It is one of those things that gets said in the church. One of those phrases that doesn’t have a firm foundation within Scripture, but we still believe it is necessary for faith.
What is that phrase?
If we take communion more often, it will lose its meaning.
Have you ever said that? There is no shame for anyone who has said that and, in fact, this is a safe space to offer that confession. What is going on when we say that phrase? Perhaps, as well, how often should we take communion?
Some Basics … What is Communion?
In the United Methodist Church, communion is one of our two sacraments. The other is baptism. A sacrament is, as John Wesley described it, an “outward sign of an inward grace.” It is an act where we see Christ participate in and calls those who would follow in his footsteps to do likewise. Other services, weddings and foot washing for instance, are important, but do not rise to the level of a sacrament, because there is either that lack of participation by Christ (weddings) or the call to go and do likewise (weddings, foot washings).
Communion is a meal that calls us to remember Christ’s grace and action on the cross. Remembering takes on a dual purpose that connects to the Hebrew idea of remembrance that was about calling to mind something that took place and living differently as a result. In this sense, communion calls to mind Jesus’ words and the grace of his passion. It also calls us to be transformed to live deeply as the people of God as a result of that grace and remembrance.
It is probably worth noting that the global church does not have a consistent view on Communion, which is also known as “The Lord’s Supper,” and the “Eucharist.” While the global churches embrace the importance of the practice of communion, there are some important differences that come up with communion. Some churches practice what is known as “closed communion,” which means only those who are members or have been baptized in that church or denomination are allowed to participate in the meal. There are also different perspectives on what happens with the bread and juice/wine, who is allowed to preside over the meal, and the presence of Christ in it all.
In the Wesleyan tradition and the United Methodist Church, we claim two important features about communion. For one, our communion celebrations are open to all who desire to love God, repent of their sins, and seek to grow in Christ. We do not deny anyone communion for that very fact, perhaps a lesson learned from Wesley, himself, who denied communion to Sophia Hopkey after a failed relationship. As well, we believe that Christ’s “Living Presence” meets us in the meal. That as the bread symbolizes his body and the juice the new covenant, we are met by God’s presence that calls us into a renewed and deeper relationship with the Lord.
How Did We Get Our Current Practices for Communion?
In many United Methodist Churches, communion is celebrated on the first Sunday of every month. This goes back to our circuit rider days when clergy would travel a circuit of multiple churches over the course of a month. When they would arrive at a church, the pastor would preside over worship and administer communion. This would be the only time communion would be celebrated, since the pastor is to preside over the sacrament.
It would be the case that a pastor would come to a church about once a month. That tradition has carried forward to today, even as we have move towards having ordained clergy being stationed in one or a small number of a churches that are in close proximity to one another.
What Does Scripture Say?
There are several key passages to look at when thinking about the nature of how often we should take communion. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe Jesus using the Passover celebration – a feast to remember Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery – into a time to use bread and wine as a sign of the new covenant through Christ.
In each narration, Jesus remarks how the bread is a sign of his body and the cup a sign of the new covenant. He also describes how he has longed to participate in this meal and how he will not celebrate it again until after it is realized in the kingdom of God. Also, around the table are those who would walk away from Jesus in his hour of need. Judas celebrates the meal and will soon betray him by handing him over to the authorities. There is Peter who will deny Jesus to others three times. We have people who struggle with following Jesus at the table with him.
Luke’s gospel also accounts for a communion celebration taking place shortly after the resurrection. This took place as he walked the road to Emmaus with two disciples, conversing with them and, later, breaking bread in an act that has been considered as a communion celebration. Luke, in Acts, also accounts for how the early church gathered to break bread “day by day,” which also has a connotation towards communion. The communion practices of the early church were more symbolic of a feast than what we know of it today.
That plays into 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s account for communion practices. He denounces the practices of the Corinthians, which separated the gathering community, essentially, into economic groupings based on what they were able to provide to the feast. The rich were able to dine well, while the poor were left with little to nothing to celebrate. Paul writes that the body is to come together as one worshiping community to celebrate communion.
What do we make of all of this? Scripture leads us to see how communion is a celebration of God’s grace seen within the life of Christ. It is a meal connected to Christ’s passion, grace, and call for us to be a witness of God in our lives. There is, also, Scriptural evidence of communion being a regular part of the worshiping community when it gathered to give praise to God.
What Happens When We Take Communion?
Communion calls us into a deeper time of prayer and reflection. It is a humbling moment when we partake in this time to remember God’s desire and to grow deeper in the life of Christ. We gather as a community to celebrate something bigger than ourselves. That is God’s presence working in our lives.
From personal experience, I know that when I partake in communion I am overwhelmed by a sense of awe and majesty for God’s presence. It draws me closer to God and reminds me that I am not to live for myself, but for God and, thus, be guided by God’s love.
It is because of this that we come to communion with an expectation of meeting the Lord at the table. We do not come upset that the service is taking too long, the celebration isn’t the way we would like, or any other distraction. We come with a sense of hope to meet God and a desire to grow closer to the Lord.
So, How Often Should We Take Communion?
Wesley instructed the early Methodists that they should take communion often. His own life included taking communion several times a week.
I believe there is something to be said for communion being shared more frequently than what we do today. As we celebrate communion, we are drawn more into the presence of God and have that reminder that this is not about us. In a world of self-focused living, anything that can help us to move us away from ourselves and into a deeper life in Christ is necessary and helpful.
We should be willing, and able, to take communion as often as we are gathered, so that we may grow closer in love with God and join our hearts together in communion with one another.