Communion—With God and one another
by Cam Schnarr
When we talk about fellowship in the Church, what do we mean? Do we mean getting to know one another better by spending time together? Is this fellowship? Certainly, spending time together is an important kind of fellowship, but this is not the kind of fellowship we hear about in God’s Word. This is not the kind of fellowship we mean when we talk about on Maundy Thursday and our Lord transforming the Passover into the new covenant of His Holy Supper.
When the Bible talks about fellowship it uses a special Greek word: koinonia. And what a word! There is so much packed into it that it is difficult to render using just one English word. We tend to translate koinonia as “fellowship” or “participation” in an attempt to capture all that it means. But to put it into English, koinonia is fellowship with both a heavenly and earthly dimension. It is a deep spiritual participation with God and with every other believer that shares in it. Fellowship is not something we do. It’s not something we choose. It is a gift of God, a sharing of holy things for those with the same faith. Yes, in this fellowship, something other than time is being shared. Fellowship is one of the gifts that God gives us in the Lord’s Supper, in the meal of His Son’s body and blood.
Many people do not like talking about blood, but if our Lord had not shed His blood on the cross we could not have koinonia with God or one another. Our sin would keep us from being spiritually connected to Him. It would always get in the way of the deep spiritual connection we want to share with one another. But Christ has created a new koinonia, a new relationship with God, and the link is His blood. By His blood, Christ has brought together the real presence of Almighty God and the sin of the whole world. By His holy, innocent and precious blood, Christ brings His eternal holiness down to you and pours it into your mouth, the same blood He shed as payment for your sin. His blood is where we are united with each other, and through it we are all united with God. We have fellowship with God in the blood of His altar.
But this is the mystery behind this fellowship, this koinonia, isn’t it? The mystery lies in what we share. What is the Sacrament of the Altar? The Scriptures teach us it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.
Many people, even Christians, have a hard time with this. They find themselves asking the same question Mary asked when she was told God would be born from her womb. “How can this be?” How can God make His human body present on altars all over the world at the same time?
But really, is this so surprising? We don’t have a hard time understanding how the Spirit of God can be everywhere. Why then God’s body? St. Paul tell us that Christ is “head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). Christ fills all things not only as God, but now as a man also. His human blood is what gives us fellowship with Him and all His saints no matter where on earth we are scattered.
The real presence of Christ’s body and blood is not understood by our senses or our reason, but only by our faith. Faith is what understands Christ’s body and blood are being received in your mouth. Faith is what knows the benefit of eating and drinking is the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Faith is what trusts this blood has been shed for you—that Christ had you in mind when He bled on the cross—and that He has you in mind now when He offers it in communion. This kind of fellowship makes sense, one that God has created to keep you connected to Him and those with the same faith.
We see this in the Last Supper account. Jesus did not invite all of His followers to His Last Supper. No, He arranged for the Passover to be eaten at a secret location in Jerusalem with His closest disciples. Christ was practicing what we call “close communion.” He was admitting some to the table, but not all. Not because His other followers had no faith, but because they were not ready to receive what He was prepared to give.
When we talk about “close communion” or the fellowship of the Altar—koinonia—there are two things we need to know. First of all, the body and blood of our Lord is present and powerful regardless who receives it. His Word creates the Supper, not our faith. His Word says, “This is my body. This is my blood” and that makes it so. His presence is here because He says it is, not because we believe it. Our faith only determines whether we receive the benefit.
This means great care must be taken in determining who receives such a powerful presence. As St. Paul says, it is possible to be worse off after eating if one eats unworthily. He says, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29). This was the case with Judas, who ate without faith and discernment. He did not give the Supper its full weight, and so was crushed by his sin. This is why we examine ourselves before we commune, why we put our children through intensive catechesis, and why we do not commune everyone who walks into the building—because great harm and condemnation can befall them by our hand. Those who are unrepentant of public sin, or who do not publicly confess the real presence of Christ’s body and blood should not commune until repentance and faith are confessed. At that time, God welcomes them to koinonia with us.
The second thing about “close communion” does not pertain to the faith of an individual, but to the faith of a church body. Individuals are members of bodies. We are members of Lutheran Church–Canada, and so we only commune with other church bodies with whom we are in fellowship, like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We do not commune with groups like the Roman Catholic Church because we would be lying about what we believe. Similarly, those outside of our fellowship should not commune at our altars. We don’t do this out malice, but out of respect for what they believe, and for the fellowship we share here. Nobody wants to make a liar out of anyone, so we commune at our own altars.
Love for Christ, respect for others
Lutheran Church–Canada is not in fellowship with any church body that publicly teaches contrary to the Scriptures. When the Evil One introduces false teaching into a church body, we are not to remain in fellowship with them. Likewise, we are not to commune here one week, and there another.
There is a legend from the early Church which captures the heart of “close communion.” There was a heretic named Cerinthus who was mixing the teachings of Christ with pagan things. One day, St. John, whose last admonition in his letters was to “love one another,” entered into a home and came face-to-face with Cerinthus. Upon seeing him, he turned swiftly on his heel and ran from the building. He wouldn’t even be in the same room with him. This story is an excellent illustration of how love for Christ and strict rejection of heresy belong together. We practice “close communion” out of love for Christ and respect for what people believe.
Christ offers you koinonia with Himself and His whole Church. He wants you to share His real presence, to meet all the company of heaven in His blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. His disciples needed His Supper to strengthen them that night, for the darkness that lay ahead was great.
The same is true for us. Christ comes to bring peace to our hearts, strength to our minds, and perseverance to our souls. For these days are dark, and we need all the strength He gives. Go to His altar all you baptized saints, for Christ gives you koinonia in His life-giving blood.
Rev. Cam Schnarr is pastor of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Winnipeg.