This is another five minute (speaking time) expansion of the two minute commentary I posted in December, 2010, which was #54 on communion.
My name is Tom; this is Simple Church Minute. Almost all of us are familiar with the fact that the word communion has two very different meanings. One is a title for a ceremony within Christian churches, others of which call the ceremony the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. The other, more secular meaning, is a synonym for fellowship. One interesting comparison of these two definitions is that the ritualistic ceremony usually is done with everyone standing quietly while one person stands in front of everyone and officiates, usually reading from First Corinthians chapter 11. I suppose one could argue that one is in some spiritual way communing or fellowshipping with God, but, can we get that from what the Bible and what we know of the culture it reports about?
When Jesus introduced what we call communion, He and the disciples were celebrating Passover. Passover was a meal that featured roast lamb, bitter herbs, apples, nuts, cinnamon, roasted egg, parsley or celery with salt water, 3 unleavened breads and 4 cups of wine. Each of these foods were symbolic of the experience of the Old Covenant chosen people, whose physical experiences were, in turn, symbolic of the new, better, covenant that Jesus was about to establish with His fulfilling of the first one in the next few days to follow. What Jesus said coordinated with the part of the Passover where one ate the matzoh and drank the third cup of wine. This was a real meal, and what Jesus said tied the food and fellowship with His imminent death. The early church recognized it as such. We need to remember that First Corinthians 11 would not be written for decades, and that book’s writer, Paul, was still a period of time away from becoming a believer. The communion or fellowship is not just with commemorating what Jesus did for us, but the believers in the early church experienced fellowship with other believers in the course of sharing a simple meal. It was in a home. It wasn’t officiated by some religious professionals, because there were no religious professionals. Most of the early believers were poor, and gave of each other to each other, as they realized that God had brought them, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, into a new creation. They were the temple of the Holy Spirit, and as much as they ate physical food, the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit guiding each other to build up each other was spiritual food. The idea that the braking of bread in Acts chapter 2 verse 42, the Love Feast spoken of in Jude 1 verse 12, and communion were separate things developed far later in history, not by the early believers.
Paul’s directions in First Corinthians chapter 11 verse 27 may have had to do with normal spiritual immaturity, some eating too much before poorer believers got off work to join the others, maybe some were drinking too much, and maybe some unbelievers were party crashing for free food—it is impossible to tell by now. One thing for sure is that it wasn’t what it became after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, took the meetings of believers out of homes and formalized them in temples, appointed a caste of religious professionals, who then decreed that they had to oversee a ritual, and later had it made illegal to celebrate the ritual without their oversight, with mystical explanations attached to it all. Communion came not to be a meal, then later an offering, and then later still a symbolic sacrifice, the opposite of Jesus being the final sacrifice for sin. The Reformation rejected the mysticism, but the “meal” became a small piece of bread and a thimbleful of juice, to be taken with a serious attitude after examining oneself for sin, with nothing that looks like fellowship or friendship taking place. In traditional churches today in our culture, the church picnic comes closer to the original application of Jesus’ words as practiced by the early church.
What I have written is based on chapter nine of George Barna and Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, which, in turn, has copious footnotes on the history of the evolution of this practice. The background of Passover I harvested from a variety of sources, with apologies to anyone who feels I overgeneralized my description of the foods, as that was a peripheral point within this commentary.