What’s the difference between “communion” and “community”? The two words come from the same root and suggest the connections we so quickly draw. But there are important differences that we easily overlook.
Communities are all around us, formed by various boundaries—racial, geographic, ideological, etc. One community is those people whom the Holy Spirit gathers to engage in sacramental practices that help them perceive the presence of the Jesus they can trust and on whom they can rely. This gathering is not, contrary to a common assumption, mostly around the sacramental practice of communion. The sacramental practices of prayer, mutual support, and consolation of our siblings in Jesus are more frequent in Christian community.
The assumption of a primary connection between community and communion comes from the words used to talk about what we do when the Spirit gathers us around bread and wine to engage in the particular sacramental practice of remembering the absence of the present Jesus. But when we only use one word, our language has failed us—the metaphor has died.
The primary community in holy communion is the one God creates through the promises of Jesus. The community of saints is part of this communing, and God communes with us for the sake of all creation. But if we only rely on the community metaphor to describe what happens in this foretaste of the feast to come, we miss both the “is not” of the communion metaphor and the power other metaphors provide.
The “is not” of the communion metaphor can be seen in the real absence of Jesus. Yes, Jesus is really present in, with, and under the bread and wine, but Jesus is also really absent. Part of what we proclaim when we celebrate communion is that God’s promises are not yet completely fulfilled. We are not fully communing either with God or with each other. The Church is still broken. We are still being made holy, struggling against sin, running the race.
This is why we have a broader vocabulary for this particular sacramental practice. The term “eucharist” describes our giving thanks but does not address the fullness of human emotions the gathered community brings with them to the table. Yes, it is good to remind ourselves to give thanks, but how do we communally attend to the grief, the loss, the mourning, the poverty—both literal and spiritual–the longing, the hope, the joy that join us in this sacramental practice through all the others who are present with us?
The “Lord’s supper” metaphor reminds us of the first gathering from which this sacramental practice begins, but it does not emphasize how we are not twelve men gathered with our teacher in an upper room in Jerusalem. So it is with other metaphors for this sacramental practice.
The failure of language has led to a failure in awareness of our assumptions. One assumption that has developed is that we should celebrate communion every time we gather–that the only form for the congregational service is the Divine Service. We seem to assume that every time we gather, regardless of the reason, we should celebrate communion. Communion, particularly at a wedding or funeral, might in fact point to our institutional divisions rather than our unity in Christ. How often do you or your congregation use the orders for the Service of the Word or the daily offices?
We risk falling into a morphological fundamentalism around what the church gathered in worship is. I fear that this has led us into failing to discern the body of Christ. If a particular community has enough people gathering for congregational services who are not baptized, does that service need to include communion? Maybe we need to reflect on this assumption and how it has hurt our proclamation of the gospel.
Another assumption is what we mean by presence. Lange’s Trauma Recalled points to our own operative assumptions about presence in communion. If Jesus is really present in, with, and under the bread and wine, but not physically, bodily present, why is virtual presence an issue? If the communion of saints are present and usually in our memory, why would a virtual celebration of holy communion, at a distance and by means of electronic communication, pose a problem? People change their behavior based on who is present to them not only physically but also virtually and in memory. Discerning the body of Christ, therefore, becomes even more important.
God has gifted the Church with many sacramental practices for helping people perceive the presence of the ultimately trustworthy and reliable Jesus. Rather than reduce the sacramental practices of the congregation to only communion, and before we rush too quickly to speak of being actually present, God calls us to spend time being in relationship with those the Spirit is gathering together. In these relationships, God moves us to proclaim the gospel that the Spirit might move in the lives of others who will then ask to be baptized.
Some questions for reflection and discussion:
- How do our congregational practices narrow people’s ideas of worship?
- Do we rush too quickly in our worship planning to assume that the people who have gathered are already baptized?
- Are those physically, virtually, and memorably gathered all baptized?
- If not, then why should this gathering include the sacramental practice remembering Jesus’ last meal with his disciples?
- How might virtual gatherings share common physical elements for baptism and communion?
- If we celebrate one of the sacraments virtually, what are we saying about how the verba work, about what it means to be a steward of the mysteries of God?