This Sunday, as with every first Sunday of the month here at First Pres, we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion in the Traditional worship service. In the Presbyterian Church, like most Protestant churches, we observe two sacraments in the life of the church: Communion and Baptism (and we’ll celebrate a baptism next week!). We believe sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ directly, as attested in Scripture. So while we have great respect for rituals like confession, marriage, ordination, etc., we do not consider them sacraments the way the Roman Catholic Church does.

As we continue in our Lenten journey, this seemed like a good time to take a closer look at what we believe about Communion and how we incorporate it into our larger discipleship of Christ, both as individuals and as a congregation. So here are the most common questions I get about Communion, along with some reflective answers.

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

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 received it yourself!

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

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?

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.

Recognizing that many would feel that once a week was too big of a leap from once a year, he proposed once a month instead, but even then the Session 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, though some have done that. But once a month became a common practice so that Communion would feel like a regular and integral part of worship: a common meal to sustain us rather than a rare treat.

Grace and Peace,