Do this in remembrance of me.
That Holy Communion has something to do with remembering Jesus is pretty easy to see. With bread and the wine, the church remembers Christ’s broken body and shed blood. Jesus died outside Jerusalem on a Roman cross somewhere around the year 30 CE. The night before he died, Jesus gathered his disciples told them that his death would bring forgiveness of sins for many and the establishment of a new covenant with God’s people. His death was and offering to God on behalf of those who belonged to him. Jesus told his disciples to repeat this meal with its elements of bread and wine so that people would always remember what he had done. Holy Communion pretty clearly has an orientation to the past.
But maybe there is more, as well. The supper Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover celebration. The annual Passover observance includes a special meal called a Seder that tells the story of how God delivered the Israelites from bondage under Moses. Passover, however, is not just about memories of the past. Each participant in the Seder is supposed to see himself or herself in the story of the Exodus. “In every generation let each one feel as if he or she came forth out of Egypt,” it is said. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Had not HaShem taken us out from Egypt we would still have remained slaves.” Passover is a living memory. Passover and Holy Communion are a lot alike in that respect.
At the communion table, the past becomes a present, living reality. Paul identifies the present element in Holy Communion with the word “participation.” Paul says:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16 NIV)
At the very least, Paul means that Holy Communion is like the Passover Seder in that regard. Those who partake in Holy Communion aren’t just bystanders hearing about ancient history. They are participants in the story they are telling. It’s like they were there.
Leo, a fifth century bishop of Rome, wrote this about the Eucharist:
Everything that the Son of God did and taught for the reconciliation of the world, we know not only as a historical account of things now past, but we also experience them in the power of the works that are now present.
Participation, however, is more than just “living memory” for Paul. The word that the NIV translates as “participation” is koinonia, which means “partnership” or “fellowship” or “communion”. The root idea is to share some part of life in common with the other person or persons. This is, of course, where we get the word “communion” for the sacramental meal.
Paul’s statment about communion comes in the middle of an argument about Christians eating at a pagan temple feast. In pagan temples, the meat from sacrified animals was eaten in great temple feasts to which many people might be invited. Christians should not eat meals in pagan temples, Paul said, because eating there makes one a participant in pagan sacrifice and a koinonia partner with the demonic powers. In cultic meals, there is a kind of union that exists between the worshiper and the one worshiped. Paul’s argument is based on his belief that Holy Communion does the something very similar: it makes one a fellowship partner with Christ and a participant in his sacrifice.
The fourth gospel makes as similar claim: communion is a means by which Christians actively live in ongoing union with Jesus.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:56 NRSV)
There is an orientation to the present in Holy Communion, then, as well as to the past . Those who share Christ’s table “participate”in his body and blood and “abide” in him. Both of these are present-tense activities.
Finally, there is a also a future orientation to Holy Communion.
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 NIV)
In this passage, Paul describes Holy Communion in a way that looks both backwards and forwards.
Luke quotes Jesus this way:
For I tell you, I will not eat [this Passover] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:16 NIV)
For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:18 NIV)
In Luke, Jesus connects the institution of the Lord’s Supper with with his proclamation of God’s coming kingdom. Twice previously, Luke had described the kingdom in terms of a great banquet in the age to come:
[Jesus said,] People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29 NIV)
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 14:15 NIV)
Holy Communion is a foretaste of God’s kingdom feast in the age to come.
Holy Communion looks forward to the coming of God’s kingdom, but even this future orientation has a present dimension.
After Jesus rose from the dead, it is significant for Luke that Jesus ate and drank with his disciples (Luke 24:41-42, Acts 1;4, Acts 10:41.). For Luke, Jesus’ post-resurrection meals are a preliminary fulfillment of Luke 22:16,18. Jesus eats and drinks in the coming kingdom when he eats and drinks with his disciples.
Jesus’ appearance in Emmaus virtually recaptiutlates the upper room meal:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, Luke 24:30-31.
In Emmaus, Jesus repeats the actions of Luke 22::19: take – give thanks – break – give. In these acts, the disciples came to know that the crucified one was alive and present with them at the table. They recognized him in the fourfold act of the Lord’s Supper. So, too, Luke’s church knows Christ’s living presence when it gathers at the table of the Lord.
Holy Communion looks back at what Jesus said and did in the past, but it also has the present effect of uniting Christians with their risen Lord (and with each other). The sacrament of the table also looks forward to the consummation of the kingdom in the age to come, when all God’s people will feast together in peace as one. In the fellowship of the table, we receive a foretaste of that coming day when we eat and drink with Jesus.
Many churches use an acclamation in their communion rituals that that captures all three orientations of the holy sacrament, and I leave you with these words:
Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come again.