In Defense of the Loaf and the Cup

The Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper—however you refer to it, the communal celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ through the bread and the wine has been one of the central aspects of Christian worship since the first days of the church. As early as 1 Corinthians, we have textual evidence concerning normative and aberrant practice of the κυριακον δεῖπνον.[1] The prominence of place given to this practice seems to far outweigh the other rituals of the early church, which points to the importance of this particular sacrament as well as to its potential for being abused.

It’s no secret that Christians—especially in the West—have crafted a fair number of theologies and practices of Communion. In fact, the different titles given to the tradition reflect this. I won’t spend any time delineating the differences between these various streams. A quick google search will alleviate your curiosity. However, the current practice of evangelical, mostly non-denominational churches, in which the wine is grape juice and the elements are individualized,[2] is so out of step with ancient, apostolic practice that Jesus likely would have given the side-eye to these pragmatic teetotalers who thought the received tradition just wasn’t good enough.

Irrespective of the spiritual realities granted (or denied) to the elements of Communion, how one practices the sacrament speaks just as loudly (if not more so) to the congregation than any sermon or series of sermons. Practice whispers to the soul in a way that rhetoric cannot. The laity can look at how a church goes about fulfilling the mandate to practice a “Lord’s Supper” and discern as much about its relative importance to the leaders as any theologian. Relegating Communion to a service that occurs separately from the ordinary Sunday worship, or hosting it for the congregation only once per quarter, whispers that it does not pertain to day-to-day Christian praxis nearly as much as regular preaching, worship, and fellowship. Whether or not this is the case, whether or not Communion is far outstripped by other means of grace—this kind of scheduling is at a serious dissonance with the regular practice of “bread-breaking” that the earliest churches exemplified[3] and abused.[4]

Scheduling aside, how the church presents the elements communicates additional propositions to the congregation. I have attended Mass where the priest comes to the people and places a wafer on their tongues, and everybody shares wine from the same goblet. I have attended Sunday worship where the members of the congregation all share from the same loaves of bread and from the same glasses of juice and wine. I have attended worship services where the elements come in individual pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed containers.

What does this final praxis communicate to the participants? It would be hard to argue with the notion that such a giving of the elements engenders a sense of one’s standing alone before god. When these grotesque packages are coupled with sermons and music centered on one’s inadequacy and forlornness before the face of god, the attitude is unmistakable—one partakes of Christ’s death alone and without comrade. However, this steady drumbeat of spiritual forsakenness runs counter to the general sense of jocund community and felicitous fellowship that runs through the New Testament. Bonhoeffer gets at this idea of communal supping when he wrote, “In the Lord’s Supper the church-community manifests itself purely … as a community confessing its faith, and is summoned and recognized by God as such.”[5] The liturgical call of “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ” to the response of “Thanks be to god” functions not merely as a private moment of reflection but as the church’s public testimony that this sacrament is our faith, and we are “summoned and recognized by God” on this account.

It is quite true that one comes to god out of the darkness of sin alone and without companion, much like how the man and the woman are compelled to stand before god in the garden and account for their own sin—apart from their partner’s contribution.[6] However, once one has come into this community, one no longer confronts god on her own account. At the very least, Christ whom she ingests or recalls in the wine and the bread accompanies her. As well, the church members who share the loaf and the cup and all who have made this confession throughout time accompany those that partake of this sacred tradition.

One may find that, as a church becomes larger, it becomes increasingly more difficult to retain the “authentic sense” of Communion that those pre-packaged elements excoriate. However, this would again point to a problem of the relative place of importance that one grants to Communion specifically and to Sunday worship generally. Where the regular gathering of the people of god as the people of god is treated with contempt, of course one ought to expect that Communion would be given a curt and unceremonious departure from weekly worship. When Sunday worship has become, in essence, an evangelistic opportunity, in which the elements are no more sensible than the waters of baptism—the loaf and cup will be relegated to something non-essential for Christian living.

On the other hand, where a church believes that its Sunday gatherings are for the Christian, one should hope that the regular practice of communal supping would retain a pride of place alongside worship and preaching and fellowship. Indeed, the shared elements and liturgy provoke a sense not merely of shared fellowship between Christian siblings but also between these siblings and their god and father. Rather than a merely horizontal fellowship, one finds a fellowship between both man and god simultaneously and concretely in the loaves and cup from which all have partaken of Christ together. The church that maintains this perspective on Communion will necessarily carve out a space in both its monetary and scheduled budget, spending both time and money on the regular practice of church members breaking bread together to the glory of God.


[1] 1 Corinthians 11.17ff, especially 20

[2] Indebted to the work of Luke Harrington who highlighted the Methodist de-fermentation of wine as well as the invention of individual servings of Christ’s blood and body.

[3] Acts 20.7, et al.

[4] 1 Corinthians 11.17ff

[5] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio: a Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Translated by Joachim Von Soosten. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 1. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 247.

[6] Genesis 3.8-13

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One comment

  1. […] church as holy place, which functions as the locale for sacramental practice. These sacraments instruct their practitioners cognitively, affectively, and […]

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