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Communion with Christ

October 1998 | by Gordon Keddie

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the body of Christ…? (1 Corinthians 10:16)

It is very striking that whereas the feasts and festivals of the Old Testament period were meticulously described and grandly titled (‘Day of Atonement’, ‘Feast of Tabernacles,’ etc.), the one and only prescribed feast of the New Testament church is given no official title in God’s Word. It is described, first by our Lord and then by the apostle Paul, in terms of the simplest instructions, devoid of all pomp and show.

The nearest we come to a title is the expression in our text — ‘the communion’ — and this is what has stuck, at least across the Protestant world. Even then, it is clear that this is no formal title, but more a practical statement of what the Lord’s Supper (as we call it) is meant to be for the followers of Jesus. Of course, we have to give everything a name. The term ‘Lord’s Supper’ refers simultaneously to the fact that the Lord instituted it and to the occasion of its institution, namely, the Last Supper before the crucifixion of Christ. ‘Communion’, as we have noted, is drawn from Paul’s definition of the import of the Supper for the experience of the church as a body. Others have called it ‘the Eucharist’, from the Greek eucharisteo (to give thanks), which refers to the Lord’s praying as he set apart the bread as a symbol of his broken body.

It is worth noting that these diverse terms, communion and eucharist, reveal what those who use them think is most central to the Supper. ‘Communion’ emphasises koinonia in Christ, the priesthood of all believers, each in direct fellowship with Christ. ‘Eucharist’, on the other hand, focuses on blessing from Christ as administered by a priesthood of clerics. The sacerdotal system of Rome interposes ecclesiastical mediators who claim to dispense grace in the distribution of the ‘host’. The Reformed faith understands that there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, and that through faith in him, the believer communes with him, sans mass, sans priests, sans any other mediator.

Calvin refuses communion to the libertines
see image info

What our text lays out for us is the fundamental definition of what the Lord’s Supper should be for those who have the right to come to it. It is a communion in Christ, on account of his death as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of his elect. The vital concern is koinonia (communion, fellowship, participation) with God, in and through Jesus his Son.

Communion with Jesus Christ

In many churches, and perhaps also in the perception of the watching world, the Lord’s Supper has become a piece of religious pageantry, with mysterious but dimly understood significance for those who participate. In some circles, it has been reduced to the minimal involvement that maintains the privileges of church membership. Attend a communion once a year and you are guaranteed Christian burial and some hope of salvation! Any reading of the biblical teaching on the Supper, and the nature of saving faith in Jesus Christ, surely exposes such notions as a caricature, if not a blasphemous parody, of the gospel itself. The focus of the Lord’s Supper is squarely upon personal and experiential communion with the crucified and risen Jesus.

An experienced communion

The text establishes this essential perspective through its two main points. Firstly, the ‘cup of blessing which we bless’ is the wine set apart by prayer for sacramental use. Just as we ought to pray before meals that God would bless the food to our body’s use, so at the Lord’s Table we ask that the elements of bread and wine might fulfil their intended purpose. The dynamic of divine power is invoked. Why? That the use of the symbols of Christ’s body and blood might be more than a perfunctory ritual. The point is that God means to meet with his people; that the act of communion has content, and that it is consciously undertaken as an expression of our saving faith in Christ.

This, in turn, means that the purpose of participation is to enjoy ‘a communion of the blood of Christ’. As with the Word of God itself, the body and blood of Christ must be received by faith. A believing heart is the prerequisite for an experience of true communion. Why? Because the Supper is not a delivery system, dispensing automatic grace to all who come. In view is not the physical reception of Christ’s flesh and blood, but a spiritual feeding on him. And that which is truly spiritual is explicitly experiential. We feed on Christ in the sacrament in the same basic way that we feed on him in the Word of God, namely through the exercise from our hearts of a living faith in him as the risen Saviour.

A communion experience

Given that the Lord’s Supper is designed to be an experience of union and communion with Christ, in what ways does this impact our Christian experience in practice, as we come to the Table? Bearing in mind what we have already seen in these studies, several points suggest themselves as essential to the communion experience.

Do you come to the Table properly discerning the Lord’s body? (11:29)

This was the subject of a previous study, and we need not repeat all that has already been said on the subject. Suffice it to say that it is essential to a living communion with Jesus Christ that the communicant should come with a consciousness of his own appropriation of Christ, as the one who died to save him from his sins. In the words of Charles Hodge, ‘We receive and appropriate Him as our sacrifice and as the Saviour of our souls; and He gives Himself to us.’

Do you come to the Table in the conviction that it is a seal of the covenant of grace?

— and therefore a channel of grace, communicating to you the benefits of Christ’s death? Those who come to God, ‘must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him’ (Hebrews 11:6). Believing is the necessary condition of receiving. Yet there are some who ‘try prayer’ and wait to see ‘if it works’. That is more like the mercenary spirit of Simon Magus than the true spirit of prayer that trusts in the Lord and his promises. To approach the Lord’s Table in a similar way, as if ‘to see what it does for me’, when in my heart there is neither heart-felt devotion nor confiding expectation, is consumerism not covenant-faithfulness. You must believe if you are to be blessed.

Do you come to the Table realising that the sacrament glories in the cross of Christ, and that you must also do so as you come?

In this, writes Henry Belfrage, ‘we show that, instead of participating in the contempt with which others regard the death of Christ, we glory in His cross. The crucifixion of Christ … was … the object of ridicule and opposition. …To trust for salvation in one who had been crucified through weakness … and to proclaim a suffering criminal as the most illustrious of characters — seemed to the carnal and perverted mind the height of madness. In opposition to such ideas, …Christians were, by the observance of this ordinance, to show that they saw everything in the cross, which could call forth triumphant exaltation…In Thy cross, O Jesus, is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength and my refuge is in Thee’.

Do you come to the Table, having prepared your heart to receive the blessings Christ will give?

Those who come expecting nothing will not be disappointed! Unprepared hearts are careless hearts and careless hearts are hardening hearts. If you come eagerly, humbly, with a believing and loving heart, then the Lord will confirm his promises to your soul and give you a wider, deeper and higher view of his glory.

In summary, we are to come to the Table in order to close with Jesus Christ himself?

The Supper presents Christ’s death in terms of the symbols of bread and wine. Jesus is truly present in the Supper. He communicates his grace to his people in the Supper. Living communion with Christ and actual reception of spiritual blessings are experienced by all who, having a true saving faith in Christ, participate in a worthy manner in this sacrament of his death for sinners.