One of the spiritual resources we often neglect when we talk about reconciliation in the church is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the New Testament, unity is integral to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The final meal Jesus shares with his disciples in John’s Gospel is a true communion in which the beloved disciple reclines next to the Lord (Jn. 13:23). The communion displayed in this meal indicates the profound unity that Jesus intends believers to have with him and one another. This unity is the subject of Jesus’ final prayer after the meal and before his death. Jesus prays that the unity of the church would reflect his own oneness with the Father—“that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:22).
In the spirit of that prayer, Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for gathering at the table in division. The Corinthian church’s disunity contradicts the very meaning of the meal and the very character of the body of Christ. For Paul, the church’s oneness is signified and enacted in the sharing of the one bread. “Because there is one bread,” Paul reminds Christians, “we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17).
This scriptural link between unity and the Lord’s Supper was evoked frequently in the early tradition. The first century Didache states that the bread of the Eucharist was originally scattered over the hills, but now it has been gathered into one loaf. Thus, the church prays: “Let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (Didache 9). In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage also employs the symbol of one bread. The one bread of the sacrament, brought together from many grains, is a visible reminder of how believers are reconciled to another in Christ. “So in Christ, who is the heavenly bread, we may know that there is one body, with which our number is joined and united” (Epistle 62.13). By the fourth century, the connection between the Lord’s Supper and unity has become so significant that Augustine of Hippo refers to the meal as the “sign of unity” and the “bond of love” (Tractate on John’s Gospel 26.13). Augustine describes the meal in such terms because he believes the Holy Spirit is present in it, filling the hearts of believers with love for God and each other and thereby creating unity in the church.
As these people gathered together for the Lord’s Supper, they bore witness to the miraculous unity that they had found with one another.
The focus on unity and the Lord’s Supper was hardly a pious sentiment in the early church. As the early church expanded throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, it welcomed into its fellowship people who had long-standing divisions in society (e.g., ethnic and class divisions). As these people gathered together for the Lord’s Supper, they bore witness to the miraculous unity that they had found with one another. Their unity was the result of the reconciling work of Christ and the transforming power of the Spirit in their lives. It was a powerful sign of the kingdom of God in their midst and a refreshing contrast to the society in which they lived. Around the table, there was a vivid image of the world as it should be.
Sadly, this connection between the Lord’s Supper and unity is often overlooked in the modern West because of a tendency to view the Lord’s Supper in individualistic terms. We have been shaped to think of the Lord’s Supper as a merely private experience between the individual believer and God. This individualizing tendency is seen, in part, in the well-intended decision of many churches to have online communion. By virtue of the medium, online communion reduces the communal nature of the meal and diminishes the embodied reality of unity. Although the Lord’s Supper is deeply personal, it is also deeply corporate, which is to say, it concerns our life together in the corpus, the body of Christ.
In its liturgy, the Church of the Nazarene counters the individualizing tendency of modernism and captures the corporate dimension of the sacrament that is so central to Scripture and church tradition. In the invitation to the sacrament, we are invited to “come to the table that that we may be renewed in life and salvation and be made one by the Spirit.” Before we receive the sacrament, we pray: “By your Spirit make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in the ministry of Christ to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory.”
What should be noticed here is that, in the Lord’s Supper, the unity of the body of Christ is not only signified; it is also strengthened. At the table, we are “made one by the Spirit.” The Lord’s Supper is an occasion to receive the sanctifying Spirit who cleanses us of the sins that divide us and fills us with the charity that unites us. In other words, it is a means of grace. In order to receive this grace, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge how much we need it. We must examine our hearts and lives, turning away from all the ways in which we have violated or fallen short of the unity that Christ intends. Yet, we receive this grace with confidence, knowing that it is sufficient to transform our hearts and lives, heal our divisions, and form us into a people whose unity matches the one bread and cup of which we partake.
As we continue to work for reconciliation in our congregations and beyond, we would do well to utilize all the spiritual resources of the great tradition of the church, including our sacramental theology. The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of unity. Let us, therefore, gather at the table, humble and dependent upon the Spirit, longing to live into the unity that is ours in Christ.