Post 72, Communion: Facets of the Diamond

For years I’ve carried these vivid lines in my head, but where do they come from? The Internet says Miriam LeFevre Crouse wrote them.

“Three men shared death upon a hill,

But only one man died;

The other two-a thief and God himself-

Made rendezvous.

“Three crosses still

Are borne un Calvary’s Hill,

Where Sin still lifts them high;

Upon the one, sag broken men who, cursing, die;

Another holds the praying thief,

Or those who penitent as he

Still find the Christ

Beside them on the tree.”

When he entered a North Rocks jewellery store, he looked innocuous: plump, wearing a baggy hat, uneven teeth with gold fillings, about 60 years of age. But he has an eye for diamonds. In three months, the man with fifteen false names and a computer to forge bank cheques acquired seven diamonds rings worth $250,000. No wonder police in three states searched for him.

Now that sum is small change compared with the diamond-studded piece of clothing (a very small piece!) we saw once on TV, worth $11 million.

They say diamonds are forever. Our culture prizes them and is willing to pay huge sums to get them. Part of the value of a diamond is in its facets, its polished surfaces.

Communion is a precious gem cherished by the Christian church. Like a diamond, it has many facets; in other words, many planes of meaning. Some Bible students think we hear of it first in Acts 2 chapter 2 which tells us that the believers met as a group day after day in the Temple at Jerusalem, (KJV) “breaking bread from house to house.” We are on more certain ground as we read five New Testament passages from four different authors who bear witness about this central ceremony of our faith.

We do well to hear these witnesses, often. The first is the Apostle Paul. One tradition claims that Paul was short of stature, stooped, bow-legged and suffered from a chronic eye defect. He also wrote about one third of the New Testament and planted the main stem of the many-branched tree that developed into Christianity. We have Pauls’witness in I Corinthians 11: 17-34.

Mark was not an apostle, but we believe he was a close associate of the Apostle Peter. Certainly his vivid gospel sounds like the kind of witness we might expect from the Big Fisherman. Some think that Mark, whose rather well-heeled family lived in Jerusalem, was the young man “dressed only in a linen cloth” no doubt hiding in the shrubbery nearby where Jesus was taken into custody. When the soldiers grabbed Mark, his linen cloth remained in their hands as he fled naked from their clutches. Mark’s account of the first communion is in Mark 14: 12-26

Matthew was, of course, an eyewitness. He was so pleased with Mark’s expression of the gospel story that he used much of it in his own gospel, written for a different purpose, one that Mark clearly believed but chose not to emphasise as much. Matthew’s testimony is given to us in Matthew 26:17-30.

Luke, a medical doctor, is also the first historian of Christianity. He tells us that “many people” did their best to report the gospel story, and after careful study of eyewitness accounts he wrote Luke 22:7-23.

Ours is an age that values meaning. What are the facets of meaning that these Bible passages emphasise?

Paul speaks in I Corinthians 10:16 of  “the cup we use in the Lord’s Supper and for which we give thanks to God.” Each of the passages we have listed above records that Jesus “gave thanks to God” or “gave a prayer of thanks.” It is small wonder that from early Christian times the Communion has been known as the Lord’s Supper or simply as the Thanksgiving. (The Greeks said it in their language as Eucharistia, gratitude, thankfulness; hence its oft-used name, the Eucharist.) This in its very essence is a service of thanksgiving to God for what He has done in Jesus Christ.

But the New Testament witnesses also stress this is a time of “sharing in the body of Christ.”  We are many, Christ’s body is one, broken for the many. The experience of partaking of the emblems makes us, by faith, part of His one spiritual body, the church. (In baptism we become part of Christ’s body; Communion is a renewal of that relationship with the Lord and His people.) This is at the heart of the belonging that the New Testament calls fellowship. So we have come to call the whole service Communion, an act of sharing, a time of fellowship.

But the Communion is also a time of doing. Paul and Luke quote Jesus as saying, “Do this.” The Communion is not just something we read about, think about, talk about. The doing is reinforced by a cluster of words: “Take, eat.” “Drink this wine.” “Do this in memory of me.” We are called to act out a parable; this time of thanksgiving and sharing is also a time of action, doing. And the doing in the Communion service has pervasive meaning for all the other actions of our lives.

There are yet more facets to the diamond of Communion. The doing sharpens memory; it leads to better remembering: “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus said. The Communion reminds us of a body broken to achieve our wholeness, life-blood shed that we might be cleansed from all sin and experience life eternal. Here we see the infinite price of our redemption, God’s settled purpose to bring us salvation through the dying of Jesus. We recall these truths more acutely as we partake of the symbols of bread and wine.

The Scriptures affirm that Communion bears witness to the sealing of God’s covenant to save us by the gift of Christ’s life. God is absolutely committed to our rescue; Christ’s blood seals His promise to redeem us by what the Apostle Paul calls his unspeakable gift, a gift beyond words.

Here too, is an emphasis on God’s forgiving and our release from sin. Blest is the one whose sins are forgiven, the Psalmist sings, whose wrongs are pardoned. As John Donne reflected on meeting his Maker, he prayed:

“As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

 So, in His purple wrapped receive me, Lord,

By these his thorns give me his other crown.”

Christ’s blood is the assurance of our forgiveness and acceptance; every Communion is a time when we focus on the reality of God’s forgiving.

The seventh facet of this diamond speaks not of time but of eternity. The thanksgiving, the sharing, the remembering, the sealing, the forgiving are all in the present tense; they emphasise the meaning of Communion, here and now. But Jesus clearly emphasised the not yet, the there and then, as well as the now. “I will never eat it until it is given its full meaning in the Kingdom of God.” “I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” The present joys of the Christian life are a foretaste of something far greater. God does not will us to coexist with evil and death. Christ arose. He returned to God. He will come again. The coming kingdom is real. We eat the bread and wine in the Kingdom of Grace: they are appetisers by which we anticipate the celebratory meal, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, in the Kingdom of Glory.

No wonder that for twenty centuries the Lord’s Supper, the Communion, the Eucharist, has for so many Christians been a daily, weekly, quarterly or annual time of thanksgiving for what God has done, is doing and will yet do.

Communion is like a diamond; it has many facets. Some of its precious planes of meaning are identified in seven expressions: thanksgiving, sharing, doing, remembering, sealing, forgiving, anticipating. So Communion calls us to gratitude, oneness, action, reflection and commitment. It assures us of release from sin and it is a promise of our future with Christ in the Kingdom of God.

Arthur Patrick, 20 August 2012