A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Learning more about Communion

Recently, we have had several opportunities, scheduled close together, to share Communion as a congregation. That also means that we’ve had several opportunities in which people have asked different questions about why we do what we do in celebrating Communion, so I thought I’d address some of those in the newsletter this week.

Q: Do Presbyterians believe anything “happens” in Communion, or is it just symbolic?

A: Reformed theology (the tradition from which Presbyterians come) has always said that we don’t simply remember Jesus in Communion, but Christ is actually present in the sacrament each time we celebrate it. Instead of Jesus coming down to be physically present in the bread and wine, as our Roman Catholic friends believe, Reformed Christians believe that in Communion the Holy Spirit lifts us up into Christ’s presence through the bread and wine, feeding and strengthening us in spirit and in faith with Christ.

That is why you hear a lot of language in the communion prayers about God “pouring out” the Holy Spirit upon us and upon the bread and wine, so that we can be nourished spiritually on Christ. It’s also why those who are serving communion receive it themselves before they serve others; to be able to share something, you must first have it yourself!

Q: What’s the difference between calling it the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist?

A: It’s really more of a distinction than a difference; each of those terms has a particular theological emphasis, but without excluding the others. “Lord’s Supper” emphasizes that it is Christ who initiated the sacrament and commanded us to do so, as well. “Communion” emphasizes that Christ is truly present in the sacrament; we are communing with Christ, not simply remembering him. And “Eucharist” is based on the Greek word for thanksgiving, so it emphasizes that we respond to communion with Christ with gratitude and joy.

Q: Why do we have Communion once a month? Shouldn’t it be more special?

A: Actually, John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition, thought Communion was so important that we should celebrate it at least once a week! At the time of the Reformation, Roman Catholics generally only took Communion once a year; Calvin felt this was depriving most Christians of one of the most reliable experiences of God’s grace, but the Session in Geneva felt that once a week was too big of a leap from once a year, and was only willing to approve four times a year.

Calvin conceded defeat, but said that while he thought this was wrong, he hoped future generations would correct it. That took awhile, but in the 1970s Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians finally began rethinking their practices around Communion in light of early Reformation theology.

Again, most congregations felt once a week was too big of a leap, but once a month became a common practice so that Communion would feel like a regular and integral part of worship; a meal to sustain us rather than a rare treat.

What other questions do you have about Communion or other worship practices? Let me know and
I will try to address them in the future!

Grace and Peace,