Communion and the Scattered Church
This coming Sunday will be our seventh Lord’s Day of worshipping exclusively through online streaming. While we are deeply grateful for the technology that enables us to still sing, pray, and hear the preaching of God’s Word together in our own homes, many of us miss being physically together to shake hands, give and receive hugs, hear each other’s singing, and taking communion together.
At WPC we have the regular practice of taking communion during our Maundy Evening service, which was online this year, and the second Sunday of every month. Since we didn’t have communion in April and likely won’t be worshipping together in May, people have started to ask questions like, “Can we have a communion service online?” “Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at home just with our family?” Those are great questions, which are understandable since we should miss celebrating the Lord’s Supper together.
Why we should miss celebrating the Lord’s Supper
Along with many of you, I can’t wait to eat the bread and drink from the cup again. After all, Jesus gave us the communion table as one of the two sacraments. Communion is a physical symbol and pledge of three great spiritual truths. First, communion points to the past where Jesus’ great sacrificial love for us was demonstrated on the cross (1 Cor 11:24). He shed his blood and broke his body so that you and I would have our sins forgiven (Heb 9:22). Second, the cup and the bread point to Jesus’ friendship, presence, and strength for us today. Just as taking in physical bread and drink strengthens the body, Jesus teaches us that the spiritual bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper strengthens our souls today. Jesus said, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:55-56). The Bible also teaches that Jesus is spiritually present with his people in a unique way when they eat the Lord’s Supper. When writing to the church in Corinth, Paul emphasized, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Greek word translated as participation in the ESV is koinonia, which is the Greek word for fellowship, friendship, a close relationship. When we eat and drink at the Table by faith, Jesus is present with us spiritually in fellowship. Third, communion points ahead to the future hope Christians have when they will feast in the great banquet hall of glory with Jesus and all the saints face-to-face! After Jesus finished establishing the first Lord’s Supper, he pointed to that day when he said, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Mt 26:29). The great meal he was referring to was the Marriage Supper of the Lamb described in Revelation 19:6-10. Communion points to the past, the present, and the future work of Jesus. Therefore it is right, good, and understandable for us to miss eating at the table of the Lord together.
Therefore it is right, good, and understandable for us to miss eating at the table of the Lord together.
Why we should wait to celebrate the Lord’s Supper
After some time reviewing the Scriptures, discussion and prayer, your elders have determined that it is wise to wait until we are able to worship together again in person. Some of the clearest teaching in Scripture on the Lord’s Supper is found in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In that passage we learn that the Lord’s Supper was given to God’s people as a meal to be shared when they came together as the church (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20). Celebrating the meal itself was to be a physical representation of unity among God’s people. In the Old Testament, the Passover meal was held in individual homes (Ex. 12:3) to celebrate God’s work rescuing his people out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a physical symbol and pledge of the New Covenant replacing the Passover symbol of the Old Covenant. The meal that once required the annual slaughter of a lamb for each home has been replaced by a new bloodless meal, since the final lamb, Jesus, was sacrificed (1 Cor. 5:7). The meal that once was observed in individual family homes has been replaced by a new meal to be observed when the people of God gather together. During the Passover, God’s people shared a common meal in spirit. During the Lord’s Supper, God’s people share a common meal in spirit and presence. Paul even references that eating in their private homes was an option for the follower of Christ, but that it would be different from the purpose of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:22). Communion is only to be celebrated when a local congregation can meet together in person, which is not possible through an online service.
Another reason gathered worship is essential for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the setting aside of the particular elements through prayer. Paul points out in verse 25 of the same passage that it is not just any bread and any cup that is used. It is “This cup” and “This is my body” referring to the particular bread and cup being used, shared, and prayed over during that meal. During communion in the sanctuary, the communion trays are prayed over and set aside during the service and distributed as each communing member gives and receives the meal. Giving, receiving, and praying over particular elements are not possible through an online service.
The meal is a physical symbol of our unity. We eat personally, but we eat together.
A final reason not to have communion through online worship is the Lord’s call for us to wait for one another. In verse 33 of the same passage, Paul writes, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another….” The Lord tells us through Paul that, when we eat at the Lord’s Table, it is not just a personal isolated event for our own personal growth. We are to be there for and with each other because God is working in us collectively. The meal is a physical symbol of our unity. We eat personally, but we eat together. Therefore we are to wait for one another, since it isn’t all about us. During this time of social distancing, you and I must engage patience. We long to see each other, to hug and shake hands, to sing loudly, to pray, listen, and eat together as the gathered church. How encouraging will it be to meet up in the sanctuary! Until then, it is good for us to wait for one another as we wait upon our Father to bring us back together.