Communion—a brief historical/theological summary

Eastern Mennonite Seminary provides this reflection written by former professor Sara Wenger Shenk for use in public settings such as worship, Bible studies or Sunday school. Please give credit to the author when using this work.

The Lord’s Supper is an important experiential ritual, potentially “the most profound and formative symbol” we have, revealing what we believe about grace, the church, and our mission in the world. Rituals are important because they are participatory; within corporate worship, they are our theology incarnate. Bread and wine are just that—bread and wine; but in a mysterious way, as we share them together, we participate in the reality of the Spirit.

The Anabaptist’s dramatic move to differentiate themselves as a new community of faith was not a political or theological declaration, but a liturgical act. Their most provocative critique of the existing order wasn’t a document but a ceremony—baptism. And with the Lord’s Supper, as with baptism, they were concerned that the rituals used in corporate worship not become a substitute for inner faith—but rather that outward sign and inner vitality be held together with seamless integrity. There is no uniform theology of the Lord’s Supper among early Anabaptists though seeing it as an act of remembrance and thanksgiving for Jesus’ saving sacrifice was for them, a central dimension of communion.

Throughout history, the ritual, variously called The Lord’s Supper, communion, Eucharist, breaking bread, the Lord’s Table, has had a multiplicity of meanings and expressions for Anabaptists and for others, often being used to express something of critical importance for a particular people at a particular time. Anabaptist communities have sometimes tended toward perfectionism, which contributed toward dread of taking communion unworthily. Some have had a minimalist understanding of the supper as “a mere symbol” or “only a human act of remembering” which may come more from science’s suspicion of the miraculous than from the Reformation tradition. Sometimes the “gateway” to the Lord’s Table required legalistic conformity, resembling a day of judgment more than an opportunity to receive grace and forgiveness.

The New Testament offers no pristine theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper; eucharistic patterns are based on traditions which involve interpretation of Scripture; many churches build their rites on a collage of various texts. The revolutionary biblical insight that changed more recent ecumenical and Mennonite eucharistic theology was that the meaning of communion wasn’t exhausted by Jesus’ Last Supper. The meals Jesus held during his ministry and after his resurrection became an essential part of the church’s understanding of the “breaking of bread.” Many of Jesus meal encounters were “wildly inclusive affairs: he ate and drank with sinners; they were also acts of justice: he fed the hungry.” This awareness established a link between the Lord’s Table and mission. In the early church, believers met for the breaking of bread as often as they could; the meal was the bond of their unity; they gathered to break bread together and scattered to offer that “bread” to the world. Outsiders were invited in. The “supper” was a participation not only in Jesus’ death, but also an encounter with his living presence.

Traditionally, for heirs of the Anabaptists, participation in communion follows baptism. Mennonite Church USA links them in its Confession of Faith and Minister’s Manual, but many of its mission minded churches encourage a Lord’s Table that is open to others.

Central theological affirmations

Jesus Table—a table of welcome, hospitality and mission:

Sharing the Supper in the presence of Jesus and others evokes grave gratitude, a somber joy and a renewed commitment to our Lord and one another. Even more, at the Lord’s Table, in the company of others, we receive by a mystery beyond our grasp, a grace of forgiveness and a re-union with Christ himself. Coming to the Table is a means to encourage faith and renew commitment rather than a reward for faith achieved.

The Table—where grace is offered and makes its claim:

Grace alone saves us, but “grace always makes a claim” on our lives: it wants conflict to be overcome and relationships to be made right such that God’s reign might come on earth. All who are willing to be changed, who are drawn to the company of Jesus of Nazareth, and are committed to follow him, are welcome at his Table. Accepting his gracious invitation to fellowship entails a commitment to follow after him, to walk in his way of non-violence and peace, and to carry the cross of discipleship. At the Table, disciples break the bread and share the cup in the presence of the Lamb of God. Partaking in the Supper celebrates and participates in the reconciliation brought about by Christ.

The Table—where we experience unity in the midst of diversity:

Communion at the Table is a unifying ritual that invites us into renewed solidarity despite our differences. Believers who break bread and share the cup in the power of the Holy Spirit, recommit ourselves to our essential unity, in Christ. In the breaking of bread, our community is recreated; we identify ourselves as disciples with a common Lord.

The Table—where we remember—and so much more:

There is evidence for multiple symbolisms surrounding the Supper in the New Testament. If there is one simple core theme, one steady, continuous beat, it is a call to solidarity in our remembrance of Jesus self-sacrificial love, a pivotal event in the great history of redemption. But the Lord’s Supper, while rooted in the past; is commemorated in the here and now, and directs our way into the future. We look back to the Upper Room, but we also look forward to the banquet of the kingdom, a foretaste of the great feast. And our remembering evokes a variety of expressions depending on the time of the church year and the nature of our present need. A regular rhythm of remembering evokes at any given moment in real time—thanksgiving; or confession, forgiveness and restoration; or re-union with Christ and each other; or a mystical empowerment; a solemn memorial of death or a joy-filled celebration of resurrection.

Comments drawn primarily from John Rempel and others in Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology—Communion; also from Eleanor Kreider in Communion Shapes Character and from conversations at Community Mennonite Church among Ray Hurst, pastor, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, Christian Early, Brent Hershey, Ben Wyse, Sara Wenger Shenk; synthesized by sws, Oct 2004