I was inspired to examine the meaning of Communion when someone told me her husband didn’t care for it…that Communion seemed like just a religious ritual, a ceremonial remembrance of the past. His feeling is understandable when we consider that we contemporary Christians aren’t much into religious ritual, and Communion stands alone as something like a ritual.
So I began looking at Communion in the context of the Last Supper described in the Gospels. As we know, each of the Gospel writers was inspired to include different details in their version but all proclaiming the same message. John’s Gospel doesn’t include the Last Supper. Matthew and Mark identically describe the blessing of the bread and wine but make no mention of it as a remembrance. Only Luke includes the phrase “do this in remembrance of me”, which is confirmed as being true by Paul in 1 Corinthians. But the fact that two of the Gospel writers didn’t stress the idea of a remembrance encouraged me to think there is something more that God is telling us through Jesus’ celebration of Passover.
With that in mind, let’s read Matthew’s version in Chapter 26:26-28 which reads,
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
When I was a young Christian, I read this passage and thought Jesus was saying something new, giving us an analogy to describe the reason for his death on the cross. What Jesus was actually doing is something ancient. Since the time of Moses, the Jews celebrated the Passover meal with a scripted series of observances called a seder. It included four ceremonial cups of wine, with each cup having a specific meaning. The third cup was immediately preceded by the blessing of bread with specific ceremonial blessings for the bread and the wine. The cup Jesus blessed was almost certainly what the Jews traditionally called the cup of redemption which Jews understood as a remembrance of the Hebrews’ deliverance by God from Egyptian Bondage. So here is our redeemer, Jesus, performing the ceremonial blessing of the cup of redemption for His disciples, saying that the Passover remembrance that the Jews had celebrated for all those centuries had been only partially understood. Yes, it was a remembrance of God’s deliverance from Pharaoh, but it was also a prophetic vision of a messiah who would deliver them from a far worse tyrant, the bondage of sin and death. The disciples were transported out of remembrance mode and into “what’s about to happen tomorrow mode.” They recognized that they were participating in God’s plan, not just in the past, but in the present and future.
So here we are in our present day looking back at the Last Supper and we tell ourselves “Surely for us it’s a remembrance of the past”. But there’s more. After partaking of the third cup, Jesus says in Matthew 26:29,
“I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Jesus shared the cup of redemption with his disciples, but he holds back from drinking the fourth cup. His disciples would have thought it strange if the fourth cup wasn’t included in the ceremony. The Gospel of Luke gives us this insight:
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
The Jewish tradition about the fourth Passover cup is that it signifies completion. They believed there would be a future time of peace and final deliverance from persecution and conflict. We of course recognize it as the day when Jesus returns to rule His Father’s kingdom. Jesus was fulfilling the third cup, but the fourth cup was deferred for a time in the future. Therefore, we are not just commemorating the past when we take Communion. We are bringing to our thoughts the entire panorama of God’s plan throughout history and into His future rule and reign on Earth.
As followers of Jesus, we remember and honor the past, but we live expectantly in the future. We are being called to remember, not just the past, but the future. Jesus was mobilizing his followers to participate in the coming kingdom. What we call “communion” is a call to action to prepare the way for Jesus’ return and future reign.