The biblical meaning of ‘Eucharist’ (or ‘Communion’ or ‘The Lord’s Supper’) as it comes to us through the Old and New Testaments, contains a vast array of images and meanings that are there to prevent us from dogmatic one-dimensionalism, but gift us with a multi-dimensionalism of blessing and enrichment:
From the OT:
… a re-enactment of a salvation event.
… the celebration of the sealing of a covenant.
… an anticipation of the messianic banquet.
From the Meals of Jesus:
… a remembering of the table fellowship of Jesus with its overtones of God’s acceptance and forgiveness.
… a sharing in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection appearances in which he ate and drank with his disciples.
From the Last Supper:
… a recognition that the true Passover lamb is Jesus himself.
… a recognition that the body of Christ was broken for us.
… a recognition that the blood of Christ was shed for us.
… a warning that loyalty to Christ is not to be judged merely by appearances.
… an affirmation that the primary role of the believer is servanthood.
… . a remembrance that the one who bade farewell to his followers promised to return.
… an anticipation of the coming of Christ when all his disciples will share at table with him in the kingdom of God.
… a celebration of the new covenant of forgiveness which was established in Jesus’ death.
… a recognition that just as there is a single loaf, all believers share equally in the body of Christ.
… a genuine encounter with the risen Lord who shares with the church his table and his cup.
… a warning against partyism, selfishness and disrespect.
… an act of faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
… a participation by faith in the eternal life that Christ gives.
… a warning that the essence of faith is in relationship to Christ, not in ritual alone.
Interestingly, John’s gospel contains no mention of the eucharistic words or actions of Jesus, even though John records the Last Supper of Jesus with the Twelve. Some interpreters see this as an intentional omission that serves as a warning against the dangers of externalism.
In other words, while the Fourth Gospel contains eucharistic themes (the sermon on the Bread of Life, 6:26- 58; the teaching on the Vine, 15:1-17), John has used them as reinforcements of the internal response of the believer to Christ rather than as external symbols, such that, genuine believers “produce fruit.”
Other interpreters suggest that John takes for granted his readers’ understanding of baptism and Eucharist as institutions, but instead, finds unique ways to address the inner meaning of these rituals. As such, he artfully refers to the Eucharist in the miracle of turning water into wine in order to suggest that Christ alone can make the wine of Eucharist meaningful (2:1-11). He recounts the feeding of the 5000, explicitly using the verb eucharisteo (6:11) as paralleling the words of institution.
He records Jesus’ words concerning eating his flesh and drinking his blood to emphasize that the central meaning of Eucharist is faith (6:29, 32-33, 35, 40, 47-48, 50-51, 53-58). He records the allegory of the vine to indicate that the true wine of communion is received by being faithfully united with Christ so as to bear fruit.
There is also a great diversity in practice. Beyond the inner meaning of Eucharist, there are differences in various traditions regarding the actual procedure for the meal. Here are some of the major ones:
Eastern Orthodoxy uses leavened bread instead of unleavened bread.
Many fundamentalist Protestant churches use grape juice instead of wine.
Some congregations use a common cup, while others use individual cups.
Some churches use bread or wafers already divided, while others break the bread during the ritual.
Some churches celebrate the Lord’s table each Sunday, while others celebrate it more infrequently.
Some traditions allow communicants to decide for themselves when they are prepared to receive communion, while other traditions have guidelines that control this decision.
Some congregations practice “closed” communion (closed to anyone who is not a member) and others practice “open” communion (open to all believers whether members or not).
These differences ought not to divide the church universal, since they are not precisely regulated in the New Testament. Whether leavened or unleavened bread was used is a matter of interpretation, though if the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal, unleavened bread is likely to have been used. Wine was certainly used at Corinth (1 Co. 11:21), and while Paul does not forbid it, there is no real reason to demand it. The common cup suggests unity, but no more so than the common loaf. In fact, depending upon how the Lukan phrase is read, “Take this and divide it among you” (Lk. 22:17), individual cups may have been used even at the Last Supper.
In the apostolic church, Eucharist may have been served as often as each day (Ac. 2:46), but Paul’s word hosakis (= as often as) is sufficiently ambiguous to prevent dogmatism (1 Co. 11:25-26). In the post-apostolic church, Eucharist was forbidden to the unbaptised, but this cannot be binding anymore than the preference in the same document that prefers baptisms, if possible, in cold and running water or stipulates that candidates must fast one or two days before being baptised (Didache IX.5 and VII.2, 4).
Closed communions usually arise as a way of ensuring that no one participates who does not measure up to some moral or theological criteria. However, what such churches hope to gain in terms of (a particular view of) “purity”, they end up forfeiting in terms of the universality of the church.
Thus, freedom should be granted in these areas so that the ritual does not become more important than the reality behind it and that reality is the sacrificial work of Jesus our Lord!
I took this at Buckfast Abbey. Not sure if I was allowed but at least Jesus was welcoming me!
NB. This Eucharistic study is part of my general Eucharistic quest to determine the legitimacy of children participating in this beautiful church act. These are the first fruits!