Is your experience of communion reminiscent of a funeral or a wedding? Is your participation quick and tasteless, or does it give you something to chew on and savor? Our view of the Lord’s Supper reflects our view of the gospel. As goes the table, so goes the gospel.
J. Todd Billings opens his book Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018) with the wager “that a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself.” This series marries theology and practice, Word and table, explanation and participation. Each week looks at one of the theological or spiritual facets of this sacrament.
It would not be right to talk about communion only in a worship setting. But this series invites congregations to participate weekly during Lent. And as you move from sermon to the Lord’s Supper each week there are suggestions for how your participation in the Lord’s Supper that week can mirror the theme of the sacrament the pastor has just preached on. Different weeks also lend themselves to discussing questions about who can participate, participation of children, how often we should partake, and how we “recognize the body.”’
A congregation is not limited to using this series only during Lent. But Lent is a meaningful home for this series because the meal hinges on the broken body and shed blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ death we are already considered as having died (Romans 6:3). The same goes for his resurrection (Romans 6:5). A deeper focus on and regular practice of the Lord’s Supper during Lent invites a congregation into a deeper participation into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It invites us into a deeper participation in the gospel and gospel living.
The title for this series is borrowed from Gordon T. Smith’s book A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005). The themes for each week are taken from that book as well as Billings’ Remembrance, Communion, and Hope. These are helpful to study in advance along with section IV.XVII in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For some theological breadth you may consider reading Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018) for an Orthodox position.
First Sunday of Lent
1 Corinthians 10:14–17, 11:27–34
“The Lord’s Supper as a Fellowship with Christ and One Another”
There are two things to take to heart. First, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of our union with Christ’s body in heaven. Everything that is true about Christ is now true about you (see John Calvin’s Institutes, IV.XVII.2). Signs point to a greater reality, and seals certify that something is authentic. This meal points us to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and stamps the reality of Jesus as Lord and Savior on our lives by faith and through the Holy Spirit. Second, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of our union with Christ’s body on earth: the church. Our faith—like this sacrament—is deeply personal, but not private. As this meal draws us into deeper gratitude for and dependence on Jesus it also draws us into deeper gratitude for and dependence on our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A key word in 1 Corinthians 10:16 is “participation” (koinonia in Greek). People might be more familiar with the translation “fellowship” from 1 John 1:3. Suddenly “fellowship time” means more than coffee after church! In this meal we are simultaneously participating in Christ’s death and resurrection and our fellowship with one another. St. Cyprian wrote that “you cannot have God as Father without having the church as Mother.” God created us for communion—a right relationship with God and with others. This could be illustrated by describing the vertical and horizontal aspects of our union with Christ’s body in heaven (vertical) and his body of the church (horizontal).
The practical application comes in the call to “recognize the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29). If our union with Christ’s body is central to this sacrament, we will not want to participate in a way that causes ourselves or others to be disjointed with Christ or his church. The good news is that our worthiness is based not on our worthiness, but on Christ’s. As you transition from sermon to table, consider including a prayer of confession (e.g., The Worship Sourcebook, 1st ed., 2.2.54), and the passing of the peace before inviting people to participate.
For this first Sunday you can invite people to come forward to receive the bread and wine or juice. Have servers break off a piece of bread from a loaf to signify our union with one another. The bread could be dipped in a cup, or people could be given an individual cup to take back to their seat. Sing songs as people come forward. Once everyone has received the elements, invite people to eat at the same time and then drink at the same time. This signifies our response to coming forward to receive Christ and also our participation as a unified body.
For each Sunday in this series you can invite everyone to come forward whether they are participating or not. Those not participating can make a sign, such as crossing their arms, and one of the servers may then pray a blessing on them.
“Lift Up Your Hearts unto the Lord” Stassen, LUYH 844, SSS 685, WR 120
“We Will Feast in the House of Zion” McCracken
“Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God” Getty and Townend, LUYH 746
“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” Hernaman, LUYH 132, GtG 166, WR 252 (see also the Zach Hicks arrangement published by Advent Birmingham)
How Often Should We Participate?
Scripture does not have a specific verse that says “You should do this every X weeks.” But the picture given in the New Testament is that communion was a frequent, likely weekly activity. In Acts 2:42–46 and 20:7 we get a picture of the early church participating in communion, or at least a meal that resembles the Lord’s Supper, each week. 1 Corinthians 11:26 does not tell us how frequently we should participate, but tells us what we proclaim: “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,” which is what we proclaim in sermons and the assurance of pardon each week.
We also can look to how the church has celebrated communion weekly for most of its history, and in many denominations still does. We can look to our Reformed tradition and John Calvin’s belief that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated “at least weekly” (Institutes, IV.XVII.43).
When we consider what this meal signs and seals, it seems only fitting that this sacrament is at the center of our remembrance, our union with Christ and one another, our forgiveness, covenant renewal, nourishment, hope, and thanksgiving.
But for all of the good reasons why churches should celebrate communion weekly, what I find more convincing is that the arguments against weekly, or frequent, communion seem to not hold up very well.
People will point out that if we participate weekly it will be less special or lose its significance. But why can we say that about the communion plate but not the offering plates? If we want a more meaningful prayer life, we would pray more often, not less. If we want to be rooted in the Bible, we will read and study it more, not less. If we want to live in union with Christ and one another and have it continually sealed upon us that we are adopted as sons and daughters of God through Christ, we will celebrate this sacrament more, not less. In fact, if we take communion infrequently, there is a danger of making too much out of it and turning it into an idol.
Another hesitation is that if we focus too much on communion we will lose the focus on the Word. But perhaps ending each sermon by moving to the table of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood will ensure that all of our sermons are truly gospel-centered. I heard it said in a preaching class in seminary that the benefit of celebrating the Lord’s Supper after the sermon is that if the sermon is lousy, at least the gospel will still be proclaimed! Moving from the preached Word to the experienced table may better protect against preaching the commands of Scripture without its grace.
The reality is that some churches are not going to make a shift to weekly communion. Our congregation did not make that shift after this series. But if a congregation does note celebrate weekly throughout the year, I strongly suggest weekly communion during Lent. The more you can discuss this matter, the more you will likely realize that the issue is not whether we should celebrate it weekly, but that we can.
Second Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31–34; Mark 14:22–25
“The Lord’s Supper as a Renewal of Baptismal Vows”
The Lord’s Supper is a meal through which we are renewed in our baptismal identity: God’s covenant people becoming God’s kingdom people. Mark’s account of the Last Supper is the only one that references both the covenant and the kingdom.
We are covenant people. This is the kind of relationship that God forms with God’s people. It is a relationship of promise. God said to Israel, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). God initiates. God sets the terms. God establishes the boundaries. And in the end, in the dramatic displays of shed blood (Genesis 15; Exodus 24), God guarantees the covenant will be kept and fulfilled. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus shows that he is the one fulfilling the covenant promises. The time has come, and a new covenant has been made through the blood of Jesus.
Baptism initiates us into the covenant family of God. It signifies and seals our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our sins are washed away with his blood. We pass through water, like Israel through the Red Sea, and we receive a new identity. We have a distinctive way of being in the world.
If baptism is a one-time sacrament signifying our union with Christ, then the Lord’s Supper is the regular renewing and re-enacting of our baptism. The Lord’s Supper renews us in that adopted identity throughout our lives. We are now part of this new covenant people living as citizens in the kingdom of God—a new way of living that clearly shows the reign of Jesus in our work, families, relationships, and character. All aspects of life are being washed so that our lives become a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Taste and see that God is good!
This sermon can give you the opportunity to talk about the practical question of who should participate in the Lord’s Supper and to make the connection between the sacrament of baptism and the invitation to the Lord’s table. If this is a covenant meal for the covenant people of God, then it is a meal for baptized believers. This is also an opportunity to discuss including children at the Lord’s Supper as baptized believers. It is also an opportunity to invite unbaptized believers to talk with you about taking the plunge.
Make your baptismal font accessible for people as they come forward. Direct people to come up one aisle if needed so they can pass by the font on their way to receive the elements. Make sure to have water in it so that people can dip a finger in as they come forward to remember their own baptism.
Third Sunday of Lent
1 Corinthians 11:23–26
“The Lord’s Supper as Remembrance”
The emphasis on remembrance is a dominant facet of the evangelical understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Your church may even have a table up front with the inscription “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” But while the Lord’s Supper is certainly more than just an act of remembrance, it is also nothing less.
Remembering is a gift that equips and enables us to be faithful in the present and hopeful for the future. In the Lord’s Supper we remember the who, what, and why symbolized in this sacrament. Who: We remember Jesus as Savior and Lord. Not only do we remember him at this meal, but we also encounter him. He is both the host and the feast. What: We remember that his body was broken and his blood was shed on the cross, which means we enter into his death and resurrection at this meal. Why: Jesus gave himself for the forgiveness of sins, for new creation in his name, all because he loves you. Remembering this reminds us of our identity, where it comes from, and how we got it.
Memory is important for identity. Doing this meal “in remembrance of me” is similar to how Israel celebrated the Passover meal in remembrance of their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12). It involves retelling the story of what God has done for us. It involves telling the story whenever children ask us what it means (Exodus 12:26–27). Throughout the Bible God connects memory of the most significant events of a community with food and drink: Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles, the climax of Jesus’ life on the cross. We continue to do this with birthdays and anniversaries and family reunions. We don’t just remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection through the words, but through the bread and cup.
You could either repeat one of the past two Sundays or serve it in the manner your church typically does so that there are not too many new instructions to remember. Use Christocentric songs during the passing of elements that emphasize the central place of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
“The Lord’s Supper as Bread from Heaven”
Dale Bruner writes in his commentary on the gospel of John about a Los Angeles Times column in which celebrities are interviewed and are always asked where their favorite place is to eat on the weekend. After years of interviews, no one has ever mentioned the church. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy our deepest hunger and longings. Everyone is trying to satisfy their desires. We are all looking for fullness, or at least the sense that we are “enough.” People are more religious than ever today. The problem is that we’re looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places.
People are looking for life in their identity, so they make their careers their god. People are looking for a sense of self-worth, so they make their grades, degrees, or image their god. People are looking for immortality, so they make medicine their savior. We eat this all up thinking it will give us a life worth living, but these things are only short-term fixes that wear off and leave us desperate for another fix. But in John 6:53 Jesus makes a remarkable statement: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
The Lord’s Supper is a meal of spiritual nourishment. It is spiritual because Christ is in heaven, and so we are lifted up to him by the Holy Spirit. And it is nourishment because union with him is life. This is where we can highlight the significance of bread and wine. John Calvin says that “bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul.” About the wine, he writes, “We must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden” (Institutes, IV.XVII.3).
We are people who need to eat, drink, and be nourished regularly. So the theme of this sermon is a good one to use to discuss the question of how often we should participate (see sidebar).
You could try inviting people to come up in groups of about twenty people to form a circle. Have multiple stations with two servers at each one. One server walks around the group giving a piece of bread from the loaf to each person. Another server follows with a tray of cups. When all have both elements, they are invited to eat together, then drink together. The group may be seated, and the next group of twenty comes up.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“The Lord’s Supper as Real Presence”
If I were driving on the highway and saw a wonderful sign on the side of the road with beautiful artwork and calligraphy describing the city just down the road, there is a chance I might stop to get a better look at the sign, enjoy it, and maybe even take a picture. But I would not be satisfied with looking at this great sign and then turning around and going home. I would continue on to the real thing the sign was pointing to. We do not come to the Lord’s Supper merely to receive bread and wine, but to receive Christ and to be united with him.
Much ink has been used by great theologians writing about how Jesus might (or might not) be present in the Supper. Is he physically in the meal (transubstantiation)? Is he with the elements in the meal (consubstantiation)? Is he symbolically in the meal (Zwingli’s memorialist position)? What did Jesus mean by “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”? Reformed Christians say Jesus is present spiritually in the elements. It can be called “spiritual real presence.”
We can highlight what it is by pointing to the Belgic Confession, which tells us that “we do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Art. 35). “By the Spirit through faith” makes all the difference because the emphasis is not on Christ descending upon the elements on a sacramental escalator every time we partake of this meal. The emphasis is on ascent. By the Spirit through faith we are lifted up to him and experience a taste of heaven and his reign. Lift up your hearts!
Jesus’ words in John 6 highlight the importance of his real presence in this meal because his life, death, and resurrection are also real. They are not ideas or abstract concepts. Our salvation comes through a real person who was fully God and fully man. This is also a message to highlight how Christians filled at this meal are also to be the real presence of Christ as his ambassadors in the world: by the Spirit through faith.
In whatever way you serve communion this Sunday, invite people to take a moment to hold and look at the elements before they eat and drink them. Encourage people to reflect on what the bread and cup point to and to remember where Christ is as their hearts are lifted up to him.
Luke 22:14–27; Revelation 19:6–9
Q&A 52 (see also ch. 33 of the Westminster Confession)
“The Lord’s Supper as a Declaration of Hope”
These texts give us pictures of two meals that are both centered on Jesus. The meal in the gospel of Luke foreshadows another meal. The Last Supper is the last meal of the Passover era and the first meal of the Lord’s Supper era. While eating one meal Jesus is looking forward to another meal. We live between two meals.
Alexander Schmemann says that taking communion is an expression of hope, a symbolic participation in the future renewal of creation. Three things happen every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper: we are renewed in our hope, we declare what our hope is, and we are given a foretaste of the Revelation 19 supper of the Lamb, the great wedding feast of heaven and earth.
On Palm Sunday we remember that Jesus is king, and we anticipate the wedding of heaven and earth (Revelation 21). This meal unites us with this mission and calls us to be living as a foretaste of that great reunion. Palm Sunday also highlights the upside-down nature of this kingdom by remembering that Jesus’ life began in a manger where donkeys feed, and it was brought to its climax on a donkey, with people feeding on him.
If members of your congregation have been involved in a local or global mission project or trip then this could be a Sunday to invite them to share about their work and how they could see the future reality of the kingdom of God breaking into the present.
Invite people to come forward to participate in the sacrament. Invite people to look at the sanctuary doors as they return to their pews, to think of someone they hope would come to faith and join in this sacrament one day, and to pray for that person as they wait for everyone to return to their seat.
Matthew 26:26–28; Luke 15:11–24
“The Lord’s Supper as a Table of Mercy”
Whether you have a stand-alone sermon as part of your Good Friday service or have an extended explanation and invitation to the table, Good Friday is a time to highlight that Jesus’ body was broken and his blood was shed “for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.”
The parable of the prodigal son is an imagination-grabbing story about the Father’s love and forgiveness. Like the father in Jesus’ parable, God forgives us by remembering we are his children (Isaiah 49:15–16). He longs for reunion. We put our trust in how that forgiveness is given: through the self-giving love of God on the cross, taking our guilt and shame upon himself. This is what makes Good Friday good.
God makes the sacrifice by sending his Son to die for us, on behalf of us, because he loves us. The only sacrifice we can offer is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, because forgiveness does not depend on our sacrifice, our work, our faithfulness, or even our turning to God. It is given because the Father loves us, and the Son came to save us. And we are invited to receive it and be welcomed to his feast just like we are invited to receive this holy meal.
Invite people to come up the aisle with a cross in front of it, using that time to look at the cross and thank God for his self-giving love for us for the forgiveness of sins. Consider putting the baptismal font in a place where people can walk by it and dip their fingers in.
“Meeting the Risen Jesus in the Breaking of Bread”
Sometimes this sacrament is called the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes it is called communion. Another common term is the Eucharist, from the Greek noun eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” We participate as an act of gratitude for the grace and life we receive through the crucified and risen Jesus. If the Lord’s Supper is all about our union with Christ, it must reflect the reality that Jesus is risen. It is a celebration, not a funeral. There is space for lament, guilt, grief, and confession. But these are met with joy, celebration, and gratitude.
In Luke 24 Jesus moves the two Emmaus Road walkers from grief to joy in three ways. First, he corrects their understanding of his death. The walkers say, “They crucified him, but we had hoped he would redeem Israel.” Jesus says, “They crucified him, and that was how he did redeem Israel—and through Israel, the whole world.” Second, he shows the cohesiveness of his death and resurrection with Scripture by “explaining to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Why didn’t they take notes?!) We can now understand the Old Testament through a “Jesus lens.” Third, he confirms his presence to them at the table. He is risen—he is risen indeed! The first meal described in the Bible is in Genesis 3, in which people’s eyes were opened. That was the beginning of death, the fall, and the grief of all creation. But now these two Emmaus walkers saw Jesus take bread, give thanks, and break it, and “their eyes were opened and they recognized him,” and their hearts burned within them (Luke 24:31–32).
Can you see what Jesus was all about? Can you see what the gospel is all about? It’s about new life! As N. T. Wright says, “Resurrection is primarily a matter of living.” Our view of the Lord’s Supper reflects our view of the gospel. As goes the table, so goes the gospel. How many of us have an understanding of the Supper that ends on Good Friday? This is a meal in which we are lifted up to Christ, who lives and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. This is a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, not just a funeral. Yes, Jesus died. But he is risen! Are not your hearts burning within you?
Consider repeating one of the patterns you used in this series that seemed to resonate with the congregation.