In most Christian churches, regardless of their denominational affiliation, you will find that two ordinances are observed. I am speaking here about water baptism and communion. Biblically speaking, both are for believers, that is, those who have personally placed their faith in Jesus Christ. Usually, a person is baptised in water only once, however, one may partake of communion many times in the course of his or her Christian life. The frequency with which a person partakes will, in large measure, be determined by how often it is served in the church that they attend. Some churches serve communion once a month; Christians attending those churches may take communion approximately twelve times in the course of a year. Other churches offer it more frequently: it could be twice a month or every Sunday. The communion part of the service is usually quite solemn. In my experience, it is also very much the same each time it is observed—the same two elements, bread and wine (or grape juice) are used, and the same Scripture is read. Our familiarity with these things may cause us to lose sight of the importance, or significance, of communion. We need to be on our guard that this does not become just a ritual to us.
The ordinance of communion has a direct connection to Jesus Christ. In three of the gospel accounts, we find the apostles with Jesus when He associated the bread with His body and the wine with His blood (Matt 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20). As you can see the scriptural passages in the previous sentence are very short. When Jesus said these words, He was looking ahead to the cross. There are many significant things that we can glean from the texts mentioned above. First, three times Jesus spoke of the wine, which symbolises His blood, as being the blood of a covenant (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). This tells us Jesus is involved in an agreement, a strong agreement. Second, in one instance Jesus tells us that His shed blood is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28 NIV). This is in keeping with the scriptural principle that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22 NIV). Third, in the context of this first communion service in which Jesus took the lead, only once did He say that His followers should observe this service in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19). He said this after He gave them the bread. Those who were with Him were specifically told to continue to partake of bread and wine in the future in memory of Him. There was nothing ambiguous about what He said. But was this instruction only for them, or did Jesus intend that others who would come to believe in Him should also continue this practice?
When I was a pastor, at almost every communion service, I read a significant portion of 1 Corinthians 11 (verses 23–32). This was the practice of the church before I became pastor and I continued it. I Corinthians 11:17–34 is perhaps the most definitive passage to show that communion was practised by believers other than the original apostles. Evidently, Jesus’ directive in Luke 22:19 to “do this in remembrance of me” (NIV) was understood by the early Christians as something to be carried on by all believers everywhere and at every time in history. Now historically we know that Paul was not at what we call “The Last Supper” when Jesus instituted the communion service. Paul was not even a Christian at that time. Yet it is clear from what he wrote that he knew about it because he included some of Jesus’ words at that event in his teaching (1 Cor 11:24–25). He said that the Lord gave him this information (1 Cor 11:23). So, in the text, Paul set forth the historical precedent for communion, part of which indicates that communion is to be an ongoing practice of believers, who are to partake of it in remembrance of Jesus (1 Cor 11:24–25), and it is so even until today. The truth of His crucifixion is so vital that we need to be periodically reminded of it. Regularly participating in a communion service will help us do that.
The believers in Corinth were not forgetting to have communion services; they were having them, but they were not behaving properly. One clear thing is that some in the Corinthian church were self-seeking (1 Cor 11:21–22; 33–34). This became evident in their communion service. Paul did not want this situation to continue; he did not want them to go on in their improper behaviour and just partake of the elements. Communion, while it includes the elements, involves more than bread and wine (or grape juice). When we partake of them, we need to look beyond the symbols to the One they represent. Jesus should be foremost in our thoughts. If He is, He will put our hearts and minds in their proper places. The selfish behaviour of some in the church in Corinth was in stark contrast to the selfless love of Jesus that was set forth in His death. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV). Jesus certainly did that, but He did much more. He died for sinners, His enemies, including us (Rom 5:8). In fact, He died “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV). The apostle John tells us that because of Jesus’ sacrifice we know what love is (1 John 3:16). Communion is a reminder of God’s love for us, the cross is a demonstration of that love (Rom 5:8). At the cross, Jesus took care of our sin problem (Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 2:24) and triumphed over the powers of darkness (Col 2:15). As believers, we are to love the Lord but we are also to love one another: Jesus commanded it (John 13:34). Paul gave the Corinthian church some practical instructions in order to help them show love to one another as they remembered the love that the Lord showed them. Our “remembrance” in communion should include significant contemplation of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. But it should also include a consideration of how we treat other people. If we find that our relationship with God or our relationships with other people needs repair, the good news is that the gospel is about reconciliation. Jesus paid the price for it and He can make it real in our experience if we ask Him.