Volume 11, Issue 4: Presbyterion
Of course we know that word and sacraments go together. But how do they go together?
In the minds of many believers, the two go together like ham and eggs, two disparate but complementary elements combining in a pleasing way. But perhaps they go together in another way entirelyóone suggestion is that they go together more like cooking and eating.
Before beginning this discussion, letís pretend for a moment that we have no traditions on frequency of communion to maintain (a big pretend!), and that advocates of every position share the same biblical burden of proof. We know that we are to observe the Lordís Supper, but how often?ódaily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually? When we come to this question, we should note initially that virtually no biblical case can be made for our most common practicesómonthly and quarterly. While this is par for the course, it should at least excite some comment.
Annual communion could be defended on the basis of the Lordís Supper being established in the context of Passover which was an annual festival. Jesus said of ďthis cup,Ē speaking of the cup of blessing in the Passover meal, ďAs oft as ye drink it . . .Ē (1 Cor. 11:25). It could be argued that He simply intended this symbolic meaning of the new covenant to be added to the annual celebration of the Passover meal. While it is possible that His meaning included this application, subsequent apostolic practice shows that they drank from that cup of blessing far more frequently than this.
Another option is daily communion. In the heady days following Pentecost, the believers broke bread daily, and from house to house (Acts 2:46). As Luke uses this phrase it almost certainly refers to the Lordís Supper. From this we learn that if daily communion is not normative, it is at least lawful. The Lordís Supper should not be restricted to the Lordís Day.
But after the situation stabilized, we come to see the practice of the early church, settling in for the long haul. ďAnd upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnightĒ (Acts 20:7). They gathered together on the Lordís Day, and they did so for the purpose of breaking bread.
Paul assumes the same kind of thing at Corinth. ďWhen ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lordís supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunkenĒ (1 Cor. 11:20-21). The assumption here is that when the Corinthian church came together, it was not to eat the Lordís Supper, even though that is what they thought they were doing. In other words, the Lordís Supper was being abused at Corinth on a weekly basis. (And, as detailed word studies have shown, the abuses had gone so far that Corinthian believers were starting to act silly from drinking too much grape juice.) In other words, they came together weekly on the Lordís Day (1 Cor. 16:1-2), and they should have been doing so in order to eat the Lordís Supper, and instead, they were doing more harm than good through their behavior.
It is therefore fair to say that weekly communion, while not mandatory in any absolute sense, is biblically normative. We have as much evidence for weekly communion on the Lordís Day, for example, as we have for meeting on the Lordís Day to do anything else. We have more evidence for weekly communion than we have for weekly sermons or weekly singing. But why choose? Why not do it all?
And this brings us to consider the theology of the thing, and the initial question of how the word accompanies the sacrament. We know that a sacrament is both a sign and seal of the covenant promises (Rom. 4:11). When we think of those things which we seal, we should note something about the natural order of things. We write the letter, then seal the envelope. We negotiate the contract, and then seal it with signatures. The marriage is conducted first, and sealed sexually that evening. In short, that which seals follows that which is sealed. A seal is, by its very nature, a culmination.
In the prayers, psalms, and sermons of a worship service, the terms of the covenant are praised, noted, explained, and acknowledged. In the sacrament of the Lordís Supper, the covenant is sealed, and because this sacrament (unlike baptism) is repetitive, each sealing is a covenant renewal.
Given this, why would we want anything other than a weekly communion service, as the culmination of the worship service? We have already seen that this was the general pattern in the time of the apostles, and the theological logic points in the same direction.
We gather in the name of Christ, assembled as His people. We present our praises and petitions to Him, we sing and chant to God the Father in His name, we hear His Word proclaimed, and then, in the most natural way, we sit down with Him at table.
The covenant is explained when we talk. But it is not renewed when we talk. That occurs when we take and eat.