Why Communion Matters

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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How can we let ourselves forget or neglect or even trivialize this sacrifice? For all our grand plans for church renewal, for contemporary worship, for being missional, for connecting with the millennials, for connecting with the “nones” and now for connecting with Generation Z, we should never downplay that sacred institution given by our sacrificial Christ for His church. Communion matters—more than we may think.

Evangelical church leaders yearn to deepen the faith of their parishioners, as well as to engender healthy relationships and expand the church’s outreach to the wider world. We know that every good endeavor requires prayer for both knowledge and discernment so that we may execute godly plans. We long to bear good fruit, fruit that will last, as we look to the Lord and humbly wait on Him.

I say “Yes and Amen” to all that. But some evangelical leaders and churches are missing something—something so big it is incredible that it is being missed. Have we neglected, or even forgotten, a sacred practice that is a part of what makes the church, in fact, the church? We have. That missing element is Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

We could contemplate the exact nature or metaphysics of Communion and how Christians differ on this. There is a time for these discussions, but this is not that time. However, we must treat it reverently and a theologically appropriate manner. We could look at statistics on the pragmatic effects of observing communion and on which tradition’s communion ceremonies are most popular. But, we will not. Instead, I will concentrate on how Communion grounds the church in God’s living reality.  

A short sentence has been repeating itself in my mind for some time:

This is the sacrifice that saves the universe.

I dare not let myself forget or neglect or even trivialize this once-for-all sacrifice that changed history forever.

By worldly standards, a man of no account was born in an obscure town long ago. Of this man, John the Baptist declared “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). “Behold” is a strong word; it means more than “Look” or “Check it out.” It means: “take serious” “notice”, “attend”, “consider carefully”. This man, the Son of David and the Son of Man, the child of Mary, would offer Himself to His Father on behalf of the world. Indeed, we should “behold” Him for He is more than He appears. He is “the Lamb of God” like no other lamb, like no other sacrifice.

A sacrifice is an act of giving that exacts a price from the giver. When a billionaire oil tycoon gives $10,000 to a worthy charity, this is good; but it is not a sacrifice. Jesus knew this.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4).

Out of her poverty, the widow gave her all to God. Out of His riches, Jesus gave his all for man. Sacrifice was the way. Jesus possessed the very nature of God, but He did not consider His place a reason to ignore our plight. And, “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8).

By reason of this greatest of all sacrifices, God exalted “him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. . .and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11; see also 2 Corinthians 8:9).

It’s important to regularly take a few minutes to thank and praise God for this unspeakable gift of sacrifice. But please don’t stop there. Continue in reflection, worship and participation through Communion on a regular basis.

Communion matters simply because Christ’s sacrifice matters. We are brought into fellowship with God, into communion, only through this sacrificial offering. It matters supremely for all sinners, saints, and the entire cosmos.

Consider Paul’s majestic words concerning that sacrifice:

 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:18-20).

The blood of Christ’s sacrifice reconciles all that can be reconciled to God Himself. We need to have room for this truth in our thoughts. So, we do well to read and meditate on this Scripture and others like it, “hiding them in our hearts” (Psalm 119:11). We need to make room for this reality in our church practice. The God-ordained ways are at root the pulpit (preaching) and the table (communion). Every service of worship has a sermon or homily. But many services omit communion.

In communion, we hear the words of Jesus and Paul on the meaning of this event (depending on the tradition). We also see the wine (or juice) and the bread. We behold that which Jesus instituted as we see this in relation to His once-for-all sacrifice. We are called to drink and eat the body of Christ with the body of Christ. As such, we participate bodily in this corporate event, which is like no other. We taste, chew and swallow the solid; we taste and swallow the liquid. We ingest bread and wine, which become more than bread and wine only because God has become a man and sacrificed His all for all He came to save.

Since God created us body and soul—and because Christ is the Lord of the whole person and the whole of life—we need to engage all our senses in remembering the sacrifice that saves the universe. I forget all too easily what matters most for time and eternity. I need to taste and see, along with other church participants, that the Lord is good.

If Christ’s sacrifice and its celebration matter this much, how might we revive our observance of communion in our churches?

First, observing communion should become a common and regular experience in the life of a church. Churches and denominations will vary, but I suggest that we celebrate more rather than less. As Vernon Grounds, Chancellor of Denver Seminary, said in another context, “The ruts of routine can become the groove of grace.”

Second, while I am not prescribing exactly how communion should be officiated, it should be reverent and intentional. The Lord’s Supper is not an afterthought, but a reenactment of the Gospel itself. It is a holy meal for the body of Christ, which is performed in the presence of God and under His Word.

Third, a theology of communion must include the unity of the church in relation to the oneness of the sacrifice. When Paul was instructing the Corinthians on the proper practice of communion, he wrote:

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? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

For this reason, perhaps we should question the use of unattended communion stations in the sanctuary. People are encouraged to go to the station they chose and to take when they are ready. In many cases, they do so without any words of institution being recited to give the meaning of the practice.

This feels a bit too much like McDonald’s, where you order what you want when you want it. Fast food has its benefits and detriments. Fast communion is another thing. Communion is about a holy relationship with God through Christ and a holy relationship with other followers of the Lamb of God. We are the Body of Christ partaking of the one body and blood of Christ in communion. So, taking communion together in a common ceremony is crucial, whatever else we do. In whatever way communion is administered, the communal nature of the event must not be surrendered to the “have it your way” idea of popular culture (Romans 12:1-2).

This is the sacrifice that saves the universe.

How can we let ourselves forget or neglect or even trivialize this sacrifice? For all our grand plans for church renewal, for contemporary worship, for being missional, for connecting with the millennials, for connecting with the “nones” and now for connecting with Generation Z, we should never downplay that sacred institution given by our sacrificial Christ for His church. Communion matters—more than we may think.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

© 2019 Douglas Groothuis.

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About the Author

Dr. Douglas Groothuis

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary where he heads the Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree program. He is the author of twelve books, including Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011) and Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017). He has published thirty-one academic articles and dozens of …

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