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Names for the Lord's Supper; Lord's Supper Liturgies

Q What should we call the sacrament of the Lord’s table: the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist?

A Each of these names is theologically and pastorally significant.

“The Lord’s Supper” conveys that Jesus is the host of this meal and we celebrate the sacrament because of his command.

“Communion” speaks to the profound way in which we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection and with each other as members of Christ’s body, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a rough translation of the word in 1 Corinthians 10:16 that is sometimes translated “participation” or “sharing.”

“Eucharist”—a term not as likely to be used in Reformed churches—is based on the Greek term for gratitude. This term highlights the fact that Jesus’ words of institution were spoken as he gave thanks, and it reminds us that the fundamental disposition or emotion we cultivate at the table is not guilt, obeisance, or obligation, but gratitude and wonder.

I encourage you not to settle on any one of these terms but rather to use them all, taking care to teach your congregation the beauty conveyed
by each.

Q What is nonnegotiable in Lord’s Supper liturgies? In our church, our team does a lot of cutting and pasting of liturgical texts, and it’s not always clear to me that we know what we’re doing.

A While a concern for liturgical creativity has many benefits, this is certainly one downside. I know quite a few Orthodox and Catholic Christians who find it inconceivable and even offensive that we Protestants would be as cavalier about sacramental liturgies as we often are.

The antidote to these problems is taking great care to learn about the wisdom reflected in historic liturgies, to let that wisdom govern our choices in adapting texts, and to teach that wisdom over time not just to pastors but also to worshipers. Quite often, people decimate historic Lord’s Supper liturgies not because they are malicious but because they are not aware of the value or significance of a specific part of the liturgy or form.

Here are elements of the Lord’s Supper that I can’t imagine doing without:

  • Words of Institution. Reading Jesus’ words of institution serves as warrant for the celebration of the feast, and it conveys the sense that we are invited by Jesus to come to the Table in a spirit of joyful obedience.
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving. Just as Jesus gave thanks at the first Lord’s Supper, so we too offer our thanksgiving for the whole work of God in creation and new creation; for the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus; and for the renewing gift of the Holy Spirit in the church and all the world.
  • Consecration. We pray for the Holy Spirit to make our eating and drinking a sharing in Jesus’ body and blood.
  • Invitation. A clear welcome to the table in which we clarify who exactly is welcome to partake, especially in light of differing practices across Christian congregations.
  • Eating and drinking. A simple method for distributing bread and cup in ways that genuinely help people participate in a deeply intentional way, attentive to how the supper signs and seals their communion with God and with each other.

Other practices—such as the use of the Lord’s Prayer, passing the peace, singing a hymn of praise during the prayer of thanksgiving, and the use of time-honored phrases such as “Lift up your heart”—are not absolutely essential, though again I find it difficult to imagine giving them up. Little would be gained; much would be lost.

You may be wondering, Are these requirements written down anywhere? Most Presbyterian denominations have denominational directories for worship. The Reformed Church in America has a constitutional liturgy (http://images.rca.org/docs/worship/lordsday.pdf) that clearly reflects this. For the Christian Reformed Church, see the Agenda for Synod, 1994, and the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government. Similar church order documents are available in most Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal denominations. And many of the best books by Baptist, Evangelical and other free church authors on the Lord’s Supper reflect similar advice.

I realize that we live in an era in which church order documents are often ignored or dismissed as quaint or irrelevant. But I am convinced that this is a big mistake. Church orders, while never perfect, are best thought of as a form of wisdom literature not unlike the book of Proverbs. When churches start ignoring or dismissing that wisdom, they quite often end up perpetuating over time the very problem that the church order was designed to solve. In each of these documents, you’ll find guidance that matches or supersedes what I have space to explain here.