This is the third article in a three-part series. The first article suggested that the life of a disciple should be the true reflection of God’s character, as made visible in Jesus. The second article focused on baptism as the actual beginning of the disciple’s journey. This final article is about communion.
That morning, I was comfortably seated in an easy chair with a book in my hands. I focused on my reading but from time to time cast a quick glance at Kyrsten, my six-year-old granddaughter who was playing on the floor a few feet away. I gradually became aware that she was playing at being a seamstress, sewing dresses for her Barbie dolls, using bits and pieces of different colored fabric which she tied together with string and rubber bands. Kyrsten was totally absorbed with what she was doing. The only sounds reaching my ears were her soft self-talk and the rustling of the fabric.
As I watched, something caught my attention. My granddaughter had unintentionally assembled three pieces of fabric: blue, white and red, in that order. Suddenly, Kyrsten and her pieces of cloth were no longer there. What I saw was the French flag and the passion-loaded words of the Marseillaise filled my mind. France holds a special place in the hearts of many Mauritians. Our country was a French colony for over two hundred years. Many Mauritians have some French blood coursing in their veins, which sometimes make them feel somewhat superior to the “locals.” The vernacular is a bastardized version of the French language, and the cuisine though influenced by Asian and Indian culinary flavors, has somehow succeeded in retaining something of the French haute cuisine.
Three pieces of fabric; blue, white, red. Absolutely no intrinsic significance but when placed in a certain sequence, that of the French flag, they suddenly become loaded with meaning that speaks volumes to the people of France and its overseas territories.
How does one explain this deep sentimental attachment to the flag? In the book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Sigve Tonstad shares Paul Tillich’s understanding of symbols:
Paul Tillich, the German born theologian, has clarified the symbolic function of the flag. He makes an important distinction between signs and symbols. His main point is that signs do not participate in the reality to which they point whereas symbols do. . . . The flag participates in the power and dignity of the nation for which it stands.” (p. 9)
Tonstad goes on to write that flags ultimately are intimately linked to the collective psyche of a country.
For example, when the Southern States of North America refused to acknowledge that the black slaves should also be encompassed in the statement about inalienable rights and liberty, they changed the design of the flag to signify their refusal, and a new flag, the Stars and Bars was designed and accepted. A new reality was ushered in.
The new nation created by the founding fathers was now being dismantled by the southern states. Drastic action had to be taken if the integrity of the nation was to be saved. A saviour was needed who was willing to do whatever it would take.
Abraham Lincoln, the man who came to the rescue when the Union and its ideals stood the risk of coming undone, is known to history as the Redeemer President” (p. 10).
What is the analogy between the flag and communion? Just as the flag stands for an undergirding reality, so does the communion service. The question is what is that reality. What reality does communion point to? The quick answer is to the death of Christ. But is there also another way to understand communion?
Commenting on the creation narrative, Ellen White wrote that the spirit of service pervades heaven. The creation story depicted God as a servant who prepares everything that the yet-to-be-created human race would need. The spirit of service is present throughout the creation story. The Hebrew word ezer, translated “servant,” is used some twenty times in the Old Testament. Except for three times, the word applies to God, to the king, or to a high ranking individual. Eliezer means “God the servant.”
Created in God’s image and resemblance, human beings were to serve their fellow human beings as well as the environment. Sin came and subverted this reality. On that fateful day, the concept of servanthood was lost. Adam and Eve became self-serving. Ego replaced God’s presence in the human heart and mind and became the driving force behind every human enterprise. The need to be number one and a “What’s in it for me?” mentality drive the behavior behind every woe that individuals, society at large, indeed the whole world, experience daily since the fall.
Christ came to re-establish the beauty of service in a world that associates service with servility. Like Abraham Lincoln redeemed the ethos of his nation, Christ came to redeem the ethos of the universe momentarily polluted by sin.
May I be so bold as to suggest that Christianity may have missed the real meaning of communion when it made the cup and the bread the primary symbols of the communion service? Because three out of four gospels mention the cup and bread, the church has only kept these as the symbols. Is it possible that the true meaning of communion is not to be found in the synoptic gospel but in John’s Gospel?
John 13:1 says: “Having loved his own who were in the world, Christ now showed them the full extent of his love.” The now is important because it relates to the action that follows immediately: foot washing first, followed by the sharing of the meal.
Christ took a washbasin and a towel then washed and dried the dusty feet of twelve men who a short while earlier had argued about who should hold the highest position in the new kingdom. Ellen White noted that this action of Jesus was in marked contrast with the disciples’ attitudes. Jesus did not remonstrate with words. He took a towel, filled a basin with water, and proceeded to wash twelve pairs of dirty feet, starting with Judas. When he was done, Jesus asked: “Do you understand what I have just done?” He was attempting to draw their attention to the true meaning of discipleship, the ultimate meaning of which is to be like Christ in all things.
I believe that the true symbol of communion is a washbasin and a towel. These are instruments of service, the kind of service that requires that one stoops. Selfless service can be nothing else but an act of humility, the exact opposite attitude that lead to the first sin. The whole purpose of the communion service is to remind the believers that they have been saved for a purpose, one purpose that supersedes everything else: that of selfless service.
Human beings do not like to serve and even less to serve all the time. Only someone in whom Christ dwells can do so. Eating the bread and drinking the wine is a simple sign that indicates that I want the sacrificial life of Christ in me. The visible and concrete evidence of his presence is the ongoing attitude of service that one becomes known for. Mother Theresa was the shining example of such a person.
The cup and the bread are signs. As such they do not participate in the reality to which they point. Yes, they indicate that I am inviting Christ in my life, but they are not the reality of that presence. Catholics believe that the host (Bread) is the actual body of Christ, which Protestants correctly reject. On the other hand, the washbasin and towel are symbols of the reality of service because they indeed participate in that reality. I must use them to wash and dry dirty feet. Without them it is impossible to do so.
Symbols are not intrinsically self-sustaining in terms of what their adherents take to be their meaning. A symbol may come loose from the ideal it was meant to represent, leaving it as the symbol of an illusion” (Tonstad, p. 12).
I am afraid that foot washing has, to a large extent, suffered that fate. Many members do not participate at all in that part of the service, giving priority to the bread and wine. Is it possible that having lost its true significance, foot washing has simply become some sort of preamble to what is considered to be the more important aspect of the service?
Allow me to share a personal experience. I spent five years as a missionary in Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo), in the early seventies, as a teacher in the remote northeast region of the country. I will never forget the first communion service that I participated in. Except for the few missionaries, I knew no one in the congregation. An elderly African brother looked at me and asked if I would wash his feet, which I gladly agreed to.
I fetched a basin of water and a towel and came back to where he was seated. As I stooped and crouched before him, I noticed for the first time that he wore no shoes. His feet were filthy, having trod many kilometres to the chapel, along the muddy and dusty tracks of the African veld. As he lowered his feet into the basin, the water turned many shades darker. I had a fleeting feeling of revulsion as I briefly hesitated to touch them. When I did, hoping that the gentleman had not observed my initial reluctance, my hand touched the calloused, leathery skin of the man’s feet. I also noticed small lumps between the toes and under the toenails. I had heard long-time missionaries talk about a small bug that digs under the skin of the feet to lay its eggs. Chiggers is the name of the bug if my memory serves me.
I turned my gaze away. I heard God’s gentle whisper, reminding me that I was to follow the words of Christ:
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you…Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:14-17).
Until that moment, washing feet had never caused me to stop and think at the significance of the action. Indeed, the feet that I had washed had always been very clean and soft, protected in warm, beautifully designed socks and fashionable shoes.
For the first time, I understood in real terms that Jesus had stooped low to serve sinful humanity. I felt a deep desire to be like my Savior. From nowhere came the words, “You are what you eat.” Sharing in the bread and wine took on a new meaning. Eating and drinking became the sign of my desire to be like Jesus so that, like him, I would always be willing to serve, no matter how humiliating in the eyes of others my actions would look.
The disciples’ life of humble selfless service is the sure sign of God’s presence. The evidence is there for all to see and acknowledge, even if reluctantly by some.
The Christian Crest
How does this third article tie with my two preceding ones? First, may I suggest that each time we stoop to wash the feet of a brother or sister we are, in effect, renewing our baptism vows, which was our pledge not to let our will get in the way of God’s will. God’s will for us is to serve, and to serve all the time, even when it might be inconvenient. Serving is dying to self for the sake of someone else.
Secondly, when, by God’s grace, our entire life is dedicated to service, by our attitude and action, we become like the prophets of old, a sign unto the nations.
Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Interior da Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar
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