Alec Goldberg, Israel Director
Like other practices, the order of the Communion service differs from one Christian denomination to another, and here in Israel from one congregation to another. Who can participate in it, who can minister it, and under what conditions? How often should we celebrate it? Most importantly, what is Communion? What do we believe about the bread, the wine and the meaning of this rite? But before we get into the subject, let me ask you: can we discuss these things openly, calmly and respectfully?
You might reply with the following questions: “Why not? What are you afraid of?”. To be honest, the only thing I am really afraid of is unnecessarily offending my fellow believers. And let me assure you, that’s not my intention.
In fact, the risk of people taking offense is why the suggestion to write about Communion was quickly followed by the advice to “simply stick to what the Bible says”. The implication was that, as our shared foundation, the Bible is as unambiguous as basic arithmetic. People don’t debate the intended meaning of “two plus one equals three”, because whether apples, houses, or shekels are involved, the resulting answer is unequivocally the same number. However, many Biblical passages are challenging in at least two ways. Firstly, they were addressed to audiences in the Old and early New Testament eras that had the cultural background knowledge which we contemporaries sometimes lack. The original audiences could understand most of these passages without the help of the Biblical research tools which today’s believers often need. Secondly, biblical authors and personalities occasionally didn’t make sense, even to their immediate audiences. Jesus’ disciples, for example, often found His teachings incomprehensible (cf. Matt. 15:16; Luke 9:45; 18:34 [NIV]), if not outright offensive (John 6:60), and Paul’s epistles were perceived to be “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). If Paul was too sophisticated for Peter, there is little wonder that I find Paul ungraspable to me, on occasion.
So the request to simply stick with the Bible sounded funny, and we had a good laugh about it. Still, I do want to honor the request by focusing on two passages which explicitly relate to Communion, specifically 1 Cor. 10:14-22 and Luke 22:17-20. Two sources influenced my understanding about them: a commentary on 1 Corinthians and a book by a Russian Orthodox priest.
Writing for an Evangelical publisher, the commentator unfortunately denounced the conclusion to which his own textual analysis had led him. Why? Well, the conclusion – Communion is a sacrifice – was very un-Evangelical.
“What?! Are you a secret Roman Catholic in a Messianic Jewish sheep’s clothing? Do you believe that Jesus re-sacrifices Himself during Communion? By any chance, do you also worship Mary?”
The latter three questions are to be anticipated from Israel’s Messianic body, while the last two misrepresent Catholic theology. My answer to all of them is, “No”, but I do see Communion as a sacrifice. Perhaps “offering” is more applicable than “sacrifice”, though; let me explain why.
Worship at the Table
In 1 Cor. 10:14-22, Paul contrasts Communion with an idol feast. The juxtaposition of the two points to a common denominator. A person may contrast good apples with rotten ones, or red apples with green ones (i.e., all are apples); apples with oranges (i.e., all are fruit); but not apples with houses. Additionally, the use of the Greek terms koinonia – “participation, being a part of” – and koinonos – “participant, partaker” – is highly indicative; they are applied to Communion in verse 16, and to an idol feast in verse 20. So what does Communion have in common with an idol feast? Fundamentally, both are a sacrificial meal.
That notion is totally foreign to many of us. Like Evangelical Christians, most Israeli Messianic believers worship in places with a pulpit at the center, not an altar. The offering plate (which is associated with a worshiper bringing a visible and tangible offering to his/her God) is probably the only modern example that we have ever seen in our services. However, altar offerings were routine among the ancient Israelites. Israel had God’s altar in the Temple; the pagans had altars and shrines for idols. In verses 18-21, Paul shows the invisible dynamics of visible altar worship, along with the common denominator in both idol feasts and the Lord’s Supper.
He begins by pointing to Israel (“Consider the people of Israel: . . .” v. 18a), but after indicating the spiritual principle at work – “. . . those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?” (v. 18b, emphasis mine), Paul immediately applies it to idol worship (“Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s Table and the table of demons.” vv. 19-21, emphasis mine). Obviously, in spite of their great difference, Paul could only do that if the underlying principle was the same in both settings. Paul writes that by eating a sacrificial meal, a person not only fills his/her stomach, but he/she also becomes a “participant with” the object of a person’s worship, be it the Lord, or demons disguised as idols.
Because of the Temple’s centrality in ancient Jewish worship, Paul’s view of Communion as a sacrificial meal shouldn’t surprise us. His epistles make clear that the Temple analogies informed Paul’s understanding about Jesus’ death, along with his approach to the life of a believer and minister of the Gospel. Even if we are less familiar with the aforementioned case; in addition to 1 Cor. 10, refer to Rom. 12:1; 15:16; Phil. 2:17; 4:18; and 2 Tim. 4:6.
Of course, accepting such a view about the Lord’s Supper raises questions, and I readily admit that I don’t have all the answers. My second source – Fr. Alexander Borisov’s book, Fields Ripe for the Harvest – was no less helpful in my search than the commentary. Below is my summary of the main points from the passage in which Fr. Alexander deals with Communion; his own text (which I have translated into English) follows the article as an Appendix.
Communion: A Russian not-quite-Orthodox View
Firstly, like the Passover Supper, Communion is a covenant meal. Humans are created to be intimately united with their Creator, and the Bible frames that union in covenantal terms. A sacrifice is a part of a standard procedure of cutting a covenant, and the blood of the sacrificial animal played a key role in establishing the covenantal union.
Secondly, when God established the New Covenant, He provided the sacrifice. The New Covenant was established through Jesus’ own blood and sacrifice, not with any sacrifice that we offer to God.
Thirdly, Communion is a way for us to remember Jesus. Again, He established it that way, not us. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, He spoke the “words of institution” over the bread and the cup, and gave the commandment to remember Him in such a manner (Luke 22:17-20).
Fourthly, Jesus’ words about His body and blood were never intended to be taken literally. The traditional understanding of Communion as eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus is a product of the Church’s disengagement from its Judaic roots. We eat bread, not Jesus’ physical body, and drink the fruit of the vine, not His blood.
Fifthly, the sacrifice God accepts from us in Communion is bread and wine. Compared to some of the more sophisticated sacrifices of the Tanakh, these two elements are very basic. Yet, when Jesus connects them to His own sacrifice, they are elevated to the level of the highest possible offering that creatures can offer to their Creator.
To non-Protestants, the fourth point may come across as quite challenging. Fr. Alexander’s argument (please refer to the Appendix) seems plausible to me, and I would like to strengthen it with one additional observation from the Book of Acts. In chapter 10, Peter is sent to Cornelius. One implication of this mission was table fellowship with Gentiles (people who were, by Jewish standards, unclean). Peter was initially unwilling to go (perhaps he foresaw the controversy described in 11:2-3), but later went. Why did he go? Well, God “struck a preemptive visit” with Peter, and told him in no uncertain terms to change his mind about the matter. He convinced Peter that although the halakha forbids such fellowship due to perceived uncleanness of the Gentiles, Peter “should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Now, if that is the level of God’s respect for an unwritten norm held by His apostle, how much more seriously does He regard adherence to the written Torah commandments? The Torah prohibits eating blood; however, the New Testament references no discussion about the meaning of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.
Proponents of the traditional view often point to the priority of the literal meaning (e.g., “If Jesus said that bread is His body, then it is His physical body.”). Well, Jesus also said that He is the door for the sheep (cf. John 10:7), and the vine (cf. 15:1). How can a door be identical to a vine with fruit-bearing branches? While the literal meaning is usually considered first, in some cases, it is clearly not the intended meaning.
Invitation to Real Intimacy
Another common concern among the traditionalists is the content of John 6:53b-56 (“Very truly I tell you, 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 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.”).
Verse 63a (“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.”) clarifies that Jesus never meant His own flesh and blood as physical nourishment for our eternal life. And after some of Jesus’ disciples were offended by his “difficult statement” (v. 60) and left, Peter explains his decision to stick with the Messiah, saying “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (v. 68b). Scripture speaks about the Word being the primary way to feed on God. So what did Jesus mean, and why did He express Himself in a way that gave offense to so many?
He meant that, if I am to have eternal life (i.e., the life of God, Himself), I am to adhere to Him – to God in human flesh – closer than I adhere to anyone else on Earth. I am to make Him my teacher in everything, and “learn to live my life as he would live it if he were I” (D. Willard). I am to imitate Him as my supreme example in all I think, feel, will, say, and do. If I am to share His own life (i.e., the human expression of God’s own life), His inner dispositions, mindset, and outward behavior patterns can and should be increasingly reproduced in me.
If I were Jesus, perhaps I would express this idea by saying, “I am the air you are to breathe”. But the story’s context is food, not air. Jesus’ audience seeks Him because of another food multiplication miracle, not because of who He is. When Jesus is around, the food is free, Hallelujah! Let’s make him our king! (Please reference v. 15.) Was that plot coincidental? Not at all. Over and over again throughout the Gospels, and especially in John, Jesus encounters and addresses the materialistic mindset of his contemporaries. And to say that He doesn’t like this mindset is to say nothing.
Jesus is neither a gnostic, nor a materialist. Yet His audience is dead set on the material and the external! So, in another attempt to shake them out of this “stinking thinking”, at least for a moment, He presents Himself as nourishment for eternal life in all-too-familiar terms of food and drink, but takes them to an offensive extreme. “You want life, not death? Great choice, Rabbi Moses is proud of you! Life depends on nourishment. You’ve lived long enough to figure out that great truth!” (The sarcasm in my paraphrase is far behind the Biblical prophetic one, so please bear with it for a moment.) “Now, how about real life and real nourishment? Well, it’s right here, in my body! So if you’re really after life, go ahead, eat my flesh and drink my blood! Isn’t that what you do with food – make it a part of your system by consuming it?! So, now make me a part of your system!”
Participating in His Presence and Power
How exactly, then, are the bread and wine connected to Jesus’ body and blood? I don’t know. Moreover, I don’t think I can know much about that. But what I do believe is that this connection is very real and powerful. Why? Because Jesus instituted it Himself, and commanded us to continue observing the meal. If He is present when two or three are gathered together in His name, imagine how much more He is present when we break bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him and of the great “exodus” (Luke 9:31), which He accomplished in Jerusalem.
My best analogy here is water baptism. By going down under the water and coming up again, I declare to creation that I identify with Jesus in his death and resurrection. But this identification is not merely symbolic; instead, “. . . baptism . . . saves . . .” (1 Pet. 3:21). That is, it conveys God’s power that enables me to daily lay down my old nature, and put on my new one. I remember my baptism so vividly because it was such a powerful experience! Likewise, when Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (NKJV), I do it in faith, believing that as I eat the bread and drink the wine, God Himself draws me closer to Jesus and his Body, the Ecclesia. Speaking of the Church, its 2,000-year-old history abounds with testimonies of miracles that took place during Communion. Talk about God’s presence and power in the Lord’s Supper!
I am sure this view of Communion is far from being perfect. However, what matters most, I believe, is not the level of perfection of our theology, but the level of faithfulness as we live it out. May the Lord help us be faithful to what we know to be true.
“The liturgy is a memorial of Jesus’ last meal with His disciples at which the greatest attention was given not to the Passover lamb cooked in a special way in order to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, but to things most basic: bread and wine. Jesus instructed the disciples to keep repeating that meal – to break bread and drink wine from a shared cup as a remembrance of him, the Son of Man in whom God came to us humans in such an amazing way. From this moment on, animal sacrifices became unnecessary. They belonged to the ancient tradition of ritual meals in which a part of the animal was burned, i.e. symbolically given to God; and the other part was eaten by the participants. The animal’s blood was used to sprinkle the altar on which God was invisibly present, and the people who brought the sacrifice. The people and God would thus become close relatives, blood kinsmen, while the sacrifice would be a joint meal of God and men who celebrated this entry into intimacy with the Maker of heaven and earth.
From now, on all of that is unnecessary. God is making the New Covenant with men. No longer do we people bring something to God. Indeed, what can we bring to the One who created everything? Rather, through Jesus, it is God himself who speaks to us about bread and wine that this is his body and this is his blood. He himself chooses this as the best sacrifice from our hands… the notional emphasis here is not on the words ‘bread’ and ‘blood’ in their earthly literal meaning to which we are accustomed, but on the word ‘this’. This bread and this wine… God chooses as his body and his blood. The literal understanding probably came later when Christianity made a complete break from Judaism. Obviously, the early Church understood these words not the way we try to force them on our minds. For nowhere in the New Testament is there any discussion about their relation to the prohibition against eating any blood. The soul of a living being is in its blood, and souls belongs to God alone (Lev. 17:11, 14; Deut. 12:23). Had the intended meaning been a literal one, such a discussion would have been inevitable. However, quite the contrary is being emphasized: Christians from among the Gentiles should abstain from eating blood (Acts 15:20).
Thus, God gives us the simplest and yet also the highest form of an offering we are to bring him. Partaking of bread and wine sanctified by prayer, in remembrance of Jesus, is both a celebration meal shared with God, and a reminder of establishing the blood union of men with their Maker and between themselves.”
From Fields Ripe for the Harvest: Reflections on the Russian Orthodox Church, by Fr. Alexander Borisov.