Sometimes a church receives unusual things in the mail. I have a whole collection of sample pens with the church name and address printed on them. Today I received a sample of individually packaged communion cup sets. The grape juice is sealed in a little cup, with a wafer of unleavened bread on top. To use it you pull off the first tab to eat the bread, then pull off a second tab to drink the juice. It is convenient and hygenic, and it has a shelf life of up to 1 year!
So given how efficient all this is, why did I have the feeling that something was a bit surreal about the whole idea? We have already come a long way from the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was practiced in the early church, where it involved sharing the bread and cup as a part of a meal just like Jesus did the night before He was betrayed. Our tiny unleavened bread “chicklets” (or tiny pieces of matzo) are nothing like the bread that would have been used in the first century, and they shared real wine from a common cup, not grape juice in little plastic cups. Jesus took the original Passover celebration, which was built around a real meal, and gave it a new and deeper significance. We have turned it into a religious ceremony that can be carried out in 10 minutes between the sermon and the announcements. With these new cups we can probably get it down to 5 minutes. How efficient! But what have we lost in the process?
A central aspect of the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Jesus is the corporate expression of our unity in Him in the context of a fellowship meal. When He broke the loaf of bread and distributed pieces to the disciples (1 Cor. 11:24) it symbolized their corporate sharing in Christ’s death. When they each drank from the common cup it likewise demonstrated that they all shared in the same new covenant in His blood. In fact the focus in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 is on our corporate behavior in connection with the Lord’s Supper. A good case can be made that “judge the body rightly” in v. 29 refers to exercising discernment about our relations in the Body of Christ rather than the Roman Catholic view that it refers to discerning something about the elements used in communion. (The same Greek word is used in v. 31 of judging ourselves.)
For this reason, I am reluctant to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a very individualistic way. One reason that these new communion cup packages stuck me the wrong way is that they move even further away from the biblical community aspect. Efficiency isn’t everything. I would rather at least sometimes move in the opposite direction, and use a loaf of bread that we tear apart and share with one another. I guess people would freak out if we tried to use a common cup, although if we used real wine it might kill some of the germs. As a compromise, we do sometimes take pieces of bread and dip them in a goblet of grape juice. I understand that this is a practice that has precedent in the ancient church, although I have not thoroughly researched its history.
If you want to hear more about this passage, go to the sermons page on my church website and look for the sermon on this passage.