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How and When to Participate in Communion

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28

Welcome Young Believer! It has been a surprise to me to see how much variation this really has across different churches and even how it has changed since I was young. You wouldn't think that a straightforward tradition of remembrance for the sacrifices that Jesus made for us would be so controversial or complicated, but we humans are very good at taking something that's really very simple and making it complicated.

How did Communion Start?

On the night before Jesus' trial and crucifixion, he gathered with his disciples in the upper room of a house that had been miraculously prepared for them so that they could celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover. The Passover feast had been celebrated since the Israelites were saved by God in the land of Egypt when all the firstborn of the Egyptians died because Pharaoh would not free God's people. This celebration was meant to be a somber but joyous reminder of all that God had done for His people not just in Egypt but throughout the Exodus, in giving them the promised land, and preserving them through many adversities often brought on because of their sin.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28

I think it's beautiful that in the midst of this celebration of such an important Memorial holiday that Jesus introduced a new tradition for His Church to keep when He was gone to remember now what God had done through His Son to offer us redemption that could not be ours without His grace.

How Did the Early Church Practice Communion?

As I said before, we humans have a talent for mucking things up and it didn't take long for the Church to need some correction in how they were practicing this tradition.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Imagine that you've come together after some sort of fight to sit down with your family and eat dinner. The room is tense, your Dad might be stabbing each bite of food like he is at war with it. Mom might be sighing and looking like she is about to cry. Your sibling is probably giving you the side-eye letting you know that they're totally not over whatever it is you did to make everyone so upset. It is no less tense or uncomfortable when we come together as a church when there has been obvious growing disunity and bickering, yet the church in Corinth continued to break bread together anyway and practice the tradition of Communion while everyone's spirit wasn't focused on remembering God's grace but on the grievances they had with one another. Not only that but since this was a meal shared together -- not the wafers and stale grape juice we're familiar with today (or wine if you're of the Catholic/Lutheran branches) -- some we're coming and gluttonously consuming far more than their respectable portion and getting drunk while others would come and find nothing left for them. These disrespectful attitudes had dire consequences for the Church in Corinth, some of their members falling ill and others dying!

The Roman Catholic Church and Transubstantiation

Somewhere between this gentle correction by Paul of the Church at Corinth's attitude problem when it came to practicing Communion and the present the idea of Transubstantiation was born. This very big word is a primarily Catholic doctrine that teaches the bread and wine of Communion also known as the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ (His divine presence) when a priest consecrates them. However, they still look and taste like bread and wine. It's hard to say when the Catholic Church began to teach this doctrine but it was solidified as one of their official beliefs at the Council of Trent in response to the Protestant criticisms calling for church reformation.

The Reformation began October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany asking for open debate of the topics he had listed. Martin Luther wasn't your average churchgoer, he had spent the greater part of his life as a Monk and College Professor studying these doctrines and seeking them out in God's Word. His story is fascinating so I'm sure we'll be talking about him more at a later date. I just wanted you to have some context for why the Council of Trent had been called. The Council of Trent or the 19th ecumenical council was made up of the greatest church leaders of their day, representing not only Catholicism but the interests of the kings in whose countries these leaders had influence. It took a long time for this Council to discuss and publish their official response to the Protestant Reformation, in fact, they met across three separate periods from 1545 to 1563. It was in the second period of this meeting that the Council clarified the Catholic church's teaching on transubstantiation in opposition to Luther's teaching of consubstantiation which was only a little less extreme teaching that the bread and wine simply coexisted with the spiritual flesh and blood presence of Christ in this practice.

If you're thoroughly confused at this point and don't know how we started arguing about whether Christians were meant to be literal or spiritual cannibals, I'm right there with you! In the three different denominations I attended growing up, neither of these teachings was brought up or practiced. The bread and grape juice were understood as a symbolic remembrance of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. There are differing requirements depending on which branch you attend for being able to participate in Communion.

How and When to Participate in Communion

I think the requirements that Scripture makes very clear are that first Communion is for the Church meaning only born-again believers, second that you should not participate in Communion if you are struggling with unrepentant sin in your life, lastly before you take Communion you should attempt to right any divisions between yourself and another member of the church that may have arisen. The church I'm currently attending adheres to the statement of beliefs held by the Southern Baptist Convention, they additionally require that a person has been baptized before participating in Communion. If you're unsure of your church's requirements or their doctrinal beliefs about this tradition, you should absolutely talk to your mentor and possibly your church's leadership about any questions you might have before participating.

Do I think that you're going to get sick or be struck down dead if you individually take Communion in an inappropriate manner today? Yes and no, I believe that God is living, active, and more than capable of disciplining us when we're in the wrong on any subject in our lives. However, I also rely on God's grace for when I fail and when I'm wrong. There are times when I've decided not to participate in Communion, although I've been saved for years, simply because I didn't think my heart attitude was honoring to God. Instead, I spent the time praying, repenting for that sin, and agonizing in my spirit over the consequences already happening in my life because the choices I was making weren't honoring to God either. Leaving church on those days, I usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done to make things right with others if my sinful behavior has been affecting them as well. I would like to say that I immediately, therefore, go out and do those things, but that would not be true. What is true is that God has relentlessly pursued and convicted me through those times of rebellion until I do turn back to Him and make things right with those I've hurt.

Don't let fear keep you from worshiping God through Communion and remembering the sacrifice He made for you to show you His great love, mercy, and grace!

If you have any other questions about Communion, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. This has been our first dive into a specific doctrinal teaching in the church that may raise more questions than answers at first glance. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. That being said, I know we'll be discussing this again at some point because of changes happening in the Church over the last few years. As with all doctrines test this by God's Word and through prayer!

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