What do Presbyterians believe about Communion?
The Lord’s Feast By Melva Wilson Costen
Reprinted from the May 1995 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)
We trust in God the Holy / Spirit . . . who . . . feeds us / with the bread of life and the cup of salvation . . . ” These words from “A Brief Statement of Faith” reiterate the importance of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for Presbyterians. They affirm that the initial action of this divine meal begins with God. God in Jesus the Christ offers the bread and the cup and bids us come.
It is the Lord’s feast, hosted by the One who promises an ultimate continuous feast in the Kingdom of God. Under the enabling power of the Holy Spirit the divine host is made present so that a bond of unity can exist among those present and those unseen.
The host welcomes all who accept the invitation to the Table. We who come need not be concerned about our personal appearance or aptitude. What matters is that the love, the grace and the hospitality of the host create unanimity among us. This meal is provided, not because we have earned the right to eat and drink with Jesus, but simply as an act of divine love.
For Presbyterians this divinely initiated meal is one of two sacraments of the church, instituted by God and commended by Christ. We are following in the tradition of the early church when we affirm three primal material elements of life–water, bread and wine–as the primary symbols of offering life to God. Being washed with the water of baptism, we receive new life in Christ. In eating the bread and drinking the cup offered by God, our memory of the promises are made present by the Holy Spirit.
In the words of John Calvin, sacraments are “a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward [God].” A sacrament is a testimony of God’s favor toward the church, confirmed by an outward sign, with a mutual testifying of our godliness toward God. It is a primal, physical act that signifies a spiritual relationship between personal beings.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of continuous growth, nourishment and new life. In our Reformed tradition participation in this sacrament should follow the sacrament of baptism. Just as humans need food and drink for nurture and sustenance, Calvin wrote that the Holy Meal is God’s way of providing for our maintenance during the whole course of our lives after we have been received into God’s family. Both sacraments provide a visible, in fact a graphic, way of presenting God’s promises.
Through the sacraments God seals believers in redemption, God renews our identity as God marks us for service. But participation is a corporate act rather than an act between an individual and God.
Infants and children are baptized by the church and nurtured in the faith so that they can participate with the church in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Out of this belief congregations continue Christ’s extension of open arms to children and welcome those growing in the faith.
We believe that the sacrament of the Lord’s Table presupposes, deepens and assists personal faith. We cannot wait until we think we are appropriately worthy for such a divine encounter. In presenting ourselves and offering God our imperfections, our weaknesses, even our sinfulness, God may make us worthy. Our worthiness is found in putting our trust in God and, in faith, relying upon God’s mercy.
The act of eating and drinking with Jesus has been called by a number of names: Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Breaking of Bread. Each of these points to a particular meaning.
The titles Breaking of Bread and the Lord’s Supper emphasize the oldest New Testament accounts of the institution of the sacrament (Mark 14:17-25 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The Gospels report Jesus’ common eating and drinking with people from various walks of life, making such events worthy of remembrance. As far as it can be determined, Jewish meals always included bread. It was also customary for the host or head of the house to bless the bread and then break and share it with those at the table.
On the day of his resurrection the risen Jesus made himself known to his followers in the breaking of bread. He continued to show himself to believers by preparing, serving and sharing meals. This act continued among the followers of Jesus and the breaking and sharing of bread became a sacred act of remembrance, making present God’s gracious act in Jesus the Christ in the special moment of remembering.
The term Eucharist, derived from the Greek word eucharista, which means “thanksgiving,” is used by Mark, Matthew and Luke in their accounts of the institution of the Holy Meal. A verb form of this Greek word is used by Paul, emphasizing that Jesus gave thanks before breaking the bread and offering the cup. The joyous acts of thanksgiving that permeated the observance of this rite undoubtedly caused the second-century Christian writers to use the term Eucharist as the standard name for this meal.
The service of thanksgiving and praise included thanks for God’s creation; for deliverance from sin; for the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ; and for the privilege of participating in the promised fullness of the kingdom.
The term Communion is derived from the practice of early Christians. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ?” ( 1 Corinthians 10:16). The Greek word koinonia is translated “communion” in the King James Version and “sharing” in the New Revised Standard Version. It is also translated “fellowship” or “partnership,” referring to a common sharing or a sense of communion with Christ and with one another. Communion is understood as a common participation in a divine Christian life that a person lives in Christ, because it is initiated by Christ. Calvin contends that such a union is ultimately a mystery too great to explain.
Presbyterians believe that the Word of God should be read, proclaimed and enacted in the Lord’s Supper as an integral part of worship. The relationship of Word and sacrament can be understood in the context of the Emmaus Road narrative (Luke 24:13ff). While there are various interpretations of this account, it has long been recognized that the “breaking of bread” is a reference to the Lord’s Supper.
The Directory for Worship in the Presbyterian Book of Order encourages the “appropriateness” of frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. A few congregations have begun celebrations of the sacrament as often as each Lord’s Day and on other occasions of special significance in the life of the Christian community. But frequency alone is not the basic issue. Some believe we need to restore the Biblical pattern of the Lord’s Supper on each Lord’s Day to provide a disciplined reminder of a divine act that will help centralize and “re-focus” the rhythm of our daily lives.
Our Directory for Worship reminds us of the wider meaning of Holy Communion (koinonia): “The church rises from the Table and is sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s mission to the world.” To limit our love, relationship and concerns to those who assemble with us at the Table is “fencing the table” so that it includes only the gathered community. It blocks from our vision those who do not gather physically at “our” table, so that we do not see the people of God everywhere.
The One who invites us to the Table reminds us that we are to live as the divine host lived. We are empowered to remember to seek reconciliation with Christ, an act that compels reconciliation also with one another.
Accepting the invitation to come to the Lord’s Feast demands that we actively seek reconciliation in every instance of conflict or division between ourselves and our neighbors.
To say we “trust in God . . . who feeds us . . . ” means we have faith in the Word of God–faith in the Word who became flesh, lived among us, and provided the model for our actions. We are invited to the Table to be nurtured for Christlike living. We are called to commit ourselves anew to love and serve God and one another.
Melva Wilson Costen is Helmar Emil Nielsen Professor of Worship and Music at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Ga. (Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is the Presbyterian constituent at I T.C.)