What is Communion in Christ?
Text: 1 Cor. 10:14-17
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
The doctrine that we call “communion” is a huge topic in the history of the Christian church. It goes by various names. Some call it “the Lord’s Supper.” Others call it “the Eucharist.” It divides religious traditions, and was one of the major points of controversy at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
But, curiously, there’s actually not a lot of information about it in the Bible. The Last Supper, of course, appears in the gospels, but we are only directly taught about the liturgical and sacramental practice of communion in two places, both of which are in 1 Corinthians. We see it here in our text from chapter 10, and it will appear again in chapter 11. Since that is the case, these are the passages to which we must appeal for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. That’s what I want to do this morning. But we need to make sure we understand why Paul is even talking about it here.
You see, Paul has been warning against idolatry and explaining why idol-food poses a unique danger. This has been going on for three chapters of the book. He explains that he isn’t worried about the food by itself, but rather about what the food means in its surrounding context. He’s very worried about the religious festivals which often come with the food. Now he’s adding a new layer. Even though the idol is nothing, there is a demonic spiritual presence at the idols’s service, and participating in its feast exposing you to those demons. Christians should not join in these feasts but should instead remain faithful to their own religious feast, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
This is why Paul brings it up, as an alternative to idol worship, and it is in this context that we learn what the Lord’s Supper is all about. We must flee idolatry because it is opposed to Christ. The two are contrary in every way. So that means that the religious feasts of both are also opposed. We cannot participate in both.
This morning we are going to look at the doctrine of communion in this context. What is it? What does it do? We’ll see that it is fundamentally a community meal, and it is a community meal that creates a union between those who eat together and their God.
The first thing that we learn about the sacrament of communion is that it is a community meal. That is the whole point of this section of 1 Corinthians, and Paul’s argument makes no sense if it is not the case. Listen to what he says:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor. 10:16-17)
And then a little later, also, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). This all comes after a section where Paul warned against “eating in an idol’s temple” (1 Cor. 8:10) and just before a section about the various ways in which you might be challenged to decide whether or not to eat meat (1 Cor. 10:25-33). In fact, chapter 11 shows us that the Corinthians were able to eat so much as to force others to go hungry and even to get drunk during their practice of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-21)! So again, everything we see here tells us that the Lord’s Supper is an actual meal, eaten together by a group of people.
From everything that we know about the early church, the first three centuries of the Church based their communion practice after the example of Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper. A full meal was eaten, and a portion of it included a ritual time where the Word of Institution were spoken and the covenant was memorialized. These are referred to as Agape feasts, and they have been lost due to the changes in Church history.
Why was the way we practice the Lord’s Supper changed? That’s a difficult question. There is a lot of disagreement over the answer. It certainly had something to do with the challenges of retaining a full-meal as the size of congregations grew. Persecution also drove the church into places where sitting around a table wasn’t possible. And as certain theological errors crept into the church, attitudes about what happened to the bread and wine changed how people felt they should approach them. Somewhere between the 3rd and 4th century, the posture and practice changed, and by the 9th century, the theology formalized around it. From that point on, people believed that the bread and wine transformed into Jesus’ actual body and blood, and they no longer thought of “eating this” as any kind of festival meal. It was something else, more like receiving a sort of medication. Things got so bad that the people were not even permitted to drink the wine, and the only bread they were given was a peculiar wafer that was placed directly on their tongue by the priest.
All of this confusion gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. Many of the Reformers pointed out that the practice of the serving and receiving the bread and wine was connected to its meaning, and so they instituted gradual changes. Zwingli promoted the idea that the elements of bread and wine should be passed around the congregation, the way you would pass food at a meal. Normal bread was used. The wine was given back to the people. It was referred to as a “Supper.” Some of the French Huguenots even created tables for their people to sit around, though this didn’t really stick over time.
In today’s church, there is an overall loss of memory. Very few people know why we do what we do or where practices came from. And we should say that you don’t have to know these answers to still receive Jesus in faith. But when we read passages like this one in 1 Cor. 10, we should ask a few questions. And while our practice of the Lord’s Supper is certainly not perfect, hopefully it resembles a meal in some ways. And I hope that you think of it as an act of sharing food together with the other people in this room. One reason that we “pass the peace” and walk around to great each other during our communion practice is that we want to make sure that it includes an element of fellowship. And I hope that you make it more than just some pre-planned thing you do each week. Make it real fellowship.
Goal #1: Communion with Jesus
So, the sacrament of communion is an actual meal in the New Testament, and it should be a meal, or at least reasonably close to a meal, in our own practice today. This is important because meals achieve a certain purpose. They do not simply get food into our stomachs. They do that, of course, but they don’t only do that. If all we needed was nutrients in our bellies, we could probably arrange for a handful of pills to do the trick. But meals are more than that. They involve the senses, and they typically bring people together. They create a spirit of friendship and collegiality. They create communion.
The church’s festival meal should also create communion between two participants. It should create communion between the participants and Jesus Christ, and it should create communion between all of the eaters. You might say that there is a vertical communion and a horizontal communion, and these two are occurring in the same activity.
Paul says, “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” The word “communion” there is also translated as “partaking of” or “participation in.” It does not necessarily mean “eating.” Rather, when we drink from the cup and eat the bread, what we are doing is communing with Christ. There is a real relationship going on, so much so that He is present there in some way.
Paul goes on to compare this with the Old Testament sacrifices and the various pagan sacrifices to idols. He does not mean that they are the same in every way. Instead, he’s only trying to make the one point—there is a real religious presence in all of them, and what matters is Who it is that is present. Paul does not want us to “fellowship with demons,” as he puts it in vs. 20, and so he wants us to stay away from their table. By the same logic, that means that if we are at Christ’s table, then we are fellowshipping with Him. This is actually an argument for Christ’s divinity, by the way. Whatever “job” or “function” the idols are serving for pagan religions, Jesus Christ is serving for Christianity. He is the deity at our religious festival. So we see that the Lord’s Supper brings about a communion between we who eat and drink and Jesus Christ Himself.
Goal #2: Communion with the Church
The second goal that the Christian religious meal brings about is communion between fellow Christians. As we eat and drink with Jesus, we eat and drink together. As we grow in our communion with Christ, we also grow in our communion with one another. Notice plural pronoun Paul uses, “the cup of blessing which we bless… the bread which we break.” We all partake together, and commune with one another.
Vs. 17 really brings this out, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” Look at that closely. “For we, though many, are one bread and one body.” That’s a point about unity. The many is one, as we unite in Christ.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on. He says, “we are one bread and one body; for…” We could also translate that as “because…” And because what? Because “we all partake of that one bread.” The partaking of the “one bread” is a causal agent in our unity. We are one bread and one body because we all partake of that one bread.
This is huge point, and it’s one that is often missed by the church today. Our eating together is an effective means of creating unity. If we eat the same thing, and if we eat it together, then we are “one body.” The fact that we are eating the same thing together makes this happen. The ritual teaches us. The ritual makes us. So we should recognize it, we should believe it, and we should endeavor to live in such a way as to make it true.
This answers the question of “who” should eat, by the way. Everyone in the body should eat. We are one bread because we all partake of that one bread. No non-bread should get bread, but all bread should get bread. Does that make sense? Everyone who is bread should get bread. No one who is not bread should get bread. That means that we are saying that everyone who gets bread is a part of the one bread and one body, and we are also saying that those we do not give bread to are not a part of the one bread and one body. This is why when we excommunicate someone, when we declare them to be outside of our fellowship, we also stop admitting them to the Lord’s Supper. They cannot eat and drink with us because they are not with us. They are out. They are not bread!
This is also why we admit all baptized Christians to our table. We do not discriminate on the basis of denomination, and we do not even discriminate on the basis of age. We believe that everyone who has been declared to be in the body of Christ should be allowed to commune with the body of Christ. We’ll get to that passage about “let a man examine himself…” in a few weeks, when we get to chapter 11, but for now we are laying out Paul’s basic principle. Eating bread establishes one’s status as bread. The eating together is a sign of unity, and it is a causal means of communion in the Church.
There’s a bit more to this, of course. As we will see in the chapter to come, this meal is a memorial meal. It retells a story. It retells a story about a God and a people, a people whom that God has saved. The eating together invites the participants into the story and forms them into the people of the story. This is why we can’t eat at meals with people telling the wrong story about the wrong god.
There is much more to be said about this topic. The church has been talking about it for thousand of years. And we can’t say it all this morning. We’ll come back to it next week, and maybe even a week after that. But for now let’s see the basic point. The Lord’s Supper is a meal we eat together, and the eating together is what establishes the communion. It creates a communion with Jesus, as we participate in Him at His table, and it creates a communion with everyone else who eats together.
And this is also why we cannot share religious meals with those of a different religion. We cannot eat at another god’s table. We cannot fellowship with idols. Again, we’ll say more about that at another time, but for this morning let us establish that the Lord’ Supper is a point of distinction between Christianity and the world, between Jesus Christ and idols. Our table is a table of faith, dedicated wholly to Him, and as such, it should create a faithful and holy community that is also dedicated to Him. It should shape us to flee idols and to run to Christ.
So, this morning, we will eat together. We will eat a religious meal, in honor of our God, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we will come together and be formed together as we eat: one loaf, one body, the body of Christ. Let us commit ourselves to making it true. Let us believe that Christ is our redemption. In Him we find our salvation. And so we grow more and more in Him through His Spirit by faith.
And let us also believe that we are communing with one another, that we are re-committed to a spiritual bond of unity, the bond of love, also created by the Holy Spirit to make us perfect in the faith. If you are not living this reality in its fullness, I would implore you to ask yourself why. In as much as it is up to you, I would ask you this day to confess all sins against charity that might be in your heart, to put aside all grudges—to lay them at the feet of the cross of Christ, and to truly desire the good of your brothers and sisters in this room, to love them, and to commit to fellowshipping with them in truth. See the body. Be the body. Because of the Body.
Let us pray.