Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Holy Communion: Jesus Christ Inc.

Battling to prepare a Lent course on ‘the local church’, I have drawn on the definition given in the Thirty-nine Articles:
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. (Article XXIX)
In preparing a unit on ‘the sacraments’, however, I have been struck by how Paul’s theology of the Lord’s supper dovetails with his concept of the church itself.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 he asks rhetorically,
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (NIV)
However, their behaviour at the Lord’s supper is a contradiction of this principle: “you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (11:22). In saying this, he famously warns against those who eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (11:27) who are therefore “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” because they fail to recognize the body of the Lord (11:29).
It is very clear, though, that whereas the body and blood in v 27 is that of Jesus himself, the ‘body’ in v29 is the church. Paul has switched references, just as he does earlier in the chapter when he talks about the ‘head’ with (at least) three different references.
So by the time he gets to chapter 12, his ‘body’ language is focussed entirely on Christ’s body as identified with the church:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. (12:12)
Notice, he does not say, “So it is with the church,” which is how we often preach this passage. We tend to reduce the statement to a simile: “the church is like a body with many parts” — which is true, but not the truth Paul is conveying. For Paul at this point, church and Christ are interchangeable, and his sacramental theology is fundamental to this understanding:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (12:13)
The diversity of the church is not that of a group who bring diverse skills to a task, but of a single body which has different organs and limbs:
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. (12:14)
And therefore the behaviour criticized earlier at the Lord’s supper is not merely ‘impolite’ but a contradiction of a fundamental theological reality:
But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. ... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (12:24b-25, 27)
So when the ‘one bread’ of the Lord’s supper is broken and distributed, it is not eaten by individuals. Rather, like food going into our mouths, it feeds the organs and limbs of one body.
The message of holy communion is therefore not just that Christ died for us individually (though of course it is that) but that Christ thereby ‘incorporates’ us into himself and thus joins us to one another.
I cannot therefore make ‘my’ communion. I can only join with making ‘our’ communion where the one Body feeds through the Head on the healing fruit of the true ‘Tree of Life’.
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  1. Helpful article thank you John. At our church we have recently changed to individual glasses rather than using the chalice. I know this is perhaps a minor thing but I can't help think that 'individualism' is creeping into the church and that communion works as a symbol of 'one body' better if we all drink from the same cup.

  2. Mike, you'll be fascinated to know that according to the lawyers,

    "... it is contrary to law for individual cups to be used for each communicant, or for an individual communicant, even if such cups were to be individually consecrated by the president and delivered individually by the minister (including a lay person duly authorised by the bishop under Canon B 12, para. 3) to the communicant.

    (iv) In all these circumstances it is the opinion of the Legal Advisory Commission that Canon B 5, para 1, which permits the minister in his discretion to “make and use variations which are not of substantial importance” in any authorised form of service, does not allow the minister to authorise the use of individual cups."

    I'm sure God agrees! ;-)

  3. Bishop Dominic Stockford (Evangelical Connexion)18 January 2012 at 16:20

    Preaching on eldership last Sunday I went on at length about understanding how our own bodies work - how it is that we as individuals have to cope with the variety of issues that are involved in having our body. I think it is most helpful for us to consider ourselves - and I think that the Scriptural teaching which focuses on 'one body', wants us to consider our own bodies as we consider the church/christian body.

    For instance, when my back hurts I have to make a whole variety of decisions about how I react - do I ignore the pain, do I get on with it anyway, do I change what I do, and so on.

    If we think about the church in that way then we will start to think differently about it, as you say (I think!).

    (As to individual cups! If it is better for the body not to risk passing around swine 'flu then maybe sometimes they are a good thing - what is best for the body, not what keeps the canon lawyers happy!)

  4. Excellent article, John - thank you.