“I give them communion because it does them good”

This is a follow on from the post about children and communion. My dad tells the story about a church he attended where the vicar would ensure the choir boys were given communion because “it does them good.” Shortly after taking communion, the boys would troop out of the service, kicking each other, swearing etc. The communion did not seem to have done them much good at all.

I did not realise when I first heard that story exactly how much danger there was in the vicar’s actions.  The danger was not just in the fact that he was wrong, the communion didn’t do the kids some kind of mystical good because of any magical properties in the bread and the wine. Taking communion did not turn those boys into Christians, did not sanctify them, did not keep them from sin.  It was dangerous to give those boys communion because it left them with a mere outward form of religion and denied the power of the Gospel – I will come to that shortly.

However, the vicar’s claims and actions were dangerous because like most heresies, his approach was based on a half-truth. You see, there is a serious sense in which communion can do you good. This is what the reformers like Calvin wanted to grasp and what they meant when they referred to it as a “means of grace.”

The bread and wine are not magical. They have not been turned into the body and blood of Jesus but communion is about communion with Christ and there is a sense in which we feed from him and on him.  How does that happen? It happens when at the centre of our breaking of Bread service, we take time to open Scripture and hear Christ speak to us. It happens when our outward actions of taking bread and eating it and drinking wine together reflect a genuine heart action as we take time to reflect on Christ’s death and resurrection and to give thanks. There are different ways in which that can be encouraged. Many people find the Anglican or old Methodist liturgy helpful as corporately they say Scripture together, pray together, confess together. We had a wonderful time this last Sunday in our non-conformist context of sharing the bread and wine together in the context of a meal. As is normal at Sunday Night Church, we sat round  tables, we ate a meal together (pizza and chips). We then sung some great hymns and songs about grace. Following that, we heard testimony. We started with one word summaries about what God had done in our lives during the last year and this built up to fully sharing.  Then one of our members opened up a passage of Scripture before we shared the bread and wine and sung a final hymn (Glorious Day). Did it do us good? Yes, it did – but not in the way the vicar seemed to think and his superstitious reduction of the good done to magical powers in the bread will actually in my opinion robbed the ordinance of that ability to do good.

And because of that, the vicar missed a vital point that made his error all the more dangerous. Yes, participating in the breaking of bread may do you good. However, it can do you great harm and that’s why somewhere along the line, no matter how you do it, no matter whether there is a closed or open table, no matter whether you use liturgy or not, no matter whether you include children, there is a responsibility and a care upon us to be careful about how we share communion.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that far from doing the people gathered good, communion was doing them harm

He first of all says that

“17 But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you. For it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together.”[1]

Then he explains that this is to do with the divisions among them and their lack of discernment (or love, care and recognition for the body).

27 So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against[g] the body and blood of the Lord. 28 That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. 29 For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honouring the body of Christ,[h] you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.”

Once, again, just as it’s not that eating bread will magically infuse with grace, it is not that eating it will magically zap you. So, for example, you cannot use choking on bread as a test for witchcraft as happened in an earlier era. Rather, as Chris Green has suggested, and I’m inclined to agree, there is a very practical level at which lack of care for one another means that the most vulnerable are literally at risk of death.

However, additionally there is a sense of spiritual sickness and death in the church as people fall away. Also, there is the danger that comes because we are accountable to the Lord and one day we will have to give that account for ourselves. The person who has eaten the bread and drunk the wine without regard to the Gospel and without love for the church family is a hypocrite. Their outward actions don’t tie with the inner ones. Taking the bread and wine does not encourage them but if they pay any attention to it, it should be a visible reminder that they have either not responded to the Gospel at all or are not living in accordance with it.

So, we should take time, not just to encourage people to come and share at the table but as we from time to time do, to remind people how not to come and who should not come.  And what greater joy is there than seeing someone coming and taking communion this Sunday who previously knew that they could not?

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:17


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