Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul

A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.

4. Communion

What is “communion” in the Triune God?

The English word “communion” is one of several possible translations of the Greek word koinonia. It means the mutual sharing of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and life in general.[1]

When we think of communion in this sense, we should begin with the Triune life itself. Communion describes God’s own nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three divine Persons have always existed in inseparable communion with each other. The perichoretic nature of their life together means that they are each sharing with the others the fullness of all that they are. There is no individualism in the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold all things in common with each other, sharing all that they each are with each of the others, and receiving all that they need from the others. As Seamands puts it, “the triune persons are self-actualized not through self-assertion but through self-giving and self-surrender.”[2]

This communion, this communal sharing of life itself, does not obliterate the distinct identity of each person. Each of the divine persons is always distinctly himself, but each one is distinctly himself in freely chosen communion with the others.

The freedom of this communion is an aspect we ought to consider. God’s existence in communion is not compelled. The Father does not force the Son and the Spirit to live in this mutual sharing of life. If he did, it would make him God in a unitarian way, and the other two would be something less than fully powerful. Our affirmation that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each fully God means, hypothetically, that each is fully free to choose to not be in communion.[3] The reason the Trinity will never split apart is not because some “higher” force or law compels the Father, Son, and Spirit to live in communion with each other, but rather because they are each fully good and therefore, because of their good nature, they will never use their freedom to destroy their relationship.

This freely chosen, mutually communal life of the Trinity gives us confidence in the goodness of God. God’s nature is to live in faithful communion and never abandon or turn his back on others. This is the heart of the Triune life, and therefore it is the heart of the life in which we have been included through Jesus. Since we are included, through Jesus, in this kind of good life, we can know with absolute confidence that the Father, Son, and Spirit will never break relationship with us or exclude us from their life. Faithfulness in relationship is God’s eternal nature: the Trinity is an inseparable communion.

Our inclusion in Jesus gives us the second focus for the word communion. Just as the Son has lived, and always will live, in communion with the Father and the Spirit, he has now also taken up a communal life with humanity. As the human Jesus Christ, the Son now lives in communion with humanity and human nature. The Son has entered our humanity, and the result is communion – mutual sharing. In the man Jesus Christ there is now a permanent and full communion between human and divine nature. In Jesus, the Son shares the divine life with humanity and shares human life with divinity. In a similar way that the Father, Son, and Spirit share a communal life with each other, they now share life with humanity.

But there is a problem. We human beings are not capable of fully sharing in this divine life because we are not divine. Jesus includes us in the communion of the Trinity, and so we now also have communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit as Jesus does, yet our response and participation in this communion remains woefully inadequate. Communion means a two-way street. It means mutual communication, mutual sharing, and mutual openness. Yet our human nature – both by its nature as something created and its nature as something fallen – is not capable of this fully mutual sharing. We hold back. We hide, like Adam and Eve in the bushes. Even though the Trinity shares all that he is with us, we hold back from sharing all that we are with him. (Or at least we try to – in actuality, nothing is hidden from God.)

This is where the theology of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ becomes crucial to our understanding of who God is and who we are. Jesus is not just a “speaking God” – he is also a listening human and a responding human, responding on behalf of all humanity.[4] In the communion that the Son has with our humanity, he not only ministers the things of God to humanity, he also ministers the things of humanity to God.[5] As the Divine Man, Jesus carries out for us, on our behalf, our part of the communal relationship.

We might visualize this by imagining a 3-month old infant. The infant is loved and included in the communion of his parents’ marriage. The husband and wife were in communion with each other before the baby was born. After the baby comes into existence, they are still in communion with each other, but now they are also in communion with this new person. Yet the baby’s participation in that communion is lacking. The baby is loved but cannot return love – either in words or even in simple actions like a hug.

One day, the father comes home from work and the mother takes the baby into her arms and goes to the door to meet him. As he comes through the door, she waves the baby’s little arm at his dad and says “Hi, Daddy! I’m glad you’re home, I wuv you vewy much!” The mother’s “vicarious childishness” is expressing and translating the baby’s participation and share in the communion the baby has with the parents.

The vicarious humanity of Jesus is more real, deep, and transformative than this analogy can convey. In Jesus we have a situation more comparable to the mother becoming a baby without ceasing to be who she is as the mother! The communion that God the Son has with our humanity is a communion that means his full and complete participation in our humanity so that he is – and will forever be – both one of us and one of God.

This complete communion with our humanity is necessary because, unlike the baby in the illustration, we are never going to grow up to be capable of participating in the divine communion on our own power. We will grow up to look like Jesus, and we will mature in our life in him, but we will never be able to exist apart from him or be God as God is God. Even in the fullness of our maturity in Jesus, we will always be created persons sharing in the divine life in and through Jesus. It will forever be the Son’s communal sharing of the communion he has with the Father that enables, empowers, and translates our part of the communion we have with the Father. Therefore the Son must remain in eternal communion with our humanity in order to facilitate our eternal communion with the divine nature of the Trinity. He is our mediator.

Communion is first and foremost the Triune God. Second, it is the communion that the Son has with our humanity. Third, it is the communion that our humanity has with the Trinity in and through the humanity of the Son. And fourth, as we will soon see, it also applies to our relationships with one another.

What is Communion as a ceremony in the church?

What is happening when we eat bread and wine together in the church? We are being reminded that God is communion, that communion with the Trinity and each other is the reason for our existence, and most of all we are being reminded that we have this communion because of the body and blood of Jesus.

Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, NRSV). The word “sharing” is a translation of the Greek koinonia; the King James Version used the word “communion,” perhaps influenced by the Latin version, communicatio. The point that Paul was making was that the bread and wine show that we share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are in union with him. And since we participate together, it also shows that we are in fellowship or communion with one another. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17).[6]

Just as baptism shows that we were united with Christ in his death and resurrection, the bread and wine also show that. But as a ceremony that is repeated throughout the Christian life, the focus in Communion is on our current connection with Jesus. Unlike baptism, there is no symbolism to indicate what we used to be.

The bread and wine remind us that we were united to Christ in his death and resurrection – and that union has never ceased. In his crucified, resurrected, and ascended body, Jesus lives forever in communion with our humanity. An exclusive focus on the death of Jesus is therefore an inadequate view of communion.

In the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, there has often been a heavy emphasis on the bread and wine as symbols of Jesus’ death on the cross. The favorite verse was 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The focus was on his death, and the ceremony sometimes had the atmosphere of a funeral. But there is no need to memorialize his death, unless it has continuing significance in our lives.[7] In the commemoration, we are reminded that we are still united with Jesus. Just as we were united with him in his death, so also we are united with him in his resurrected life. We are also pointing toward the future: “until he comes.”[8]

We should practice Communion in a “life based” way that embraces and communicates the meaning of the fullness of Jesus’ eternal life as the one who is fully God and fully human. We have to see how the bread and wine speak to every dimension of Jesus’ existence as the Son of God in flesh and blood, and then use the practices of the church to help us communicate that truth. Here is a Trinitarian, Christ-centered definition of communion:

Communion is a ceremony, given to humanity by Jesus, that pictures the truth that Jesus is in relationship with our humanity through his body and blood, he shares with us the relationship he has with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and through him, we are in communion with one another, as well.

The symbols of Communion point us to Jesus’ human nature as the means by which he shares with us his communion in the divine nature.

We do not have to determine how Jesus is “present” in Communion. The Roman Catholic church has expressed it in terms of “transubstantiation.” This theology says that the Communion ceremony, the mass, changes the substance of the bread into actual flesh and the substance of the wine into actual blood, even though the outward appearance of the two elements remains unchanged. It looks like bread but in its actual substance it is really the flesh of Jesus. The Lutheran view is sometimes called consubstantiation. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, but the substance of Jesus’ body and blood is added to the bread and wine. Both views are articles of faith – there is no physical change to prove or corroborate the spiritual reality.

At the other end of the spectrum is the free-church[9] idea that the bread and wine are “nothing but symbols.” Some denominations reject the rite as completely unnecessary, even for its subjective or psychological value.

Between these extremes is a theology that is sometimes called “Real Presence.” In this way of viewing Communion, people do not seek to define how Jesus is present, but they do not regard Jesus as absent, either. The Real Presence theory embraces the mystery of Jesus saying “this is my body” without trying to define what the word “is” means.[10] Thankfully, our salvation does not depend on believing or teaching one view over the others.

The definition of Communion given above could allow for any of these three understandings of Jesus’ presence – or something between them. The important part of the ceremony is not how we describe it, but that it tells us we are in union with Jesus, because he became a flesh-and-blood human being. It says that our identity as individuals and as a people is connected to the human being named Jesus, who died and rose and is coming again.

Some people are interested in knowing what it means to speak of Jesus’ presence in Communion – especially if they were raised in a tradition, like Catholicism, that has definite ideas on the subject. For that reason, it might be good for you to occasionally explore with your congregation the different ways of understanding Jesus’ presence. You may reach your own conclusion about how you think the process is taking place, but it is probably best not to be too dogmatic about it, as if people cannot be good Christians unless they agree with your particular view. It is possible that we do not fully understand all of the ins and outs of how Jesus is present in Communion.[11]

Communion gives us a concrete picture of what is happening in ministry: Jesus is giving himself to humanity, through his own humanity as a flesh-and-blood human being. In salvation, he does not give us some “thing” – he gives us himself, a relationship with himself. Eternal life is not an eternity on our own (that would be miserable), but an eternity with God. He gives himself to us, and he serves us; his body and blood were given for us.

Communion takes something done every day in the ancient world – eating and drinking – and uses it for a spiritual purpose.[12] Since the elements are food, the appropriate way to show that we receive them is to eat and drink. This does not mean that we have to chew in a particular way, focus on the taste of the wine, or otherwise focus on any culinary details – the point is simply that we receive the bread and wine. The point is not that we eat Christ in a physical way, but that we receive him in a spiritual way. He is our spiritual nourishment, the source of spiritual life. We take the elements into ourselves, but the objective truth is the opposite: Jesus has taken us into himself. He shares his life with us, and we respond to that. In many traditions, the ceremony is called the Eucharist – a Greek word meaning Thanksgiving, and that is certainly the right attitude in which to receive it.

Jesus is giving himself to us, and in Communion, we are participating with him in that ministry. We break the bread, pour the wine, and say some appropriate words, but the real ministry is done by Jesus.

In Communion, as in all areas of ministry, we do not fully understand all the ins and outs of how this works. By the faith of Jesus, which the Holy Spirit communicates to us, we know that everything about our lives is a participation in the communion of the Triune Life, a communion made possible by the Son becoming flesh for our sakes. Sometimes we feel and know with great clarity that our Dad is speaking to us in his Spirit. Other times we feel lost and are not sure how to proceed in our participation. Yet through it all, we know who we are and whose we are – and whose ministry it really is that is bringing humanity into a full and faithful participation in the Trinity.

Practicing Communion through the Christian calendar

Throughout the history of the church, Communion has been viewed as a ministry practiced primarily – or even exclusively – with believers. This perspective is strongest in Christian traditions that have theories of communion that are close to transubstantiation and less strong in traditions that view communion as more symbolic. Most churches require that people be baptized believers before they take communion, but most take no steps to “check up” on people or attempt to enforce this rule in their worship services.[13]

How can Communion strengthen believers in the knowledge of their identity as children of the Father? Instead of viewing Communion exclusively through the lens of Jesus’ death, we want to view it through the lens of his entire life, both as he lived on earth and now lives in heaven. We want to think about how to practice Communion in the light of Jesus’ birth, life, resurrection, and ascension, in addition to thinking about how to practice it in the light of his death on the cross.

The Christian worship calendar can help us organize our thoughts in this regard. During each season of the Christian year, our celebration of Communion can emphasize a different aspect of Jesus’ life and identity as the one who is fully God and fully flesh and blood:

Christmas: A death-based approach would celebrate Communion at Christmas by saying something like this: “This baby was born to die for the sins of humanity.” A life-based approached would say, “God the Son was born in flesh and blood in order to bring our human nature into the life he has with the Father and the Spirit.”

The first approach is, in essence, rushing ahead to Good Friday to connect the bread and wine to the cross. But a Christmas celebration of Communion should be grounded in the words of John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh,” symbolized by the bread of the Christmas communion, “and made his dwelling among us.”) Christmas Communion needs to focus on the way in which the Son has entered into communion with our humanity, so that this aspect of Jesus’ life is not missed.

Epiphany: Jesus was baptized as a representative of all humanity. He had a real body with real blood. By identifying with us in our physical and human nature, he has brought us into communion with the Father and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus, celebrated at Epiphany, points to our communion with the Trinity. In that light, the bread and wine – as reminders of Jesus’ physical body and blood – picture how we are in communion with the Trinity through Jesus’ baptism.

Preparation for Easter: Our fallen human nature says “no” to the Father, and this is our sin problem. From within our fallen human nature – from within a flesh-and-blood body like ours – the Son said “yes” to the Father and “no” to Satan and our fallen nature. By this “yes” he redeemed and transformed what it means to be human. In this light, the Communion elements symbolize the way Jesus’ body and blood is the perfect human response to the love of the Father. Jesus, through his body and blood, is in communion with our human nature and holds us in communion with his divine nature, and thus he shares with us his perfect refusal to sin and his perfect relationship with the Father. The communion bread and wine is a reminder that Jesus, as a human, said “no” to sin for us.

Holy (or Maundy) Thursday: As we commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and his washing of their feet, we are also celebrating Jesus’ institution of the symbols of the bread and wine to represent his human nature. This commemoration is a good time each year to summarize all that the Son’s indwelling of our human nature means: how the bread and wine symbolize the way in which the Son has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, brought our human nature into the Trinity, said “no” to sin and “yes” to the Father on our behalf, crucified our sinful nature, raised up our bodies in his resurrection, and carried humanity into the communion of the Trinity at the Father’s right hand.

Good Friday: On Good Friday, we have good cause to speak of the bread and wine in terms of death. The bread and wine “proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Cor. 11:26). We still want to be careful about how we speak of Jesus’ death. The piercing of his body and the pouring out of his blood on the cross is not to appease an angry Father who will forgive us only if someone is tortured to death. Rather, the crucifixion is the circumcision of our hearts – the cutting away of our sinful human nature (Col. 2:11) – and the victory of Jesus over Satan.

By his death, he set “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). Jesus’ death changed human nature, not the Father’s nature. It was not the Father’s attitude that needed to be changed by Jesus’ death, it was fallen, sinful human nature that needed to be changed.

This is why the bread and wine are symbols of what took place on the cross. By sharing in human nature through his body and blood, the Son shared in the human condition and gave us a share in his divine condition. When Jesus died, we all died with him (2 Cor. 5:14).

Communion on Good Friday is our celebration of how fallen human nature died once, for all time, in the death of Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of the human nature that was crucified in Christ on the cross.

Easter: Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection. As he shares himself with us in his human nature, symbolized by the bread and wine, he shares with us not only his death, but also his resurrection in a glorified body to eternal life. The breaking of bread (i.e. Communion) on Easter is a way in which we recognize the risen Jesus for who he is and who we are in his resurrected human nature (cf. Luke 24:35).

In the same way that the bread and wine showed us on Good Friday how Jesus shares in our death, so now on Easter Sunday the bread and wine show us how he is sharing with us his new life in the resurrection. Jesus shares his resurrection with us in the same way he shares all things with us, by sharing (being in communion) with our human nature – symbolized by the bread that is his body and the wine that is his blood.

The disciples appear to have had trouble wrapping their heads around this, so it is no surprise that we do, too. When he appeared to them after his resurrection, Jesus had to assure them that he was a real human being and not a ghost. He said, “I am flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). This helps us see that when Jesus says “this is my body,” he not only means “this is my body that died on the cross” but also “this is my body now raised from the dead in the glory of the resurrection.” When he says that his body is given for us, he not only means given for us in death, but also given for us in resurrection.

Easter Season lasts 50 days, from Easter to Pentecost. The resurrection of the body is an appropriate theme throughout that season when we take Communion and talk about Jesus’ body and blood.

Ascension Sunday: When the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven as a glorified flesh-and-blood human being, he took human nature into heaven in himself. When Stephen had a vision of heaven, he saw Jesus (“the Son of Man”) standing at the Father’s right hand as a glorified human being (Acts 7:56). This permanent and ongoing union of God the Son with our human nature means that we are also raised up with him and seated in heavenly realms in him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2:6).

Communion in the context of the ascension is therefore a celebration of humanity’s adoption into the Trinity. Because Jesus says “this is my body and my blood,” we know that our humanity is now permanently united to the Trinity in Jesus. We have already ascended to heaven in Jesus’ ascension, and therefore know that our home and our destiny is with the Triune God. The ascended Jesus is our communion with the heavenly life of the Trinity.

Pentecost Sunday: All our celebrations of Communion are about the truth that Jesus’ body and blood, his incarnation and union with humanity, is the means by which our communion with the Father is established. This reality is beyond our comprehension apart from the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent by which we know and believe in our communion with the Father through the Son.

As God the Son, Jesus is always in communion with the Spirit. By sharing with our humanity through his body and blood, the Son shares with us this communion he has with the Spirit. The bread and wine at Pentecost helps us see how Jesus’ humanity enables and makes possible the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all humanity (Acts 2:17).

 

Hopefully these brief descriptions help you see how Communion can be celebrated in each season of the year in connection with what that season represents and without resorting to continual “Good Friday” celebrations of Communion every time it is taken. Taking Communion in a death-based framework every time it is celebrated can have negative consequences. At the least, it is missing out on some of the positive realities that are possible.

As often as you celebrate…

For most of Christian history, and throughout most of the Christian world today, Communion is practiced every week. It is primarily in the free-church, evangelical world that Communion is practiced less often. When you talk with people about why they do not want to celebrate Communion every week, they often say that it will not seem as special if they take it every week. This may have its roots in the death-focused taking of Communion in at least two ways:

First, it is only natural that people do not want to have a funeral for Jesus every Sunday. Funerals are sad. No one wants to be saddened by thinking about Jesus’ death on a weekly basis. Since many people have experienced Communion only as a memorial of the cross, it is hard for them to visualize how Communion can take on different – joyful – themes of Jesus’ life based on what season of the Christian year we are in.

Communion can be a celebration of everything from the birth of a special baby, to baptism, to resurrection, and to ascension. When these aspects are missing from the regular celebration of Communion in the life of a church, the people naturally begin to shy away from Communion. They say “it’s special,” but what they often mean, and do not want to say, is that it is “special” in the sense that it is “especially sad and depressing.”[14]

Second, the death-based celebration of Communion results in worshipers emphasizing their emotional experience. We all know the rush of emotion we feel when contemplating the death of a loved one, or attending a funeral. When Communion is viewed as only a contemplation of Jesus’ death, then we naturally expect to feel something strong and out of the ordinary.

But we do not always have an emotional experience at Communion. We also do not always have an emotional experience in singing songs, praying, or listening to sermons every Sunday. Some weeks are emotionally intense and some weeks are kind of boring. Yet we do not shy away from weekly sermons or songs merely because those acts can sometimes feel routine. A death-focused approach to Communion can cause people to invest it with all sorts of psychological pressure that is not necessary. By emphasizing Communion as only a memorial of Jesus’ death – and nothing more – we fail to recognize that Communion (like other acts of worship, such as singing) will be emotionally satisfying some Sundays and routine and boring on other Sundays; and that is okay. The day it is boring to us, it may be especially meaningful to another member, and vice versa.

This aversion to the weekly celebration of Communion is interesting when you view it from a spiritual perspective. Jesus’ ministry is to give himself to humanity. It is that ministry in which we are participating, and it is that ministry that we also need to receive. Jesus says of the bread and wine, “This is me. This shows my communion with you in my body and my blood.” Communion is an expression of Jesus’ ministry. It is his feeding of his life and resurrection to us. It is his giving of himself to us, the very thing we need more than anything else in the universe. Yet some people say: “Not too much, please. I don’t want to picture that too often.”

You may want to look at the frequency of Communion in your church and think about whether there are good reasons to change. We are free to celebrate it as often – or as infrequently – as we choose. So the question is not, “what do we have to do?” The question is, “what is healthiest for us as believers?”

If you decide that it might be good to increase the frequency of Communion in your church, you would want to proceed slowly:

  1. Help people understand the fullness of all that Communion is – not only as a memorial of Jesus’ death, but as a celebration of his entire existence, and our entire existence in communion with him. The more positive and encouraging the observance is, the more likely that people will want to repeat it.
  2. Help people see that Communion is special because of who Jesus is, and not because we do or do not have a special emotional experience when we celebrate it. In this regard it is just like the rest of the church’s worship – songs, prayers, and sermons.
  3. When the congregation expresses its willingness to try Communion more often, experiment with increasingly frequent times of Communion. Start with every month, if you are not there already, and then go to twice a month. Use a sermon or two to explain the meanings involved in Communion, but don’t make the Communion message itself long and boring. Make one point, be positive, and participate.
  4. Whatever the frequency, make sure that it is understood that Communion is being “offered.” Each person has the freedom to decide whether to participate or not. We are making Communion available for those who would like it frequently and not something required for those who do not want it so often.

Can unbelievers participate?

How do we practice the ministry of Communion with those who do not yet know – or do not yet believe – that they are children of the Father?

Most churches do not allow unbaptized persons to participate in Communion. This is sometimes supported by Paul’s statement that those who take Communion without recognizing the body of Christ “eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29).

A lot has been written on the meaning of this statement, and we will not go over it here. As a general summary, we can note the context in which Paul makes this statement. Nowhere in that chapter does Paul describe a problem with unbaptized people taking Communion. The behavior that he describes as not recognizing Christ’s body is getting drunk and eating up all the food before others get a chance to have any. Not recognizing the body of Christ has nothing to do with baptism and everything to do with drunkenness, selfishness, and disrespect for fellow believers. The “body” that the Corinthians were to discern was the church, not some perception into the mystery of the bread. They were failing to have communion or mutual sharing with one another.

There is no need to create rules that you cannot enforce, such as “If you are not baptized, then don’t take communion.” How could we enforce this for visitors we do not know? Will we stop them before they receive the elements and question them about their baptisms? How would we know they were answering truthfully? We have no practical means of enforcing the rule, and therefore we might as well not have the rule.

If we do not require baptism as a precondition to taking Communion, should we require that people be believers or have some understanding of what Communion is? How strongly must they believe? How much must they know? How do we measure another person’s belief or knowledge? Any attempt to get into people’s heads and measure their “fitness” for communion is going to be nearly impossible.

We do not want to make light of Paul’s warning. However, we should also note Paul’s solution to the problem in verse 28: People should examine themselves, yes, but Paul does not want them to opt out – he wants them to opt in. Examine, yes, and participate, yes. Realize that Christ died for you, that you are in union with him, and that you should receive him with thanksgiving.

The best solution is for the pastor to make clear to all in attendance – baptized, believing, non-believing, visiting, etc. – who Jesus is and what the bread and wine symbolize. In this way they will be enabled to recognize the body of Christ (both the church and the bread) and so make an intelligent decision as to whether they will participate.

In the light of who Jesus is for humanity, there are some reasons to not only allow the unbaptized to come to the Communion table, but to actually welcome them there. Jesus is the one in whom all humanity has been adopted into the life of the Trinity. Whether visitors to the church know it or not, Jesus is their brother and his Daddy is their Daddy. Not only are they welcomed by Jesus to his Father’s table, but it is for them that Jesus has prepared this table in the presence of their enemies. The bread and the wine is the symbol of all that Jesus is for all of us, and to receive that bread and wine is to carry out an action by which we say “yes, Jesus, I want you.”

It can then be seen as a good thing when a person – any person – comes to receive the body and blood of Christ. Jesus is as much for the nonbeliever as he is for the believer. In Christ, there is no “them” and “us” (Eph. 2:14-18). As long as people come to the table in a respectful way, not abusing others as they come, they should be welcomed. We all need Jesus, and if anyone wants to receive him through Communion, they should be encouraged to do so and instructed, through the sermon and the words said at the Communion table, about what it means for them to receive the body and blood of Christ.

We should also comment briefly about the participation of children. Everything we said about the unbaptized also applies to unbaptized or unconfirmed children. In addition to the comments about nonbelievers, we can also speak of children as believers who are experiencing belief through their relationship with their parents, their family, and their church. Even small children can be taught to know that the bread and wine represent Jesus. They will not fully understand what that means – but, then, neither do we! As long as children take Communion in a respectful way, they should be welcomed to the table.

We all know the story of Jesus’ disciples trying to erect barriers to prevent people from bringing little children to him. In contrast to the disciples’ policy of barrier building, Jesus said “do not hinder them, let them come.” Jesus’ approach applies both to those who are literally children and to those who, although physically adults, are spiritually children in their faith. Our commission from Jesus is to not hinder them but to let them come to him. If Jesus is present in any way at the Communion table, then letting children come to Jesus has to include Communion. If Jesus is not really present there, and it is only a symbol, then it does not matter who comes, because it is only a symbol. Either way, we ought to welcome the immature to the table.

How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through communion?

Body: Like baptism, Communion is a ministry that engages the body. When it comes to our understanding of our communion with him, his Father, and the Spirit, Jesus wants our whole person engaged in the process. By giving us this bodily action in which we participate, Jesus is maximizing the chance that we will remember and internalize the reality of how we are in communion with the Trinity through him.[15] The best way to make a lesson memorable is to engage a person’s mind and soul along with various senses of the body. As with baptism, this helps us see why Communion should be an important part of our ministries. Communion is the Christ-created methodology for maximizing the chances that we will internalize the message of our communion with the Trinity, and each other, through Jesus.

The bread and wine engage all five senses: we smell them, see them, touch them, taste them, and hear them as we crunch and drink them. Since the bread and wine engage all five senses, we ought to try to make it a pleasant experience. The Bible does not specify what kind of bread we should use – whether leavened or unleavened. In Western Christianity, we traditionally use unleavened bread. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, they traditionally use leavened bread. Since we have freedom on the matter, it might be helpful to use different kinds of bread during different seasons of the year. During the season before Easter we might use unleavened bread because of its symbolism in Scripture to the absence of sin. During Easter we might use leavened bread to symbolize how Jesus is risen (get it? bread that has risen) and how Jesus is the new leaven of a new life for humanity. Either way, we can bake or choose bread that tastes good, so the taste experience reinforces the truth that Jesus is good and pleasant. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). If someone in the congregation is willing to bake the bread, it can be made with sugar and butter so it tastes delicious.

The issue of wine that smells and tastes good can be an amusing – or frustrating – experience for a congregation. Wine connoisseurs will want something complex (and generally expensive), while people with simpler tastes will probably want something sweeter and with less alcohol. In most congregations, cheap and sweet is probably the preference of the majority. It is also good to provide the alternative of grape juice at every Communion. Some people should not drink alcohol because of addictions, and others need to avoid it for personal conscience or because of medications they may be taking. Or to make it simpler, you may choose to have grape juice only.[16]

In some churches, trays of bread and wine are passed to the people. That is appropriate if it is difficult for people to move around. It also makes it less conspicuous for a person who wishes to abstain. In other churches, people come forward to the table and receive the elements. In either case, it can be helpful to have everyone wait, and take the bread and wine at the same time. This can symbolize congregational unity, the point that Paul made in 1 Corinthians 10:17. We are connected to each other through our union with Christ. We are each individuals, receiving the body and blood, but we are also a family who eats together.[17]

There is a long tradition of connecting Communion with healing – healing in body, mind, and soul. Ancient Christians sometimes called Communion the “medicine of immortality” or “the antidote to death.”[18] By his communion with our flesh and blood, the Son of God brings healing to our whole selves: body, mind, and soul. Whether we experience that healing through natural processes in our bodies, through the ministry of health-care professionals, or miraculously by Jesus’ intervention (either his intervention now or at the day of our resurrections), the indwelling of the Son in our flesh and blood means that we are healed and we are promised immortality.

It can be good to take time during Communion to pray for and anoint those who are sick or struggling in life. There are several ways it could be done. For example, we can invite those who need prayer to step aside as they come through the line to receive the elements. Someone can be standing there ready to lay hands on and pray for those who request it. If the prayers need more time than it takes for the congregation to go through the line and receive the elements, the worship music can continue until the prayers are done. Once everyone has received their bread and wine, and everyone who needs prayer has been prayed for, the congregation can then take the bread and wine together.

Mind: The words we speak in connection with Communion can have a profound impact on what people think about Jesus. Since our minds are fallen and darkened in their thinking about Jesus, it is vital that we use words at Communion that promote the renewing of our minds and that help us bring erroneous thoughts into captivity. The bodily impact of the bread and wine means that the thoughts we have during this experience will be reinforced in our minds.

As with baptism, there is little that “must” be said in conjunction with Communion. Traditionally, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper – called the “words of institution” – have been regarded as the minimum. The Mark and Matthew version is different in detail than the Luke and Paul version, but there are elements they all have in common. We can lift a piece of the bread (or gesture toward it) and say, “Jesus said, ‘this is my body.’” We can lift a cup of wine and say, “Jesus said, ‘this is my blood.’” We usually say more – that Jesus has given himself to us, and we have forgiveness, reconciliation, and fellowship with God through what Jesus did.

It has also been regarded as essential that a prayer of blessing should be said, thanking the Father for the gift of his Son and asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate us to the truth that is spoken to us by Jesus in the bread and the wine.

It is natural that we want to say more. We want to be sure that the people we are ministering to have correct thoughts about who Jesus is while they are receiving the bread and wine. We should say a little more, not a lot more. When Communion becomes so lengthy and involved that it feels like a second worship service, or a second message, then we lose the continuity between songs, prayers, sermon, and communion. A Christian worship service includes all four of these elements. If a 30-minute sermon has been given, there is no need to spend 15 minutes talking about Communion. A one- to three-minute summary statement is sufficient. That summary should connect the point made about Jesus during the sermon with the bread and the wine. Here are a couple of examples:

At a Christmas service you might say: “We have seen that God the Son became flesh and made his dwelling among us. So, when Jesus took bread [lift bread] and said ‘this is my body’ and when he took wine [lift wine] and said ‘this is my blood,’ he was telling us that he has made his dwelling in our human nature and now our dwelling is in him.”

At an Easter Sunday service you might say: “The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus when he broke the bread. When Jesus says ‘this is my body’ [lift bread] and ‘this is my blood’ [lift wine], we also have the opportunity to recognize him, and we recognize ourselves as united with him, in this broken bread.”

In thinking about the order and organization of the Communion service, you should follow the guidelines of your denomination. You can see the GCI ceremony at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/.

Soul: As with baptism, the actions and words of Communion can be conducted in such a way as to bathe the souls of the congregation in assurance or in anxiety. The Holy Spirit is speaking to their souls about the communion they have with the Father in Jesus. If we speak – by words and actions – of this same communion, then we are in step with the Spirit, and the souls of those we minister to will be confirmed and strengthened in their Father’s love for them. On the other hand, we can go to war against the Spirit[19] and leave people confused and doubtful about their Father’s love.

The ministry of Communion to the soul is simple. It is all about who Jesus is, and how he is totally for humanity, on our side, and sharing with us the communion of the Trinity. Any way of conducting Communion that leaves people feeling that our communion with God hinges on what they need to do is wrong and spiritually abusive. Some pastors think they are getting this sort of thing from 1 Corinthians 11, but the Bible was not written to contradict the person of Christ, who wants to save us rather than condemn us. If we find ourselves quoting the Bible and talking about ideas that contradict Jesus’ identity as the union of the Trinity and humanity, then we are misunderstanding and misusing the Bible.

As you prepare to preach and lead Communion – however often you do it – let the Holy Spirit fill you with the assurance of the communion Jesus has given you with your Daddy in heaven. Let go of the self-righteous and legalistic burdens that others may have laid on you in the past and embrace the rest that is found in the fullness of who Jesus is, and in how much Jesus is for you and on your side, and in how he has included you completely and forever in his life. Let the Holy Spirit block from your mind the thoughts about human works and performance that can so easily make us think that we are “unworthy” of receiving Jesus in the bread and wine.

Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill you with his confidence, and the faith of Jesus, so that you not only stop shrinking back from the throne of grace but begin to run towards it with boldness (Hebrews 4:16.) The attitude that we are asking the Spirit to give us – and to give to our congregations – is the attitude that 5-year olds have when they know their favorite meal is being served. All their moms have to say is “supper’s ready!” and they come running to the table, jump up in a chair, and say “can I start eating?” We are the beloved children of the Father; his Son has set this table especially for us; and his Spirit has said “supper’s ready.”

Now we come running to the Lord’s table.



[1] F. Hauck, “Koinos,” pages 447-450 in Kittel and Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume. We capitalize Communion when it refers to the Lord’s Supper; we use lowercase to indicate a mutual sharing in other ways.

[2] Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, 81.

[3] Of course, none of the three would ever do that. By their nature as good, none of the three persons of the Trinity would ever make the not good choice to “secede” from the Trinity. It is difficult for us to use our concept of being “free” when it comes to God. Nothing is free to be something not in its nature, because its nature is a description of what it is.

[4] Purves, Crucifixion, 81.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 41, paraphrasing Athanasius of Alexandria in Against the Arians, 3.39f; 4.7f.

[6] There are limits to the symbolism — people in Rome and Corinth do not eat the same bread, yet are one in Christ. We illustrate our unity by participating in the same ceremony.

[7] In the same way, the Israelites had Passover as a memorial of the past, but the past had meaning precisely because it had meaning for the present. The God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt was the God who still had a purpose for his people, who could rescue them from other forms of slavery, including national exile and on a personal level, bondage to sin.

Paul mentions the Lord’s Supper only in 1 Corinthians, and only because it had become a problem in the church in Corinth. He does not give a complete theology of the ceremony, just as none of the passages on baptism gives a complete picture. We must fill in the gaps.

[8] Joseph Tkach points out past, present, and future aspects of the Lord’s Supper in “The Three-Fold Meaning of the Lord's Supper,” https://archive.gci.org/articles/the-three-fold-meaning-of-the-lords-supper/.

[9] The “free churches” are those that are free from state control. They are generally less liturgical, less ceremonial, although most have unofficial rituals of their own. In some cases their practices were a conscious repudiation of state-church practices.

[10] “Jesus also said that the cup was the new covenant in his blood. He was not concerned about the actual cup. He used the word ‘cup’ to refer to the wine inside the cup. It was a figure of speech. And the wine itself wasn’t the new covenant. Jesus was speaking figuratively. He did not say that the wine was his blood” (“Question & Answers About the Lord’s Supper,” https://archive.gci.org/articles/question-answers-about-the-lords-supper/.

[11] Jesus is always present, but we feel his presence in different ways. He may be present in a significantly different way when he is preached, when good works are done, when we study Scripture, when we are seriously ill, or when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. People have different subjective reactions to these different settings, and there may be an objective difference behind our perceptions.

[12] Some have attempted to specify how Jesus’ body conveys a distinctly different meaning than his blood, but this seems to be dividing something that was meant to be taken together. When Jesus became a human, he took on blood at the same time as he took on a body, and when he gave himself for us on the cross, the body and blood were essentially given at the same time. One is not spiritual while the other is physical – both are physical. It is a figure of speech called hendiadys – literally, “one through two.” One idea, expressed in two words, such as “heaven and earth.” The Lord’s Supper is one meal, one ceremony, not two. “Body and blood” means all of Jesus, without any attempt to designate different roles for different parts.

[13] Unfortunately, churches with a “high” view of the presence of Christ are the most likely to practice “closed Communion.” People may take the elements only if they are members of that particular denomination. This symbolizes division rather than unity.

[14] It is an odd idea that “special” things should be rare. We do not restrict how frequently we touch our spouse based on the idea that this will make touching more special. One analogy might be that baptism corresponds to a wedding, done once, but Communion corresponds to regular interactions with our spouse.

[15] Sadly, many people throughout church history have participated in Communion weekly but did not understand their Father’s love for them. They lived in fear, partly because church leaders used Communion as a gate controlled by the leaders, and partly because they had hijacked the meaning of the ritual to serve their own concepts of God. The physical act of Communion is not a magic pathway to spiritual maturity. It must be accompanied by teaching about its meaning.

[16] In some nations, grape juice and wine are scarce and expensive, and can therefore unwittingly contradict one element of the symbolism: Jesus was taking ordinary food and drink to make it represent himself. He is the basic nutrition – not the exotic luxury – that we need. In some cases, it may be best to use food and drink that is more a customary part of the diet.

Red wine can symbolize blood better than white wine can, but it is not biblically required. “Body and blood” is a figure of speech for the whole person; it is not necessary to duplicate colors of specific parts of the person.

[17] Another method that can convey this symbolism is eating from the same loaf. Rather than one person breaking the bread for everyone involved, each person tears off a small piece of the loaf. Some churches also have a common cup – there is only one large bowl of wine. The people do not drink directly from the bowl – they dip one end of the bread into the wine. Thus everyone can see that they are sharing in the same loaf and the same cup.

[18] See for example Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 20.

[19] One way that pastors fight against the Spirit when leading Communion is by talking about our “responsibilities” with regard to Communion. These speeches can run the gamut from short jabs to long diatribes. Some are lectures about “examining yourself” and being sure you are repentant; others are guilt trips about evangelism and saving people from hell.