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The Lord’s Supper 6: communion faqs

last supper painting - modern version

The Lord’s Supper 6: communion faqs.

How often will we break bread? Who can preside at the eucharist? Do we use wine, or grape juice? What about gluten-free bread at communion? There are many ‘frequently asked questions’ (or communion faqs) and in this post I give my answers.

Pretty much everyone I know believes in motherhood and apple pie.

However, when we are all in the kitchen to make that pie numerous questions arise:

  • Shall we use butter or margarine when making our pastry?
  • Shall we add berries or sultanas to the apple?
  • Shall we add cinnamon or nutmeg to add flavour?

The same is true with breaking bread and the answers are sometimes mutually exclusive.

Since the Supper is intended to be a sign of our common life united in Christ, it hardly seems right at the one communion event to have some drinking wine from a common cup, and others drinking fruit juice from separate sip cups! Or maybe that does not matter.

This is the sixth in a series of posts about the Lord’s Supper. In this post I offer answers to some frequently asked questions.

In the following post I hope to make proposals for how a church may develop its rituals in aid of discipleship and mission.

This is called communion faqs – frequently asked questions about breaking bread in a local church.

In the previous post, the fifth in the series, I set out my working theology of the Supper. You can read that here.

Communion faqs – my response to Frequently Asked Questions about the Lord’s Supper.

Who can take, eat, drink?

Consider who was at the Last Supper. Jesus, of course, and the disciples.

At the Last Supper Jesus dropped the bombshell that one of the Twelve would betray him. Jesus knew it was Judas Iscariot. With benefit of hindsight, we know that was Judas Iscariot. But the other disciples were in the dark at the time (Luke 22:23).

The question is, when did Judas leave the others and go off to bring the crowd to arrest Jesus?

No Gospel states that Judas left the meal.

We are not told when he left, although in Luke’s account the discussion about betrayal occurs after the Last Supper has been concluded (Luke 22:21-23). It is almost certain, therefore, that Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer, was present at, and participated in, the Last Supper. This is an argument for inclusivity.

Knowing that Judas was present at the Table, consider what Jesus is recorded as having said in Matthew 26:27:

Matthew 26:27-28 ESV:

27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

The invitation from Jesus was given to ‘all of you’; Christ’s invitation included Judas Iscariot.

Commenting on the Greek word translated ‘for many’ in this verse, Frederick Bruner concludes it is inclusive in meaning. I Howard Marshall makes a similar point (p.149). Bruner writes:

“For the whole wide world” (peri pollon, literally “for many”). Commentators are almost unanimous in saying that “many” here means “all,” that the contrast is between the “one” (Jesus) and the “many” (the world). “Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic has a word for ‘all’ in the plural, and this use of ‘many’ does duty instead; the meaning is not exclusive (‘some, but not all’) but inclusive (‘all in contrast with one’)” (Nineham, 386; cf. Schniewind, 260; Jeremias, TDNT, 6:540-45; idem, Euch., 179-80, 229: “which will be shed for the peoples of the world”). (Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Kindle Locations 11770-11773)

See also 1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 4:9-10. Calvin himself wrote that no discussion of the extent of the atonement is in view here (Bruner).

We find throughout Christ’s ministry a bent towards inclusion.

Jesus ministered with an expectation that people can change by his grace. He modelled a habit of invitation, a mischievous tendency to break social taboos and barriers to embrace the sinner, the outsider, the outcast, the disregarded and overlooked.

I suggest that churches follow this pattern in the way we administer communion. Let’s have an open table. To be accepted at someone’s table is to be accepted by that person. Christ has an open heart, open arms, and an open table.

Traditionally, the church has taught the exclusion of unbelievers from the Table.

For example, Bruner (contra what has just been quoted), when commenting on Matthew 26:26, asserts:

“ “And [he] gave it to the disciples.” The Supper is for disciples, and only for disciples. It is not a meal for general consumption, for all or any who come to church, independent of the recipients’ faith in Jesus. If one cannot honestly identify oneself as a disciple of Jesus, he or she should not take the Supper. (Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Kindle Locations 11608-11610).

Likewise, Millard Erickson writes:

“All denominations are agreed that the Lord’s Supper is not to be administered to all persons… it must not be administered to someone who is not a disciple of the Lord.” (Erickson, p.1120)

Almost wherever we turn, be it The Didache, Calvin, etc., most everyone teaches the need to ‘fence’ the table by excluding unbelievers.

I recognise that the traditional teaching is that communion is only for those who follow Christ, only for those who are baptised.

I argue, nevertheless, that in our churches we show grace for those who are unsure, doubting, seeking, being drawn, so rather than ‘fencing the table’ (as used to be said in some circles), we look for people to be included, to belong.

I Howard Marshall equivocates on the question as follows (p.156):

“(4). The New Testament says nothing about any particular conditions for participation in the sacrament beyond a willingness to come to Christ in faith and with love for other believers. The Lord’s Supper today should be open to all who wish to feed on Christ and profess faith in him. This implies that unbaptised believers may take part, although it would be normal for such persons to undergo baptism without delay. It also means that there should be no barriers of age; what matters is faith and an understanding of what is happening appropriate to the age of the participant.

“(5). The New Testament welcomes sinners to the Lord’s table but also warns against unworthy participation in a spirit of frivolity or lovelessness. The church today in maintaining an ‘open table’ should also remind participants of the solemn implications of the sacrament.”

I love his phrase, ‘an open table.’

I believe an invitation to the Table can be given in such a way that it conveys radical inclusion, while pointing to the significance of participation as an act of faith.

Some might consider this a major departure from the practice of the church for 2,000 years, but I believe this practice accords well both with pastoral practice I observe in churches and with the radical inclusion Jesus modelled.

Now onto the next communion faqs.

What about children participating in the Supper?

I consider that most of what was written in the previous section applies equally to the inclusion of unbaptised children.

What I would add is that I ask parents to assess a child’s attitude.

A child who is in a bad place in their attitudes on a given day may not be in a good place to share at the Table at that moment. We can inculcate a sense of the sacred without fostering superstition about the elements. We can model a true sense of God’s grace without fostering a hyper-grace misapprehension that implies behaviour is irrelevant to God. We can call for good attitudes without fostering empty observance of ritual.

Just as, in the home, a child may be taken from a meal table to their room to reset, before being welcomed back at the table, maybe something similar will be required at the Lord’s Table. These are choices where parents are responsible to lead their children well. Remember that God’s call on us parents is not only to inform thoughts, not only to shape behaviours, but also to form attitudes.

In this matter, as in other areas of parenting, I note that there is much guilt and felt judgment. Churches can and should renounce a judgmental ethos and a blame culture. To misapply Paul, I would say about parents and their children and the Supper:

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:3-4 ESV)

communion-faqs
Communion frequently asked questions

More communion faqs…

Who can administer or preside at the Lord’s Table?

The president or the celebrant stands in for Christ as the host. I believe that any believers in good standing can stand in for Christ. I Howard Marshall says the same (p.155). All believers are priests.

Ask yourself: am I in good standing? Am I in good conscience? Am I in open rebellion against God or people? Am I tolerating broken relationships? Am I in a place of unforgiveness, resentment, jealousy, etc., towards others? Above all, do you love God’s people? You cannot lead those you do not love.

In imitation of the Lord, the celebrant brings an open heart, ready to welcome all to the Lord’s Table. Strict adherence to wording is not the mark of success — rather “the focus of concentration… [should be on] the right gestures, tone of voice and eye contact with the worshippers” (Vander Zee, p.237). It’s about being welcoming and gracious and inclusive, bringing a tone of invitation and family. To this end it is best if the celebrant is a regular member of the church, a known leader in that family of faith.

Those who lead the Supper will want to attend to what story is being told.

What actions are we habituating by breaking bread in this or that way?

What patterns are we conditioning in the flock by using these or those words, in this or that order?

Is the big story of God being made visible by the chosen shape of the ritual that we have planned? More on this in the next post in the series.

What elements are appropriate to be used?

This is a secondary question.

I think that leavened or unleavened bread is fine to be used. Gluten-free is also suitable.

As regards the cup, some churches will use alcoholic wine (preferably watered down for the benefit of the children among us). Other churches will not use alcoholic wine out of concern for those for whom alcohol is a stumbling block. Instead they will use fruit juice drinks, preferably red in colour to assist visually with the analogy to blood.

Should we refer to ‘the wine’ or to ‘the cup’?

I Howard Marshall points out that no New Testament passage links wine to Christ’s blood. The symbol that is pointed to is ‘the cup’ (Howard Marshall, p.114).

This is of great help for those of us who use non-alcoholic fruit juice. There is no call for anyone to refer to ‘wine’ when all the Biblical references are to ‘the cup’ — and so we should only ever refer to ‘the cup’ — that being the symbol to which Scripture points consistently.

And how should the elements be served?

For example, should we use a common cup, or separate sip cups?

Either is possible — but a mixture of both at the same event might imply a disunity that was not intended.

I Howard Marshall gives this advice (p.156):

“(6). The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is a meal. The appropriate setting for the sacrament is a table, and the appropriate posture in our western culture is sitting. To describe the central piece of furniture as an altar is completely unjustified in terms of the New Testament understanding of the meal.

“(7). The New Testament envisages the use of one loaf and a common cup. It would be good to maintain this symbolism today. Where a common cup is not practicable, the communicants may partake simultaneously. The practice whereby each person breaks a piece off a common loaf or is handed a piece broken by the celebrant or his neighbour would helpfully symbolise the breaking of the bread and the unity of the church.”

I heartily agree.

How often should we share in the Supper?

The practice of the early church was to break bread every Lord’s Day. Calvin wrote:

“We should offer the Supper of our Lord to the assembly of Christians at least once a week, and the promises in the Supper which feed and nourish us spiritually ought to be declared. Certainly no one should be constrained to take it but all ought to be exhorted, and those who have been negligent about it should be reproved and corrected. Then all the people together, as if starving, should be united at such a meal.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, Kindle Locations 9531-9534)

Wilson also encourages regular celebration of the Supper. He writes:

“The sacraments, then, are biblically commanded, historically warranted, cross-culturally wise, evangelistically significant, and pastorally helpful. More than that, though, they are God-given ways of sharing in Christ, experiencing the work of the Spirit, drawing close to the Father, and enacting the gospel. As such, celebrating them regularly, and making much of them when we do, is not just dutiful or useful but beautiful. It may mean departing from our tradition or rearranging the schedule (or even the furniture), but it will be worth it.” (Wilson, p. 72)

I Howard Marshall also recommends frequent celebration of the Supper (p. 155).

I consider it is for the established leaders of each congregation to determine the frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in their community. It will be best if this is explained as well as practiced.

Can we share the Supper in small groups?

Many churches have midweek small groups of various types. These are likely not dissimilar in size to the churches of the earliest years after the resurrection.

I suggest it is good to encourage a rhythm of sharing communion in the small group setting. This could come alongside a greater practice of actually eating a shared meal together in our small groups.

I also suggest that we more often use the Supper as a way to respond to the Sermon on Sundays.

Help, I’d like to share the Lord’s Supper with fellow believers more often, but how?

In the next post I shall give some practical proposals for structing a ritual of communion suited to those churches which do not have prescribed liturgies.

This is the sixth post in a series about the Lord’s Supper.

The first post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 1: the day I dropped the bread’ is here.

The second post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 2: it’s the Lord’s Table,’ can be found here.

The third post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 3: how communion brings life,’ is here.

There was also a related post on ‘What you love matters.’

The fourth post, ‘The Lord’s Supper 4: new philosophical objections to transubstantiation,’ is here.

The fifth post, ‘The Lord’s Table 5: Real Presence or Real Absence?’ is here.

The next post will set out options for liturgies of the Lord’s Supper.

Bibliography

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Gregg R ALLISON, Historical Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011

Frederick Dale BRUNER, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (based on the 1559 Latin edition), translated and abridged by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1986

John CALVIN, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition), translated by ELSIE ANNE MCKEE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

Millard J. ERICKSON, Christian Theology: 2nd Edition, Baker Book House Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998

Gordon D FEE, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

Alan KREIDER, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom, Grove Books Limited, Cambridge, 1995

Steven NEMES, Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics, Fortress Academic, 2023

James K A SMITH, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009

James K A SMITH, You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016

Leonard J VANDER ZEE, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2004

Robert E WEBBER, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1994

Andrew WILSON, Spirit and Sacrament: an invitation to eucharismatic worship, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2018

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