Friday, April 12, 2013

On Wine and Broken Bread at Communion

A. Introduction

Three issues are relevant to whether a congregant ought to have the option of eating broken bread and drinking wine at communion:

1.             Whether Jesus intentionally chose broken bread and wine, to the exclusion of other possible elements, to represent His body and blood.
2.             Whether churches have an obligation to preserve the sacrament of communion as Christ intended it to be practiced.
3.             Whether the Bible conveys authority to churches to materially and substantially alter a sacrament instituted by Christ.

I’ll not patronize the reader by writing “The Biblical Case for Using Broken Bread and Wine at Communion.” The idea that Jesus used anything other than broken bread and wine at the Last Supper is risible, and no one I know clings to the notion that Jesus and the apostles ate crackers and consumed grape juice that evening.

In the law we deal with something called “the burden of proof.” In lawsuits the party seeking relief has the burden of proof, and he must meet his burden in order to prevail. One frustrating aspect of debating what elements to use at communion is that the burden of proof has been shifted, inappropriately, by a tradition within the Baptist and Methodist denominations. (Thomas B. Welch of Welch's Grape Juice fame, was an ardent supporter of this, and his pasteurized grape juice was a hit with tee totaling Methodists.)

If we go back in time to the year 33, or so, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, we know that He used wine and bread, as did the early apostolic church. So it strikes me that if a man, or a church, or a denomination, desires to practice the Lord’s Supper other than the way in which Jesus and the apostolic church practiced communion, the burden should be on him. In other words, the proponents of juice and crackers ought have to “prove,” if you will, why it is that when Jesus uttered the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me,” we may ignore the “this.”

B.        General Premises

The way in which we worship is formative.Each element of worship conveys truth. Our gathering together on Sunday mornings is, for instance, a statement to the world that Jesus was resurrected, that He has a people, and that He has called those people out of the world.Were we to do nothing but congregate on Sundays we would still proclaim the Resurrection and the future return of Christ. Our fellowship at the church-house and the friendly greetings we give to our brothers and sisters in Christ say something about community. Our singing with one another conveys truth about our awe of God, our love for Christ, and our unity as a body. Our use of kneelers is formative—we do it to create in us, as a church, a reverence for God, depicting a future time when we will fall prostrate at the feet of Jesus. We pray because we believe in a benevolent God who loves us. We recite creeds from throughout church history, not because no one in our congregation is capable of crafting a dozen orthodox lines, but to stand with the historic church in our recitation of truth, acknowledging that we are connected with the church throughout history. We read Scripture, typically standing,displaying a reverence for the Word of God, which is itself a way of worshiping Christ. We listen as the Word of God is proclaimed through preaching, by which we endorse the gospel, and through which we implore sinners to repent. We have an invitation where Christians and non-Christians may come forward and pray. We collect money from the saints to further the gospel through our pastors, our ministries, and our missions.

And there are certain days when we baptize people. Stirring the still waters of the font, immersing the penitent convert in a watery grave, and raising him to newness of life. We, as a denomination, care about this a great deal. We split, after all, from other Reformed Protestants hundreds of years ago because we declared that God ordained a very specific way in which man should be baptized: by immersion in water, after conversion. We would never immerse someone in mud, tomato juice, or a vat of Ginger Ale. Nor would we wash someone with water, “covering” him by wiping a wet washrag all over him. Why? Well, not only because God ordained that we use water and that we immerse, but because there is a meaning behind the water (it’s cleansing) and there is a meaning behind the immersion (death to life).

(Consider this hypothetical: A congregant expresses to his Baptist pastor that he’s considering leaving for a Reformed Presbyterian or Anglican church. The pastor points out to the congregant the paedobaptist’s error regarding baptism. He argues that the meaning of the term baptizo is to immerse in water, that immersion was how Christ was baptized, that immersion was how the early church practiced baptism (as is acknowledged by most all credible church historians) and that immersion has a deep, symbolic meaning. So the pastor points out to the congregant the language, the history, and the meaning behind baptism. Then our hypothetical congregant responds: “But they use wine and broken bread at the Lord’s Supper. What’s your argument for juice and crackers?” The Baptist pastor cannot rely at that point on language, history, or meaning of the elements. He must move to a different set of arguments, which stress that the Lord’s Supper is purely a symbol. I submit that the pastor, in that scenario, has just gutted his arguments about baptism by implying that what the Bible says about how to practice the Lord’s Supper is irrelevant.)

When God ordains something, His proffered methodology conveys a meaning. That is not to say that we will always understand His meaning, but we can (or we should) agree that God is, if anything, intentional rather than capricious with His choices.

C.        Reasons why taking communion as Jesus did should be important to you.

So why should we care about whether we have the option of drinking wine at communion, and why should we care about whether we eat actual bread that is plainly broken?

The short answer is that such is the “this” which Christ commanded us to do in remembrance of Him; we should do “this” rather than “something like this.” (Or at least we should be permitted to.) Jesus broke bread, poured wine, and the apostles ate the broken bread and drank the poured wine.

Also, the way in which we conduct communion has a formative effect on the congregation, just as baptism does. The shout of “Sola scriptura!” in a sermon on grace, followed by men passing out grape juice and crackers, because that’s our tradition, unwittingly communicates something very wrong. Without saying a word, we tacitly undermine the footings of our theology. The congregant sits, taking elements foreign to the actual Last Supper. While he may not be conscious that he is doing something materially different than what Christ commanded, it has a formative effect, the same way a woman preacher delivering a perfectly orthodox sermon has a formative effect on her audience,or watching a convert being baptized by sprinkling has a formative effect. For some, that effect will be a feeling that the church believes all drinking is wrong, or taboo. For others, it will serve as a prime example of how the church makes pragmatic decisions in spite of Scripture.

Using wine and broken bread would reconnect us to the historic church (including ancient Israel) in a way that grape juice and crackers do not, and cannot.

But the most important reason is the aforementioned idea that there must be an intentional reason for Christ choosing broken bread and wine to represent his body and blood, and that we should follow Christ in the Supper as we follow Him in baptism. In thinking about the bread, I can’t imagine a clearer metaphor. Jesus invoked this idea, preaching that He is the bread of life. The fact that the bread is broken is a beautiful symbol of the death of our Lord. Uniformly shaped crackers do not convey the broken body of Jesus like bread, broken, and distributed.

Wine was specifically chosen by God to represent the blood of Christ. Wine was used by Moses to recall the Passover,and to portend the cross. The combination of wine with bread at Passover was over a millennium and a half old by the time of Christ, and was more than another millennium and a half old before a well-intentioned Baptist thought to use grape juice. (I say "well-intentioned," but I do so half-heartedly. Is one well-intentioned if his intent is to have the church observe communion in a way Christ didn't intend?)

Wine’s potency is meaningful. Its imperishability compared to juice is meaningful. The Psalmist’s paeans of new wine in heaven are meaningful. Paul never suggesting to a drunken Corinthian church to switch to grape juice (or water) is meaningful. Wine is a gift from God to bring joy to man; grape juice isn’t. In the new heavens and new earth we will have new wine, not new juice. No man has a glass of grape juice overhigh-conversation. Wine nicely warms men’s hearts as they speak until the wee hours. No man woos his bride with grape juice. Grape juice doesn’t come close to pointing to the blood of Christ, any more than sugar-water does. Its sweetness belies the aura of that bitter night. Wine is celebratory and solemn all at once, capable of simultaneously directing our attention back to the cross and ahead to the wedding feast. Grape juice is what you serve to toddlers at a birthday party.

In fact, that we ought to drink wine is silently, though clearly, conveyed in our drinking juice. For the opponent of wine at communion, passing out grape juice is wielding the axe that cuts off his own legs. By drinking grape juice we at once say that the substance in the cup is irrelevant, and also that it matters immensely. When we eschew wine, we say, “It matters not what Jesus drank, or what God had Moses use, or what the apostolic church poured. We just need some liquid in the cup.” But when, of all the liquid drinks in the world, we choose dark red grape juice, we admit that the substance matters very much, indeed. But once we reject wine, our effort to replicate the essence of wine through grape juice rings hollow. (The oddity of this cannot be overstated, especially in light of the most common reasons for rejecting wine—a belief that alcohol is bad, or simply too dangerous to have in church. Choosing grape juice in this milieu is a bit like a vegan ordering chicken-flavored tofu: it satisfies the moral conscience, but mimics what he finds offensive.) If we really don’t think it matters what substance we put in the cup or on the plate, why do we go to such trouble to approximate broken bread and wine without actually serving it? Why not go with buttery croissants and grape-soda? Or cheese and Coca-Cola?

Wine is to grape juice as unleavened bread is to leavened bread. It’s wholly different. Imagine passing out a slice of Mrs. Baird’s to each congregant observing the Lord’s Supper. Most churches would be embarrassed, and no one would say, “Well, so long as it’s like unleavened bread, in that it’s still bread.”

There’s something to the notion that one has to wait a good while for wine to ferment. There’s a reason we don’t eat wheat and drink fresh-squeezed grape juice.

While some may say I'm being a wooden literalist, I would suggest that while I am no such thing, there is no question but that Christ literally chose specific elements to metaphorically represent His body and blood. To purposefully alter the physical metaphors He chose is akin to reading a verbal metaphor chosen by Christ in Scripture and altering it: “I am the moon, and you are the beams. When the beams are close to the moon they are bright and beautiful. When the beams reach away from the moon, they fade into the night.” We’d think any preacher was struck with lunacy (
har har) for reading the parable of the vine that way. But when we intentionally and materially alter a physical metaphor, well, that is deemed a reasonable display of sensitivity to those who may be offended. What is not considered is whether God may be the least bit perturbed at the hubris of an almost four thousand year old way of doing things being switched up because of the Temperance Movement, particularly in light of the imperative: Do this.

D.        Conclusion

When Jesus said, "Do this," what did He mean?


Hal Brunson said...

Shane, my apologies for not reading this until now. We have been so busy with selling the house, preparing to move, and packing that I have neglected the blog, haven't even checked it of late. I repent.

Excellent post!

Gary said...

Why do Baptists insist on immersion? It is baffling that a Christian denomination that shuns all trappings of "Catholic ritual" would insist that the Christian rite of Baptism be performed in such a rigid, ritualistic manner that they even surpass the strict adherence to ritualistic form of the Roman Catholic Church!

Even if you believe that baptism is only for the purpose of a public profession of your faith, that it has nothing to do with salvation or the forgiveness of sins, why DEMAND that this rite be performed EXACTLY "as Jesus did it"??

Christianity is about the heart, not the external ritual!

Anonymous said...

I'm not in total disagreement with this post since Jesus drank wine. But, with all the problems associated with alcohol use, I suggest that much prayer is needed before serving wine. I grew up in an alcoholic home and know well the problems alcohol can cause. Wine is highly intoxicating, and I know this from my own use. As Gary indicated, Christianity is about the heart, not the ritual.