Gathering is central to our identity. Worship is central to our gathering. And breaking bread is central to our worship.
Luke describes how, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” with the early Christians of Troas (Acts 20:7). So many centuries later, their practice is still instructive. The Lord’s people gathered for the Lord’s worship on the Lord’s Day to share the Lord’s Supper.
The church may gather for any number of reasons—for service, for prayer, for study. But there is no better reason for Christians to gather than for the worship of God.
The church may gather for worship on any or every day of the week; there is no inappropriate time to worship God. But there is no better day for Christians to worship God than the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), the day we commemorate Jesus’ victorious resurrection.
And the church may worship God in many ways—singing God’s praises, proclaiming God’s Word, praying into God’s will. But there is no better way for Christians to worship God than by breaking bread, the way we celebrate Jesus’ saving death.
So gathering is central to our identity, and worship is central to our gathering, and breaking bread is central to our worship. What makes the Lord’s Supper so central? What is its significance? The very language we use to describe the meal opens windows on its meaning, its importance, and its centrality in worship.
The Lord’s Supper—Focused on Christ
Many of us call the meal “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20), but the Greek word translated “Lord’s” is not a possessive noun, but a descriptive adjective. Although the meal does belong to the Lord (Jesus inaugurated the meal, is present in the meal, presides at the meal, etc.), Paul was emphasizing that the meal is characterized by the Lord. It is the Lordly Supper. In every way it is focused on him—past, present, and future.
The meal is a remembrance of Jesus past, not just a memorial of the meal he instituted, but a recollection of his very person. “This is my body . . . do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25, author emphasis).
The meal is also a proclamation of Jesus present, a dramatic announcement and reenactment of his atoning death: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
And the meal is an anticipation of Jesus future, one of the most meaningful ways we have of leaning into God’s future, living in his constant presence “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
At the Lordly Supper, we must keep the focus on Christ.
Communion—Focused on the Community
Communion is a common and appropriate designation for the meal. It can also be translated “sharing” or “partnership” or “community.” When the word appears in 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17, it reiterates that Christ is the main focus of the meal: “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?”
But the next verse shows there is even more at stake. Paul adds, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body.” In Communion, we partner not only with the Savior but with the saved. We are as aware of the presence of all those with whom we break the loaf and share the cup as we are of the One whose body was broken and whose blood was shed. Paul’s closing admonition in 1 Corinthians 11 has precisely that emphasis: “So then . . . when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (v. 33). And Paul’s instruction about “discerning the body” (v. 29) may be deliberately and delightfully ambiguous: pay attention to the body of Christ, the One who died for you, and pay attention to the body of Christ, the ones for whom he died.
During Communion we must keep conscious of the community.
Eucharist—Focused on God
One of the oldest terms for Communion is Eucharist, or thanksgiving, already common in second-century Christian documents like the Didache. The word traces to the actions of Jesus at the last supper. Mark 14:22, 23 reads, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke and gave it to his disciples. . . . Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them” (author emphasis). And 1 Corinthians 11:23, 24 says, “[He] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it” (author emphasis).
What did Jesus bless? What was the object of his thanksgiving? Although 1 Corinthians 10:16 refers to “the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks,” it appears that the blessing, the thanksgiving at the Lord’s Supper, is directed at God, not a goblet.
This certainly fits the historical context. At the Passover meal, Jews prayed, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
At the Eucharist our thoughts must be focused on God, creator and redeemer, according to whose mercy his Son died for us.
Sacrament—Focused on Self
The term sacrament also offers an important insight into the nature of the Lord’s Supper. It comes from the Latin word sacramentum, the pledge of loyalty a Roman soldier made to the emperor. Legionnaires took the oath upon entering military service and eventually were asked to renew their vow annually.
This concept may illuminate Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:28, where he asks his readers to “examine” themselves. The Greek word translated examine suggests a positive process by which we identify the evidences of our loyalty to the Lord (our faith) and identify the evidences of our disloyalty (our sins). So Communion becomes the perfect context not only for repenting of past acts (confession of sins) but for renewing our pledge of allegiance to our Lord and Leader (confession of faith).
So When You Come Together to Eat . . .
How might our practice of the Lord’s Supper signal its centrality in our worship? How might our conduct at the meal maintain its multiple foci? Readers are no doubt already celebrating Communion in ways that highlight these concepts, but here are some other possibilities.
• To fix our focus on Christ, we could (1) read the “words of institution,” Christ’s words at the last supper, reminding us of Christ’s body, Christ’s blood, and Christ’s death; (2) actually break the loaf and pour the cup to recall Christ’s actions; (3) project a video or art slides depicting the crucifixion; or (4) sing songs that highlight Christ’s sacrificial death (“Were You There?” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”).
• To create a sense of community, we could (1) sing together as the congregation is served; (2) move about after eating, greeting those nearby with the “peace of Christ”; (3) consciously serve one another as the trays are passed, or hold the bread and cup until all can share the meal together; or (4) move as a congregation to the front of the worship space to share from one loaf and one cup.
• As a means of giving thanks to God, we could (1) listen to or read a psalm of thanksgiving; (2) sing a song of thanksgiving; (3) offer silent or oral sentence prayers of thanks; or (4) follow the eating and drinking by saying together, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
• To highlight the sacramental nature of the meal, we could (1) recite the confession of faith, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God”; (2) proclaim the church’s earliest profession of faith, “Jesus is Lord”; (3) silently confess our sins and renew our pledge of loyalty to God; or (4) sing together a song of dedication and faithfulness.
It is impossible, of course, to follow more than one or two of these practices on any given Sunday. It is also not feasible to focus fully on each of the facets of the meal in every service. But Sunday by Sunday, we can resolve to keep Communion central to our worship, “to gather together, on the first day of the week, to break bread.” And we can, week by week, highlight one or the other aspects of the Lord’s Supper—focusing on Christ, on the Christian community, on God, and on ourselves—to experience fully the significance of the Supper.
Lee Magness teaches at Milligan College in Tennessee. He has published three collections of Communion meditations, including The Longest Table and In the Breaking of the Bread (both available from Standard Publishing, www.standardpub.com).