What Does Communion Mean Without Atonement?
I am part of a small denomination called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and I always have to explain that, yes, the parentheses are actually part of the denominational name. Long story. Just trust me on this.
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Our denomination is known for being very non-credal, which basically means we don’t tell churches what to do, believe, or think from the top down on hardly anything. Congregation autonomy is values, and the concept of the “Priesthood of all believers” is central. Or as Amy puts it every Sunday in worship, “we’re all ministers and we all have a ministry.”
One phrase that describes us well is sometimes mistakenly attributed to us originally, though it was actually penned in the 17th century by Rupertus Meldenius, a German theologian. His credo was:
"In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity"
Regardless of who came up with it, it’s a pretty good summation of what Disciples are about.
We’re also known for including communion in every single worship service we ever have. How it’s done, who can participate, and even what words are said vary from church to church (see above), but the centrality of communion is pretty much a given in Disciples of Christ services. I should mention here that I’ve helped start one church, I currently am on staff at another, and in all, I’ve worked in ministry for more than 10 years now. So I’ve participated in hundreds of communion rituals, and I’ve even presided over several of them myself (laypeople can do this in Disciples churches, after all).
But I’m also known for holding an alternative view on salvation than many Christians – even Disciples — maintain, in that I do not adhere to the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins. I know there are lots of scriptures to back this position, and one can also use scripture to justify other explanations for Jesus’ death. As many of us have seen, the Bible can be, and has been, used to justify nearly any position we care to use it to support. As for me, I’ve done years of searching, praying, discussing, and reading, and my conclusion is that it is the love of God as manifest by Jesus that is redemptive, and not Jesus’ blood.
I know some folks will likely stop here, discrediting anything else I have to say because of this perspective, which is unfortunate, but which I also understand. But a family member recently asked me about my take on communion if, in fact, I don’t ascribe to the idea that Jesus was saying “this is my body broken and my blood poured out for the remission of your sins.”
A fair question for sure.
For this, we have to go back a few steps to what I understand the Bible to be. I see the Bible principally as humanity’s effort to understand God. As such, the God that is portrayed throughout scripture is multifaceted, and arguably even seems to kind of “evolve” over the thousands of years during which the texts were written. Even Jesus speaks of “perfecting” or “fulfilling” the law, taking 613 Jewish laws and honing them to Ten Commandments. Finally, he boils it down to one (or two, depending on semantics). At the core of this Greatest Commandment is one word: LOVE.
The word is not “repent,” “atone,” or "sacrifice," although these are found in the Gospels too. But paramount of all the laws, Jesus says, is the prevailing, overarching law of Love. This, more than anything else, informs my theology, as I think it should.
As such, I cannot reconcile the idea that a violent act is redeeming when Love is what is held in highest esteem by the one I understand to be Messiah. The two simply do not coexist in my understanding of theology. I understand why some differ, and I respect that interpretation. But I do not share it.
So what does communion mean if we don’t look to it as the reminder that Jesus died for our sins? Let’s consider which words we use at the table, to begin with. There are several versions of the so-called Words of Institution, after all. The Roman Catholic Church has said that there are eight words they believe are “necessary and sufficient,” which means they have to be included to be considered a legitimate Mass. And although I’m not Catholic, this seems a good place to start. Those eight words are:
“This is my body…this is my blood.”
Though most denominations ascribe to this idea, it’s not necessarily the case that they all agree even on this handful of words. But as for the most common Protestant text for the Table, it generally comes from I Corinthians, 11:23-26, which says:
“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
So this text is found in a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a fledgling Christian church in Corinth. This is basically his guide for them on how to conduct communion. There are a few critical phrases here, it seems, and I’ll take them one at a time.
“This is my body which is for you” These are words from Paul, attributed directly to Jesus. Was he there at the Last Supper, the event on which our communion is based? No. Actually, Paul says that God imparted to him the words to record in his letter to Corinth. So, what we have is not a firsthand account, but rather an inspired writing. Depending on your understanding of divine inspiration, this may mean either that Paul was no more than a human dictation machine at the time, or perhaps that he and God were, somehow, collaborators in the creation of these important letters. I lean toward the latter interpretation (no surprise), and so I don’t lose sleep over the fact that these words are different than other accounts of what was said at the actual Last Supper.
But in this text, my understanding of the gesture Paul asserts that Jesus is making is one of giving himself over to the world. It is a loving act of total submission, an act which makes sense in the context of Jesus as a suffering servant. He did not come to conquer, but rather to submit in love to all that the world would heap upon him. And why? Because in spite of it all, what has endured is love. And how else could such love have been communicated than through such a selfless act of submission?
Second, we have, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” It’s important to understand what the word “covenant” means here, as he is referring to a “holy promise.” And at the time, covenants were bound by a seal, sometimes even with the blood of both parties used to seal the promise. However, in the case of Jesus, his covenant does not require our blood, but rather, his promise is sufficient without such sacrifice by us. He makes a promise, he completes the seal, and that is all that is required.
Finally, there’s the phrase “do this … in remembrance of me,” which actually appears twice in this brief text. One device often used to get people’s attention in scripture is repetition, so when something is said more than one in short succession, we’re called by the author to pay close attention. On the one level, there the common understanding of remembrance as recollection, or thinking back to some event that has since passed. But there’s also the etymology of the word, “re-member,” which means to put back together. If Jesus is broken in the process of sealing this covenant, it is we who are charged with the command of putting him back together in the world.
How? By manifesting God’s love as he modeled. It’s a simple concept, but one that we will never fully realize in our lifetime. It’s a beacon toward which we orient, time and again, when we falter, rather than a destination to be fully achieved. We gather up the brokenness all around us and reconcile the pieces, erase the divisions, heal the wounds and fit them all back together in a way that reflects the One who called us to do so.
To me, that’s the message of communion.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."
Communion wine, Dale Wagler / Shutterstock.com