Friday, March 22, 2013

Explaining Christian Rituals: Communion

Jesus celebrating the Last Passover with his disciples. Good thing they had their names written inside their halos--must have made them easy to tell apart. (Picture source:

What is Communion?

Churches have been participating in the practice of “Communion” (also called the Eucharist) for nearly 2,000 years. Various Christian denominations may do it differently, but there are some common elements they all have in common. The congregation eats bread and drinks wine (or grape juice), and they all do it together. This part is important, because, after all, it is called “communion,” indicating that commonality and togetherness are concepts very important to the practice. So what does this rite, or sacrament mean to the Church, and why do we celebrate it?
The origins of Communion go back to the Gospels, which are the four books in the New Testament of the Bible which detail the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels were each written by a different author, and each one carries a different perspective. Let us look at the Gospel of Mark (the shortest, most action-packed of the four books) and see how he records the establishment of Communion. In short, we are going to see that “Communion” is a Jesus-oriented interpretation of the ancient Jewish holiday, Passover. Passover remembers the liberation of the Israeli people from slavery in ancient Egypt, about 1500 years B.C. All Jewish people in Jesus’ day celebrated Passover. Jesus was no exception. In fact, the first Communion celebration was Jesus’ final Passover Seder (meal). Take a look with me at Mark 14:22-25, and we will get to the bottom of this.

Verse 22: Jesus the Matzo

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’
The first thing to remember here is that Jesus is Jewish. His name, which we get from the Greek Iesous, was actually Yeshua to his Aramaic-speaking disciples and enemies. So Jesus is Jewish, and as a good Jew he was celebrating Passover with his followers. As part of the Passover Seder, the master of the house breaks a large, square, flat piece of crispy cracker called matzo. According to tradition, this bread recalls the quick escape the Israelis made when they left Egypt: they did not even have time to put yeast in their bread to prep for the journey. The resulting “unleavened” bread became a key element in Passover celebrations.
When Jesus takes the matzo here, he holds it up before his disciples and breaks it. This is expected, but what he says next is anything but expected. He applies this tradition to himself. According to Jesus, he is the matzo. It is he who is the sustenance for a people escaping slavery. He is the one who goes along with the people of God, accompanying them on their way out of bondage and into the Promised Land. This is an incredible claim. Jesus is literally inserting himself into one of the most sacred of Jewish traditions, and orienting the entire holiday around himself. What must have been more puzzling for his disciples is that Jesus was also saying he would be broken for their sakes. Broken? But was he not the Messiah, God’s promised king? How could the king be broken?
Here we have a glimpse of the great news of Jesus’ story: the way Jesus provides nourishment for God’s people is by being broken for them! He did this when he allowed himself to be beaten, tortured, and finally murdered on the cross. He was broken like matzo, and anyone who “eats his flesh” is given nourishment and freedom.
We “eat his flesh” by believing in his sacrifice—that when he died on that cross, he was taking your place and mine. Christians today (both Jewish and Gentile) remind ourselves of Jesus brokenness, and our need for liberation from our slavery to sin, by eating the bread served at the Communion table. Jesus is still the matzo, and we still need his sustaining life.

Verses 23-25: The Wine, Jesus’ Blood

“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Let us cut right to the chase:  Jesus is saying that the wine which Jewish people had been drinking for centuries at Passover was actually a symbol of the New Covenant (“Contract”) God was making with humanity. Jesus was ushering in and declaring a new era. No longer would human beings be lost and bound in their sinful rebellion against God. By God’s favor, through faith, people could now enter into a completely revolutionary relationship with the Lord. Jesus does more than free us from our slavery: he brings us into God’s family.
When Jesus shed his blood on the cross, the debt humanity owed God was paid. Christians celebrate this incredibly wonderful fact by drinking wine at Communion. This is a way of reminding ourselves that Jesus blood was the “ink” on God’s new contract with us. Anyone who trusts in Jesus’ shed blood has their sins washed away and is welcomed home to the Lord with open arms.

Verse 25: Jesus’ Next Passover

“Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Mark concludes his account with a statement from Jesus about hope. Jesus says that the next time he drinks wine will be when he drinks it “new” in God’s kingdom. This is a bold reference to the certainty of God’s kingdom becoming a reality. For the ancient Israelis, disciples, and Christians today, God’s liberating reign is celebrated in hope. However, someday God’s kingdom will come. All wrongs will be made right, and God’s people, who have trusted their lives to his Messiah, will celebrate Passover again—this time, in its full significance, sitting together with the Lord himself. When Jesus is saying that he is going to abstain from drinking wine until that day comes, he conveys that he, too, is longing for that day to come.
So, Communion, like the Passover Seder that inspired it, is a celebration of freedom found in God’s grace toward humanity. Jesus applies the celebration to himself to show us that such freedom comes from him, who willingly offered himself up as “matzo” and “wine” for God’s people. When we “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” by entrusting our souls to him for their salvation, we realize the true significance of the Communion ritual.

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