On the night he died, the Lord broke bread and shared a cup with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Ever since then, followers of Christ have shared the bread and cup in a ritual known as partaking of the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table or the Eucharist. Many people call it holy communion or just communion.
The significance of the bread and the cup
During his time on earth, sick people touched Jesus’ body and were healed (Mark 6:56). They touched Jesus because they knew there was power in his body (Luke 6:19). When we partake of the bread during communion, we are remembering that Jesus, the Bread of Life, is our healing and wholeness.
If the bread represents Christ’s body, broken so that we might be made whole, the cup represents his blood or his life, which was shed so that we might live. It also represents the new covenant of grace.
This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:20)
On the cross, the sinless Savior fulfilled all the requirements of the old covenant while forging a new covenant in his blood. The shedding of the blood represents the remission or forgiveness of our sins.
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (Matt. 26:28)
Through the sacrifice of the Lamb, God forged a new covenant characterized by grace and the forgiveness of sins. We are not forgiven and made right with God because of anything we do. We are forgiven on account of the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7). Without the blood, the gospel is no gospel and the cross is nothing more than two beams of wood. Our cleansing, our wholeness, our pardon, our hope, our peace, our righteousness, our overcoming are all possible because Jesus bled and died. This is what we remember when we take communion. This is the good news in a cup.
On the first Passover, the blood of many lambs that saved Israel. Now it is the blood of Jesus, the living Lamb of God, that redeems us, cleanses us, and saves us. The new covenant began when Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross and was ratified in his resurrection, and this is what we remember when we partake of the cup.
The right way to do communion
Communion is pretty simple. It’s just bread and wine, or flatbread and grape juice, or whatever you have on hand. The significance of communion is not what you eat and drink, but why you do it. Jesus gave only one instruction when it came to taking communion: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Communion is about him, not us. Communion is not a time for examining yourself for faults. It’s a time for remembering Jesus.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:26)
When we eat the bread and drink the cup we are to remember Jesus death on the cross and what that means for us. Because he died, we are free and forgiven and able to partake of new life. Communion is not a time for confessing sins, but for saying, “Thank you, Jesus.” (Jesus took the bread and “gave thanks” (Luke 22:19).)
How do we take communion in an unworthy manner?
Proclaiming the Lord’s death ought to be an occasion of joy and celebration. Yet for many, communion is a time of anxious introspection and fear. This is partly because of what Paul says here:
Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:27–28)
Under the old covenant, the priests at the temple examined the sacrificial lamb, not the one who brought it. In the new covenant, Christ is our Lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:19). During communion we examine him and see ourselves as tested and approved in him.
To partake in an unworthy manner means to eat the bread or drink the cup without appreciating what Jesus accomplished. Taking communion without remembering what Christ did is not how we honor the Lord’s body and blood. In the passage above, Paul is not prescribing worthiness tests for communion. He is saying, “Jesus’ death is a big deal. It’s something to value, so take a moment to reflect on it when you partake of the bread and the cup.”
Who can take communion?
Some churches have rules stipulating who can and cannot break bread. Some say it’s inappropriate for unbelievers to participate and make a point of “inviting” them not to do so. Since unbelievers don’t value the cross, the thinking goes, they shouldn’t be allowed to drink judgment on themselves by taking communion. But Jesus or Paul made no such exclusions.
Should unbelievers be excluded from communion? Paul would have found this question preposterous. It’s like asking, “Should unbelievers be excluded from the gospel?” Communion is proclaiming the Lord’s death. Since the cross is at the heart of the gospel, every time we do communion we are proclaiming the good news.
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)
In the old covenant, the “sinners” and the “unclean” were kept at a distance lest they contaminate the righteous. But Jesus was a friend of sinners. He went into their houses and broke bread with them. He met with thieves, adulterers, and murderers and “contaminated” them with his righteousness. Sinners were radically changed by his awesome grace.
By saying “Communion is only for the worthy,” we have turned a new covenant blessing into an old covenant curse and denied grace to those who need it most. Religion draws lines between Us and Them, but grace tears down dividing walls. Nowhere in the Bible will you find any hint of a suggestion that we should exclude people from communion. The message is, “All are welcome at the Lord’s table.”
When we reveal the real Jesus at the table of grace, good things happen and the result is praise and thanksgiving to God. What does communion look like when it is done well? It looks like heaven.
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