Monday, August 24, 2009

Emailing a favorite niece: "What is communion?"

Her mother-in-law has end-stage cancer, and a chaplain is coming over to give the sick woman communion. Interestingly, she's never had communion before, and asked Annie (name changed to protect her privacy). Annie in turn asked her weird Uncle Tweety (Yes, that's my nickname, long story). Here's the text of my email to her:

Asking “what is communion” is a lot like asking “what is art?” Actually, in my case, it's like saying, “Hey, Tweety, please dump eight tons of theology on me, thanks!” I will attempt to address the former in some coherent form while resisting the temptation to do the latter.

Communion (variously also called the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, and sometimes the Agape Meal) is simply the sharing of food and drink among Christians. Usually, the food is bread or crackers, and the drink is grape juice or wine. Christians believe the tradition was started by Jesus Christ as a reminder of His sacrifice for humankind. The Lord's Supper appears in three of the four Gospels (John's Gospel substitutes Jesus washing the disciples' feet), and in Paul's writings.

For example:

Matthew 26:26-28

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

I Corinthians 11:23-26

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

I Corinthians 10:16-17

“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.”

Now, I mentioned that John's Gospel doesn't include the Lord's Supper; that's kind of inaccurate.

In Chapter 6 of John, Jesus feeds 5,000 men (as well as uncounted women and children) with five loaves of bread and two fishes. This section of Scripture ends with Jesus telling the crowds (I'm starting with Verse 48, and skipping a bit), “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world... I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him 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 him. 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 forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Obviously Jesus wasn't advocating cannibalism. He was telling this crowd, which had followed him across the Sea of Galilee to either get another free meal or make him king by force, that he had not come to give them a full belly and freedom from the Romans. He had come to bring them eternal life.

He lays it all on the line there, and many of his followers bugged out because of it: “You seek the bread of death. I offer you the Bread of Life.”

So Communion is:

A participation in a symbolic act which reminds the believer of Christ's sacrifice for the world. As bread is broken, so was Christ's body broken for you. As the wine is poured out, so was Christ's blood spilled for you. Moreover, as the bread and wine bring nourishment to our physical bodies, so God the Holy Spirit indwells and nourishes us.

This act also reminds the believer that he or she is a member of the Christian community (the Body of Christ is, symbolically, sharing the Body of Christ). One loaf nourishes the whole body, and in turn the body supports, guides, prays for, and nourishes all of its members.

Now, Communion is, by definition, not a “solo act.” It is intended to be done in a community of believers (note the similarity between the words, that's on purpose). This fact is of particular significance in your situation. For your mother-in-law...

Communion is:

A reminder that Jesus understands her suffering, can identify with her pain, has felt her fear, and responds with His peace, His joy, and His assurance of eternal life. Further, communion serves as a reminder that she is not alone, but part of a great body of believers in Christ who are praying for her, supporting her, caring for her.

I'm sure there's more, but it's late, and I can't think of anything else. Hug the young'uns for me.


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