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Communion: a counter-cultural act

Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS
Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

What is communion and why is it such an important practice for Christians?

In the early days of Christianity, those outside the religion suspected the new Christian cult consisted of cannibals. In their meetings, the Christian practitioners talked about eating Jesus’ body and drinking Jesus’ blood.

Out of context, that sounds disconcerting. Especially since we still talk about eating Jesus’ body and drinking Christ’s blood today.

Does that mean we’re cannibals?

In our United Methodist tradition, we don’t believe that the bread and wine (or, more often for us, grape juice) literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus. But we do believe that Jesus is present in some way within the bread and wine. It might be that Jesus is present in our shared remembrance of Jesus’ life and resurrection invoked through the communion ritual. Or it might be that Jesus is present in those who have gathered in community to share in Jesus’ traditions.  Communion has been called a “holy mystery.” And surely in trying to understand the exact relation between Jesus and the communion elements leads us to understand why.

We observe communion as a remembrance of Jesus’ final dinner with his friends the night before his crucifixion. On that night, he gave them bread and wine saying that these parcels of food were his body and his blood, and that whenever they partook in them they should remember him. He did something very clever, lifting up the normal elements of a meal and co-opting their consumption as an act of remembrance.

In a literal sense, these elements of communion are food. At Jesus’ meal, they were the staple foods of sustenance: bread and wine. So when he gave those sustaining foods to his friends, he was additionally suggesting “I will sustain you.” Today, when Christian message and practice is observed in cultures across the world, the elements of sustenance are different than those familiar to us--or to Jesus. In several African cultures, instead of bread they may use fufu: a starchy substance made from ground cassava root. In many Pacific cultures, the meat of coconuts has been used. One Anglican priest from Uganda noted that wine made from grapes was extremely expensive in his area, and used distilled fruit juices instead (like passion fruit wine).

The diversity in the representative elements of communion suggests something special going on: If these elements represent the body of Christ, then we see diversity across that body. The communion table, which included around 12 people when Jesus first implemented it, has grown considerably larger. 

Invited to the Table

It’s a beautiful idea: Christ sustains us where we are. Christ sustains us through what’s available to us. Christ invites us to the meal through whatever means are before us--whether they be gluten-free wafers and Welch’s grape juice or plantain chips and guava juice. 

In the United Methodist Tradition, we have some prescribed words used before receiving communion. Among those words is this invitation:

Christ invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

With these words, we believe we’re inviting all to an open table. There are no membership requirements for receiving communion. The parameters are relatively accessible: one must simply want to share a meal with Christ. If one desires to accept that invitation, then the table is prepared for you.

Yes, even you.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us.

We use these words of assurance in the communion preparation, as well. Communion has been called a means of grace. Grace is the undeserved, unmerited and loving action of God. So communion is one of the ways in which we encounter God’s freely-given love. 

How do we encounter grace at communion?

There are several ways we encounter grace through the communion table. On the simplest level, we are receiving something that we value without conditions of reciprocity. We can’t return the gift we receive in communion.

We’re also being bound together in a special way at communion. Communion is to be thought of as a meal (I know it’s offerings are meager by our Western standards of food portions). We’re sharing a meal together, which is an act of intimacy. So much so that some of us would rather eat a meal alone than share a meal with someone we don’t know. Meals are binding experiences. They are moments of vulnerability. As we share a meal together, we are sharing a bit of who we are.

Often times, we deliberately call attention to this shared experience. Some of the communion liturgy calls attention to way we are bound together through communion. We talk about the bread we eat coming from one loaf. And just as these many parts come from one body, so, too we who share the communion bread are one body.

We are bound together in familial love. And because we are a community of love, our response to communion should be to invite others to the table. The gift of God’s grace isn’t just for those of us who receive the bread and wine. It is for the entire world. We are privileged with the task of sharing God’s great gift by inviting others to join us at the communion table.

This means we should be concerned about who is not at the table. Our response to communion could be considered an invitation to look for those who do not know they have been invited to the table… and invite them.

Communion becomes a counter-cultural act in this sense because so much of our culture includes movements to polarization--where people increasingly divide into herds of “us” and “them.” When we are set together at one table, sharing one loaf, being called one body, it is difficult to feel divided.

Wondering what some other meaningful spiritual practices are? Visit our page on Spiritual Practices.