Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Calvin's Birthday Present

Here's an idea for a birthday present.

For John Calvin, whose 500th birthday we'll celebrate (others may observe, and most will ignore) on July 10--let's have communion in our churches on every Lord's Day. In his own time, Calvin was never able to convince anybody of the necessity of weekly communion and the failure of faith when obedience to the bidding of Christ to take, eat and drink was less frequent. So what a nice gift we Presbyterian and Reformed sorts, not to mention many other sorts, could package up for our noted ancestor if we decided and acted to come to the Lord's Table every Sunday.

If you think that's not likely, you're absolutely right. Why is it that so many Protestant Christians are adverse to frequent communion? Here are some of the reasons I've heard:

1. "If we did it every week, it would lose it's meaning. When we do it just a few times a year, it's more special."

Well, yes, I answer sarcastically. Just like we should reserve displays of affection for our spouses to quarterly or monthly, else they get used to the hugs and kisses and think they're not special.

2. "It's a lot of trouble, with all those cups to fill and clean, and bread to bake and everything."

To which I answer, again sarcastically: We sure wouldn't want to make our worship of God in the least inconvenient.

3. "We don't want to do that. That's what the Catholics do."

My reply, sarcastically one more time: And we don't want to be like, well, like them.

I can't really believe that people in our churches and on our governing boards are as silly as that, so I look around for more sensible reasons for the preference for infrequent communion.

For one thing, most people have forgotten what the Lord's Supper is all about. At the Lord's Table we are fed in order that all of us together may be nurtured and nourished as the Body of Christ, and carry out his ministry in the world. We have allowed the meaning to leak out of it, and for many people it's an empty ritual. In a word, Communion has become boring.

Number two is that we've forgotten about the witness of Scripture, how "breaking of bread" was "steadfastly" observed (Acts 2:42) in the early church, and that Paul testified strongly to the Corinthians about the importance of the sacrament. Another evidence of our corporate biblical illiteracy.

A third factor is undoubtedly the "stiff-neckedness" of Christians in persisting in ways and beliefs contrary to what we all pretty much know is right anyhow. Something there about what they used to call "total depravity."

So those are some reasons for why we don't have weekly communion. And I'm sure others will be able to come up with more. What then are good reasons why we should celebrate the sacrament every week when we go to church?

1. Lord's Day worship is incomplete without it. From the very beginning, the Christian sacrament of the Table was joined to the reading of the sacred scripture to make the unique service of the followers of Jesus. It is the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to which many of us were ordained. The two simply belong together, and one without the other is like trying to clap with one hand.

2. Communion when observed is, among other things, the gift of unity for all the people brought together in the Body of Christ. It is a shared action, a joint effort, a common rejoicing. It makes us the Church.

3. The Lord's Supper is rich in meaning, not just meaning we hear about, but sensual messages of touch and taste and smell that defy description. It is an experience that affects us in ways words do not and cannot.

4. The most powerful and simplest reason is that we were graciously invited by Jesus to come, take, eat and drink--and that invitation, coming from him, is no less than a command to us.

If we did have communion every week--and those who seriously follow this practice know this--we would soon find that we cannot live without it. Just as we cannot live without the hugs and kisses of affection from those we love, so we cannot live without the celebration of the love of Jesus Christ in the sacrament. It is, in fact, a means by which God's grace comes to us. Why would we ever want to ignore it?

It would be a nice present, I think, for John Calvin if we finally came around to weekly communion. Something like a big 500th Birthday hug and kiss for him. What do you think?


  1. I've heard the same reasons for not celebrating communion... somehow we've tethered the sacrament of communion to a labor-intensive preparation method. So now the preparation drives the frequency. Is the practice of taking communion simultaneously with pre-cut bread and pre-filled tiny cups really worth not taking communion more frequently?

    Somehow I doubt it. This Sunday, we bypassed the intensive preparation and celebrated communion together with a loaf of bread and a single cup by intinction. It was beautiful and it flowed organically in a way that the pre-planned method doesn't always.

    Shall the method of sharing this sacrament determine its availability? I think it's worth asking.

  2. As a layperson, I think I'd like it if communion was part of the regular service. One of the most moving things I've ever done is assist with communion, and everyone should have that opportunity. Our church uses loaves and intinction, and while it takes a little while, I'd happily give up one of the three 'praise' songs to make room.

    Another reason to celebrate communion is that it creates a space in the service that I enjoy as a chance to reflect rather than listen and react. Longer and less directed than a silent prayer, as I make my way back to my seat and sit and wait for others to be served, I enjoy that little quiet space to listen for the voice of God.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!