Holy Communion: celebrating our common life in Christ

By Neville Callam

Scripture teaches us that every human being is made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), vested with an inviolable dignity and an inestimable worth, bound for community, marked by mutuality and interdependence, and called to love one another. This reality is part of the mystery of God’s creation. It is the architecture of grace that undergirds human existence.

Yet many persons claim for themselves the “right” to classify people, using criteria of their own choosing. In this process, they frequently employ the language of division. Some of the terms they use — such as race and ethnicity — are fraught with conceptual imprecision. These expressions are categories and images that function as identity markers to establish boundaries within the human community.

How might the church overcome the boundaries that human beings construct for ourselves? Our divided world needs a theology that affirms the commonality shared by all human beings whom God has made and that takes into account the significance of the redeemed community as a sign of the new creation. I believe Holy Communion has much to teach believers in Christ about human identity in that new creation.

God creates all human beings in God’s own image, but in Jesus Christ, who embodies the very image of God, humankind and the whole creation are reconciled to God. Through the Holy Spirit, a new creation emerges. As Paul states, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away: see everything has become new! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18).

In corporate worship, the gathered community of believers experiences a dynamic encounter in which together they remember and celebrate foundational events of their shared faith. As followers of Christ, worshipers express solidarity with those disciples who were with their Lord on the night of his betrayal. They affirm their participation, through baptism, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. They acknowledge that they are part of the community formed by the Holy Spirit in response to these historic salvific events and called to mission in the wider world.

In Holy Communion, followers of Christ also express their keen anticipation of a future for which they long. When they share the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, believers anticipate and enter into the feast of the kingdom that is revealed when creation is renewed at the end of this age. In Holy Communion, Christians bear witness to the heavenly kingdom by celebrating their common life in Christ and shared participation in God’s mission. If heaven is a place of communion and genuine intimacy, in the Lord’s Supper heaven and earth meet as human beings encounter the past, present, and future converging in the presence of God (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234).

When applied to the problems and divisions of the contemporary world, the subversive potential of Holy Communion looms large. The Lord’s Supper has immense social justice implications. Consider how the washing of the disciples’ feet is associated with Jesus’ last supper, modeling how loving and serving others flow from the Lord’s Supper. The apostle Paul expressed concern over the failure of the church in Corinth to understand the social implications of the Eucharist: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (see 1 Corinthians 11:18–22). Many early church leaders also mentioned the socio-ethical implications of the Lord’s Supper, recognizing that a life marked by solidarity with people in need is consistent with eucharistic worship.

Participants in the Lord’s Supper are inspired to expose the fundamental causes of poverty, the negative consequences of economic globalization, and the many ways in which the oppression of people is fostered and perpetuated today. Christians who understand the social justice implications of Holy Communion are likely to offer a scathing critique of forces that manifest disregard for the dignity of every human being and promote causes leading to the exclusion and marginalization of people.

The redemption of the entire human family and the whole of creation is within the purview of those who discern the significance of the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Believers leave the Lord’s Table to love and serve those for whom Jesus offered his life at Calvary, making Christ known by word and deed, through service and witness.

Holy Communion — the depths of whose riches language can hardly plumb — should be for all Christians a sacred meal event that is a celebration of grace, a banquet of love, a festival of solidarity, and a commission to witness and service in the name of the God of love and justice. Through the Lord’s Supper, God forms and shapes God’s people for that unity which discourses of race and ethnicity should not be allowed to undermine or destroy. The unity God confers and commands is strong enough to overcome every form of separation.

From the security of what we know

to the adventure of what you will reveal

Jesus now lead us.

To fashion the fabric of the world

until it resembles the shape of your kingdom

Jesus now lead us. (Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, eds. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blythe for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005, 35.)

Neville Callam is general secretary and CEO of Baptist World Alliance.

Excerpted and adapted from “Fragmentation to Wholeness: Race, Ethnicity, and Communion” (Judson Press, 2017) by Neville Callam. Used with permission of the publisher.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.