Communion and COVID-19
The coronavirus has taken many things away from us - our freedom to gather as a church is one of them. This means we will not be able to gather together for my favorite service of the year - Maundy Thursday. This service commemorates the Passover celebration of Jesus and his disciples where he instituted the Lord’s Supper the night before he was betrayed and crucified. It prepares us for the Easter weekend and focuses our attention on the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf as we sing, hear the word of God preached and partake in communion together.
No service means no communion. The question of what to do with communion when our church cannot gather together is one that has been on my mind since our isolation has been demanded by our government. Primarily the question I’ve been wrestling with is this - should we do communion in our homes as individuals or families? I believe the answer is no. Let me explain why.
The Lord’s Supper is fundamentally an act of worship given by God. As an act of divinely instituted worship, we are to participate in communion as God desires. Thus the question of how to do communion is a theological question before it is a practical one. Unfortunately, Scripture does not deal with the issues we are facing today, or anything even close, so we must explore the nature of communion and then glean our answer from that theological picture as best we can. Thankfully we have Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11.
It is for us to remember the sacrifice of Christ
The word "remembrance" is used twice in Paul’s instructions. Once in relation to the bread in v 24 and once in relation to the cup in v 25. Christ gave us this simple “supper" to help us keep him in memory, especially his body and blood given up in for us when he died on the cross. We eat and drink in “remembrance” of his sacrifice.
It is for us to proclaim the sacrifice of Christ
If "remembering" means calling to mind what Christ did by his death, then "proclaiming" means calling to each other what Christ did by his death. John Piper reminds us that this is the normal movement of worship - the preciousness of Christ presses itself on our memory, and then that inner remembering breaks out in proclaiming the worth of what we remember. Proclaiming necessitates those to whom we proclaim; the other people in the church.
These two meanings of the Lord's Supper support each other. Remembering enables us to proclaim since you can't proclaim what you don't remember; proclaiming helps us remember because we need his death to be proclaimed with word and bread and cup lest we forget the preciousness of his death.
It is for us to participate in together with other believers
We need to notice that we “come together” to eat. (v 17; the “breaking of bread” also indicates fellowship - v 24) We cannot properly observe the Lord's Supper alone. This is a strong implication of the previous point of proclamation, but there are other things to notice from within 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. We come without division (v 18). We wait for one another (v 33), and if we don't it is not the Lord's Supper we are eating (v 20ff). We share a common loaf (10:17). We show that we who are many are one body. (10:17)
It provides spiritual nourishment for our souls
Where do we see this in the text? We see it in the fact that the Lord's Supper is a supper. We are eating and drinking. Why are we eating and drinking? Eating and drinking are for nourishing and sustaining life. Here Jesus tells us that the bread we are eating is his body, and the cup we are drinking is the new covenant in his blood. So eating and drinking the elements of communion are no ordinary eating and drinking. The nourishment that is in the Lord's Supper comes not from bread and wine (or juice). Paul already said in v 22 that we should take care of our bodily needs by eating at home before we come. This supper is not about physical nourishment. It is about spiritual nourishment. (cf. Duncan)
It is to be presided over by the church leaders
The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance given to the church and is to be served by the leaders of the church - the elders and deacons. The offices and ordinances are connected as gifts of God to the church for their spiritual benefit. (Ephesians 4:11-13) The church gathered is not just about two or three gathered in Christ’s name, but a group of people who have chosen to identify together and who have affirmed divinely appointed leaders, including a pastor, through whom God’s gifts of grace are mediated to them.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament or ordinance given to the church, not to individuals. On account of this, it is to be celebrated together as a church and not as individuals in our homes or as small groups separate from the greater church. There are times when a believer is hospitalized, in long-term care, or have some serious physical issue that prevents them from regularly participating in the life of the church. In situations such as these, the church elders should go to the home of the individual to participate in communion with them. This period of self-isolation, however, is not one of those situations.
We look forward to the day, which we trust will come very soon, when we can participate together at the Lord’s table. Until then, find encouragement and nourishment in the gospel.