Churches introduce the Lord’s Supper in their liturgies in various ways. Some use a recommended form, while others write their own. The latter might explore a topic such as the presence of Jesus at communion, or communion and children. Here, I’d like to consider another aspect of the Lord’s Supper: how it addresses the burdens we carry when we come to the table.
Some 30 years ago I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue. For many years at communion I was puzzled by David’s words in Psalm 103: “He heals all your diseases.” I did not experience such healing. How might the Lord’s Supper speak to persons affected by disability or ailments?
Health issues are only one example of the burdens (other than sin) that we bring to the Lord’s Table. The list is long: marriage difficulties, abuse in one’s past, grief over loved ones, whether living or deceased. These days, international news would also have us ask how communion addresses Christians experiencing persecution. How might our Lord comfort persons who bring these burdens to his table? Or does he speak only of forgiveness of sin?
I am convinced that the Lord’s Supper proclaims, in the main, the forgiveness of sin to all who repent, and who see Jesus as “the One who was to come” to redeem them. Jesus himself said that his blood was shed for many, for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28). There are many texts throughout the New Testament that make this clear.
But in introducing communion we generally say very little about the other burdens I’ve mentioned. Granted, the emphasis on forgiveness of sins may remind people that God not only forgives, but that God is their Rock, that God loves them, and will never leave or forsake them—a comfort for all who are burdened. The God who forgives is a God of covenant faithfulness. Jesus said: “This cup . . . is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). It stirs me to think of the many to whom these words have been repeated for two millennia. Still, I would suggest that we should speak not only of sin but of all burdens when we celebrate communion.
In Christianity Today (Dec. 2010), Scot McKnight described some apparent differences between the gospels and Paul’s letters. He wrote that many take Paul to focus on justification through faith, while in the gospel narratives Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom. In my view, most celebrations of communion focus mostly on Paul and the doctrine of justification rather than on Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom.
Paul, when he wrote about the poor, had in mind the financially poor in Jerusalem, and when he wrote about suffering it was generally in the context of people suffering for their faith.
Jesus, however, reached out to the poor and suffering all around him in ways that were part of his own suffering. The narrative structure of the four gospels clearly reveals the way Jesus reaches out to the marginalized. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah also bore our “infirmities and diseases” (Matt. 8:17). See also Jesus’ inaugural sermon (Luke 4:16-27), some discussions he had with John’s disciples (Luke 7:20-23), and the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24).
Christ’s gospel message has been described as a “gospel to the poor.” It is for these poor that Jesus has come, and he taught that he still takes his place among the “least of his brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:31-46), including the hungry, the stranger, and the sick. It is in their lives, burdened as they often are, that he became incarnate. They are part of Jesus’ fellowship, and their burdens become his. This too needs to be considered at his table of communion. We can and should mention Jesus’ love for “the least” and his presence among them. We can link Jesus’ death to his resurrection. We can speak of hope and of new life .
The gospel that Jesus preached is this larger message. It is the story of Jesus, who through his death reconciled us to God. But the story is not only about forgiveness, it is also about the New Exodus for Israel, and, for us it is also about new life. Jesus’ resurrection confirms that reconciliation and opens it up. So forgiveness is only part of a still-unfolding story (see N .T. Wright’s Simply Good News, HarperOne, 2015). Should we not be more specific about this larger message when we celebrate communion?
At communion we may speak of the love of God, evident through the Lord’s Supper, that leads us to love and serve our neighbor. The gospels would have us be more specific about community and about our attitude to those who are burdened or troubled. In each of the gospels, Jesus very forcefully commands us to take up our cross and follow him. I’ve seen various interpretations of these texts, but one is that we too should bear each other’s burdens, “for this is the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; Paul also has much to say about community). Lewis Smedes has written that when we reach out to each other we “dance to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat.”
In summary, our reconciliation with God through the atoning death of Jesus is only a part of the marvelous news about the kingdom. When we gather at communion to remember Jesus’ death, it’s important to also remember his resurrection and all that it promises, especially to “the least” of his brothers and sisters.