The fifth part of our series “How to live as a Christian” is on taking communion. Just like the previous session about going to church, you might think – surely this one is also fairly simple: just turn up and take the bread and wine!
This is true! But I wanted to explore briefly why it’s important to take communion. It’s important to understand why we do something as well as simply doing it. This is important for most things but doubly so with communion because it’s something most churches don’t talk much about.
Let’s look firstly at a couple of traps you can fall into, before we look at the Bible. Then we’ll look at a few questions you might have about communion.,
Traps to avoid about taking communion
#1: Taking Communion is the most important thing
Some churches teach, explicitly or implicitly, that communion is just about the most important thing that the church does. These churches will often centre the church’s services around communion (in Roman Catholic churches this is usually called Mass). In fact, in Catholic churches, mass is obligatory on Sundays and various other days throughout the year.
In our church, we have a service of communion at midnight on Christmas Eve. There are often people who come to that service to take communion who don’t come the rest of the year. I think some people have a view that all you need is to take communion occasionally (even once a year!) to fulfil your duties to God.
One problem with this is that it’s very easy for communion to become just another thing that we need to do as a sort of ‘box-ticking exercise’. When spiritual things are done not for spiritual benefit but as a spiritual box-ticking, this is known as ritualism. The Bible is very clear that we are made right with God (justified) by faith alone, not by the good things that we do. We can’t earn God’s favour through anything we do.
Another problem with the idea that communion is the most important thing is that we could neglect other important things. The Christian life is made up of many important things – and we are looking at some of them in this series. It’s important to get them in perspective, not to make one more dominant.
So the first thing I want to say is: communion is not the most important thing we can do. It’s important, but the reason why we take communion regularly is because it is beneficial to us – as is reading the Bible, praying, and so on. It is only one of the things in the Christian life which we should do.
#2: Taking Communion is not important at all
The second trap we might fall into is to say that communion is not important at all. Some churches in fact do not share communion, such as the Salvation Army:
Early Salvationists were concerned that many Christians had become too attached to rituals as outward signs of spiritual grace. The Salvation Army places the emphasis on personal faith and on a spiritual relationship with God which doesn’t depend on anything external.
The Early Salvationists reacted against the way that some churches treated communion as the most important thing. Now I think the Salvation Army take things to an unusual extreme, but some churches have a similar view. Some churches seem to treat communion as something which we have to do, but not something which has any real benefit for us as Christians. It’s almost seen as a “take it or leave it” kind of thing.
So the second thing I want to say is: communion is important and beneficial for us. The fact that it’s not the most important thing doesn’t mean it’s not an important thing!
What does the Bible say about communion?
Let’s look briefly at the Bible. (If you want a more detailed look, go through the Heidelberg Catechism course – the sacraments are covered in part two.) We’ll just look at one passage from the Bible, Jesus’ teaching from John 6.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.’John 6:54-58
Jesus says something here which might seem pretty shocking to us: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood”. That sounds like cannibalism! But Jesus is not referring to something we do physically but rather spiritually. When we become Christians, we are united to Christ. We belong to him and he belongs to us; he gives us life.
Communion – taking the bread and the wine – is an expression of that unity, of that life. When we physically eat the bread and drink the wine, it is symbolic of a deeper spiritual reality – that we belong to Christ, he feeds us and gives us life. This is how the sacraments work: the things that we can see are there to help us understand the things that we can’t see.
I’m sure that you will have questions about this. I’m sorry we don’t really have time to delve into it now. I will recommend once more looking at the Heidelberg Catechism.
Let’s finish by looking at some questions people often have about communion.
Questions about communion
How do we take communion?
Different churches will have different ways of doing communion: in some churches you’ll have to come up to a rail at the front of church. The minister will give you bread and wine, and the wine will be from a common cup. This is common for Anglican churches. In other churches, you might stay in your seats and the bread and wine will be brought round to you – sometimes the wine will be in individual glasses.
It doesn’t really matter how communion is done, as long as you are taking the bread and the wine. The most important thing to remember is the state of your heart.
As I said above, one of the dangers with communion is turning it into a ritual – something we do as a spiritual box-ticking exercise which doesn’t have any spiritual benefit for us. How can we guard against that happening? This is what the Apostle Paul said to a church in Corinth who were not taking communion appropriately:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep.1 Corinthians 11:27-30
So the way to avoid taking communion wrongly is to examine ourselves before taking communion. That is, consider seriously: have we truly repented of our sins? Have we truly trusted in Christ? Are we seeking to live in a way which is honouring to God? This is absolutely not saying that we have to be sinless before coming to communion – then no-one could! But it is saying that we have to have a right, humble heart. We have to come, knowing that we are sinful and unworthy, and trusting that God will forgive us and help us.
How often should we take communion?
This depends on the church you go to. If you go to the same service every week, you will simply take communion whenever your church has a communion service. Some churches have communion every week, some do it once a month. There isn’t a right or a wrong way – it’s just good to take as often as possible.