant churches serve juice and small (and I mean tiny) bits of crackers, often very stale.
Real wine from the vine contains alcohol, so everyone can drink from the same vessel without fear of contamination. In the fancy churches, where the pastors and priests wear robes, the vessel is called a “chalice”. In lower class Protestant churches it is simply a “cup” or a “communion cup”, meaning that it is about one tenth the size of a whiskey glass, although good Protestants would not know what size that is.
In a church in Papua New Guinea that I once attended communion, the container was a leaf with Kool Aid poured into it. And in a house church in Australia, the “pastor” used coffee instead of juice or wine. We were told that in the New Testament the last supper (as communion is often called) took place at a regular meal, so why not coffee, (but without sugar or milk)?
Communion, which is supposed to be a mark of the unity of believers who are remembering the sacrifice of Christ, is sometimes a divider. Years ago, when attending a particular brand of a particular denomination, a guest warned me: “Don’t take communion here—they don’t believe like we do”. I was surprised—I thought both churches were of the same denomination and I wasn’t sure what I believed that was different from either. What he meant was that the adherents of the one subdivision of the denomination actually believed that, in this church, the wine became like the blood of Jesus and that the bread became like his body. They took John 6: 53-56 literally: Jesus said to them, “I am telling you the truth: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves…. For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink”.
This adherence to literalness is taken to the extreme in the Roman Catholic Church, with the wafer somehow becoming Christ’s body and the wine becoming his actual blood. There have been long and endless debates over this conviction, both in Catholic and Protestant church councils. Parishioners, for the most part, leave it to the church hierarchy to sort out.
I was once invited to accompany a Lutheran missionary pastor on his tour of several villages. The people spoke their own language, which the missionary and I both knew. But the problem was that the people were having communion that Sunday, and I wasn’t a member of their denomination. I was therefore interrogated about my beliefs concerning communion and apparently passed the examination because I was served with the congregation.
On another occasion I spoke in succession at three different Anglican churches on one Sunday morning. In each, the priest served communion but, if not consumed by the congregation, none of the wine could be poured out. The priest had to drink it and by the end of the third service I was the designated driver.
The weirdest example of communion I ever saw was one where the church leaders sat at a table behind a curtain separating them from the congregation. They had their remembrance and we had ours—I guess holiness was meant to overcome harmony.
For many years we attended a large African-American church. Each Sunday communion was served to about 2,500 people and it was done within 15 minutes by about 75 men. There were two small communion cups for each participant—one had a small bit of wafer in it and on top was another with a swallow of juice as well. There were no loitering, no long agonizing prayers. We got it done while the choir sang a chorus (several times).
Back to our church: I have not only taken communion there once a month, I have also helped to serve it several times. I can tell that people are anxious to show their faith in the Lord by remembering his death for them. We can think of the elements literally, but the gift is free—and I try to remember the correct words to say to the partakers.