Communion As Nourishment

I’ve often wondered why I so much like to watch cooking shows on television. It’s not just because I like to eat. I mean, I like to travel, but I find most travelogue programs mind-numbingly dull. I love to read, but I find most programs on which authors are interviewed to be about as exciting watching paint dry.

Well, in the past couple of weeks, I believe I have gained some insight into my fascination with chefs and cooking techniques. It came through a story told by one of America’s great preachers, Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and now a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama.

He was writing about the first time he was asked to teach a seminary class on the significance of Communion. As part of his preparation, he sought the counsel of an older colleague who told him that, if he wanted to fully appreciate the value of Communion, he should learn to cook.

Willimon must have looked perplexed, so the older man went on. “You will never understand the meaning and value of Communion until you learn to prepare a meal and then take pleasure in the joy of those who have been satisfied by what you have prepared.”

That story reminded me of something one of my own Bible college professors once told me.

“When you’re preparing to preach, think of yourself as a cook or a chef in a well-equipped kitchen with a well-stocked larder. You have the best ingredients, the best utensils. Now get to work, and fix something good.”

The connection between preaching (or teaching) and food preparation comes right out of the New Testament. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Peter, up in Galilee, following the Resurrection, recorded in John 21.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Peter) said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, Feed my lambs… (Be a shepherd to) my sheep… Feed my sheep. ”

Later Peter, in chapter two of his first letter to some early believers would describe fundamental Christian truth in these terms:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As important as “spiritual milk” is, it’s not an adequate diet for growing Christians. Paul wrote, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians…

3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready.

And the author of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 5…

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

It should be clear, then, that the New Testament intends for us to think of the process by which we acquire the spiritual nourishment which enables us to “grow in grace…” and to progress toward maturity, as eating. And the means by which preachers and teachers (pastors and shepherds) contribute to that process, through their public ministry of scriptural exposition, the New Testament calls feeding.

To make this image even more graphic, and to etch its importance even more deeply into our thought patterns as believers, Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed, as He ate a final Passover meal with His disciples, took bread; and after He had blessed it, He broke it and gave it to them and said, “Take… eat… this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat it, remember me.”

The most sacred religious observance which it is possible for us, as Christians, to participate in—the Eucharist, Holy Communion—was instituted by our Lord around a dinner table. Why, we even refer to it, sometimes, as “The Lord’s Supper.” The elements which Jesus identified as representative of His body and blood were the bread and the wine which, only moments before, had been items on the evening’s dinner menu.

And it seems clear that Jesus did not intend for the bread and wine, consumed as part of the Communion observance, to be mere symbols which call to mind what they stand for. He could have accomplished that by sanctifying some object which could be put on display, constantly reminding us of the spiritual reality behind the symbol.

Instead, Jesus sanctified—that is, set apart and made holy—both the elements (bread and wine) and the means by which their significance is made real to us (take… eat… drink).

We Anglicans believe that, when Jesus established the Communion meal as an ongoing observance which the Church is to practice until Christ returns, He filled it full of meaning and substance. Not only do the broken bread and the wine represent the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. They also remind us of the constant need for spiritual nourishment through the milk and meat of the Word. But even beyond that, these elements, in some indefinable but nonetheless real way, actually feed our spirits and nourish our souls. That’s why Communion is a part of our service of worship at least once a week.

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