From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2016. Article 12: The Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper, most commonly called Communion (which means “sharing in common”) in the Mennonite Church, or Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) in other traditions, is also known by other names in other Christian denominations and historically. When Catholics celebrate Mass or Holy Mass, it is The Lord’s Supper they are celebrating. When scripture refers to breaking of the bread, it often means celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Between the various denominations there are differences about what happens in communion, how it is celebrated, how often it is celebrated and the meaning of the various parts. Between Mennonite churches there are differences in how communion is celebrated and how often.
Communion is among the few new practices that Jesus called his followers to celebrate. When we celebrate communion, we are remembering the first Communion meal known as the Last Supper.
Article 12 of our Confession of Faith is titled “The Lord’s Supper” and it describes our understanding and reasons for celebrating it.
From paragraph 1 of our confession of faith: We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sign by which the church thankfully remembers the new covenant which Jesus established by his death. In this communion meal, the members of the church renew our covenant with God and with each other. As one body, we participate in the life of Jesus Christ given for the redemption of humankind. Thus we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Mennonites believe that celebrating Communion is a sign. It’s kind of like mile markers on the road, it means that we are moving, not standing still and heading towards a destination. It means that God has done something, God is doing something and God will do something as we journey in faith, both individually and as a community. Communion is a re-commitment to the road that Jesus traveled.
For Mennonites, the practice of celebrating communion has changed and is almost always changing. How often should we celebrate communion? How do we serve communion? What kind of grape juice? What kind of bread? What readings do we have? Do we wait to drink at the same time?
And no matter how many times communion changes, it still remains the same. We still drink a token amount of grape juice. We still eat a tiny portion of bread. Not enough to quench our thirst and not enough to satisfy our hunger, but enough to say I belong and I believe.
One of the challenges in celebrating communion is finding meaning in it’s celebration. Again, using the analogy of mile markers, when do you stop paying attention to the fact you’re celebrating communion? What makes each and every mile marker significant, especially in a long journey?
On the surface, all communion is, is listening to scripture, drinking some grape juice, eating some bread and thinking, or prayerful reflection. A large part of how we celebrate communion is in silent reflection and when I was a new believer, I didn’t pick up a lot of information from watching people silently reflect. Is there a right way or a wrong way to silently reflect? Is there something that needs to be accomplished during this time? Should I feel spiritually satisfied when I’m finished thinking?
One of the goals of our confession is to describe the meaning of communion and what we do to celebrate.
Finding meaning in communion – Think about it
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”Luke 22:14-16 NIV
The phrase that catches my attention is when Jesus says “eagerly desired” because, for me, I normally don’t eagerly desire anything before I’m about to suffer. If I’m about to suffer, the only thing I eagerly desire is to be passed the suffering. For Jesus, this meal and it’s timing before suffering is significant and this is what our confession says about it’s meaning:
The next 3 paragraphs of our confession of faith:
- The Lord’s Supper points to Jesus Christ, whose body was given for us and whose shed blood established the new covenant. In sharing the bread and cup, each believer remembers the death of Jesus and God’s act of deliverance in raising Jesus from the dead. As we relive this event with a common meal, we give thanks for all God’s acts of deliverance in the past and present, for the forgiveness of sins, and for God’s continuing grace in our lives.
- The supper re-presents the presence of the risen Christ in the church. As we partake of the communion of the bread and cup, the gathered body of believers shares in the body and blood of Christ and recognizes again that its life is sustained by Christ, the bread of life.
- Remembering how Jesus laid down his life for his friends, we his followers recommit ourselves to the way of the cross. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving forgiveness, we are to come as one body to the table of the Lord. There we renew our baptismal covenant with God and with each other and recognize our unity with all believers everywhere in all times.
Most of what the 3 paragraphs describe is silent reflection. We are to remember. We are to recognize. We reflect. And in this silent reflection, we focus in on Jesus and how he became our Lord and savior.
As the name “Communion” implies, the Lord’s Supper is about “sharing in common”. The meal is about sharing in Jesus, not as an individual, but as a family. Communion cannot be celebrated individually. We eat together. We drink together. And, we silently reflect to ourselves, together. I do find it funny, in the ironic sense, that one of the central activities is a very individual act, but we do it communally.
Our confession does indicate 3 practices that are not, or at least don’t need to be, silent reflection: (1) Recommit to the way of the cross (2) Confess our sins to one-another and (3) Receive forgiveness.
Re-committing to the way of the cross is done in the act of taking part of communion.
The next two practices, confessing our sins to one-another and receiving forgiveness, are activities that we have not been keeping account of. While confessing and forgiving does happen, it is mostly ignored at communion these days and just mentioning it is a reminder that in this regard, the church hasn’t matured. It is one of the areas that upon reflection, we just don’t want to think about it.
Our church comes from a tradition with a strong emphasis on discipline and accountability which is illustrated in our previous confession of faith. In section 4 of Article 1, the 1968 confession talks about each church member being counseled before communion to discern whether the member was at peace with God and their brothers and sisters. The intent of this practice is inspired by a picture of the church that is sincerely trying to help one-another stay right with God and with each other so that we don’t fall into Satan’s traps, but it wasn’t working out that way.
I never went to a church at a time when this was practiced, so I don’t know what it’s like, but when I try to imagine it, I don’t think I would like to be interviewed by just any church leader like that. Even if I was sincere and I wanted accountability and even if I respected the leader, the process is awkward and it is more likely that I would lie to the church leader rather than reveal the truth, making me even worse than I was before. It’s not a question of respect, but of trust which comes from an emotional connection that is developed over time. How can the church leader understand?
Our church no longer practices pre-communion interviews, and we have stopped many other forms of accountability too. I do see why our church wanted to do accountability in this way, how else do we ensure that we avoid the judgment that Paul warns us about in his letter to the Corinthian church?
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have Godʼs approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lordʼs Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk… So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.1 Corinthians 11:17-21, 27-29 NIV
Should we protect Christians from judgment and limit who can participate in communion? Our current confession doesn’t give details, but it does say:
- All are invited to the Lord’s table who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in the faith, and are willing to be accountable in their congregation.
- Celebrating the Lord’s Supper in this manner, the church looks forward in joy and hope to the feast of the redeemed with Christ in the age to come.
When we celebrate communion, everyone is invited. It is up to each individual to choose to participate. We need to examine ourselves and test whether we are ready to recommit to the road Jesus walked before us. Should it be up to us to decide who takes part in communion? Even Jesus ate with his enemies:
“But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”Luke 22:21-22 NIV
I do wish that we as a church, when it came to accountability, could say that we do it right, but as time goes on, all I see is how accountability has become more difficult to do than before.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”Jeremiah 31:31-34 NIV
The Last Supper represents the fulfillment of the prophetic call for a new covenant.
From the last paragraph of Article 12 of our Confession: On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus and his disciples gathered to eat the Passover meal. This annual celebration called to remembrance God’s great act of delivering the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exod. 12). Jesus’ Last Supper signaled that he was leading his followers in a new exodus out of bondage and into salvation. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has rescued believers from sin and evil and brought them into a new covenant. The new people of God created through this covenant is continuous with the people of the old covenant, whom God rescued from bondage in Egypt. The people of the new covenant includes all who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior
Why did Jesus “eagerly desire” his last supper with his disciples before his suffering? It was the Last Supper, but it is also the first communion for a new covenant a foretaste of our Lord’s table, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and the beginning of our hope.
You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.Luke 22:28-30 NIV
How often should we celebrate communion? When I was younger, I was told by my pastor that we celebrate communion only a few times per year because we wanted to make sure that the celebration wouldn’t lose it’s meaning through frequent repetition. Yet, the early church celebrated communion weekly. Our confession, in it’s footnotes, while not specifying a frequency, encourages us to celebrate communion often.
I started wondering about the frequency of celebration mostly because Millie would like to celebrate communion more often. Why is that? Why more often? Why did the early church celebrate at least weekly? I think of Luke 22:
You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.Luke 22:28-30
It isn’t just the past that they are celebrating, but their future with their Lord in God’s Kingdom. It is important to remember that the apostles were with Jesus through all his trials and because of this they loved Jesus and they eagerly desire to have this meal with their Lord again in God’s Kingdom.