Last time I left you to read 1 Corinthians 11 verses 17-34{/bible}. Verses 23 to 26 inclusive are especially important to us as Christians because they are Paul's narrative of the institution of the Lord's Supper, and are therefore central to every Communion Service that takes place.

This narrative is also to be found in Matthew 26 (v.26-30){/bible}, Mark 14 (v.22-25){/bible} and Luke 22 (v. 14-20){/bible}. However in view of the dates when the gospels were written it is very probable that Paul's written account predates them, and is the earliest one to survive: Paul is believed to have been executed sometime around AD65 during the persecutions of Emperor Nero, and the 1st letter to the Corinthians was written some while before then. (Interestingly the gospel of John does not mention the bread and the wine, but in the course of five chapters (13-17) describes other happenings at the Last Supper.)

Communion is, of course, central to the beliefs of many Christians, although the service is practised in different ways in different traditions, and under different names (e.g. Eucharist, literally a thanksgiving). Some celebrate it at least weekly, others monthly (in the middle ages it was only taken annually, and the priest would often consume the wine for the congregation in case they spilt Jesus' holy blood!). There are those who believe that taking Communion is central to being saved (which is one reason why being excommunicated, forbidden from taking communion, was considered to be so serious in medieval times), and that through transubstantiation the bread and the wine actually become Jesus' flesh and blood.

In our reformed tradition we do not see things quite this way. Nevertheless we do see it as a commemoration of that Last Supper, with the bread and wine representing Jesus' body and blood. In taking Communion we identify with our Lord, and with Christians around the World and through the ages (literally communing with our Lord and with one another). But we know that our Lord is risen, so Communion is an opportunity to remember His sacrifice and love for us, to give thanks and to draw strength from this knowledge. It is therefore special, although it is not exclusive either: we do not demand that those taking Communion are Church members, or that they show us their baptismal certificates! However it is not something to be taken lightly. We do expect that those who take Communion will love and serve the Lord, it being a matter of conscience: we should not take Communion if we do not take this seriously.

Taking the correct approach to the Lord's Supper is something that Paul focuses on in 1 Corinthians 11. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city with many competing religions and temptations: in many ways similar to the cities of today (although we might replace some of the competing religions with modern secularism, and desire for material gain and personal gratification). Keeping on the right track was not easy and through this letter Paul seeks to give advice and ensure that the Christians there conduct themselves properly. Others would see how they behaved and take note accordingly, so it was important to avoid certain pitfalls. Their conduct at the Lord's Supper services was a case in point, and Paul does not mince his words. There is inequality: whilst some eat, others are left hungry. Communion should be inclusive of all who wish to participate for the right reasons. Furthermore there is no appropriate remembrance when some indulge themselves to the point of drunkenness.

It was as a consequence of this advice that Communion became established as a service demanding reverence, and that the tradition of using small token portions of bread and wine originated, because it was no mere fellowship meal, and was not to be eaten to satisfy mere physical hunger. In short Paul gave the Corinthians a reality check. Perhaps some of them thought that what they were doing was good, but Paul is quick to point out that it was otherwise, and that they were sending out the wrong signals about Christianity.

Therein lies an important lesson for us Christians today. Whilst our Communion services of today are far from the drunken spectacle of Corinth, we must always consider the sincerity of what we do. Do we understand what we are doing? Do others, especially those who are new to us, understand why we do what we do? Nor is this only applicable to Communion services: throughout our Church life it is important to consider how and why we do things. Are we sending the right signals to others about what it means to be a Christian? Are we reaching out to others properly to share the good news? Are we inclusive enough? Reality checks are not just for first century Church but for Christians living today also.

Chris Noyce