Likely last weekend or next, your church will partake in some thimbles of grape juice and pieces of unleavened crackers. Almost every Adventist Church I know engages in the tradition of either ending the old year or beginning the new year with communion. From the ordinance of humility (footwashing) to the sharing of bread and “wine”, the ideas of mini baptism, recommitment, and renewal all tie nicely into a ceremony that is perfect for this transitional season. But, as lovely and beautiful as our modern communion services are, one thing lost throughout the centuries of liturgy is that this service was first and foremost a meal together. After all, the word “communion” itself denotes coming together in unity.
It is at the Last Supper that Christ gathered with His pupils for their final shared Passover dinner. He looked at them and spoke about being one. They literally tore bread and ate it from each others’ hands. They ate and drank together. They looked into each others eyes. They touched one another. These visceral experiences involved genuine communion, not merely going through ceremonial motions. The upper room atmosphere was filled with genuine emotion and sharing. Judas wound up leaving because it got too real. Undoubtedly, when Christ called him out to go do what he had to do quickly, he didn’t hesitate. It was likely a relief. He wouldn’t have been able to stand it in there for much longer. The deception he held in his heart would have rendered him unable to stay in the midst of such a gathering throughout the entire duration. Jesus and the other Eleven were bonding in a real and true way. Judas had to be uncomfortable. This was a gathering of the heart.
Communion was instituted not only for the first Disciples, but it was established for Disciples throughout the ages to “do this in remembrance of [Jesus]”. The idea of sharing this meal together is to serve as a physical reminder that we are one: one faith, one Lord, one baptism. With all our recent talk of how to cultivate unity, we already have something, instituted by Christ, designed to promote it! But rarely do we replicate the elements that made the upper room experience a tangible manifestation of the connectedness of Christ’s followers. Instead, most often we sit in pews while facing forward. Pastors, elders, deacons and deaconesses distribute the emblems in a synchronized fashion. Elegant and orderly though it may be, our contemporary practice replicates very little of the original. And perhaps because we’ve lost so much of the “communion” from our faith “community” we feel compelled to manufacture and coerce the “union” part. If we had more opportunities to truly unite, maybe we wouldn’t need to be reminded that we are one.
What exactly do I mean? Well, this extends beyond the Lord’s Supper. It has to do with our interactions as a body as a whole. Although social media was sold as a way to bring us closer together, in many ways we’ve never been farther apart. We carry on conversations over great distances with members of our church who we’ve never met. That seems like a blessing, but in ways that can also be a curse. Without looking into each others’ eyes, talking voice to voice, and being able to reach out and touch someone, much of communication gets lost in translation – even if we’re speaking the same language. Social experiment after experiment have shown that people talk to each other differently face to face than they do online, and that people are quicker to label and make conclusions about others when they aren’t looking at each other in the same room. Somehow these mediums that are supposed to assist us in getting to know each other have made it more difficult.
Now that is not to say all our disagreements will suddenly evaporate just because we are face to face. If that were the case, GC2015 and its aftermath wouldn’t have happened. However, the more we view church as a conglomerate organization and less like a collection of individuals who choose to commune together in oneness in Christ, the easier it is to prioritize the workings of the organizational machinery over the members of the body. The “face forward and do these motions in unison” ideology has the potential to permeate every facet of our church if we allow it to. From the local congregation on communion day to the GC building at meetings, we need to recapture the essence of community. Although the sheer size and vast scope of our growth precludes us from perfectly mimicking the intimacy of a 12-person group, there are some components we would do well to hold dear.
Christ left disciples, not departments. And it is possible to neglect the organic elements of community in favor of a hollow facsimile of communion by policy edict. So just how do we reinstitute a culture of true communion that reaches across continents and languages? It occurs one group at a time, one congregation at a time, with iindividual members intentionally choosing to look each other in the eyes.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/courtney-ray
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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