Here's an old essay of mine published in the November 1999 edition of Table Talk.
One of the earliest “church manuals” we possess includes a model prayer to be made over the communion bread: “As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (the Didache, c. A.D. 100).
This powerful symbolism—of innumerable grains harvested, mixed together, and baked into one loaf—delightfully combines the biblical imagery of God’s people as grain producing plants (Matt. 13:26; Mark 4:28-29; John 12:34; 1 Cor. 15:37), the harvest of the Gospel throughout history and at the Last Day (Luke 10:2; Rev. 14:15), and the Body of Christ as a loaf of bread (1 Cor. 10:17).
We glimpse here in this ancient prayer a dimension of the early church’s understanding of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we modern Protestant Christians need to recover. Our fathers understood this rite to be a Sacrament of unity and ecclesiastical community. When the church takes, gives thanks for, then breaks and distributes the communion bread she becomes what the Father has called her out of the world to be—a unified community Spiritually united to her Lord, Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, since the Reformation at least, the communal dimensions of the Lord’s Supper have been buried beneath a heap of metaphysical polemics about the location of the humanity of Christ in relation to the elements of bread and wine. Too many Protestants think that they comprehend the meaning of the Sacrament when they come to firm intellectual convictions about the various erroneous answers given to this narrow question. While I do not slight the importance of this question, as pastor I wonder if the devil has not fanned the flames of this debate in order to see the grains once again scattered to the hills. The Sacrament of unity itself has become the source of disunity and ecclesiastical schism.
Without sidestepping or belittling theological issues, it seems that the authors of the New Testament, including our Lord himself, were more interested in doing the Supper, than in theorizing about it. Jesus did not say, “Think about this” or “Meditate on this” or even “Theologize about this.” He said, “Do this.” Similarly, the Apostle Paul’s only extended discussion of the Lord’s Supper arises not on account of the Corinthian church’s sacramentology, but because the people were eating and drinking in a manner unworthy of the Meal. They were not ritually doing the Supper as a unified church. They failed to “discern” or “prove” the unity of the Body of Christ in their manner of eating (1 Cor. 11:29, 33).
According to Paul, our relationship with and opinion of Jesus Christ is directly related to our opinion of and relationship with his church. And our relationship with the local church is formed not only by listening to the sermon or thinking truthful theological thoughts, but also by joining in the common meal and eating and drinking with the Body of Christ. The 19th century unbelieving philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach came very close to this with his maxim “you are what you eat.” We might tweak it a bit to get a more biblical dictum: “Who you are is revealed in how you eat” and also conversely “how you eat constitutes who you are.”
The unity of the church is not merely something we claim by faith every week when we sit at the common Table, it is also something we become every week as we eat the bread and drink the wine together. When we join our voices together with the gathered assembly in prayer, confession, singing, eating, and drinking we are weekly reconstituted by the Spirit as the Body of Christ, the very tangible public presence of God’s saving activity in the world.
Sadly, in evangelical Protestantism’s practice, we have too often reduced the Lord’s Supper to a means of providing mental stimulus for individual religious meditation. It is thought by many to be just another opportunity to exercise personal, private devotions at church. To some extent, the way we practice the Supper encourages this. Everyone closes their eyes, turns inward, and mediates privately. The corporate, communal dimension of the Sacrament gets smothered beneath what in effect becomes an opportunity for personal quiet time in church. There is, of course, room for silence during the rite of Communion, but there is so much more going on than merely private devotions with the visual aids of bread and wine. Surely the food on the Table is not merely God’s flannel graph for adults.
I was delighted to hear one of my parishioners explaining to a group of parents his way of disciplining his children when they were at each other’s throats during the evening family meal: “Is that the way you would act at the Lord’s Table?” This father’s rebuke is designed to remind his children that the common ritual of the Lord’s Supper establishes the way they ought to act toward one another at home and in the world as Christians. This is exactly right.
What we do at the Lord’s Table ought to form us into a particular kind of community—a community of sacrificial love united to one another in Jesus our Savior. The Didache, making explicit what the Scriptures teach, insists on the necessity of reconciling any fellow Christians who might be at variance with each other before they could eat the Lord’s Supper together. The unity of the church as the Body of Christ, symbolized in the one loaf, must not be violated by personal disputes among the members of the local body as well as formal ecclesiastical schisms in the larger communion of the saints.
If our faithful eating and drinking of the Supper means this much, then it ought to have a prominent, regular place in our assembling on the Lord’s Day. For the early church, it was never an optional ritual. Neither was the Supper celebrated occasionally in special services. Since the unity and community of both the local and universal church was something central to her existence, something that ought to characterize her normal, ordinary life in the world, the Sacrament of Communion would also have to be part of the every-week routine of the gathered church.
The Apostle Paul indicates that the church “comes together” precisely to eat the Lord’s Supper and that in a openly unified way (1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33, 34). The more we faithfully do the Lord’s Supper, the more we will experience the communal dimensions of the Sacrament, indeed, the community-forming nature of the ritual meal. Only then will the concrete oneness that our Lord petitioned the Father for be realized in the Church “in order that the world may believe” (John 17:23). After all, as Reformation Christians we do confess the Sacrament as a means of grace! The Lord of the harvest earnestly desires to gather his scattered grains together into one loaf, and all for the life of the world.