Why are we not having communion?
Someone called me recently enquiring whether we should prepare for online celebration of the Lord’s supper now that yesterday was the last Sunday in April and as usual, we celebrate communion every last Sunday of the month. My answer was simple, perhaps because I had thought through the issue a month earlier but had not communicated to our wider church family: No, we will not be doing any ‘online communion’. Maybe that might come across as odd given that Work, Sermons, Giving, Bible Studies and a host of other things have gone ‘online’ why not Communion? I would like to answer this as simply and clearly as I can and so I will state 3 reasons why I think we should wait till when we can gather in person.
1. Gathering is essential to communion. The Lord in his providence has sovereignly allowed that we cannot gather in person due to public health measures instituted to stop the spread of COVID 19. This has meant that some of the things we should do and others we love to do cannot happen. Thankfully, and again in the Lord’s providence, we can still be spiritually nourished through the greatest resource we have as believers – the Bible which is accessible to all. We continue to feed on God’s word in our personal devotions and hopefully grow in our knowledge of Him. Further, it has been possible to hear God’s word through sermons and devotions through online platforms and for that we are very grateful. Communion however, by its own nature requires a gathering. Christ instituted it (Mark 14:12 -26 and Luke 22: 7-19) in the context of the old testament Passover meal to symbolically represent the new covenant. He was there in person and so were those ‘reclining at the table’. In His instructions on Communion, Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: 17 -34, uses the word/idea of gathering/meeting at least five times and interestingly distinguishes the ‘food at home’ with communion twice (verse 22 and 34). Gathering then, is essential for us to say we are one body sharing one bread and blood of Jesus Christ. We don’t have to have communion at any cost – it is a memorial and it does not save in and of itself, therefore it can wait till when we can do it properly.
2. Waiting and longing for each other is part of God’s providence for us, for now. When for some reason we are separated from our loved ones we don’t have to create a semblance of still being together. Perhaps bringing the picture of marriage to the church, when a husband and wife are separated by distance due to some travel or illness, there is a lot that can be done over phone and email but nothing can replace their physical presence with each other. Such opportunities to be apart can serve the purpose of making them long for each other more, as the saying goes – distance makes the hearts grow fonder. When we try to replace every aspect of our ‘gathered essence’ with an online version then we might be raising the question of the usefulness of gatherings in the first place. I submit that although a lot can be done virtually, and we are grateful for technological advancements that make these things possible, not everything can be done online. The Lord himself expresses longing for it in Mark 14 ‘that he will not eat the fruit of the vine until in the new kingdom’ And if the Old Testament pattern of the annual Passover feast offers any guidance, then communion can wait for a much longer season. Certainly, the early church had ‘breaking of bread’ a lot more often (Acts 2:42) but there is no prescribed pattern on frequency leaving the matter to the wisdom of elders in every local church. For now, not being able to have communion serves, in the Lord’s providence, to help us long for each other and for a time we can see each other again – face to face and eat together.
3. Online communion sends an unintended message on the nature of the ‘body of Christ’ and creates potential confusion in future. From the beginning of the year we have been preaching through Israel’s journey from Egypt to Caanan in a series we are calling #TheDesertExperience. In both Exodus and Leviticus, we noticed that Yahweh is to be worshiped in a clearly defined way and on His own terms. This is a very instructive pattern on how worship services are to be run. There is a sense in which we need to be careful about being pragmatic/innovative about how we ‘do Church’. Just because something works does not mean it is necessarily right or true. Big questions then emerge around online communion like – who is in the body in an online breaking of bread? How is it defined? Who is it served and shared?
In an online set up, anyone can participate at any time in any location whether known to the rest of believers or not. Viewers coming in later can as well participate in their own time and in their own space and you don’t have to know anyone else who had participated. Is that really communion? Does that not make cheap, a means of grace provided for the enriching of the body (local church)? Does that not take away from the solemn nature of the assembly of God’s people and make light an ordinance instituted by Christ? Are we to take lightly Paul’s warning to those who partake of the Lord’s body and blood in an ‘unworthy manner’ (1 Cor 11:27-31).
Further questions also emerge. How far do you go with disembodied practices? Should we also expect online baptisms in the near future? Might we see online church discipline soon? These and more questions beg our understanding or lack thereof, of the nature of the church. The called-out community (ekklesia) is a real body of believers who have covenanted to follow Christ and to hold each other accountable through biblical eldership and practical membership. To imagine we can extrapolate family business of communion into the public square in a free for all online fashion is tantamount to offering communion elements in the open-air market or matatu stage and hawking it for all and sundry to take as they pass along.
How about when COVID 19 pandemic is over, how much confusion will there be around the nature of Holy Communion? Will anybody need to submit to a local church and receive instruction and discipline from the elders there, if they can be part of a virtual body. Is that a risk worth taking if only to give a semblance of ‘business as usual’ even in the unusual times we are living in? I don’t think so.
Now, I will close with a reminder that the mode, the frequency, the elements and the administration of Holy Communion are second order issues and for which there can be divergent opinion. The words often attributed to Augustine of Hippo come to mind – In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity and in all things, charity. I respect those who are persuaded otherwise and submit that it would serve the body of Christ better when the ordinances he instituted (Baptism and Holy Communion) are administered in a reverent, biblical and culturally sensitive manner.
I hope this clarifies the reason as a church we will wait to have Holy Communion when we gather again in person.
Rev. Harrison Mungai M,
GracePoint Church, Kikuyu.