Virtual is not real togetherness. We certainly thank God for the ability to maintain a level of personal interaction using technology, but it is no real substitution. We should miss and mourn the fact that we cannot gather as a church.
We may indeed say with Paul, “though absent in body, I am present in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3). But my heart resonates much more with what Paul says when he writes of the church, “my brothers, whom I love and long for” (Philippians 4:1). Indeed, I can say, “I long to see you” (Romans 1:11). As Paul says to Timothy, so my heart cries, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4). Indeed, it is “good news” when the “faith and love” of a church is testified by such expressions as: “you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you” (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Indeed, we should miss and mourn the fact that we cannot gather as a church.
And what we miss and mourn is more than enjoying one another’s company. More also than the structural comfort of routine experience. This is a time to reflect upon the beauty and the blessing of Christ’s church on earth. There are realities of Christ’s church that cannot be virtualized or digitized. And these are her most precious realities, being experienced only when we come together in “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
One of these realities is the administration of the Lord’s Supper or Communion.
Are we going to have Communion during Shelter-In-Place?
Much can be said about the helpfulness of returning to routine and providing people with the comfort of the familiar via technology. But such is not the approach that we take to our participation in the Communion of our Lord’s Supper.
I am well aware of many planning to celebrate Communion in the privacy of their own homes. Some are encouraged to self-administer the elements. Others will be following the direction of their pastors via livestream.
What about the early church breaking bread in homes? While “breaking bread” is often used in the technical sense of participating in Communion (see Acts 2:42, 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 10:16), this is not its only meaning. So when we read that daily the early church was breaking bread together in homes in Acts 2:46, the sharing of a common meal appears more likely the point.
The testimony of the early church brightly shines the light of joyful fellowship. Far deeper than enjoying one another’s company, this was the participation of a shared identity in Christ. This fellowship or partnership in the gospel emanated a picture of a new humanity. A humanity that had all things in common: shared beliefs, shared convictions, shared values, and shared purposes in life.
So when it says, “day by day … breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,” they were sharing more than meals. But even then, this may have included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper but was not itself the practice of Christ’s ordinance.
Whatever can be said about the whimsical beauty and power of the newborn church, it is presented as an apologetic narrative of the things that were accomplished among the apostles (see Acts 1:1-2 in connection with Luke 1:1-4). The Book of Acts was not given as instructions to the church. Description rather than prescription is its purpose.
Nowhere is the church commanded to partake of the Lord’s Supper in homes. Even if Acts 2:46 included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, hosting in homes was not given as instruction for us any more than we are instructed to sell all our possessions and redistribute the proceeds within the church (Acts 2:45). We should not prescribe one verse without the other.
Not only this, but much of what happened in the infant church did not continue. Nor did it become the standard as she expanded into new regions. The events of Acts were supernaturally authenticating the message of this small newborn community in Christ. Where we do have clear instructions, written explicitly to the church, we see a different emphasis.
Communion is specifically a “together” event. The biblical emphasis points directly to the gathered church. No less than five times does Paul refer to the church as “coming together” for the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 (1 Corinthians 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34).
Not just any gathering of Christians constitutes a church. Paul specifically identifies when they “come together as a church,” implying that just any coming together does not constitute the church (1 Corinthians 11:18). While I agree with the Puritans that each family is “like” a miniature church, with them I also affirm that the family is not the church. That means that Christians within the family gathered do not constitute the gathered church. Paul will soon address how the church is to conduct herself when she comes together and how “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Part of that “order” is the appointment of qualified and appointed shepherds (Titus 1:5; cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3).
Communion is not just any shared meal among Christians. “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:20). Paul rebukes them for coming together and eating their “own meal” (11:21). They evidently thought that they were participating in the Lord’s Supper. The church gathered in one place and they all ate a meal, perhaps even after a blessing was prayed. But their lack of social connectedness defeated their practice. They may claim union with Christ but their horizontal “divisions” and “factions” counter Communion. On the flip side, social connectedness is essential for Communion.
Communion is for the gathered church. In thinking through the where of Communion, the text is strikingly direct. In his rebuke of their abuses of the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). His point is that the home is where they should eat for their bellies. What they should do when they “come together as a church” is eat the Lord’s Supper (11:20). The two are set in contrast to one another. The Lord’s Supper belongs to the gathered church and eating your own meal belongs to the home.
How else are those who partake able to be active in “discerning the body”—the church (1 Corinthians 11:29)? So socially sensitive is participation in Communion, the church is commanded to “wait for one another” before partaking (1 Corinthians 11:33). This is not so much a matter of timing as it is a matter of visible unity. Something that is not possible when dispersed in our homes.
More than the practical mechanics is the importance of its purpose. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper together as His church, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This is implicitly a public proclamation. It is not merely a private act. Nor is it an individual’s proclamation before others. Rather the church is united together in this tacit statement. It has a definite outward purpose to it that only makes sense in a public setting. This is why Thomas Schreiner writes, “Baptists, like the majority of Christendom, have most often argued that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated in the worship of a specific church and not in other independent settings” (The Lord’s Supper, 375).
The short answer to the question about having Communion while confined to our homes is: no. The Lord’s Supper is one of the precious realities that we should miss. We should mourn the fact that we are not able to participate in it at this time.
When will we next have Communion?
When we are able to gather again. In fact, we plan to celebrate our Lord’s Supper in our first service back as a gathered church. Israel celebrated the Passover at the earliest possible point after they returned from exile (Ezra 6:19-22).
We should remember also that the Free Church of Scotland hosts Communion once a year. This is out of reverence for it and not a lack thereof. It is a solemn, holy, and memorable occasion.
I pray that as we wait, we will long for the gathering of Christ’s people all the more. I pray that as we miss Communion on Good Friday, we would remember that it is a privilege and a special blessing of Christ’s gathered church.
Let us not be afraid to lament at this time. Let us fast and pray and specifically cry out for God’s mercy with hearts of longing (see Fasting for God’s Glory). Let us miss and mourn the fact that we cannot gather as a church. And let us turn our tears towards the nations. Let us pray for Christ to be glorified through His church all over the world and for people to find their joy in Him through the gospel of salvation.