Chapter 2: The history and theology of the Lord's Supper

Through nearly twenty centuries, in countless different nations and cultures, and despite many changes in the way the church has expressed its faith, there has been a constant and almost universal feature of Christian worship: the communal celebration which we call the 'Lord's Supper', the 'Eucharist', or 'Holy Communion'.

The first of those names is from the New Testament (l Cor 11:20). The second ('giving thanks') is from the second century church. The third was favoured by the Reformers, and looks back to the biblical word koinonia (meaning 'fellowship' or 'participation')

Because Holy Communion is so familiar to most Christian worshippers, it can be helpful to ask ourselves just what it is all about. We will consider a number of overlapping statements about Communion.

It was instituted by Jesus:

(1 Cor.11:23-25; Mt.26:26-29; Mk.14:22-25; Lk.22:19-20).

The New Testament accounts all indicate the Lord's Supper was instituted at Jesus' last meal before his suffering and crucifixion. The variation in their wording probably reflects the influence of different local traditions, and perhaps some editorial selectivity and amplification by the different biblical narrators.

The wording most often used at communion services is that recorded by Paul in I Corinthians 11: 23-25

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me'. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'

It is a commemoration:

Communion is a constant reminder of the heart of our faith, that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.' When we partake, we do so 'in remembrance' of the incarnate Son of God, who was 'broken' for us. We are reminded of his earthly life and ministry, of his self- giving, of his sacrificial death through which his followers enter into forgiveness and salvation in union with him, of his resurrection, and of his intercession for us now at the right hand of the Father.

It is important to note that the Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus against the backdrop of another major covenantal 'remembrance': the Passover, in which God's covenant people thankfully remembered in the present God's saving acts which had called them into existence, and which gave them a sense of timeless solidarity with God's people in all generations. 'Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day' (Dt.5:3).

As the accounts of Matthew and Mark indicate, Jesus was establishing the memorial feast of a 'new covenant'. The intended function of the memorial is the same, but the content has changed. The saving acts of God are now centred on Jesus. There is a clear implication that Christ is the new 'Paschal Lamb' (1 Cor 5:7; John 1:29).

The commemoration is intended, then, to call God's new covenant people back to the centralities of their faith in Jesus Christ, and to their continuity with God's people in every generation. We recall the suffering of Christ on our behalf. The 'remembrance' communicates to us through the senses of sight, touch, and taste, and through the Holy Spirit to our minds and hearts. Through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, Christ is present in this act of remembrance.

As with the Passover remembrance, there is to be narration and explanation, giving meaning to the signs and the event they depict.

There is a focus on the cross, yes, but the 'remembrance' is also much wider, its scope takes in both the incarnation and resurrection of God's Son, and the whole of God's saving purposes in Christ. As a covenant meal, the Lord's Supper witnesses to God's commitment to us in Christ. It is a sign given to believers to confirm God's promise of salvation. When we receive this sign, when we 'do this in remembrance', we are reaffirming our response to God's covenant of grace. We are remembering with thanksgiving that wonderful exchange that God has made for us-Christ has taken our guilt, and we have received Christ's innocence (2 Cor.5:21).

It is thanksgiving, a celebration:

A communal feast is in all cultures a symbol of celebration. Communion is no morbid remembrance of someone now dead. It is an invitation to commune with the risen Christ, and to give thanks to God for all that he has done for us in Christ.

That essential note of thanksgiving and celebration is helpfully expressed in the second century name 'Eucharist', which is derived from the Greek word for giving thanks. Behind the earliest eucharistic liturgies there seems to lie the Jewish idea of berakah, 'blessing'-an offering of praise in response to God's kindness toward us. Communion liturgies in the Presbyterian tradition have often cited Ps.116:12:

'What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me?'

'I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord; I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all his people.'

The Lord's Supper may be serious, but it should not be sad. It is an outpouring of gratitude to God, for the completed work of Jesus Christ. Instead of a funereal atmosphere, there should be a deep resonance of praise and thanksgiving. We find just such a note in the recorded eucharistic prayers of Hippolytus of Rome early in the third century.

'Therefore making memory of his death and resurrection, ... we ...praise and glorify you through your child Jesus Christ, through whom glory and honour be to you with the Holy Spirit in your holy church now and for ever ...'

A note of caution: some of those who come to communion services will be feeling weary or jaded, others will be preoccupied with various problems, sufferings, and fears. Worship leaders need to begin where the people are, and to lead with integrity. The thanksgiving and joy of the Eucharist is not something frothy and superficial, induced by simply a cheery tone. It is the quiet work of God's Spirit, often in the midst of pain. 'Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest'.

It is communion with God:

To commune, literally, is to eat together - and that implies oneness. In Holy Communion, we are called to celebrate our fellowship through grace with God, and by the Holy Spirit we are strengthened in our participation in Christ.
That participation is only possible through Christ, who represents us before God (Heb.7:25). Through Christ we have fellowship with God (Eph.3:12). The presence in the Lord's Supper is certainly real. It is the living presence of the triune God - present in Christ (Mt.18:20), and present through the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is an anticipation:

In the Lord's Supper we celebrate the participation we already have in the Kingdom of God. But the feast we share is also a promise-a foretaste-of what is yet to come (Rev. 19:1-9). It is only 'until God comes' (I Cor. 11:26; Mt.26:29). One day our experience of communion with Christ shall be much fuller, face to face, and these earthly symbols will have passed away.

It is a call to identify with the cross of Jesus:

The cross that we recall in Communion is not a comfortable symbol. It calls us again to follow Jesus' example of self-giving and suffering (Lk.8:23). It calls us again to consecrate ourselves afresh to God, a living sacrifice (Rom.12:1; 1 Pet.2:5), expendable, and committed to serve God in this his world.

It is communion with fellow Christians:

In the Lord's Supper we fellowship not only with the Lord, but with all who belong to him. We express our bonds of mutual love with the whole 'household of God', with everyone who professes faith in Christ. That includes our local fellow believers, with all their imperfections. It includes believers of other denominations, irrespective of whether we feel comfortable about different expressions of the Christian faith. It includes believers worldwide, with their vast diversity of races, cultures, and forms, whose prayers mix with ours to form a universal, unending chorus of praise to the living God.

It is good to remind ourselves of this communal aspect of the Lord's Supper, to include prayer for the church around the globe, and to remember with thanksgiving that myriad of faithful believers who have gone before us. Selfish individualism sits very uneasily in the context of the Lord's Supper, as does any tendency in the congregation towards self-congratulation and exclusivism. All who belong to the Body are part of the 'one holy and apostolic church', and communion should help recall that.

Communion also challenges us afresh to mutual forgiveness (Eph. 4:31-5:2), and to reconciliation among fellow worshippers (Mt. 5:22-24).

If Christ has forgiven others, who are we to withhold forgiveness? If Christ is to forgive us, we must be prepared to forgive others.

But a word of warning - if the focus in the Lord's Supper comes off the crucified and risen Jesus, and instead fixes smugly on our own human commitment to love and unity, then we grossly distort what our Lord instituted. The Lord's Supper is above all a remembrance of God's grace toward us, and if not that, it is nothing. Unity and service are a byproduct of divine grace, but never its substitute.

For reflection:

How well does our own experience of the Lord's table correspond to the above? What aspects have needed strengthening? In what ways could that be achieved? Are there other dimensions to Communion which we feel are important?

Communion is a sacrament:

A sacrament is a Christian rite: the use of outward symbols and actions to communicate to us the reality of the inward and spiritual grace of God toward us in Jesus Christ. Much of the Church's thinking about 'sacraments' - and the Christian use of the word itself - is considerably later than the New Testament. The medieval church (as with the present Roman Catholic church) recognised seven sacraments, but the sixteenth century (Protestant) Reformers noted that only baptism and communion were clearly supported by the scriptures, and directly instituted by Jesus. The Reformers rejected any misunderstanding that the sacraments could automatically and mechanically transfer grace to those who participate in them, without any regard to the presence of meaning, understanding, or faith.

In its original Roman setting, the word 'sacrament' had the sense of a sacred bond, a pledge of obedience. A Christian sacrament, explains a Genevan catechism, is 'an outward attestation of the grace of God, which by a visible sign, represents spiritual things to imprint the promises of God more firmly in our hearts, and to make us sure of them'. Calvin spoke of the Lord's Supper as a 'spiritual feeding' on Christ, in which the Holy Spirit raises us up to a stronger sense of participation in the life of Christ. The sacraments, as with the written and preached word of God, witness to the grace of God toward us in Jesus Christ, the living Word. They invite us to respond to that grace, to participate in it, and to be nurtured in our faith. The Reformers spoke of a sacrament not only as a 'sign' (symbol), but as a 'seal', a pledge or promise from God. As a 'seal', the sacrament is made effective only through the Holy Spirit, who alone can communicate to believers the grace of assurance.

We may need to be careful of claiming too much for the sacraments. God is not boxed into any human formulations of how God's grace is mediated through the sacraments. While the Lord's Supper and baptism are special, not least because they are instituted by Christ to strengthen our faith, it is obvious that God mediates grace to us in many other ways as well, and uses many other experiences to nurture our assurance of his love toward us in Christ. In the end, the sacraments are a mystery. They are not called that in the New Testament itself (where 'mystery' only has the sense of the previously hidden things of God now being revealed in Jesus Christ), but the Church has often seen them as such. They are a mystery, because they depend on the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit.

Is communion a sacrifice?

The Reformed tradition has been quite emphatic about this. The Reformers rejected sharply the thinking - found as early as the end of the second century - that the eucharist is a 'sacrifice ... made through the priest to God' (Tertullian). The Reformers stressed that Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross was unique, unrepeatable, all-sufficient (l Peter 3:18; Heb. 9:25-26, 27,10:12,14,18). The symbols of the Lord's table look back to the central historic event of Jesus' death, but do not in any sense repeat it. All the Reformers denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, and Zwingli and Calvin denied that the elements of bread and wine become the body and blood of the Lord. When Jesus in the flesh said 'this is my body', God was speaking figuratively.

Similarly, the one who administers (or presides over) the communion is in no way an intermediary, acting in a priestly role to mediate God's grace through the sacrament. There is no intermediary but Christ, who has made the one perfect sacrifice, and who forever intercedes for us with God (Heb.7:23-27).

The one leading the communion service is but a servant. That is partly why the church has come to use the bland word 'administer' to describe this role. There are only two parties to the interaction that takes place at the Lord's Supper: the Lord (our High Priest, and only Head) and the whole people of God gathered in worship. There is only one New Testament sense in which we may speak of a human priesthood: that of the laos, the people of God as a whole called to be a priesthood of praise and witness (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

With the softening of both Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward each other, disagreements about the meaning of communion (and the nature of both the elements and the one presiding) have possibly lost a little of their heat, but sensitivity is still required. Those leading Presbyterian services must seek to be true to both a biblical and reformed understanding. It is, for instance, offensive to many to refer to the communion table as an 'altar'. As Calvin wrote, 'The Lord ... has given us a table at which we may feast, not an altar on which a victim may be sacrificed'. There is simply no place in our tradition for sacerdotalism (the concept of a priest performing sacrifice, and the associated status and mystique of priestly office), or for an inordinate reverence for the consecrated elements of bread and wine. We must be discriminating in our choice of liturgy, and prepared to adjust wording that may convey the wrong impression. The focus should always be on the risen Christ, not on the elements; on the worship of the people, not on the one leading. We have but one priest, Christ our Lord.

If we choose to speak of our celebration of the Lord's Supper as a sacrifice of praise, let us be careful to remember that Christ's 'once and for all' sacrifice is paramount, and that Christ alone is the one true worshipper, forever presenting before the Father our own feeble efforts at worship.

For discussion:

How does the celebration of communion in the Presbyterian tradition vary from what happens in other Christian traditions? What do we value? What can we learn from other churches (both those more liturgical/traditional and those more informal)? In leading communion, are there patterns and impressions we would want to avoid?

How should communion relate to worship in general?

The Lord's Supper cannot stand in isolation. It must be in the context of (a) worship (b) the read and preached Word of God.

Central to worship, Word, and Lord's Supper alike must be Jesus Christ. He alone is our Way to God, our Life, and our Truth. It is Jesus Christ who must be both the content and the living power in all worship.

The medieval church emphasised the Lord's Supper but neglected the preaching of the gospel. In reaction, Protestant churches have sometimes swung the other way, celebrating communion infrequently. The reformer John Calvin was eager for communion to be weekly, but the civil authorities over-ruled. In the New Testament and in the early church, it seems the two were in better balance, with communion a regular feature of Christian worship.

Is a liturgy really necessary?

A liturgy is a form of service carefully prepared to incorporate all the things that the church has felt should be part of a balanced celebration of communion, often with provision for congregational responses. In a sense all such liturgies are amplifications of Jesus' institution of communion as recorded in the scriptures. Some may react against the formalism and high-flown language of some eucharistic liturgies, preferring the simplicity and brevity of what they may imagine the New Testament pattern to have been. Certainly we should aim for simplicity and brevity, and for language which communicates to contemporary people. Many of our congregations will feel uncomfortable with anything that smacks to them of ritual, or stuffiness, or priestcraft. It does not automatically follow that ancient liturgies developed by Greek-orientated Christians in the second or third centuries will communicate to or be appropriate for twentieth century congregations, with all their diversity, in Aotearoa New Zealand.

On the other hand, a prepared liturgy of some sort is valuable, if we are to avoid imbalances, clumsiness, and eccentricities. There is nothing intrinsically unspiritual about prepared and written services. Liturgies tested and refined over the years may have a dignity and spiritual expressiveness that is very effective in leading congregations into heartfelt worship. We may feel that the best liturgies are strongly laced with scripture, allow for extemporary prayer at appropriate points, and respect the relatively plain and unornate style of worship that has been characteristic in the Reformed tradition.

We should select the liturgy we use with care, adapt where necessary, and in all cases pray that the Holy Spirit breathes life into every celebration of the Lord's Supper.

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand does not prescribe the use of any particular liturgy. Church of Scotland services have commonly been used. Many ministers also use service books from Canada, the U.S.A., and the U.K., and especially the Uniting Church of Australia's Uniting in Worship. Maori and Pacific Island congregations often use service books in their own languages. In 1978 the Assembly agreed to the trial use of a resource prepared by the Church Worship Committee, The Holy Echarist. (See Chapter 5 for details of these resources.)

How often should communion be celebrated?

Presbyterians have long said that they have communion less often because it is so important, and they do not want to fall into the trap of over-familiarity. Most other Christian traditions have chosen to emphasize the importance of communion by having it weekly, or even daily. Communion seems to have been celebrated quite frequently in the early church (1 Cor. 11 :18,20;16:2; Acts 2:42). Calvin wanted it to be weekly in the church at Geneva, but the Council insisted on a quarterly observance only. In the Scottish tradition, the infrequency of communion related in part to the impressive thoroughness with which communicants were prepared, and the annual communion season in a village or locality could stretch from the Thursday to the following Monday. In eighteenth century Scotland communion was never more than once a year, and in some places even more infrequent.

In New Zealand, Presbyterian elders have been known to baulk at monthly celebrations of communion, if it also meant monthly visitation with communion cards. Overall the trend seems to be toward more frequency, with many congregations opting for a monthly celebration.

Who is worthy to partake?

In the eighteenth century one minister in England rejoiced at the effects of revival in his parish ... because the number taking communion had increased. Around the same time a minister in Scotland also rejoiced at the work of the Holy Spirit among his congregation.. because God had got the number taking communion down to six, the others had at last become convinced that they were sinners!

The Reformed tradition going back to Calvin made much of not taking communion lightly or unworthily. 'Fencing the tables', warning the people of the dangers, was long part of the Scottish service. The biblical basis was Paul's warning to the people in Corinth (l Cor. 11:27-32). (It could be noted that most Presbyterian congregations have a way to go before they are guilty of the same riotous behaviour at communion that Paul was trying to sort out.)

In the old Scottish churches the 'fencing' was literal; stakes driven into the earth floor around the communion table which was a trestle table with a white table cloth, at which people, in batches, would sit. There were gates at each end. A person was only admitted if he or she had a metal communion token (the ancestor of 'communion cards') which would have been given by the elder during a visit to check whether or not the intending communicant was living free of gross sin.

The system, for all its severity, was not without its merits, and it no doubt served as a means of grace and of genuinely helpful discipline. But its legacy was mixed. In the north of Scotland it is still an effort to get the message across that God loves and accepts all who come to God in faith, regardless of their unworthiness.

In stressing the need to examine our lives before God, to confess sin, and to take communion seriously, we must beware of undermining the gospel of grace. Who is worthy? No one, in themselves; anyone, in Christ. All that is required is that we recognise our unworthiness. By all means let there be an emphasis on confession, preparation, consecration. But there must also be a strong emphasis on grace.

Let us remember too that in Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians (1 Cor. ll:28) examining one's heart was the prelude not to abstaining, but to participation.

For those who wish to dig deeper:

The literature is vast. The following list includes works from many different stables, not all of it Presbyterian/Reformed, and its perspectives range from evangelical to ecumenical/liturgical/Catholic.

(a) Primary sources:

(b) Secondary sources

  • Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry
    Faith and Order Paper No.111, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1982.
  • Theology of the Sacraments
    Donald Baillie. Faber, 1964.
  • New Dictionary of Theology
    R.T.Beckworth 'Eucharist', in S.B.Ferguson and D.F.Wright (ed.). I.V.P., 1988.
  • The Sacraments
    G.C.Berkouwer. Eerdmans, 1969.
  • The Holy Communion in the Reformed Church of Scotland, 1560-1960
    George Burnett. Oliver and Boyd, 1960.
  • Westminster Dictionary of Worship
    J.G.Davies (ed). Westminster, 1979 (many brief and useful articles).
  • Table and Tradition: Towards an Ecumenical Understanding of the Eucharist
    Alasdair Heron. Handsel Press, 1983. (especially strong on the Reformers)
  • Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed
    R.C.D. Jaspar and G.D.Cuming 2nd ed.Oxford, 1980 (useful selection from primary sources)
  • The Study of Liturgy
    C.Jones, G.Wainwright, E.Yarnold (ed) Oxford, 1978.
  • The Lord's Supper
    E.F.Kevan. Evangelical Press, 1966.
  • Last Supper and Lord's Supper
    I.H. Marshall. Paternoster, 1980 (scholarly but readable study of the New Testament origins of the Lord's Supper).
  • Worship in the Early Church
    Ralph P.Martin. Eerdmans, 1974.
  • A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland
    W.D.Maxwell. Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition
    J.H.Nicholls. Westminster, 1968.
  • Guides to the Reformed Tradition of Worship
    Hughes Oliphant. Old John Knox, 1984
  • Eucharistic Sacrifice
    J.l.Packer (ed). Church Bookroom Press, 1962
  • Sacrament, Sacrifice, and Eucharist
    A.Stibbs. Tyndale Press, 1961 (very clear treatment, from an evangelical Church of England perspective).
  • Liturgies of the Western Church
    Bard Thompson. New American Library, 1974 (full selection from primary sources, especially Protestant liturgies).
  • Eucharist and Eschatology
    G.Wainwright. Epworth, 1978
  • Worship Old and New
    Robert E. Webber. Zondervan, 1982. (excellent survey)
  • An Introdroduction to Christian Worship
    James F. White. Abingdon, 1990.