I was somewhere around eleven years old when I first participated in communion. I’ll never forget the little cups and the perfect little holders in the pews where they went when emptied. The little cracker reminded me of the oyster crackers that diners would give out with clam chowder. What I remember most, though, is the pit in my stomach that seemed to linger up to the moment we took the elements. I was torn up by the thought of how much I needed Jesus. I would sit in the pew with the rest of my family and as I stared into the back of the pew in front of me, I would consider my need. Although I was not alone, I felt like I was the only person in the room. For years and years, communion was a reminder of my need. No matter how full the auditorium was, in my mind, I was the only one there - just God and I - sorting things out. Over time, this changed for me. Eventually, I realized how much it had nothing to do with me - that is, just me.
At some point, I realized while I was desperately praying for forgiveness, doing what I could to repent in my chair, I looked up and noticed all the other people in the room. They were all doing the same thing as me; sitting in their chairs, praying, repenting. The room was full of other believers who wanted to remember they were right with the Lord and that it was only by Jesus’ work that it was possible. What was happening in that place was more than my secluded event. It was a community crying out in unison.
I think it is easy to treat the frequently used “communion passage” (1 Cor 11.17-34) as Paul’s how-to guide for us rather than the correction of his audience. The Corinthian Church had some serious issues. One of these was related to communion. When we follow this passage in its context, I think we see that Paul is addressing what I learned when I noticed everyone around me. In Corinth, everyone was always thinking about themselves. This resulted in the meal not being shared, and some were overlooked and unconsidered. The Corinthians were laser-focused on themselves and failed to consider the entire body. Like me, they had missed something. The meal is not just for individuals, it’s for the body, the Church. The meal is not meant to be taken at a little table in the corner by ourselves. It is to be shared in a banquet hall full of people eating together.
The significance of a shared meal is that it supposes a community. It supposes union–togetherness. The Lord’s meal does this too. In one sense, we are proclaiming our personal union to Christ (1 Cor 11.26). In another, we are demonstrating our union as his body–the church. We see this in our proclamation of the death of Christ together. When we miss this, we fail to see the miraculous work of Christ in his purchase of a community (1 Cor 11.24,26–remember, the “you” is plural). When we limit the meal to “me, myself, and I”, it limits the significance of his work to ourselves. Instead, we need to remember that the table reminds us of our common ground. It forces us to admit our own needs, but also our brother’s and sister's. We cannot be proud of ourselves or consider ourselves more or less worthy than those who are at the table with us. We cannot reject a brother or sister because of our prejudice, pride, or expectations. We cannot overlook their needs for our own. No, at the table we receive the same bread, the same cup, and we proclaim the same Lord. When we hear Jesus in the passage say, “This is my body which is for you.” Do you think he is talking to you? He is, but remember that he is talking to the rest of the church as well. When we share the meal, let us reflect on how we truly share it. We are all different, kind of weird, and some of us are even hard to love. Yet we are loved. All of us. Together. By Him.
Jeff Palen is on staff at Center Church part time doing an internship with the Junior High Ministry. He is married to Barb and together they have 4 wonderful children and live in Queen Creek.
Picture via Unsplash.