It happened one Sunday morning in church. My brother and I were trailing behind my dad as we scanned the pews for empty seats, and my eye caught a glimmer of the silver Communion trays sitting at the front of the church. Every time my church observed Communion, they set up a long table at the front of the sanctuary that served as a kind of focal point for worship. In doing so, the members of the congregation knew it was coming and were therefore able to prepare their hearts for it. At my young age, however, the presence of the Communion table meant only one thing: freshmade bread and grape juice! And this was the exact sentiment that I expressed upon noticing the table. I exclaimed, “Oh good, we get to eat! I am sooo hungry!”
Yes, I was a reverent little child.
Well as soon as this thought escaped my lips, my dad did something I will never forget (though he claims my memory has greatly exaggerated the scenario). He stopped dead in his tracks, wheeled around, grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and then spoke to me in a voice that chilled my bones: “Don’t you EVER talk about Communion that way again! Do you hear me?”
I think I mustered up a slight nod, so he stood up, turned around, and kept walking. I, however, was left feeling slightly dumbfounded, and more than a little scared. But, it was at that moment that I realized there was something special about Communion, something I’d never realized before. And obviously I never forgot it, though it took me a long time before I fully understood it.
Fast forward to college. When I was in undergrad I was extremely involved with my campus fellowship, leading in almost every capacity. And as a result of my involvement, I thought of that community as my church. Yes, I went to church Sunday mornings, but that was the extent of my participation there. My para-church was my real church, and I didn’t really see the difference between the two. Apparently I still had a lot to learn from my dad’s words.
This all leads me to the third mark of the church that we find in Acts 2: Communion (or Eucharist, depending on your tradition). Acts describes the Early Church as engaging in “the breaking of bread,” but this doesn’t refer to the act of merely dining together. Instead it is a direct reference to the partaking of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ. This act is not only a key mark of the Church, but it is also something that distinguishes it from para-churches, who generally do not practice Communion together.
Now as a college student, I didn’t really understand the importance of Communion. Sure, I thought it was a great practice, but a key marker of the Church? Not really. So of course I was shocked when I came to seminary and learned that throughout the Church’s History, theologian after theologian, and preacher after preacher, had all named Communion as one of THE main distinctives of the Church. Clearly they knew something that I didn’t. So what’s the big deal?
Well for starters, this practice comes from the last command that Jesus gave us before he died. Given that the last thing a person says before they die is probably going to be the most important, we can assume this command is top priority. But why was it so important to Jesus? What was it about this practice that he found so crucial?
The answer is fairly simple, an answer that should begin to sound pretty familiar since it is virtually the same as the other marks of the Church: It centers our identity on Christ. In practicing Communion we come together to profess the source of our unity and the foundation of our identity, which is Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Our unity is not in our denomination, our prefered style of worship, our Calvinism, or our passion for social justice. None of those things define us as a body. It is Christ alone that distinguishes us and sets us apart.
In this way, Communion not only serves as a reminder of why we live and what we are about, but it is a kind of community glue. We may have disagreements with one another over petty differences, but when we come together to the Lord’s Table we are reminded that there is a unity that is stronger than our divisions. If we can still profess faith in Christ alone, together, then that profession is what defines us and unites us.
And as I said, this mark of the Church is one of the key distinctions between the Church and the para-church. There are other distinctions, but Communion is perhaps the most pressing. If you are not involved in a body of believers that *frequently* practices Communion together, then that is cause for concern, not only because it is a primary way in which we acknowledge our faith and unity with one another, but because Jesus commanded it. There is no doubt that Jesus meant this to be a central mark of His Body, so we cannot profess faith in him and then ignore his teaching on this. The practice of Communion is a tangible, public way of professing your faith, as well as acknowledging the reason for your unity with Christ’s body, and that right there is why it is such an important pillar of the Church’s identity.