Monday, August 04, 2014

Koinonia and the Lord’s Table

“Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.”

How many times have I heard this phrase repeated by the pastor as we partake of the first element of communion? Certainly hundreds of time by now. It’s so common and familiar that I barely give it a second thought. I am beginning to wonder, though, if I have not completely understood the significance of this element of communion all these years.

Often I have been asked to pray prior to the giving of either the bread or cup, and occasionally wonder what difference I should highlight in my prayer regarding the two elements.  Normally what I end up doing is equating the bread with the death of Christ and the physical pain he suffered on my behalf, and then seeing the cup as the blood shed on my behalf.  That distinction, though, has never been very satisfying to me because, ultimately, I view both of those things – dying and shedding his blood -- as the same thing, basically the propitiatory act that Christ suffered on my behalf to secure my redemption.

Recently on Wednesday nights our church has been studying the subject of koinonia or True Fellowship, as Jerry Bridges refers to it in his book by that title.  Our study of this concept reminded me of a place in 1 Corinthians where this terminology is used in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. It is this passage that makes me think that maybe there is a more significant distinction in the symbolism of the elements than I had recognized before.  Here is the relevant portion of the passage:

1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (ESV)
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The point of the passage is that the Corinthians should not knowingly eat meat offered to idols because it identifies you with or makes you a participant with the false god the idol represents.  You should purposely avoid fellowship or koinonia with demons (1 Cor 10:20). 

One of the illustrations Paul uses in his explanation is the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. When we drink of the cup, we are showing our participation or identification with Christ on the cross. There is this koinonia with the blood of Christ in which we share.  I would say it goes further than just a remembrance and includes an affirmation of our union with Christ.  When I take the cup, it is as if I am saying, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). This fact by itself is noteworthy to me because it tells me that what I am doing during communion is very significant because of the koinonia with Christ and his sacrifice that it represents.

Now, though, look at what Paul says is the meaning of the bread. It is participation or koinonia in the body of Christ. While it might be possible to take “the body of Christ” as Christ’s physical body that he sacrificed on the cross on our behalf, Paul’s clarifying statement in verse 17 shows that he is thinking about the church as the body of Christ. It is the church that is the one body that is made up of the many.  The one bread symbolizes that one body, and the breaking of the bread (so that each person may partake) shows that each person is a part of that body.  When we break the bread and eat we are showing our koinonia or fellowship in that body. Just like taking the cup affirms our union with Christ, so the taking of the bread affirms or identifies us with the body of Christ.
If this is true, then the two elements of communion picture two different but important aspects of the koinonia we enjoy – our union with Christ and our membership in the church. There probably is a universal aspect to this but since the ordinance is administered in the conjunction with a local church, I think the primary membership it affirms is that of the local church. Nevertheless, even a visitor can partake and affirm that he is with his brothers and sisters in Christ and have true fellowship with them.

When I first noticed this, I wondered if any of my commentaries mentioned anything along these same lines.  The analysis above seems obvious to me, but if it is correct, why hasn’t anyone bothered to mention it before? Well, lo and behold, someone has.  Here are Gordon Fee’s comments on this passage from his commentary on 1 Corinthians:

“What is unique here is that Paul will go on to interpret the bread in terms of the church as his ‘body.’ Nowhere else in the NT is the bread interpreted at all [footnote 30]. Paul does so here probably because in this context the emphasis lies here. Thus he does not mean that by eating the bread believers have some kind of mystical ‘participation in’ the ‘broken body’ of Christ, but, as he clearly interprets in v. 17, they are herewith affirming that through Christ’s death they are ‘partners’ in the redeemed community, the new eschatological people of God.” (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 468-469).

His footnote 30 says, “Although there is no evidence for it in the NT itself, the close association between the ‘broken bread’ and Jesus’ ‘broken’ body on the cross caused the bread eventually to be interpreted in this way (see the textual gloss in 11:24, ‘my body which is broken for you’).”  Now, Fee can sometimes go overboard in claiming that certain (inconvenient) statements are textual additions – his claim in this same commentary regarding women keeping silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35) comes to mind. In this case, however, there seems to be good support for his conclusion and the ESV, NASB, HCSB, and NIV all omit the term “broken” in 1 Cor 11:24. The gospels mention that Jesus broke the bread and that the bread refers to his body, but only here in 1 Corinthians 10 does the NT explicitly interpret the symbolism.

Other commentators appear to agree. Leon Morris, for example, says, “Believers are many but they are one body . . . communicates are united to Christ and united to one another” (Morris, 1 Corinthians, 144). Similarly, David Garland writes, “The disparate believers gathered around the table represent the one body of Christ – a theme that Paul will develop further in chapters 11-12” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 478).

Anthony Thiselton, on the other hand, seems reluctant to abandon the idea that the broken bread refers to Christ’s broken body on the cross. Thus whatever ideas about church fellowship within the body of Christ these verses may teach, we should not limit ourselves to that one sole meaning, in his opinion (see his discussion on pages 763-771 of his commentary).  Thiselton bases many of his conclusions on scholarly monographs that he references without fully recapping their arguments, so without access to those resources, it is hard to tell how strong his position is. Nevertheless, even if Fee goes too far as Thiselton suggests, it is still true that verse 17 brings the unity and koinonia of the church into play on at least one level, even if it is not the sole intended meaning.

Interestingly, when he gets to chapter 11, Fee himself will also acknowledge that the bread does refer to Christ’s body, given for us as a vicarious atonement in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 (“he bore the sin of many”). So, if that is true, then my original understanding of the elements was not wrong so much as it was incomplete.  The bread does refer to Christ’s body, given on the cross for us, but we should not neglect the further significance regarding the church that Paul gives it in 1 Corinthians 10.

Therefore, taking all this into consideration, I would suggest that when we take communion at the Lord’s Table, we remember what Christ did on the cross for us, certainly, but that we don’t lose sight of the koinonia we enjoy with Christ our sacrifice and his body our church family. I see it as an opportunity for regular affirmation and appreciation that we are united, not only with the crucified Christ, but also with the body of Christ to which we are joined.


At 4:20 PM, Blogger Don Johnson said...

Hi Andy, I tried to send you a note by e-mail about this piece. Did it get through? Or do I need a new e-mail address? If you didn't see it, write to me privately.



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